Archie Roach closes his eyes and bows his head, and knits his fingers together as if in prayer, and I realise he’s not here any more. He’s no longer with me at his dining table, in his white brick cottage near the coastal town of Warrnambool, four hours west of Melbourne, where the sky is cool grey and his nectarine tree blossom is hot pink.
Roach is in his own mind, inside a boiling hot tin shed in far north Queensland, and he’s a young man again, experiencing a seminal moment closer to the beginning of his lifelong itinerant journey of self-discovery than to its end. As he falls more deeply into his trance, I notice the looseness in his skin, his basset-hound cheeks and the steady rocking of his smooth, bald scalp, like the bottom of a big, brown egg.
Roach, 63, is maybe 18 in this memory from the Atherton Tablelands, which begins on an Indigenous settlement, sitting in the dust, drinking beer. A few trucks roll in, he says, and blackfellas in Akubras and cowboy boots and chequered shirts get out. They’re horsemen from the stations around Cape York. They have guitars and they sing into the night, then an old, snowy-haired bloke arrives. The men put down their drinks. They stand.
“Old fella started talkin’ language,” says Roach, eyes still closed. “I’d never heard Aboriginal language – never in my life. Nobody spoke it in Melbourne or Sydney. But he just rattled it off. And then the young fellas, those ringers, they went inside the shed and took off their hats and their boots and their shirts. And they’re standin’ ’round just in their jeans. The old fella said a few other words and they come out with some boomerangs and clap sticks, and the old fella said one word that I remember: warrma.”
Roach didn’t know it then, but warrma means corroboree. And the sounds they made then are the sounds he sings out now in his lounge room: “Eeeeeh, hup! Chick-chick-chick, aaaaahhhh!”
His head sways into that rollicking past now, and his eyeballs frolic under soft, waxy eyelids. “I was just standing there. Stunned. They danced and they danced!” he says, big eyes opening. “They danced pretty much through the night. That’s when I asked the old fella, ‘What’s all this? We don’t do this down south where I come from.’ ”
No? the old fella replied. Why not? Roach didn’t know why not. They just … didn’t.
“I’m sorry about that, my boy,” the old man said. “You fellas are different. The white men came to your country long before they came up here. They wanted the green, wet country first. We were able to keep stuff. You fellas couldn’t keep anything.”
Roach had left home at 15, ended up in Sydney at 16, seen Adelaide at 17 and visited that hot shed outside Cairns not long after, before heading south again, home to Melbourne. His skin was blacker from his time on the road, under the sun, and his soul was, too – his insides warmer and darker from his cultural reckoning. “Why don’t we dance?” he asked his friends. “Why don’t we talk language? Why don’t we go out and hunt?” They looked at him funny. Just shut up, Archie Roach.
“It changed me. It started a new search for me. It was a turning point,” Roach says, nodding. “It was as if there was more to all this life than meets the eye. More that I don’t know about. More to learn. As if there’s more to me.”
I’ve been interviewing Roach for two hours when he shares this moment. I’ve also devoured an advance copy of Tell Me Why, the long-awaited memoir of the legendary singer and poet, alcoholic and activist. It was officially released on November 1, in conjunction with a beautiful album of the same name, featuring fresh recordings of new and old songs: 18 tracks to accompany 18 chapters of his life.
But it doesn’t include the story from the shed. What does that mean? What does it say that this vivid tale of a formative pivot point – the moment Roach found a fulcrum against which to grapple with the decimation of his heritage – is nothing but an off-cut left on the editing floor of his biography? It tells me that the life of this stolen child and artistic leader is one bloody big story, which makes Roach laugh heartily with his belly, before taking another sip of black tea from his tall mug (emblazoned with the words THE KEY TO SURVIVAL IS STRONG COFFEE).
He tells me it isn’t easy, revisiting and exposing all his years in this world. “It’s strange at first. You get surprised at the things you remember, good and bad. These things you haven’t thought of in so long. But it’s exhausting,” he continues, fidgeting with a pair of red, yellow and black necklaces. “It’s not something I’d care to do again.”
