Singer and actress Jane Clifton takes a trip down memory lane in the old ’hood. By Jennifer Down.

The Carlton few

Before I meet Jane Clifton I search for her band, Stiletto, on YouTube. I come across a clip: “Goodbye Johnny” Live at Martini’s 1978. It begins with Jane speaking to the crowd. She’s mucking around, feigning stage fright. There is something almost burlesque in her affected stutter – “Okay … this song’s called … ‘G-g-goodbye Johnny’!” – before the guitar starts. She throws off her blazer and launches into paroxysmic dance moves, seizing the microphone stand. It’s poor-quality video, oversaturated in garish yellow and green tones. The music is feverish. It makes me loose in the heart.

The memory of this part of inner-city Melbourne does not belong to me. The hotel my mother knew as the Rob Roy is what I call the Workers Club. I can only try to re-create this constellation of pubs and people and streets. Martini’s is a block of apartments now. 

We meet at a cafe on the corner of Drummond Street. I sit by a tall window that looks out onto the back of a supermarket, an underground car park. It’s a hot, blustery day. I have seen Jane’s face before, but now I recognise her from the 1978 video clip, too: wide-set eyes, sharp features, pale hair. She has just come from Marios, a place on Brunswick Street, Fitzroy, often described as an institution. She looks over my shoulder at the shopping complex. “The Pram Factory was over there. This is where the bike shop was,” she says. “We had the film co-op where Brunetti is now.”

She lived in The Tower, the residential section of The Pram. “About eight of us lived there. We’d put on a thing called the Tower Show, where each night one of the members of our collective would tell their life story while they cooked dinner. Little by little, the audience grew. Maybe 20, 30 people would be around our kitchen table. It was absolutely riveting.” I check her face for any sign of facetiousness. It sounds earnest; sweetly self-indulgent, this retelling of small hurts and victories while the potatoes boiled. “Monkey Grip is the novel that captures that period. You know I’m a character in Monkey Grip,” she says. 

I do. When I first read it, aged 17, I was fascinated by these friends who loved and fucked in a cheerful, inconsequential way. I knew that sleeping with someone didn’t spell the end of the world, but I was thrown by the complete lack of rules or boundaries. 

“It’s still mystifying to try to explain it to people,” Jane says haltingly. “It was a thing about following your instincts. If you were attracted to someone, you would say that. ‘I’d really like to fuck with you. Shall we do it tonight?’ And that person had the ability to say, ‘Look, I’m just not attracted to you’ or ‘Yeah, sure. I’ll just go and ask the person I’m most with.’ ” 

It’s the ease, the frankness, that I recognise from the novel: but, like Martini’s, it no longer exists in the same way. “We were working at an incredible experiment. Not consciously – but each moment of each day was a decision.” 

Her memories of that era are filled with we. But Jane, singular, emerges when the subject of drugs comes up. She sees nothing romantic or nostalgic in junk. “That was a little cancer that spread. I think it ultimately spelled the end of that idealism, in a way. Particularly when it was friends of yours who were bloody stickin’ it in their arms” – holding out her forearm in mimicry – “or snorting it and dying. It was probably not long after that when I moved completely away from that scene. And I was glad to go because of that influence.”

There’s a recently released collection of reissued and previously unreleased tracks from ’70s Melbourne, called (When the Sun Sets over) Carlton. It’s that gritty, summery rock’n’roll. Jo Jo Zep, The Pelaco Brothers, The Dots, Skyhooks. It’s music for pub bandrooms, for foreheads spangled with sweat. One of the Stiletto songs on it is “Rozalyn”. “About a girl who OD’d. That was part of what was around us in the early ’70s. Suddenly junk was on the street. You saw people falling victim to it,” Jane says. “We all had to start locking our doors. Your records started disappearing, your clothes and money. It was everyone just having a hit. People saw it as a political thing! I’m sticking it in my arm because I’m some artistic … oh, God, Jean Cocteau or whoever.” She’s incredulous, half-laughing. But it must have taken a certain resilience to sidestep it. “I don’t like things having a grip on me. I’ve just given up drinking this year. I’m coming up on 10 months. I’m an all-or-nothing person. I never say never, but I love being free of its hold on me.”

In the liner notes of the CD, some of the artists have contributed short essays. Jane writes, “The gap between wanting to do something creative and actually doing it simply did not exist.” I’ve been rolling this around my skull. I ask her about it. She shrugs, as if there is no mystery. “A classic day in Carlton was – you’d get up and go to the collective meeting, you’d rehearse a play, you might go and meet your band and write a song, and that night you’d go to watch a film someone had made last week. Or you’d go down to 3CR or RRR to be on radio. I’m not saying people don’t do that anymore. I hate people who say all creativity stopped at a certain time. But at that time, there was a living, bubbling mass of opportunities.”

She’s looking out past my head again, towards where the Pram Factory once stood. I turn around, expecting to see someone. But it’s just cars, rolling patiently in and out of the underground car park.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on February 7, 2015 as "The Carlton few".

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