Ride On, Tony Pola

pola potato starsAll photois: Greg Walsh.

Let's start with a jovial reminder of who, Tony Pola, the man really was, in his own words. From one of his social media messages: 

PC "culture" is a cancer to freedom of expression.

In the real world, Tony recently died. I believe he was 58. Six years ago he fell off his pushbike and broke a few ribs.

In mediaworld, Britain's Queen's Personal Comedian has also died, aged 99. Two years ago he came out from a local laneway and biffed into a car with two women, causing them "minor injuries".

 

tony pola kit

It's things like this which really drive a spike between the trivial and the personal. Or, if you like, the bit in “Father Ted” when Ted tries to explain that the toy cows are “really small” (but immediate), while the cows in the field outside are “far away”. If you didn't know the Comedian, or hadn't met him, then surely ... events involving the Queen's Anyone are “far away” - it's 'just news'. Life and death go on. My heart goes out to those who are mourning  Tony Pola. Meanwhile, sure, I do feel for the Queen, but ... really. She has enough people feeling for her. 

However, I don't think I'm alone in being quite annoyed at the timing; and thinking that it's dead weird how things turn out. After all, surely Tony Pola, drummer, and Philip, aka Duke of Edinburgh, could not have been more different. 

There are a few curious similarities, however. While both were capable of charming friends and strangers alike, they both also possessed a distinct knack of irking  friends and family. And, in this context, irking might be considered a rather plastic word, running the gamut from 'a bit irritated' to infuriating.

Katherine, Tony Pola's wife, posted on his Facebook page a message of extraordinary understanding and love; if you've not read it yet, here's an extract: 

Tony loved his life, and everyone in it. If you punched on, cussed him out, if he hated you for years, if you hated him, if you gave each other the shits, if he did you wrong, or vice versa, if he pissed you off to the nines - no matter - Tony loved you all. He loved his life. 

One of Tony’s greatest qualities was his ability to be happy in the moment. 

 We can all take a lesson from Tony. Be grateful, be kind, tell people you love them with abandon- make jokes, make love, forgive the wrongs, and enjoy your life.

How the partners of real people ever find the strength to write such clear, moving testimonials at the beginning of their bereavement is beyond me. My own griefs have been so vile of late that writing anything as the dam breaks is too much of a struggle. 

I saw Tony play many times before I met him. One early Surrealists gig in Adelaide (between “Just Because You Can't See It...” and “Essence”) completely nailed me to the floor. The band were utterly titanic, three golems driving a Big Daddy Roth-esque souped-up steamroller, resolutely crushing all before them, tongues lolling in grotesque imitation of sexual congress, squealing and bellowing all the while. Brilliant songs too; by the time “Essence” came out I'd been hooked by Kim Salmon all over again, this time hooked up with a pair of former abattoir workers who were not so much a rhythm section but the sound of entire city blocks toppling in tandem.

And the Beasts of Bourbon in the same period, the entirety of Kim Salmon and the Surrealists with Spencer and Tex, “supporting” Einsturzende Neubauten at the Old Greek Theatre in Melbourne over two nights. You could see members of Neubauten in the wings as the Beasts rode roughshod over an adoring crowd, utterly transfixed. Gentle reader, German headbanging was involved.  

pola potato trails contrailsFrom the cover of the Potato Society CD. Greg Walsh photo.

Excuse me while I diverge for a moment, but the first bloke I met who'd lived beneath someone's kitchen table told me how much he regretted moving out into a tent he'd pitched in someone else's living room (which is where I met him). 

Tony was the fourth individual I've met who at one point lived beneath someone's table. He seemed pleased at the recollection. Maybe it's an Adelaide thing. In my too-short time getting to know the Beasts, I realised that their lives were the stuff of legend. Some of that comes out in Stuart Coupe's recent book on Tex Perkins, some in Douglas Galbraith's recent bio of Kim Salmon. But Tony Pola and Brian Henry Hooper were real wild Australian men, country boys who barged out into the world, discovered its secrets, found it wanting and left burned rubber, deeply dented panels, tinnitis and love behind them.

I've never told anyone this, but one of them confessed that it was him who bit Nick Cave on the leg during the Perth Birthday Party gig in 1983. (No, I'm not telling you which one. Take a guess.)

My experience with Tony was always positive. He had a remarkable capacity for life and survival (both physical and psychical), yet seemed to be quite ... pragmatic when it came to possessions and money, as the urge took him. I observed there were times when right and wrong were utterly clear to Tony, and others when ... well. Let's just say he could be bloody charming and you didn't want him to turn the charm off. (So it was our fault, really, if he took off with that $50 and bottle of wine).

