Perhaps you knew Billy Thorpe as well as I did. He was that black and white television image of the early 60s. A model of intent and deportment.

I was backstage, inside the fence at Sunbury a decade later, and you were perhaps on the outside but he was a distant glow to me too. Actually it was more than a glow. If you got too close you could get charisma burns. He was the perfect pop star. Perfect hair, perfect teeth, perfect smile, perfect girlfriend. She was a model. So was he.

He was a marker along the road. Where were you when…? We took calls and text messages on the radio this morning and the recurring theme was personal lives, not public life. Freda had kissed him in 1972. Gary was at the Stadium in Rose Bay. Who could forget The Wild Colonial Club in Lorne where you entered by a pre-OH&S ladder? Well I, for one, had forgotten it completely until it hazily reappeared in my back brain, bathed in the testosterone that remains. We were all transported back to the Southside Six and the Village Green, the beer barns with a marshland of carpet and drinks mutely ordered in sign language. According to his longtime manager and friend, Michael Chugg, it was the drink driving laws that killed rock and roll. We mourn our lost youth. And celebrate it.

But what of the culture wars? From fluff to tuff, Thorpe transcended his Pat Boone phase of 60s television and re-emerged in the 70s as overdog of the underdogs, the sharpies of Melbourne, a working-class freemasonry of toughs who fêted Thorpe’s unrelenting assault on quiet. If there is a recurring theme in his work it is that he could make an unanchored and vibrating beer drift perilously close to the edge of the bar and he could kill fish in bar-room tanks. When challenged by Normie Rowe as to whether he played loud rather than good, Billy said that he liked to do both. Only this weekend, he was, by all accounts, really good and, improbably for an “unplugged” set, really loud.

I saw him just before Christmas at a benefit for Lobby Lloyd and he looked terrific. No surprises there. When didn’t he? Paradoxically, Billy is gone and Lobby has smoked himself into remission.

He was a great singer.

Peter Fray

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