At the end of the 1990s, I was young and rooms in St Kilda were affordable. But even way back when I signed my first cheap lease, older locals complained of loss and gentrification. The Crystal Ballroom where Nick Cave performed in fake blood was closed and reborn as luxury apartments. The flophouses of Fitzroy Street, mean sites of real blood, were closed and reborn as aspirational apartments. Slowly, the old merchants of Acland Street let their attention to the needs of a new population, who no longer cared for schnitzel or shoe repair or fruit, diminish. If you look down beside this last stretch of the 96 tram, you can see stone reliefs in the pavement signifying businesses whose owners and interests have since gone to the Peninsula to die.
Their memories and mine and many more can be found in St Kilda. But only if you decide that seeking an impression of your younger self in the stones of a changing suburb is worth the cost.
The rent went up, and I moved east. Younger people of the sort I once was were drawn west and north. St Kilda became a punk mausoleum whose vitality cannot be seen on the faces of my age-mates, so often turned down to the past and complaining of loss. The true verve in St Kilda is where it has long been: in pharmaceutical transactions and sexual trade.
I visit St Kilda now chiefly for shows at the Palais Theatre by the bay, and last time I saw the overture to a drug or sex exchange in its ugly car park. I remember thinking here was the most successful and enduring business conducted on the site. At about the time I left the neighbourhood for good, plans for the so-called Triangle Development had animated the suburb’s stony faces. None of them wanted change to the foreshore. Save for the scars of a few commercial fires, there were no changes. All business in St Kilda’s foreshore triangle, save for drugs and sex, remained static.
But around the stoush with the Palais at its centre, the business of politics was dynamic. Some careers, such as that of former Port Phillip mayor Dick Gross, were ended. Others, such as that of current Port Phillip deputy mayor Serge Thomann of the party “UnChain”, were begun. And as of this past Sunday evening, it seems that the theatre might produce a new star in state politics.
In a press release forwarded by email, the intention of no less a man than Tex Perkins to run as a candidate for the Victorian state election was announced.
If you don’t know Tex, then you don’t know rock. Perkins is a man of singular and extraordinary talent amplified and never compromised by his fondness for Johnny Cash. In my view, Tex extends the language of Cash’s outsider while Cave, in all his bloody fakery, provides the merest shrieking echo. Let’s leave it for now and agree that Perkins’ oeuvre exceeds all but the godliest ambition and that as a dark rock star, he is broadly seen by people who consider such things as almost perfect.
The Palais, on the other hand, is a mess. Its cheesy orientalist facade is crumbling, and its administrative future is uncertain. In his statement to press, Perkins, a single-issue candidate, said that he was tired of inaction on “both sides of politics” on the matter of the theatre. The candidate for the seat of Albert Park described himself as an “unaligned, unendorsed independent”. Which is not dissimilar to the way the local group “UnChain” describes itself.
“To these people: before giving your primary vote to the man who wrote Fuck Your Dad, perhaps you might like to consider the impact of that decision first. Because I don’t think Tex really has.”
I am perplexed. Sure, the State Heritage-listed Palais needs repair and stewardship and sure, men approaching 50 sometimes get a civic bee in their bonnet. But of all the special things that have closed in St Kilda, from the Scheherezade schnitzel joint to Pure Pop Records to the death of local courage in art when the council-run space The Linden Gallery was raided on suspicion of child pornography last year, surely something might have tempted Perkins before now. That he has chosen to put the heft of the rock star-turned-politician behind a venue that nearly everyone in the postcode wants to save seems odd.
But there is another problem. Aside from the fact that there are other entirely legal and sustainable models to save the dilapidated building aside from purely state funding, the guy happens to be running against the opposition arts spokesman, Martin Foley. You know. The only man who has any kind of real chance at clawing back funding for rock’n’roll.
Paul Cashmere was one of a very few music industry stalwarts yesterday with the balls and clarity not to fall over himself congratulating Perkins for falling into a murky vat of politics. On his news site Noise11, Cashmere took the trouble to review Foley’s hopes to restore funding to rock’n’roll (and includes an interview with Foley) and cautions his readers that Perkins might do well to make his point outside of an election at which he is a late surprise guest.
Cashmere was polite and straightforward in his advice to Perkins. At a point where I see a good candidate like Foley at serious electoral risk from a guy like Tex, I don’t feel like being quiet so polite. Especially not to my age-mates who still live in Albert Park.
To these people: before giving your primary vote to the man who wrote Fuck Your Dad, perhaps you might like to consider the impact of that decision first. Because I don’t think Tex really has.
You might say, “there is no difference between the major parties”, and, yes, I agree that policies increasingly merge to form a blob of nothing but faith in a political system that seems in danger of not representing our needs.
However. Given the responsibilities of the state, which are to things education, health and housing, and given the declared differences between the Coalition and Labor on matters like TAFE, secularism in schools, the East West Link and rock’n’roll … well, let’s just say you are “Unendorsed” if you vote for the Coalition. And a vote for Tex could end up helping this happen in a seat with a 0.9% margin to Foley.
It also seems odd to me that Tex’s interests, as they have been barely expressed in a single press release distributed without the full name of its author, appear to coincide with those of the three current UnChain councillors who made their careers in the wake of the battle for the Triangle, at whose midpoint the Palais has been for a decade.
To explain the geometry of this saga is difficult. For the straight version that figures Thomann and his UnChain fellows (who included Anna Griffiths, the mother of famous Rachel) as visionary warriors against the cyclops of development, you can watch this documentary. For a differential account, you can do what I did and spend a day reviewing the recent history of the building.
