The voice that rings out into the subtropical night is full of suffering and salvation. So much pain carried through the old wooden hall, so much radiance in its delivery. Smoke drifts from still smouldering fires outside; coloured lights are strung through the trees.
The songs about heavy burdens, broken promises, using newspapers to keep warm, being spiritually lifted up could be from the trials and tribulations of the American South. But the pasture and rainforest that shuffles in the dark and rolls away to a high escarpment is on the far north coast of New South Wales. We are in the Bundjalung Nation. The songs are the story of the singer Archie Roach. And it is a big, big story about survival. Surrounded by elders who have gathered for a ceremony, Roach uses the prism of his own experience to chronicle recent Aboriginal history in a tradition that is ancient. They are passed on in a vibrato that has never sounded more sure or full. The poignancy, pathos and fragile hope of the music is underscored by the oxygen tank that sits next to Roach on the stage. The physical manifestation of the effect of psychic wounds, evidence of the life that has been lived to get here. “I know,” he says, “that [emotional] pain can make you sick, very sick.”
Roach, 59, has a strong connection here, his father was a Bundjalung man from near Grafton. But Roach never knew him because he was taken from his family by men in uniforms when he was three years old. A disconnect from his people and his culture that would nearly destroy him. Crawled out of bushes early morn, he would sing of living on the streets, needing a drink to start me up, help me to think, so down to nothing that I use my fingers as a comb.
In a nearby house before the concert Roach is dignified and humble. The face has rounded out now from the lean, handsome man he once was. He gets tired easily, but there is something almost beatific about him. He glows with the transcendence he has found from rising above all the things that have nearly felled him. Just as he was getting back up from one devastation, another would be waiting to pull him back down. A battle for his life during which he was able to let go of all the old anger and see the world “clearer and brighter. You really can’t take too much for granted. I want to show people that there is a way out of the darkness, because I have been there. I am not going to let the past burden me and weigh me down and make me sick anymore. It is time to heal.”
When the police and welfare officers came to take young Archie from Framlingham Mission in Victoria, his cousins hid him in the bracken. “They said, ‘Don’t make any noise until we come back and get you.’ And they ran through the bracken singing out to the police and the welfare, ‘I am over here’, leading them away from me. But they stumbled across me anyway.”
Roach believes it was because they lived in a humpy; in the eyes of white culture they were poor.
“They didn’t understand the culture properly. They just thought we would be better off. They would come to not a house but a humpy and there was nothing there, the kids would be running around half naked. That was because we didn’t like clothes or shoes. Whereas before there was money in the Indigenous communities, we had nothing but we had each other. You couldn’t go hungry because people wouldn’t let you. The girls were taught by the mothers to look after the little fellas.”
Condemned to a succession of orphanages and coldly indifferent foster homes, Roach never saw his parents again. The yearning of the lost little boy, all that loss, comes through again and again in his lyrics. Wishing he could have held his father’s hand to go fishing, the sweet kisses and touch of the mother he was torn away from. He would end up with a Christian Scottish family, the Coxes, who were kind and had an excellent record collection. Going to church with them he discovered that he loved to sing. “It wasn’t necessarily what the songs were about, it was the feeling of singing.”
But then he got a letter from his sister telling the truth about what had happened. He had been a black boy forced to live in a white world, growing up without the love of his biological parents. He had been told his parents were dead when they were not. The shock and identity crisis, dislocation, anger and sense of betrayal drove him to drinking and homelessness.
“I started drinking when I was 14 and drank every day until I was 26,” he tells me. “I was on the street for five or six years. It is a tough life. It just becomes something that you get used to after a while. There is a lot of places you can go and get a feed, a meal. But bad things happen all around. We saw people getting hurt, getting killed. It wasn’t very pretty.”
It was during this time, at the age of 16, that he met Ruby Hunter, also homeless and from the Stolen Generations, who would be his soul mate, musical collaborator and muse. They lived in halfway houses while he searched for his place in the world. But he had to stop drinking before he could start to understand the culture that he came from.
“My drinking just clouded everything,” he says.
It was after he was admitted to hospital in a blackout and Ruby went to rehab that they began the musical dialogue that would last until her death in 2010.
When he visited her in rehab he had a song ready to woo her back, “I’ve Lied”. She responded with a song of her own, “I’ve Been Waiting”. But she also gave him an ultimatum; she would take their two sons and leave if he continued to drink. It wasn’t a hard decision to stop.
Just as music has lifted him up now, so it did then. “It is so much better when you have got music. It is a better place to go than hitting the bottle or getting into trouble in the street. I would probably get into trouble with someone else or get into a fight, which I had my share of. But I found that music was a great way to deal with a lot of my frustrations and a lot of the hurt and pain. It was just a great release.”