As we were making the documentary on The Beasts of Bourbon, I was a tad nervous at finally being introduced as his several reputations preceded him.


As I got to know Tony a little, I realised that here was a complex, big-living individual who sees the world around him and dives right in. One friend (who I will not name) knew Tony pretty well, and commented, “I love Tony to bits but I wouldn't trust him an inch”. 

Many folks 'do drugs' to deal with depression or difficult circumstances. I can't know his background, but I thought Tony was either bored, or stupendously dissatisfied with the ordinary everyday, and long ago set his tiller to plunge in head first, kit and caboodle, into the swirling mire, as well as bask in the sunlit uplands.

Here's a quote from a Tex Perkins interview by Bob Gordon of Cool Perth Nights website:

I think people misunderstand the central motivation of the Beasts Of Bourbon… it’s about broken, wounded men,” Perkins reflects. “It’s about vulnerability. It’s about anger and defiance from a position of being hurt. It’s a search for love, really. [The Beasts song 'Pearls Before Swine'] says ‘look at all these crappy, shitty things I’ve done. Do you think you could ever love me?’.

Here's a memory: The Beasts are flying from Sydney to Brisbane. We get to the airport, we are given our boarding passes. The band head to the Qantas Club (for, I assume, a light beer and free peanuts) while Tony heads to Hungry Jacks for a burger. One hour later we're milling at the boarding gate when Tony pats his pockets. “I don't have my boarding pass,” he announces.

There is a sort of weary acceptance at this, with none of the band venturing a solution (I realised they were probably stifling their fury). Chap at the back pipes up, “He's a musician!”, and the staff, recognising Tex and realising that this daggy bunch are clearly somehow connected with the daggier bloke without a boarding pass... check that his ticket was booked at the same time by the same agency, and let him on. 

To say that Tony's behaviour caused problems at times for the bands he was in would be an understatement. But despite causing outrage, utter mayhem and misery on occasion (of the sort none of us would condone) at Brian Henry Hooper's funeral, as Kim Salmon walked past on his way to the podium to deliver a typically incisive, balanced eulogy to Brian, I saw him pause to grip Tony on the shoulder. Tony knew who it was without looking, and put his hand briefly on Kim's. 

I cannot begin to fathom the depth of feeling between these men, The Beasts, The Surrealists. Both were a force of nature; The Beasts of Bourbon (who certainly blew Nirvana offstage without trying) should have bulldozed the U2's and Acca Daccas of the world into a corner. The Surrealists played on U2's ginormous stage and... yeah, I wish I could've afforded to go just to see them.

the beasts obit tonyPromo shot with the Beasts. 

Sitting at the back of an aircraft, I discovered rather a lot about Tony in a short period of time. At one point we were given airline food, a baguette with avocado and some forgettable sort of moist substance. Tony opened it mournfully and, peering inside, said, “How can they get this so wrong?” Eventually we settled down and pulled out a book each. Tony's was Edward Wilson's “Diversity of Life” which the publisher, Penguin, describe on their site as, “a master scientist tells the great story of how life on earth evolved. E.O. Wilson eloquently describes how the species of the world became diverse, and why the threat to this diversity today is beyond the scope of anything we have known before”. 

No, Tony Pola was not just a dumb drummer. He thought for himself. “You know I did Wimins Studies at uni... And other related crap?” he once asked me. And what else? “I was in the Communist Party of Australia! I wasn't sure how rock'n'roll would work tho....”

My Fartbook messeges reveals more conversations; “I don’t place much faith in doctors tho I see one twice a year... unless I break a leg... (everyone’s always telling me to...)”

“I'm going to shock you! I'm a huge fan of Malcolm Roberts.......  The Greens, Labor, Libs, Nat's (in that order) are treacherous, treasonous, running dogs of something very dark. Too strong? (-:”

As many will know, this neatly segues into a murkier area. “Don't get me started on the climate hoax ... lol', and 'Robert! don't believe big pharma lies! i KNOW what pot can do....” No, gentle reader, I did not rise to the bait, instead we chided back and forth like a pair of old gits in rocking-chairs, rather wishing there was beer to hand.