Let it be said, the “battle” to “save” the Palais, which is likely clicking over a robust profit despite its ill health, is a peculiar tale. And it is one that was, and remains, peopled by those who want nothing more than to breathe life into the dead stones of their youth. There are some who think of the Palais, and of St Kilda itself, as a place that deserves special museum gloves. Gloves purchased entirely by the state government.
This is Tex’s solution, which also happens to coincide with the UnChain and Port Phillip Council solution. To be fair, it’s difficult to get to the details of Tex’s solution because he seems to have a number of semi- or unofficial media representatives — one of whom, Liz Van Dort, is a former UnChain media representative. Another, Peter Holland, is the UnChain vice president. Perkins is asking for $40 million — an amount whose costings, made by Port Phillip Council, are yet to be published in detail — and will distribute his preferences according to the amount of money pledged.
Everyone agrees the Palais needs saving. It’s just that no one can agree on how to save a problem that has always been state-owned and privately managed.
“Even amid the forlorn scaffolding erected this year to stop bits of the Palais falling on punters’ heads, the business thrives.”
The Triangle proposal was one bold attempt. Former mayor Dick Gross was among those who hatched a plan to offer use of contiguous land to private developers in exchange for maintenance of the heritage site and upkeep of new public spaces. When the plan was famously dismissed as a Westfield By The Sea, management of the Palais fell to a team temporarily appointed as the result of a settlement with its ousted developers. And this ended up providing another solution. (For the genuinely curious, several solutions, which include a maintenance levy on tickets, are canvassed in this 2012 Port Phillip Council document.)
To cut an epic tale short, these caretakers nailed it, cramming more acts into and pumping more money out of the theatre than it had in decades. Kids’ shows, rock bands, school groups and big-name comics now book out the venue and, perhaps unexpectedly, made it again the living focal point UnChain had mourned. Even amid the forlorn scaffolding erected this year to stop bits of the Palais falling on punters’ heads, the business thrives.
The current CEO has made no secret of the fact that he’d like to maintain his lease past the point of the agreed caretaker period in 2015 and has stated he is amenable taking on much-needed restoration works. It seems he can afford it; according to some reports, the current management team pay Port Phillip Council a peppercorn rent of around $100 per week.
So the Palais, which has been run as a private business since its opening in 1927, is currently managed by a team that has indicated a willingness to undertake refurbishment and maintenance from its profits. But UnChain and Port Phillip Council — and now Tex Perkins — are having none of it. Future tenants of the theatre — and UnChain vice-president Peter Holland has stated that it will not be the current team despite their fine work — can enjoy all profit and no responsibility to the architectural maintenance of the heritage arts venue.
UnChain and Tex hold firm that maintenance of the Palais is the legal financial responsibility of the state. However, a look at the Heritage Asset Management Principles of the state government doesn’t necessarily bear this out. While it is true that Victoria is responsible for the appropriate management of its 2000+ heritage listings, it doesn’t seem, in my reading, that they are obliged to pay for it. It’s OK if someone else but the state foots the bill.
Far be it from me to dissuade anyone from whingeing socialism, and if Tex has suffered a marvellous attack of midlife Marxism, I’ll be sure to send him any of the volumes of Capital that strikes his liking. But this seems doubtful in his case, as it does in the case of UnChain, which offered how-to-vote advice in the last federal election placing the Coalition above the Labor candidate for Melbourne Ports and which accepted the use of promotional Smart cars for their local election campaign in 2008. These turned out to be the gift of Lindsay Fox, who happened to be a failed tenderer of the ill-fated Triangle project in whose opposition the political party arose. UnChain claimed no knowledge of any of this.
ilovemypalais spokesperson Liz van Dort, a previous media representative for Unchain, told Crikey: “From my understanding, Tex is talking to lots of people to get clarity on issues – some local business people, some from the music industry, some from unChain, and he has also looked at what the Council are proposing. It’s about the future of the Palais, which is on the Triangle site so unChain certainly have some thoughts on the subject. But Tex is not an ilovemypalais candidate or an unChain candidate — he’s his own man.”
At this point, I wish Perkins would claim no knowledge of anything at all, because for a man about to become the Angry Anderson of heritage maintenance, I think ignorance can be his only redemption.
Tex is marvellous. The ’90s were great. Punk at the Palais forever, etc. Perhaps these sentiments, however true they are, have no place in informing your vote.
And I believe Tex, who is imperilling the candidate who has the most developed policy on rock, has no place in this election. He belongs in your iTunes.
And I belong far from an electorate that has now conflated the entitlement of youth with the smug neoliberalism of old age. This is one rare place where Labor hasn’t abandoned its truest believers but where they have abandoned it.
In the documentary about the purported bravery of those who opposed the Triangle and are now employed as local politicians, there is a moment where a Concerned Mother rails against the Evil Council and says that she fears that foreshore development will bring “drugs” and “druggers” to her neighbourhood. Lady, have you looked outside?
I doubt it. Like so many of my age-mates who choose to identify with the soft boho of St Kilda, which does less than enough to protect the interests of its drug-taking and sex-having inhabitants, she is just looking down. And seeing, like Tex, an image of an idealised past self set in stone. This is not how I choose to live these days. And this is not what anyone should ever take as an approach to politics. It is not your own face you see in the streets.
Save the Palais. Or let it save itself. And while you’re at it, keep your hands off Albert Park. Unless you have some idea of how to form them in a manner that is beyond a vision of your own best and younger self.
*Originally published on Daily Review.