A prime minister, a crime writer and a journalist walk into a bar. And the editor of Rolling Stone magazine. And a musician. And a photographer. And the odd political staffer keeping a safe-ish distance, watching them sit down together for chocolate cake, champagne, a chat.
The prime minister was Paul Keating, at the peak of his saturnine good looks. The bar was in the Ashfield Hotel in Sydney’s inner west, where the band Keating managed in his youth, The Ramrods, used to play.
Rolling Stone had a new editor, Kathy Bail. This, the first cover story she commissioned, was patterned on one six months earlier in the magazine’s American parent, whose editor, Jann Wenner, with P. J. O’Rourke, Hunter S. Thompson and William Greider, interviewed young United States Democratic presidential hopeful Bill Clinton on the campaign trail.
Bail invited crime writer Peter Corris, newly appointed Rolling Stone Canberra correspondent Linda Jaivin and Mental As Anything member Reg Mombassa to join her for the interview and write individual stories about their experience meeting Keating and assessing his political agenda. “And Lorrie Graham was there, too, of course,” Bail says. “She’d been contributing to Rolling Stone and was the obvious photographer for this job.”
Graham’s close-up cover pic of Keating peeking over Ray-Ban sunglasses became one of the most memorable images in modern Australian politics, an instant classic.
In the Clinton spread in US Rolling Stone Ron Galella had photographed the candidate clutching his saxophone while looking offstage with intent – a telling picture, especially in retrospect.
Yet the main photograph US Rolling Stone went with was a straight-to-camera head shot, presidential but dull.
It was not remotely in the league of the iconic Keating picture taken by Graham and run on Australian Rolling Stone’s cover 30 years ago this month – in March 1993, when Keating deprived opposition leader John Hewson of the Liberals’ so-called “unlosable” election.
In the alchemical exchange between photojournalist and subject, Graham drew the notoriously private Keating from his carapace and gave us a glimpse of the man inside.
This was some feat: Keating, who entered federal parliament in 1969, aged 25, had been perfecting that carapace for a few decades by then and wasn’t prone to letting people in.
But first, the interview.
“Paul Keating and his team were willing to make time in the schedule for a feature story that would take a different approach, cover some alternative issues – sex, drugs and rock’n’roll – and reach a younger readership,” says Bail, now chief executive of UNSW Press Ltd.
She negotiated it with then Keating staffer Anne Summers in a formal letter, pointing out Clinton got to choose the venue for his US Rolling Stone interview – Doe’s Eat Place in Little Rock, Arkansas – and inviting Keating to do the same. Hence the Ashfield Hotel.
The body of the interview, run as a Q&A, bears reading today. In the Hawke government, Keating was treasurer for eight years, then briefly a backbencher, and had at this point been prime minister for just over 12 months.
With a decade of formidable policy reform and implementation behind him, his ballast showed but was communicated with a light rather than patronising touch. The issues remain today’s issues. His responses would garner broad support if articulated now.
The distinction Keating drew between Labor’s approach and the “values that came from the northern hemisphere … Reagan and Thatcher values” is significant. They were the values of the individual, Keating said, whereas the Hawke–Keating government’s approach was built on “community values”.
“That is, we put an accord together with the trade unions, we had access and equity in health, in education, in housing, a change in the industrial culture through a productivity change involving the workforce and management, with the government in there changing the macroeconomic policy,” Keating said. “It was all community values, bringing the nation on.”
The breakout pieces were idiosyncratically interesting.
Corris, now dead, admired Keating’s air of competence. “A comfort that,” Corris wrote. “Confidence rather than arrogance, again good.”
Mombassa, who is now more widely known as an artist, described Keating as a “likeable and intelligent man” who believed in a “decent, fair and more spiritual” Australia.
“Paul Keating is not a cultural magician, an economic miracle-worker or a bohemian radical,” he wrote, “but I suspect he is a reasonable human being, and that he and his government have an attainable vision of an economically viable Australia that is less conservative, less violent, less male-dominated and less environmentally destructive.”
Jaivin, who became a leading Australian novelist and nonfiction writer, went total fan girl.
“His was not an interview, it wasn’t even a conversation, it was a LOVE FEST,” she wrote. “The hard-bitten, tough journo side of me was going, come on, come on, hit him over the head with a question so hard he’ll reel, and the other, mushy, I’m-for-any-politician-who-promises-social-justice, apologises-to-the-Aborigines, talks-about-education-as-our-most-important-resource-and-basically-swears-to-rock-on-till-he-dies side of me was lying charm-concussed under the table.”
Jaivin went on: “I had to bite my tongue to keep from saying, and now will you take off your shoes and socks so I can suck your toes?”
Then it was exit Ashfield Hotel and on to Lorrie Graham’s warehouse studio in Silknit House in Surry Hills. Here the iconic Keating cover shot would be taken.
Graham had spent the day before with Lisa Sharkey, who assisted on the shoot, blacking out the 200-square-metre warehouse space to get more control of the light.
Bail foreshadowed a fairly conventional photo treatment in her correspondence with Anne Summers setting up the whole thing.
“I envisage a classic Rolling Stone-style portrait for the cover – perhaps Mr Keating wearing an elegant suit, with a simple background prop like a drum or a guitar on a stand,” Bail wrote.
But a musical instrument wasn’t quite right. “Lorrie had quietly selected some sunglasses for him to try and she casually suggested some shots wearing a pair.”
“The day was sweltering,” Graham recalls, but the idea of putting on a fan was rejected. “It seems to me that a lot of male politicians have a slight hair obsession,” she says.
“I didn’t put film in the camera for the first half an hour. It takes a while for most people – sitting staring into a camera – to get past ‘knuckles on knees’ terror.
“One roll of film down and we were looking like replicating the Clinton cover.
“I had three pair of sunglasses. Mr Keating had always struck me as mischievous, a little cheeky, a bit of a dude. What was there to lose?
“I introduced the sunglasses as a prop, and he chose to play with the Ray-Bans.
“Of course he did.”
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on March 25, 2023 as "Duck in a pub".
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