Have you ever wondered why Peter Garrett has been bald since you first saw him? Radio National journalist Ellen Fanning leaned forward and probed; it was one of several answers she sought to questions not addressed in Mr Garrett’s memoir Big Blue Sky, which was published late last year. The book spans his transition from choir boy to rock star to activist to politician and back to rock, but Ms Fanning was keen to lift the lid on things even Oils fans didn’t know.
Shaving his head had nothing to do with creating an image, he said. As a kid surfing, he had a dream of having an underwater photo published in Tracks, the surfing magazine, but “I had slightly long wispy hair and I always ended up with a strand across the lens.” He cut it all off, and never regretted the decision, although he still couldn’t get them to publish his photos.
Mr Garrett talked about his love of the outdoors soon after taking his place on the Pier 2/3 stage on Thursday morning. Dressed in trademark black jeans, his gangly legs looked way too big for his cushioned white seat. As the sun beamed in from the windows above, reflecting off his shiny scalp, he seemed at ease at the line of Ms Fanning’s questions – at least during the childhood-and-music-career half of the interview.
Mr Garrett’s family had expected him to make his name playing cricket, another revelation that surprised Ms Fanning. His great-grandfather Tom Garrett played for Australia in the first ever Test Match in 1877; his father and uncles were also keen players. Sadly, or perhaps fortunately, young Peter was “hopeless” at it, he said. He developed many other skills, the benefits of growing up in an era when kids could do things independently without a fear of being kidnapped. At age 14, he travelled to Papua New Guinea by himself to visit a family plantation, where he was shocked by how the locals “were invisible” except when they were serving white people. Seeing this helped spark his passion for social justice.
After finishing high school, he went off to another off-the-radar, life changing place – Canberra – to study at the Australian National University (ANU). While his friends mocked him for leaving the harbour city for a supposedly sterile bureaucrat town, he discovered what he called a “dazzling soundtrack of protest music across genre” which was somewhat different from the choir music he had sung in his local Anglican church as a boy. While at ANU, he responded to an advertisement to be the singer of a band called Farm, an early incarnation of Midnight Oil.
Mr Garrett recalled a “wonderful accident of history” in which blues legend Muddy Waters came to perform in a circus tent not far from ANU. Watching the old bluesman perform his three-chord songs taught him that “doing simple well is really hard”.
“I knew I could never make music like Muddy Waters. But I wanted to bring to same kind of spirit to my work. His music is a learning, it’s an inheritance; it’s a deep, cultural and visceral connection to what you’re doing. A bunch of snotty-nosed white kids from the north shore are not going to cut it, but we could always try,” he said.
Mr Garrett gleamed as he talked about his Midnight Oil career, enthusiastically recounting events at the 2000 Sydney Olympics closing ceremony when the band performed with the word “sorry” emblazoned on their black outfits, an apology for past injustice to Indigenous Australians that the government of the day had refused to make. The shock statement, which he said was the idea of Oil’s manager Gary Morris, provoked the entire Olympic stadium (except John Howard and wife) to rise to their feet and applaud.
“I put it to you that you had more influence in that moment, on that stage, than you could ever hope to have in federal parliament,” asked Ms Fanning. “I completely reject that proposition,” replied Mr Garrett.
Suddenly the mood of the event shifted from friendly couch chat to 7:30 Report-style interrogation. Making the “sorry” statement had an impact, but developing an education reform package like Gonski was also significant, Mr Garrett said.
Ms Fanning had some even tougher questions. In reference to then-Minister Garrett’s support for his Labor Government’s expansion of American bases at Pine Gap, she asked “In the blink of eye did I watch you sell out your principles?” “It wasn’t the blink of an eye. My view about our relationship with great powers did change,” he replied.
Ms Fanning said his difficult political career seemed to have been reflected in his recently released comeback single Tall Trees, where he sings as if he’s “coming out of an ordeal”. He sidestepped questions on the tough time he had with Kevin Rudd, saying only that he thought Julia Gillard was the “better” Prime Minister.
“I’m back,” Mr Garrett shouts proudly in Tall Trees. Judging by the rapturous reception he received, many will be pleased by his return.