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Teaching literature to rock stars


Doc Neeson from The AngelsHe was tall, loose-limbed and dark-haired, with a blue-eyed gaze whose piercing intensity was mitigated by the amiable, good humoured look to him, and a generous smile that softened his Heathcliff-like mien. He appeared in the doorway of my Flinders University study one day in early February 1971 and asked if I was the one who was starting a course in Australian literature. His voice was soft and melodic, his accent beautifully Irish.

I told him yes, I was the one and invited him in. His name was Bernard Neeson, better known even then as 'Doc', although throughout the friendship that blossomed from that day, I always called him Bernard. His main interests were drama and film at both of which he excelled, but he was also an excellent literature student.

Beyond the academic walls, he was a member of the Moonshine Jug and String Band which came from nowhere, took the Adelaide music scene by storm, metamorphosed into the Keystone Angels and then, in 1975, after a string of successes, The Angels.

We saw a lot of each other in those years, until the fame of The Angels began to take him on national and international tours. He would often visit us in the Adelaide Hills and it was during one long conversation that he told me something of his early life.

Born in Belfast in 1947, he grew up amid the intensifying horrors of 'The Troubles' and, as a Catholic boy — he would in later years refer to himself as 'a recovering Catholic' — he witnessed and often fled from the brutality and naked violence for which that conflict became infamous. Eventually his parents emigrated and Bernard and his brothers grew up in Adelaide.

He was terrific with little kids and a great favourite of my young family. He would arrive unannounced to bring us signed copies — 'Doc Neeson/E=MC²' — of Angels albums as they appeared. One day I asked him how long he intended to follow the rock'n'roll path, given that he was highly qualified in the fields of drama and film. His answer, with a wry smile, was, 'Till it peters out, Brian. Till it gives me up.'

Gradually, sadly, I lost track of him. His name would pop up at various times in the press and once, when the band came to Adelaide, I tried but failed to get tickets and left a note for him, but I think the world weary-looking custodian of the stage door didn't bother to pass it on.

In 2006 Flinders University celebrated its 40th anniversary. As a member of one of the organising committees, it was my job to contact as many of our past students as I could find whose careers since their university days had been in music, writing, theatre or film. Many phone calls, emails, letters and enquiries later, I had found lots of them, including — to my delighted surprise — Doc Neeson.

We had a great phone conversation, catching up, reminiscing, joking, but he also told me about the accident that had changed his life. Stopping his car at a Sydney toll point, he was rear-ended by a truck. Severe neck and spinal injuries condemned him ever after to painkillers, treatments and permanently impaired mobility. He was in good spirits, though, and keen to come to the celebration.

The reunion of Flinders graduates from all over Australia and beyond was a great success. But Bernard Neeson didn't turn up. When I rang him a few days later, I spoke to a courteous but highly protective woman who told me that Doc was not available.

I didn't hear from him again and as in the past could only follow him from afar. I know from press reports that he became Bernard Neeson OAM on 1 January and is seriously ill. His son Kieran has said the family is 'optimistic that there will be a good outcome and that he will be able to keep writing songs and making people happy'.

It's hard to imagine the charismatic student-musician who would regularly visit us all those years ago being anything other than dynamic, but he has a testing time ahead and I, along with so many others, wish him well.

They were heady days at Flinders when Doc and the Moonshine Jug and String Band were packing them in round the town and all kinds of youthful talent — Scott Hicks, Nonie Hazlehurst, Richard Tipping, Greig ('H.G. Nelson') Pickhaver, Kerry Heysen, Steve Knapman — were either on campus or had just departed.

And they kept coming. Early in 1975 a memorable scene was repeated at my open office door. A young man came in and, apologising for interrupting, said, 'I've enrolled in your Australian lit. course. I hear you know a bit about Henry Lawson.' He was setting some Lawson poems to music and with two fellow students he was establishing a new band that would be devoted, he said, to Australian culture, history and politics.

His name was John Schumann. The band was Redgum.

But that's another story.

Brian Matthews headshotBrian Matthews is Honorary Professor of English at Flinders University and an award winning columnist and biographer.

Topic tags: Brian Matthews, Doc Neeson



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Existing comments

I'm very pleased to see one of our seminal rockers/poets Nick Cave being taught as part of the Australian Literature course at many Universities. His writing not only within the context of his rock bands The Birthday Party, The Bad Seeds & Grinderman', but additionally the sublime published books of 'And the Ass Saw the Angle' and 'The Death of Bunny Munro' are exemplary of the inter-diciplinary nature of rock music and classic poetics

JefBaker | 01 February 2013  

Thanks for a love-ly reminisence. It reminds me of the beauty of places of learning where influence and enlightenment are mutual,grateful and joyful.

alex nelson | 01 February 2013  

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