Vale Andrew McMillan, Darwin-based journalist and author: 1957-2012

Darwin-based journalist and author Andrew McMillan [pictured below] died yesterday, January 28 2012, aged 54. I received word via a text message from Andrew Stafford just after I went to bed, around midnight. I wrote back, “Holy shit. Thanks.” Then I lay awake for the next hour, cursing myself. I was to meet him in Darwin, six days later.

I first became aware of the eerie reality that I was following in the footsteps of my near-namesake soon after my work was nationally published. Looking at my email history, the first mention of his name is in a note from Australian writer Clinton Walker on August 12, 2009.

this is so funny because only lately been in touch w my old friend from bris old rock writer andrew mcmillan, you must be aware of your precedence, and a fine one it is too […] i had a look ata bit of your stuff and really enjoyed it and wanted to say goodonya and keepitup. clinton walker

In February 2010, I was emailed by the international label manager/A&R at Shock Records, David Laing.

hey Andrew,
I assume you’re the same AM who used to write for RAM? If yes, first of all, thanks for all the great writing that was hugely influential on me in my teenage years fromthe 100th issue of RAM (my first) onwards… also, I’m responsible for a few releases that you may have an interest in if you care at all for the styles of music you used to write about – including a couple of compilations called Do The Pop! that trace the incluence of the Saints and primarily Radio Birdman into the local real rock’n’roll scene in ’80s, and also some reissued from the Hitmen – and I’d love to send you copies if you’re interested in seeing them…
Thanks and regards

Then in May 2010, in an email conversation with Brisbane writer Andrew Stafford:

By the way, are you aware of yet another rock-writing Andrew, your namesake in fact, Andrew McMillan? Slightly different spelling – but Andrew, along with Clint Walker, was one of the original rock journos in this town, and arguably the most original. Started Suicide Alley (later Pulp) fanzine with Clint – the first rock fanzine in the country – and later wrote Strict Rules, his fantastic account of Midnight Oil’s tour through Aboriginal communities in 1986, leading to the Diesel and Dust album. A fascinating man and a great writer, well worth your checking out. – AS

Then in November 2010, in an email conversation with Australian singer Carol Lloyd of the band Railroad Gin:

It may freak you out to know that in the 70’s, Railroad Gin were often reported on by a guy who wrote for Rolling Stone, Juke etc. who was called Andrew McMillan….! He’s now a novelist based in Darwin..saw him when I did a panel thing with Noel Mengel at last year’s Brisbane Writers Festival.

I wrote back, “By the way, I am aware of Andrew McMillan! We’ve not met yet, but I’m sure it’ll happen eventually.”

The sad reality is that this will never happen, now.

In recent months – having reached a point in my writing career where I felt up to the challenge – I became more interested in exploring the concept of meeting this man, this well-known writer with whom I share more than a few parallels. I knew that he was ill, first with bowel cancer, and now with liver cancer. On November 25, 2011, I emailed him for the first time:

Hi Andrew,

I don’t believe we’ve ever emailed, but I’ve certainly been aware of you for a few years now as we have almost exactly the same name. I’ve been mistaken for you many times! More on me at the web address in my signature..

How are you? Last I heard was that you were in a poor state following the removal of a bowel tumor – I think this is the last thing I read about you, just over a year ago. Judging by your Facebook page, seems you’re doing much better now. I caught your recent interview on the MusicNT website, too. Good stuff.

I wanted to ask a favour. I’d like to visit you at your home in the new year, and interview you extensively. I think it’d be an interesting idea for a young journalist like myself to talk about writing and life with an older bloke who almost shares the same name with me.

Is this a possibility? Is this something you’d be interested in? Or should I bugger off?

Happy to chat anytime mate. My number below.

He replied the next day:

Hi Andrew,

Tickled to hear from you. The first I heard of you was via a flurry of emails from fans who read a piece in the The Australian and wondered what the fuck had happened to my style. I was bewildered. Then in 2009 when I was due to appear at the Brisbane Writers’ Festival I found myself on the bill of a Queensland music festival with old mate Christie Eliezer etc talking about music journalism. A strange call, given I’d rarely concentrated on music writing since about 1985. I accepted the invitation but got no response. Obviously they had the ‘en’ in mind.

I get emails occasionally congratulating me on reviews of records I’ve never heard. And calls from people seeking contact details for band managers I’m supposed to be best mates with. I plead ignorance; they, no doubt, hold my ignorance against you.