This is understandable. He points to the horizon outside, where it all began. He has lived in this little house close to Warrnambool for the past 10 years but part of his early life was lived here, too, or near here anyway, on the Framlingham Aboriginal Station, a Church of England mission established just down the road in 1865. “That’s where I was taken from,” he says. He was three.
Roach doesn’t remember his mother or father, but learnt later who they were. This is his mother’s country, Gunditjmara land. His father was from NSW, a Bundjalung man. He likes to say that he has his father’s blood in his veins and carries his mother’s spirit. “I have them both,” he says. “Dad, the red-bellied black snake, and Mum, the wedge-tailed eagle.” Unsurprisingly, he likes being here – walking in the nearby forest when his faltering strength allows, or just sitting on Killarney Beach – keeping that connection. “Not knowing Mum, but knowing she was a little girl here, when I go out there I feel like I’m walking where she would have walked.”
How he speaks and how he sings is also how he writes. His book and his album and this chat thus become one grand sprawling interview, a chance to walk through the songlines of his past, over creaking old bridges, from memory to memory. We start at one of the first homes he was sent to, and the woman who used to beat him with a strap, who locked him in a grain shed overnight, hungry, with a hessian sack for a blanket. He was perhaps five. I would hear a key turn in the lock, he writes in his memoir. I would feel fear and then pain. There were more reasons than love to take in a kid you’d seen in the newspaper.
He stayed in group homes, too, where the Salvos taught him how to make his bed each morning, and fold his pyjamas. That’s what he did on his first morning with a new foster family in suburban Melbourne, the Coxs. “Dad Alex” was a storeman. “Mum Dulcie” was a housewife. They had a few adult children and a daughter, Mary, not much older than Archie. He was six when they took him in, and tells me he stood at the foot of his bed, waiting to make a good impression until Mum Dulcie with her silver hair and cat’s-eye glasses came up to fetch him.
“And she looked at everything and she had this strange look on her face, and walked out. And I thought, ‘Oh no, I’ve stuffed up,’ ” Roach says. “She came back in and she sat me down, and she said, ‘You get up in the morning, put your slippers on, come out to the dining room and your breakfast will be ready for you. That’s all you need to do, Archie.’ It took a while to register that it was just kindness and love. They were good people.”
Dad Alex, he says, was fiercely protective of him. He remembers the time a friend asked young Archie why his parents were white but he was black. Roach hadn’t considered himself different until that day, and Dad Alex, with a Scottish brogue thick as custard, responded with Glaswegian fury. Archie, ye nae black, what ye are is Ab’rig’nal, Roach remembers him saying. You and ye paepal are the first paepal on this land. E’vrybody else hae are bloon awe Pommies. Yer remember tha’.
Roach famously got a letter in his early teens, from a sister he never knew he had, about the parents from whom he’d been taken. It said his father had been dead for years and his mother had just passed away. He grew suddenly restless. His grades slipped. His tolerance, too. He says he became “the angry Abo” and decided to leave. The road called. “I didn’t want to but felt that I had to. I loved them,” he says now, wincing. “Mum Dulcie was in tears. Dad Alex said, ‘I hope you find what you’re looking for.’ That’s what he told me, the old Glaswegian. I never saw them again. It makes me sad to think of it. They were devastated. I was, too, in a way.”
He was barely 15 when he lit out for Sydney’s Glebe, where the letter had come from, and got jobs picking flowers and fruit along the way. He slept in toilet blocks by the road, but was filled with hope. The song paired with this chapter of his memoir is called A Child Was Born Here. It fits the moment. With tender piano and lilting voice, the tune sounds like that feeling of waking up on a clear spring day, to the soft light of dawn.
He landed in Kings Cross, hit dead ends, and a one-armed stranger offered him his first drink, McWilliam’s brown muscat. He slugged from the bottle and his throat burned. The booze seemed to be flattening everything, he writes. Loss and fear, sound and light, time and space. I liked it.
Every day after that, he tells me, was spent trying to replicate “that first drunk”, swallowing whatever he could afford to reach that state of numbing warmth.
“If you didn’t have enough money for medicated wine at the chemist, you’d drink metho,” he says. “I just thought this was what Aboriginal people do.”
