Wednesday, November 01, 2006
Vale Ian Rilen (1947-2006)
I knew Ian Rilen as well as most but not as well as some. In common with everyone that came into the Rilen orbit, however, I have a few stories. Many are about his penchant for living at or near that rock and roll place called the edge. Others that you won’t hear so often are about a loving father to four people, a husband to others and a friend to many, many more.
Ian passed away at home at Shoreham on Victoria’s Mornington Peninsular on October 30, aged 59. He’d been battling cancer since early 2006.
Ian had a reputation for partying harder, longer and more determinedly than just about anyone else in Australia rock and roll. That was the public persona, and it’s one that he both rejoiced in, and struggled with.
You should already know the bare bones of his band history: Bass-player for ‘70s prog-blues band Band of Light. The writer of Rose Tattoo’s first and most enduring hit, “Bad Boy For Love”, who left the Tatts to pursue his own (arguably harder and more dangerous) muse. The diminutive ball of energy pumping out thunderous, rib-crunching bass-lines for Australia’s ultimate beyond-the-law rock soap opera, X. Debonair leader of Sardine v whose “Stuck On You” became a hit for Hunters & Collectors. Bare-knuckled rabble-rouser in Hell to Pay, the portable party with guitars. Iggy Pop-like frontman for inner-Sydney legends Skindiver. Frontman/guitarist for Australia’s ultimate gutter-blues rockers, the Love Addicts.
Ian was a renowned partier on any number of fronts, with as many alcoholic and chemical dance partners as you could imagine. I don’t know that Ian as much bought into that side of the rock and roll lifestyle as got swept along with it. You could take it or leave it.
One-on-one, he was the mirror image of his on-stage persona; quietly-spoken and a shy until he got a handle on you. It must have taken some effort to morph into the cocky, swaggering, guitarist, bouncing around a stage and mugging like it was his exclusive turf. There was a stunning presence about Ian Rilen with a bass or six-string guitar in hand. He was seemingly indestructible.
Of course, no-one is and there was a time when the odds were pretty short on something other then The Big C claiming him. His abuses were no secret, many of them carried out in public. Ian said he couldn’t give a shit. He once told me that, on the score of reputation, people (and most pointedly, “the industry”) could take it or leave it. He was what he was and if you didn’t like it, well you know the rest of the story. Deep down, however, Ian was always about the music and it was hard not to get the feeling that he thought his detractors focussed on the man when they should have been listening closer to the music.
Ian existed outside the so-called industry for most of his musical career. He’d had a brief taste of what was on the other side of the wall, working as a hired bass hand for ex-Cold Chisel guitarist Ian Moss. He was quietly shuffled off the payroll after notoriously getting so shit-faced with the owner of the pub they were playing at that he couldn’t stand up.
He was invited to the Jack Awards earlier this year, to play in an all-star tribute band for his departed Tatts mate Pete Wells (another claimed by cancer). I asked him how it was and Ian replied: “OK…but those young blokes were fucking kidding with their road stories…bunch of pussies…” At that stage, Ian was well in the disease’s grip and was moderating his drinking. A few red wines and a smoke was as far as he went. A few months later he actually left hospital to be at Rose Tattoo’s ARIA Hall of Fame induction - and found himself heading back there by ambulance at 5am after over-doing things at a post-awards party.
Rose Tattoo royalties may have bought Ian a Buick (and more about that later) but he was just as happy to consign the Tatts and his other bands to the past to concentrate on the present (and future). The Love Addicts were his band of the moment, and there was every sign that they did have a future before cancer crept up and tapped their leader on the shoulder.
Ian loved to play live. He desperately wanted to take this band overseas, after prospective 1990s tours for X to Japan and the USA fell over. But he wanted to do it in his own right, not as the infamous white singlet guy from X or Rose Tattoo’s Bad Boy For Love. Love Addicts manager Greg Sawers (more a close friend to Ian than anything) and industry veteran Sebastian Chase were solid believers in the man and the band, and had ambitious plans that would finally send the Love Addicts to Europe, on the back of an as-yet unreleased album.
There was a lot to love about Ian and a lot of love about him. He was, in the broadest sense of the term, a hopeless romantic, a sharply dressed knockabout with an effortless charm and a long line of wives, ex-wives, other peoples’ wives, girlfriends and other people’s girlfriends around him. Little wonder he and Brigitte named their brand new son Romeo. Ian told me being a father again so late in life was one of the most magic things to happen to him. On his own admission, he hadn’t been the best husband down the years, but increasingly he was a devoted father. Although all members were Melbourne-based, the latest Love Addicts album was recorded in Sydney with the band surrounded by partners and kids. A family affair.