That said, I’m intrigued by the concept of a music journo called Andrew McMillen coming out of Brisbane. I was first published in 1975 and got out of there in 1977. Never looked back.

I’m now dealing with liver cancer and all kinds of shit, so my time appears to be short, hence forming a band The Rattling Mudguards and having much fun on the way out.

I trust your transcriptions are accurate so I’d be happy to entertain you in Darwin in January.


Andrew McMillan.

* Patron, Life Member: Northern Territory Writers’ Centre
* Acting Chief Of Staff (1991-2011): DARWIN’S 4TH ESTATE
* President For Life: Darwin Foreign Correspondents’ Association
* Founder: John Jenkins Society (est. Hotel Darwin, 1989)

The Christmas period passed. I finished reading Andrew Stafford’s copy of Strict Rules: The Blackfella-Whitefella Tour, Andrew’s account of the 1986 tour of remote Aboriginal communities shared by the Australian rock groups Midnight Oil and Warumpi Band.

(To further confuse matters, a handwritten note on the book’s first page reads, “To Andrew – welcome to Strict Rules. Best wishes, Andrew McMillan.” It’s for Stafford, not me, but plenty of people thought otherwise when I showed them.)

It’s an excellent read; profound, beautiful, and heartbreaking, by turns. You can read an excerpt on Midnight Oil’s website. Drummer Rob Hirst wrote the foreword for a re-released version of the book in 2008; it was first published in 1988, the year I was born.

McMillan captures the feel of the Australian desert better than any writer I’ve read. For the first half of the book, he refers to himself in the third person, as “the hitch-hiker”. (The book is dedicated to Andrew’s mother, father, and “the people who pick up hitch-hikers.”) It’s a cracking read, and the pace never wavers as he explores the logistics behind the tour, the nightly performances to mostly-bewildered locals, the history of the land, and the people who live there. After I finished, all I could think was: I wish I read this sooner.

On January 2, I emailed Andrew to arrange my Darwin visit.

Hi Andrew – happy new year. How are you?

I want to check with you re timing for my planned excursion to Darwin. Are there any particular days or weeks that we should avoid? My January is filling up pretty fast so it might be best to look at early-mid Feb. What do you think?

He replied the same day:

At this stage my diary is free for 2012, apart from putting the finishing touches to an anthology (selected works 1976-2011) and the live album my new band The Rattling Mudguards recorded in October with Don Walker on piano and the Loose Screws on backing vocals.

Apart from that, everything else is dictated by my health. I’m fairly confident, despite the prognosis, that I’ll still be around in February and look forward to meeting you then.

I asked him whether I could stay at his home, and about the exact nature of his prognosis. On January 3, he told me:

You’re welcome to camp here unless I’m in need of a full-time carer by then. Hopefully that won’t be the case.

The prognosis? They got it wrong last year when they said I wouldn’t make through the footy season. The latest, a month ago, gave me three months max. I aim to beat that. I’ve got a few things to finish off yet.

On January 16, after getting caught up in the day-to-day minutiae of freelance journalism for a couple of weeks, I emailed Andrew after working out my ideal travel dates.

Hey Andrew,

How are you? A quick note to let you know that I’m intending to fly to Darwin on Thursday February 2. Not sure how long I intend to stay yet; up to a week is my best estimate at the moment. I just wanted to check that this date is OK before booking flights.

The next day, Andrew said:

Feb 2 sounds good. If we run into problems, friends within the neighbourhood and without have offered to put you up for a few nights.

I’ve attached an old RAM story from 1981 I’ve dug up for my anthology. I transcribed it a few nights ago. Would you mind proof-reading it for words that are obviously out of place? I figure it’ll be a neat exercise for you, giving you a clean sense of how I was writing 30 years ago and how we move on.

I was honoured to proof-read his old work, about an Australian band named Matt Finish. The same day, January 17, I replied:

Flights are booked for Friday Feb 3, returning Wed Feb 8. Arriving around midday on the Friday. I’m seeing (and reviewing) Roger Waters do The Wall on Feb 1 and didn’t fancy the early flight on the 2nd. So 3rd it is.

A good read on Matt Finish. Had never heard of them. I’ve attached a doc with a couple of comments down the right side, but no changes to the main text. Just a few small things that I noticed.

I was chatting to Jim White of Dirty Three today for a story I’m writing. He asked whether I was you. He remembers your writing from RAM.