He learnt how to turn stubbed butts into cigarettes. He learnt about “biting” – holding his hands out for money – and the overwhelming shame in that act. He spent fortnights in Long Bay jail for “begging alms”, loitering and vagrancy. But he also found camaraderie in the street. There was “the tarpaulin muster”: chucking all your smokes, booze and money into the middle to divvy up. A flagon passed around was a campfire shared. We were part of an obliterated culture, he writes, just intact enough to know it exists, but so broken we didn’t think we could ever be put together again.
He began hearing stories about stolen kids. “People would talk about it, saying, ‘Oh yeah, I was taken away, too, went in a foster home or institutions,’ but that was sort of as far as it went,” he tells me. “You thought it must have happened to a few people, but it was an accepted thing, so I stayed quiet.”
He eventually found his sister, and learnt that there were more stolen siblings scattered throughout the country. After more than a year in Sydney, he returned to Melbourne and lobbed in inner-northern Fitzroy, where he met another big sister and big brother, too. He learnt how his father had died in a prison cell there – a “death in custody” before such a term existed. He wailed and sobbed with his siblings, and heard about the day on the mission when the white men came in a big, black car, and his frenzied father tried to stop them.
One of the great songs on the album paired with his memoir is called Rally Round the Drum, which has a loose connection to his dad. It’s about the brief moment Roach was a tent boxer: part of a travelling troupe that would set up hay bale rings to fight locals in little country towns. Roach and his older brother were plied with drink in a Melbourne pub one night by a promoter, then woke up in the back of a ute in rural Warragul. “He shanghaied us,” says Roach, laughing. Soon enough he was wearing trunks and a dressing gown, with a drum banging and a bell rung, waiting for an opponent.
Roach says it was an adventure, and a chance to know his dad, too. His father – whose hair was prematurely white – had fought in a similar setting under the name “Snowball Roach”, so Archie’s nom de plume became “Kid Snowball.” The song about it was written by Roach with his mate, Paul Kelly, in the early 1990s, but Roach never recorded the track, so Kelly joined him in the studio for this new album. The tune has a wistful Celtic flavour.
Sometimes I’d fight a gee-man, yeah we’d put on a show, sings Roach. Sometimes I’d fight a hard man, who wants to lay me low.
Sometimes I get tired, but I don’t ever grouse, sings Kelly. I’ve got to keep on fighting, five dollars every house.
One day, the life of Archie Roach will be made into a movie. And there will be almost too many moments to script. Electric scenes of him performing incendiary protest music. Tranquil vignettes of him pulling yellowbelly from a river. Shots of him sitting under gum trees writing poems, and gritty montages in which he tips molten steel in foundries, or hoses the blood off abattoir kill runs. He’ll be pictured asleep in alley camps under cardboard lean-tos, and on a bunk in Pentridge prison, where he sat for seven months over the theft of a car, stolen by someone else.
But there will also be a scene in which he is 17, standing on the shoulder of the Sturt Highway near Mildura, in north-west Victoria, in 1973. The young actor who plays him will have a guitar case in one hand, and a coin in the other. He’ll say, “Heads, Adelaide; tails, Melbourne”, then he’ll fling that 20-cent piece in the air, flipping for his fate. Roach had already chased his destiny north and south – this spin would send him west.
I reckon few men have ever gained more from a simple coin flip, Roach writes of that moment. See, there was a girl waiting for me in Adelaide, one who would change my life forever.
Her name was Ruby Hunter. He found her on his very first day in South Australia, at the People’s Palace, a grand old free hotel run by the Salvation Army. It had a rickety cage elevator with cogs and belts, so Roach took the stairs. When he reached the bottom, the elevator opened and Hunter, 16, stepped out. “I remember it clear as day,” he says, sighing. “She had a blue dress on, white socks up to her knees. Black shoes. White cardigan. Hair done up a little bit. And big brown eyes – biggest eyes I’d ever seen. Striking young woman.”
He went up and asked where the Aboriginal people drank and hung out. “ ‘You wanna know where all the blackfellas are, eh?’ she said. ‘You just follow me.’ And I did.”
