A book review for The Weekend Australian in January 2015, republished below in its entirety.
Steve Kilbey’s rock ’n’ roll memoir Something Quite Peculiar is a book best described using the adjective of its title, as the abrupt and unfulfilling closing chapters are completely out of sync with the generous story that comes before. What starts as an entertaining and informative autobiography by one of Australia’s most idiosyncratic musicians peters out and leaves the reader frustrated by what could have been.
Surely this can’t have been a stylistic decision on the author’s part, as much of the 1980s, the most commercially successful period of Kilbey’s band The Church, are coloured in vivid detail and powered by strong narrative momentum. Rather the book’s incomplete nature suggests a writer up against a hard deadline. Fans are sure to be disappointed that the more recent years of Kilbey’s life flash by in too few pages.
The positives of this book are many, most notably the author’s wry self-awareness and his ability to tell stories. From the opening pages it’s clear we’re in safe hands. Born in Hertfordshire, England, Kilbey was three when his family moved to Australia.
They settled in Wollongong, where his father was a foreman and his mother worked in an insurance office. Their eldest son soon found a taste for attention-seeking — or, as he puts it, “an incredibly precocious pretentiousness was beginning to manifest in spades: an intrinsic desire to perform and be rewarded”.
In early high school, in the Canberra suburb of Lyneham, he saw a live band for the first time at a school social and saw his future: “I felt implicitly that my place was up on the stage making the music, not down there dancing around.”
Kilbey’s vast musical IQ thus began developing at age 16, when he opted for a bass guitar instead of its more popular six-string cousin, and began learning his favourite songs by ear. Soon he joined a popular local covers band named Saga. This plum gig earned him almost as much as his father was making, but more importantly Kilbey could play close to 1000 songs by the end of his 18-month tenure.
These scenes from Kilbey’s youth are written in an easy, conversational style. Richly drawn and compelling, his story is buttressed by plenty of comic self-deprecation and wry foreshadowing for the international rock star he’d become.
Over the years, much has been made in the music press of the fractious, fraught relationship between members of the Church, a band that has achieved much in its 34-year career and is still recording. Things didn’t begin well when Kilbey enlisted a former schoolyard bully to play drums in the band’s first incarnation. Nor, decades later, when the tedious nature of months-long world tours spent in close confines with the same handful of men would eventually lead to tantrums, sabotaged gigs and mid-tour walkouts.
Kilbey identifies himself as the ultimate self-saboteur, however, when he tries heroin for the first time in 1991, at age 37, and subsequently loses the next 11 years of his life to addiction. Fittingly, these final chapters take a dark turn, and the frivolous, funny narrator is replaced by a man filled with pain and regret. “It’s quite an upheaval to write much of the story from here on in,” he notes on page 250. “It doesn’t come lightly or pleasantly like the earlier chapters: each memory fills me with shame and revulsion and sadness in differing amounts.”
Fair enough. The book’s final 20 pages are some of its most interesting and insightful, devoted as they are to describing and analysing this period of Kilbey’s life. However, it’s a cop-out that the third-last paragraph in the book begins, “So I left Sweden in 2000 for a couple of years in America after having met an American girl on tour in 1999, and had another pair of twins.” What? It is bizarre that these seemingly key moments in his life are reduced to a flippant sentence in the closing pages. (We learn in the outro that Kilbey’s first pair of twin daughters, Elektra and Miranda, are musicians in a Swedish pop duo named Say Lou Lou — another interesting admission left way too late.)
Perhaps cursory dismissals such as these are intended to highlight the egocentric and self-obsessed nature of the author, traits which Kilbey readily acknowledges. But the absence of any detail of his more recent years — besides a brief opening scene at the 2010 ARIA Hall of Fame induction ceremony, and a closing scene at a 2011 Sydney Opera House show — leaves a sour taste. For all the space devoted to discussing songwriting techniques, killer live shows and the importance of strong encores, what’s most peculiar of all is that this fascinating story ends on such a weak note.
Andrew McMillen is a Brisbane-based freelance journalist and author of Talking Smack: Honest Conversations About Drugs.
Something Quite Peculiar: Man of The Church. The Music. The Mayhem.
By Steve Kilbey.
Hardie Grant, 272pp, $29.95