Do keep sending through some stuff to read ahead of my visit. I finished Strict Rules a couple weeks back (borrowed Andrew Stafford’s copy) and loved it.

That was the last I heard from Andrew. On January 24, I followed up my last email and asked, “Is everything OK – or as OK can be, given your situation?” Four days later, he died.

I feel foolish for having not ventured north earlier, for not having appreciated the urgency of his situation. Upon receiving that text message last night, I felt immediately that this mistake will be one of my biggest regrets.

I have no idea how our meeting would have unfolded. I was looking for inspiration, for insight; I wanted to learn about writing from a man who has written his whole life. It saddens me that we only ever exchanged a few casual emails. I was looking forward to days of conversation, of introspection, of self-analysis, of advice, of inspiration.

Vale Andrew McMillan. I hardly knew you. I wish I did.

Written by Brisbane-based journalist Andrew McMillen, January 29 2012.

Above photo credits, respectively: Bob Gosford, Glenn Campbell, Bob Gosford.

Update, January 30: ABC News NT have uploaded a fine video tribute to Andrew on their YouTube channel. It runs for two and a half minutes and can be viewed below.

Comments? Below.
  1. Paul & Deb McMillen says:

    Oh Andrew, we too are saddened by the news of Andrew’s death. We knew how excited you were about traveling to Darwin to stay with him and gaining inspiration from his writing experience. His final battles would have been less on his mind knowing that you were heading north to meet with him. His loss will drive you forward to great writing knowing that he will be ‘proofing’ for you now.

  2. Sandra Thibodeaux says:

    Hi Andrew, You must feel terrible! I’m a ferry ride away from Andrew’s house and my best efforts couldn’t get me there in time yesterday – not even to see him before he was whisked away. A few of us had a lovely night there, though, and enjoyed basking in his presence which is still very much in the apartment. No-one saw this coming so soon. On Friday night, I heard he’d stopped walking so I planned to go see him on Monday. It was very quick, so don’t feel too bad – no-one saw it coming, and it was really good that he avoided palliative care. He was at home until the very end, surrounded by friends. I hope you still come up – many of us here would be happy to meet you, and perhaps your visit might coincide with some part of his burial/wake. All the best, Sandra, Darwin.

  3. Sandra Thibodeaux says:

    By the way, I turned on his laptop last night to have a look at his funeral plans and was curious to see a folder called ‘Andrew McMillen’!!! I didn’t now of your existence. I thought McMillen was a name he was using as a pseudonym to write in a particular genre or something … Well, it was late at night, at this stage. ;)

  4. Lynn Bean says:

    I have never read anything more self-indulgent. A great man has gone and we are all sad about that. IT’S NOT ABOUT YOU. Get back in your box and learn some humility. Try to write about your subject not about you, then someone might think you can write – not yet

    • I’m sorry that my entry came across as self-indulgent, Lynn. I know very little about ‘the subject’ (ie Andrew), as I wrote in the entry, which is why I felt I had to write it from my perspective. I am sorry for your loss and hope you can forgive me.

  5. Sandra Thibodeaux says:

    As a good friend of Andrew McMillan’s, I didn’t find it self-indulgent at all – it was warm and quirky, much like Andrew McMillan. It made me smile – something which was much needed yesterday. Good on you for writing it. I think you have to write from your own personal experience – it’s unavoidable. And I notice from the tone of Andrew’s emails to you that he enjoyed the coincidence as well. The folder – I didn’t open it because I didn’t know what it was. I just opened files to do with the funeral which is a bit of an exercise given the remote location. As I said, you’re most welcome to come. I think Andrew would smile at that. My email is if you’d like to discuss. Take care.

  6. kathie Rea says:

    As someone who has known Andrew for years I came upon your piece in error, ‘En’, and read it to the end with pleasure as a tribute to Andrew McMillan. Your piece offers a snapshot of a mature writer in the early stages of mentoring an energetic and rightly ambitious young writer. Andrew’s engagement in the writing world, skill,keen observation and more is demonstrated right here. Thank you ‘En’.

  7. Ray Scanlan says:

    To the dust and frangipanni breeze beyond….rest peacefully old friend.

  8. Tom says:

    Hi Andrew (a bit late)

    I had the great pleasure of hanging out with Andrew McMillan during a Brisbane Writer’s Festival, too.

    Thanks muchly for your piece which illuminates a very knowledgeable gent. Doesn’t come across as self-indulgent at all.


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