He kept following her for the rest of her life. Before Hunter died in 2010, aged 54, of heart failure, she was his friend and lover, then mother to his five children (two biological sons, Amos and Eban, and three foster children, Terrence, Krissy and Arthur). And always she remained his muse and driver. She taught him about her mob, the Ngarrindjeri of the Coorong. That’s how Roach first learnt the notion of a clan or language group. She helped him find his voice, too, nudging him to strum his guitar a little more often.
Music had been part of his life since his time with the Coxs. They had an organ, and when he first heard the product of all that key-tinkling and valve-pulling, he says it was like seeing new colours. The Coxs sung beautiful Scottish ballads like Wild Mountain Thyme and silly ditties like Donald, Where’s Your Troosers? They played records by Fats Domino and Elvis, Billie Holiday and Mahalia Jackson, Nat King Cole and Otis Redding. As a young boy, Roach had attended a local Pentecostal church – “Praise the Lord and hallelujah and all that bizzo” – and when he was 12 he heard a woman with an acoustic guitar singing the most tender hymn. Turns out it was a Bible verse, set to the tune of Your Cheatin’ Heart by Hank Williams.
Ruby helped him find that again, and eventually, after more of the meanderings that seem to dominate his existence, they moved in together in Melbourne, happy and wild. Nothing existed but us and our song, he writes. That was true in those drunken moments, anyway. That kind of giddy feeling is fleeting, though, and blows away like embers. They both drank, but the damaging rot of addiction set in more insidiously for Roach, spiralling even as he sang.
He walks me through this part of his story slowly, oscillating between the music and mayhem. One moment he’s pairing poems and melodies, the next he’s passed out in a bush during the birth of his first son. He remembers listening to Bob Dylan and Joan Baez, and suffering acute seizures from alcohol poisoning. He recounts how music seemingly unburdened his Indigenous brothers, and how his second son was born when he was pickled in “goon” (cheap wine). Listening to Woody Guthrie one moment; trying to hang himself with a belt the next. Teaching Ruby how to play the guitar; finding rock-bottom not long after. His final bender sent him into a grand mal seizure, and he woke up intubated, restrained and sedated. “I was only 26 when I stopped drinking,” he says now. “But when you’re drinking all day every day, since you’re 15, that’s a long time.”
Once clean, Roach began noodling at the kitchen table, creating rhyming couplets while kids scurried underfoot. While working as a drug and alcohol counsellor, he wrote song after song, and an uncle encouraged him to write about Framlingham, and how he was taken – how they all were taken – and the quiet that was left behind, which became his signature single, Took the Children Away.
He began to learn about the land rights movement, and marched every NAIDOC Week, and when that big jingoistic Australian celebration of 1988 drew near, something came into focus. “I started writing songs like Bicentennial Blues and Keep Your Handouts Give Us Back Our Land. It was a catalyst,” Roach says. He began performing at public rallies, and played occasionally on community radio, but was not signed to any record label. “I started hearing about people dying in jail – a young bloke named Lloyd Boney, who died in a lockup in Brewarrina, north-central NSW [in 1987] – and I wrote a song for him called Beautiful Child. They just started pouring out of me.”
Three decades on, people are still dying in police station cells. I mention Ms Day, who died in Victoria’s Castlemaine in 2017, and Ms Dhu, whose life ended in WA’s Port Hedland in 2014 – two of too many tragic cases that have garnered national attention. This open wound must rankle. “One step forward, two steps back. There has to be more … care?” Roach says, shaking his head. “For people. Between people. It angers me that it’s still happening. It continues that break between Aboriginal people and the law, from way back, when the troopers were on horses, hunting down blackfellas and walking them across the land. The mistrust is still there.”
We talk about Australia Day, too. Roach wants to celebrate this country – who we are and what we stand for – but doesn’t feel included on January 26. “We can’t be included, not on that date,” he says. “And people get so upset if we talk about changing it. They attack and attack and attack – ‘Get over it!’ – but it’s hard. My people walked in chains. Round the neck, round the feet. I’ve seen the photos and I’ve felt those chains, in the Old Roebourne Gaol.”
He holds out his hands now, and lets the phantom weight of each metal link and lock drag his arms down to the table. “ ‘Get over it’? I can’t get over stuff like that,” he says. “It’s the history of this country, and if you can’t own all of the bad stuff and the good stuff, too, then what’s the point? Just understand that what we enjoy today came at a cost – a terrible cost – to the First People of this country.”
