Singer-songwriter and family man Tex Perkins recalls the Joh years in Brisbane and getting his big break in music. By Romy Ash.

Dark horse

“I came into music in the post-punk era when you didn’t really have to... you didn’t really have to be a musician. I was discovered by the Wadleys: Ian and Greg Wadley. I ended up being in one of my first bands with them. The Dum Dums.” 

Tex Perkins is sitting across from me, tapping a butter knife on the table. Leaning back, he discards the knife and it slips to the edge of the table. 

“One night I went out and took drugs and got drunk. I think I was 16 and I made a complete ass of myself. I was completely out of it – this is in Brisbane. Without going into all the horrific details, I made a complete spectacle of myself, and about a month later I was in a nightclub and these two guys came over to me and they said, ‘Are you that guy, from the communist hall, the Pork gig?’ 

“And I went, ‘Ahhh, yeah.’

“They said, ‘Do you want to be in a band with us?’ 

“Based on my ability to cause a scene and be a spectacle, they thought I’d be a good frontman for a rock’n’roll band.”

He laughs. Shakes his head, rubs at his salt and pepper stubble. He’s the handsome ugly guy. Wearing a cowboy shirt that’s a little too small. 

“Brisbane in those days? It was terrible, kind of terrible and great. People are always going, ‘Oh, the Joh era, the police state’, and everything. Obviously the police were an issue, but I got more shit from the general populace than I did from the police. For just being a little bit different. In 1980, if you had short hair in Brisbane, you were shouted at in the street.

“People were very suspicious of punk rock and new wave – and I wasn’t even punk rock, I just had short hair, a white T-shirt and gym boots. That was enough to be Sid Vicious – ‘You fucken freak.’ The bus wouldn’t stop for you, that sort of stuff. The police had a part to play certainly, but those people got the government that they wanted. They were all in on it.” 

A small blond boy peeks at me from behind Tex’s chair. 

“Boo!” the boy says. “Boo. Boo. Boo.” As he swings to and fro, hiding and revealing himself, he almost loses his balance.  

“This is going to be tough from hereon in,” Tex says.

“Boo!” says the boy. “Boo. Boo. Boo.” 

Tex draws the child into a bear hug, kisses him on the top of his head.

“Boo!” says the boy, who has a softer version of Tex’s face. 

“Louie, this is Romy. Romy, Louie. Shake her hand,” says Tex. The boy slithers off his lap. I grasp his whole hand inside mine and shake it. Louie smiles, and he has a mouth full of masticated greenery.

“Are you eating some rocket?” Tex says.

“No, I’m eating salad.” 

“Yeah, it is rocket. That’s a rocket salad.” 

Tex makes a high childlike giggle, and squishes his face up the way grandmothers do, leaning over a crib.

“Would you like to sit down?” Tex says. 

Louie shakes his head. 

“Well, anyway, you come back any time you want,” says Tex.

Louie bows formally, retreating in reverse. 

“I wasn’t any good,” Tex says to me. “No one was any good. That was part of it. I had to slowly develop my voice. When I was 17, I realised I had a very loud voice, so that was what I hung my hat on. Hey, I’m a skinny kid and listen to how loud I can be. All our heroes were, you know, there were no virtuosos in our influences. I’m still developing. I’m still finding out what I can do with this thing.” 

He gestures at his throat. Behind him, Louie is twirling around and around, saying, “I’m dizzy, I’m dizzy, I’m dizzy.” The waiter dances around him, plates in hand, heading to a table peopled by Tex’s children. 

Tex sees me looking over at his partner and his brood of children. “My family,” he says. “I’m just a man with half my family. There’s more of them.”

Tex Perkins will perform at the 2014 Festival of Voices in Hobart, which runs from July 4-13.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 17, 2014 as "Dark horse". Subscribe here.

Romy Ash
is a novelist. Her first book, Floundering, was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin award.