And once he discovered his culture and spirituality, everything became clearer. “I learned that culture is a deep spiritual connection to people and country and I realised that it didn’t matter where I went and walked on this earth, I carried it with me.”
The early songs that remain so timeless were bounced across the kitchen table.
“When I finished a song Ruby would be one of the first people to hear it. And the same with her songs as well.” Soul singers in the truest sense, they wrote about the hardship of their own lives, but it was accompanied by lovely leavening melodies.
In 1990 Paul Kelly asked Roach to perform at a concert in Melbourne. “Nobody had really heard of me before, it was the biggest audience I had ever sang in front of. I sang ‘Beautiful Child’ [about deaths in custody] and there was no response from the audience. So they didn’t think much of that. And I sang ‘Took the Children Away’ and everything was just really quiet. I thought maybe this isn’t such a good idea. I was about to walk away when the applause started to happen. It sounded like the pitter-patter of gentle rain coming down, and then it was like this big downpour.”
Music promoter and publicist Alison Pearl remembers: “When I came to Australia from the USA, I was astonished to hear such fantastic music by a handful of Indigenous musicians of my adopted land. I was trying to learn about their history, and found little that shed any light on what’s transpired here. When I heard Archie’s ‘Took the Children Away’, I finally felt I learned the truth, rather than any facts, about what’s gone down.”
Roach would go on to win many awards and tour with some of the world’s great artists – Bob Dylan, Tracy Chapman, Billy Bragg, Paul Simon, Joan Armatrading, Patti Smith, and in the past month Rodriguez who, when he was in Australia, invited Roach to perform at the Albert Hall in May.
When Hunter died suddenly in 2010, Roach was bereft. She was everything to him. He couldn’t sleep, couldn’t comprehend that she wouldn’t be lying there beside him in the morning.
“I felt lost, I wanted to disappear. It swallowed me up for a while,” he says. “I felt I couldn’t go on doing this anymore.”
Eight months later he was in the Kimberley doing workshops for children, when he got up one morning, fell over and couldn’t move.
“It was just bang, and my right side was all gone.” Without warning Roach had had a stroke. “I had to learn to walk again properly. And use my right hand properly again. That took a while to come back from, yeah.” For a time he couldn’t play his guitar.
While he was recovering, his manager, Jill Shelton, got a feeling that something else was wrong. She says now, “I don’t know what it was really. Being a smoker, and Archie was a heavy smoker, his breathing was always a bit dodgy. And it wasn’t [because of] coughing, it was just a feeling that something else might have been happening. Because Archie had just had a stroke, we were all involved in the stroke and there were a lot of maintenance appointments at the doctor.” If Shelton hadn’t got in touch with the doctor, the early diagnosis for lung cancer might not have happened and Roach would certainly not be here now.
He lost half a lung. Hence the oxygen tank. “When you find out it is cancer you just think, ‘Oh shit, what is going to happen now.’ It is very lucky it was the very early stages.”
As Roach began to heal he realised that the only way to get well was to let go of all the pain of the past. The pain and the poor choices, not looking after himself, the grief and damaged self-esteem had taken a toll on his body and nearly killed him.
“You can’t stay in the one place of sadness,” he says. “People and family and friends like Jill just brought me out of that place. But you can’t forget people, they will always be a part of your life. You have to turn a corner, or you have got to realise that there is hardship and you rise above that. You can still be upset and hurt but I think now that anger is just a futile exercise.”
In 2013 he released Into the Bloodstream, a celebration of the indomitable human spirit; a message of hope. Using a gospel choir, country and western overtones, and plenty of horns, it was a rush of realisation of all the beauty in the world. He was grateful to be breathing.
“There is a great relationship with an audience, they give me as much as I give them,” he says. “Or even more. They carried me through those hard times when I started singing again and performing again after losing Ruby and getting sick. The audience lifted me up and carried me.”
Knowing time is precious he is currently working on a new album. Those who know his work see a new sweetness in his voice; a renewed purpose that could conquer international markets.
“It is interesting, if I exert myself on a walk, my oxygen saturation levels go down, but when I sing they sustain at one level. When people sing they use the air of the lungs a lot more efficiently.”
As someone who had come so close to losing his life, in his resurrection he has a message that is pure and almost evangelical.
“I have learned how wonderful and beautiful life is. It is constant. We might change but life doesn’t. The wonder and beauty of life will never change. As long as we understand and embrace that. Life is there for you to embrace and to realise that you are a part of life and creation and you are beautiful.”
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on February 7, 2015 as "Letting go".
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