Roach compressed all this conflict and anguish into his music as a young man, and was soon noticed, notably by Paul Kelly, who invited him to open a show at the Melbourne Concert Hall in 1989. (Funny story: Kelly came to check on Roach in his dressing room, but Roach had no idea who Kelly was; he thought the skinny man dressed in black was a bouncer. He went out on stage, sung his two songs, silence giving way to applause and then a rapturous ovation. He writes about walking off stage: The little security bloke had tears in his eyes as he shook my hand. It was a strange night.)
Kelly also offered to help him create an album, but Roach didn’t think he needed to, which is when Ruby drew herself up, hands on hips: “It’s not all about you, Archie Roach! How many blackfellas you reckon get to record an album?” He thought of Indigenous pioneers like Australian rules footballer Doug Nichols, boxer Lionel Rose and tennis star Evonne Goolagong Cawley, and how they opened doors for others to walk through. Ruby nudged again: “When one of us shines, we all shine.”
His star shone. Now 34, his 1990 debut album, Charcoal Lane, sent him down red carpets and up onto stages to grab gongs, including two ARIAs in 1991. And over the years that followed Roach became a crusader, change agent and voice of his people, visiting missions and hospitals and prisons, over the next two decades opening for Bob Dylan and Patti Smith and Tracy Chapman, and taking meetings with Indigenous activists Pat Dodson and Michael Long. He became champion of a neglected diaspora, and was only last month named Victoria’s candidate for the 2020 Australian of the Year. Hunter began playing critically acclaimed music of her own, and the pair performed at Melbourne’s Federation Square on the day of the national Apology, February 13, 2008. He reflects now on its impact.
“Some things will never change. But the young people – the people who’ve written to me, who I’ve met in schools – they want change. And things are better in that we’ve empowered them to create change. The Apology gave people hope. It gave people courage.”
And what of those who don’t want to change? What, for instance, of the people who booed Sydney Swans AFL star Adam Goodes into retirement? “Poor Adam,” Roach says, shaking his head. “One step forward again, two steps back again. It’s hard for some people to recognise their own prejudices. Or that racism exists. They have this ideal about our country, that everything is fine, everything is good. ‘We are not racist. We are not xenophobic. We are not homophobic.’ I’m not pointing the finger anywhere, but it’s everywhere.”
Roach and Hunter moved to where he lives now in 2009, to this little spot on the Princes Highway not far from picturesque Port Fairy. But Hunter was getting sick then, he says, and her breathing was laboured. She slept longer and moved more slowly.
One summer’s day in 2010 – February 17 – they were both home. Roach was on his computer in the front room, and Hunter was making art for a book illustrating his songs. She’d show him a painting; he’d smile and say, “Deadly”. She was playing Nintendo Wii tennis with her grandkids, too. Right there, he says, pointing to a corner of the lounge room. From another room, Roach heard banter and giggles, then a thump and screams, and rushed in to find Hunter unconscious.
“You know when you’re in a room at night time, and you walk out and switch the light off?” he asks me. “It was over just like that – quick as that. It was devastating.”
People came to pay their respects, but he couldn’t hear anything. He writes about this with great clarity: In my mind they’d come and go like passing trains on a platform, breaking the silence but not taking me anywhere.
He stayed inside, in his pyjamas and dressing gown. Perhaps a week later, he walked past the bathroom mirror and stopped. He didn’t recognise the person looking back at him. “My whiskers were grown and white. Eyes sunken in my head somewhere. And I heard Ruby’s voice. It said, ‘Just look at yourself, Archie Roach.’ ” He talked with her spirit, even joked, and she continued to admonish him: “Clean yourself up, Archie Roach,” she said. “You’ve got things to do.”
I ask when he was able to listen to her music again, and he tells me a story. He was driving back from her funeral in South Australia only days later, and was scheduled to play at the Port Fairy Folk Festival on the day he returned. Everyone told him not to play. People would understand. But as the car sped home, he remembered how Hunter used to persevere through any ailment or hardship. He decided to honour that. People at the festival were crying, he says, and he realised how beloved Hunter was. He put an empty chair and microphone on stage for her, and asked the audience for help. He needed them more than ever. They carried him through his set, and he carried that love away with him.