X might have been the most dysfunctional band in rock and roll at times, but it also ran on love. That band's longest-serving drummer and Cathy might have split with Ian and threw him out more times than either can recall, but they never really parted. Steve Lucas was sometimes barely speaking to either of them but there was an unspoken bond between him and Ian in particular that undeniably ran deep, despite the pair going through some extreme times.
Ian also loved cars. Two years ago, while staying at a live-in conference in Sydney’s Darlinghurst, I dropped into the nearest pub to have a quick late afternoon drink before heading to an official dinner. I spotted a Buick in a No Standing zone outside the Darlo Bar and had an inkling who’d be in the pub. Ian and close mate Mick Cocks (of the Tatts and now glam-rockers Doomfox) were holding court with a crew of colourful characters. They’d been there a couple of hours as Ian had inexplicably locked his keys in his new car’s boot and everyone was debating the best way to retrieve them. No, you couldn’t get the backseat out, and although there was any number of people in the house who would probably know their way into a Commodore or Falcon, the boot of a Buick was a whole other kettle of fish. Ian was going to catch a taxi to his Bondi flat and break-in to grab a spare key, but only after we’d had a beer…or two…while we watched for parking cops.
Ian’s love affair with cars had a chequered history. That same Buick had been bought in Brisbane and driven halfway down the NSW coast before its transmission fell out, to languish in a country mechanic’s shop until the money could be raised to repair it. More recently, a similar mission to buy another Yank gas-guzzler with easier access for a baby seat resulted in a blown radiator when Ian ignored a temperature gauge. Someone who knew him better than me said it was typical Ian: Strike a problem and press on. Just as he was determined to lean on non-traditional medicine when chemotherapy failed and keep playing through his illness.
The T-shirt from a two-night benefit concert at The Prince in St Kilda told the same story, with the star billing on the back (Rose Tattoo, Hoodoo Gurus, Don Walker, Beasts of Bourbon and Tim Rogers, among others) competing with a simple phrase on the front: “Rock Till You Drop”. Ian never planned to perform – playing at your own tribute was just too silly – but wasn’t well enough to attend.
I saw what was to be his second-last performance in Sydney, upstairs at Newtown’s Sandringham Hotel. It was the first of a two-night stand and Ian’s medical condition had been made public via a story in the Sydney Sunday press a week or two earlier. I was told the Saturday show was the one to see, in which case it must have been a helluva gig because Friday was terrific. All recorded, too. You could feel the love in the room for Ian, even without seeing the odd teary-eyed fan (most but not all of them women). There was a sense that this might be one of the last times we’d see Ian grace a Sydney stage. Sadly, it was, and planned return gigs at the same venue were quietly blown out a month ago.
Back home in Melbourne, the Love Addicts played a few more gigs, mostly at The Greyhound Hotel where I’m told a similar mood pervaded. The band’s performances at those shows, by all accounts, were remarkable. They were simply in another place and a gig at a country football club inspired one of the organisers of the Meredith Festival to rush the Love Addicts onto the bill. With Ian’s health in decline, that had to be blown out. Fittingly, however, the replacement was Spencer P. Jones, a Hell To Pay band-mate and dear friend.
Perhaps the most telling moment in Ian’s battle came about a month ago when the band assembled to rehearse. Ian had taken a lease on a house on the Mornington Peninsular where he intended to gather his strength between shows and rest. Friends couldn’t but notice the physical wasting in him as the cancer attacked from the inside. On a trip into Melbourne to rehearse with the Love Addicts, a drawn Ian walked into a practice room, plugged in his guitar, strummed two chords and said: “That’s it. I can’t do this.”
That’s no way to remember Ian, so let’s not. Let’s remember a musician who was so full of life there was no time to consider the alternative. Mr Rock and Roll. Cathy, Dave and Kim have lost more than a band mate – they’ve lost an inspirational friend. Same goes for his manager Greg. Ian was brave - maybe more than any of us will know. But most of all, let’s remember Ian as a father to Tallulah, Gentilla, Jay Jay and Romeo, de facto to Brigitte and ex-husband to Stephanie and Sofia. There’s a spot on his myspace site where you can leave tributes, or simply do so here if you want them made public. Once you've done that, have a drink for Ian. It's what he would have wanted.