“I came straight home, sat down, relaxed with a cup of tea. And I put on Ruby’s albums and just listened to them,” he says, smiling. “And it was the sweetest music and songs I’d ever heard.”
They say bad things come in threes. Later that year, he suffered a stroke while conducting a songwriters’ workshop at a settlement in the Kimberley. The following year, he was diagnosed with lung cancer: a fast-growing lesion the doctors said would kill him in six months. Instead, they removed half his left lung.
He’s not a well man. With therapy Roach recovered from his stroke, and he is free of cancer, but he still has a chronic lung disease and hypertension. He is stable but his condition is considered a serious disability.
Occasionally, as we talk, he feeds a pair of thin clear tubes into his nostrils, connected to the Eclipse5 AutoSAT – his home oxygen concentrator. Roach went to Canada last year and was warned the trip might kill him. But he struggled through, meeting First Nations people and performing at folk festivals, rolling down long valley roads in Alberta and hairpin switchbacks in Manitoba. He saw ancient petroglyphs in coastal forests, and picked up some of the totems that decorate his home now, like that buffalo hide drum on the wall, from the Haida Gwaii nation in British Columbia. He loves the deep contented boom of that drum.
He still performs occasionally. He did in Darwin only a few months ago. “It’s a funny thing,” he says. “It’s a different dynamic, singing than walking around. You use different muscles. You use your lungs a bit more efficiently when you sing. Your diaphragm, neck and chest.” His voice has changed with age, and illness. He often does jazzy lounge-singer arrangements now, because they allow him to improvise, patching over cracks and gaps. “There’s a difference in power. I’m a little rougher in some places. I sound like Satchmo [Louis Armstrong] sometimes. Other times I sound like Tom Waits,” he says, beaming. “But I like Tom Waits.”
Roach has said before that each time he sings Took the Children Away, he lets go of a little piece of his grief, and the load gets lighter. He is very close to letting the last bit go. “Music is the medicine. You start to realise that this song is not so much about what’s been lost as what’s been found. What you’ve discovered. What you’ve learnt.”
His music now, he thinks, is more inclusive than ever. One of his most striking new songs is Place of Fire, which takes its name from a recent archaeological find at the mouth of the nearby Hopkins River. The site has yielded ancient burnt rocks and shell middens, and it tells him a story of hunters and gatherers, who wandered and scattered themselves across the land. We built villages, he says, and towns and bigger cities, and we became more isolated. We had wars and an industrial age, he adds, and retreated into ourselves. We built churches and mosques and synagogues and were further divided.
“But we’re all descendants of the original inhabitants of the earth. We all sat around that place of fire. It’s the constant. The song is about how we should protect it – its sacredness – and in doing so, look after each other, to be happy.”
I want to know what happiness is for him. “I’m happy where I am, and where I’ve come from, and what I had to come through,” he says. “I love to go down to the beach and just sit there, oddly enough on a cold, windy day. I sit on my own. Watch the ocean. I love to hear the wind, the birds.”
A chirp sounds outside his window, and Roach doesn’t need to look beyond his Hills Hoist to know it’s a New Holland honeyeater. Another bird calls from the lavender and onion-weed patch – a song with more bass – and he angles his ear. “That’s a guinea fowl,” he says. “Very pretty.”
Roach dwells deeply on our place in nature. “We’re no more important or less important than a flower, than a breath of wind, than a blade of grass, and it feels good to know this. It makes me happy to know this. It makes me smile.”
He is a man who understands the things we’ve lost and the things we should share. The control we need to relinquish. “This rock,” he says, lifting an imaginary stone from his table, “is a part of me as much as I am a part of it. We’re not distinct.”
Roach holds out his hand out now, and nods, so I hold out mine. His fist opens slowly, his long white fingernails scraping across my palm, and the imaginary stone drops into my grasp. “There,” he says, smiling. “That’s yours.”
Archie Roach’s memoir, Tell Me Why (Simon & Schuster) and companion album (produced by Bloodlines), were released on November 1.