Tony's reaction to the stupidvirus was contemptuous - he called it the “plandemic”, among other things. I didn't bother arguing, and at one point during a phone call I quoted his own words back at him; “most people believe fantastical things”, and we cracked up. No point in squabbling. Our ability as humans to connect is a greater power, surely.

Here's one of Tony's many close friends:

I have so many funny memories of him. Some of the best times of my life were spent with him.  We used to drive to two rocks, drink and watch the sun set, and then put the stereo on in the car and dance on the beach, alone. He was also quite daggy and nerdy in ways that were incredibly endearing. 

I know he had his addictions, but he was never abusive or violent to women. He was a gentleman in that regard, even when he may have been cheating. He would never use it against a woman.

While some memorials skip the ugly side, Tony was such a complex figure that he did cause some people to not really see him, but what they thought he was. The same friend:

I did see his nasty side, but only once. Someone, an older man I think, had left his dog in a car on a hottish day, and Tony being the absolute animal lover, tore that person a new one. He was so angry, I could literally see the blood rush out of his face.

The Beasts documentary “The Brass Ring” (dir: Jethro Heller) shows a few small snippets from what was a very big day. 

So: the Beasts were doing a cable TV performance and were milling around a green room. The host came in to introduce himself to “the living legends”. Alcohol was drunk, but not too much. After the songs, the band headed up the stairs, Brian clutching vodka and wine. Oh, apparently we couldn't walk out with the booze, it all had to be accounted for ...

Brian had the answer to that (of course) drinking the remains of both on the spot ('this should be interesting'). After much fiddle faddle we arrived in the laneway behind the studio, wondering where the band bus was... Sensibly, they'd all given up waiting half an hour ago and buggered off. 

While we were figuring it out on the mobile (Brian demanding recompense for cab fare at the top of his lungs), in the shadows our cameraman chanced on the chap who'd made the first Beasts video, “Psycho” and, while this was happening, Tony and Brian were carrying on like Larry and Moe, and invented a game. 

Tony (who, I should add, was sober) would grab Brian's walking stick out of his hands (occasioning loud verbal abuse from Brian) and heave it 50 metres down the alley, forcing Brian to lurch awkwardly after it and totter back, only to have Tony grab it and chuck it back down again.

I should explain, for those of you who don't know, that because of Brian's accident, he was in constant pain and on very strong painkillers which he hated, so it wasn't just awkward, but horribly painful for Brian to lurch about like, well, you get the idea. Both were shouting genial abuse at each other, but in the manner of two fond brothers playing a rough game. 

This endless comic brutality went on for quite some minutes. Eventually the cameraman stopped filming this (saying Tony's behaviour was cruel), but hauled it back up again just in time as, quite improbably, the Hare Krishnas came chanting and dinking their pissy thumb-gongs down the lane as Brian rescued his stick one more bloody time. 

Bassendean RSL 2016At home behind the kit. Greg Walsh photo.

Over many decades, Tony and Brian Henry Hooper were an inseparable pair, from the mud and blood fights in the abattoir where they worked in Perth as teenagers (washed down, apparently, with Pola's beloved Emu beer) to the very end, where on every gig on the last Beasts tour in 2019, Pola wore a t-shirt with Brian's face.

If you ever saw the Beasts with a different drummer, then you saw a different animal; their essential nature altered dramatically when The Surrealists joined. We caught a couple of gigs without Tony (he was, shall we say, “indisposed”); backstage, the mood was cheery, jovial. Usually the mood was very different. Internalised scowls and so on. The fill-in drummer was a hugely talented chap, and he was great ... but the nature of the Beasts was very different. Without that particular mixture of personalities, the Beasts would always be a great rock band, one to tell the grandkids you saw. But with the likes of Tony, Brian, Spencer and Kim all on the same stage, and add Tex, the band were an eerily dangerous force of nature. 

Yeah, nah, maybe don't tell the grandkids about them after all.

Pola wasn't the kind of rock drummer who simply played with a band. He lived to play. He breathed rock'n'roll like air. He loved being a rock star. But he also loved playing live - at any level. He was working in three bands when he died; Iron Knob, the Polite Society and the Potato Stars, and before that, Delta Kong and god alone knows how many others. 

Iron Knob posted (on their own Facebook page):

Tony was an inspiration and an argumentative bugger. He was wickedly funny, endlessly creative and brave in all aspects of his life. In all my years of knowing him, I never knew Tony to comply or conform with anything. He was smart as fuck. He was a genuine person who loved people, he was playful in his approach to music and life. It was a challenge to have him as a friend, I loved him more for it.

This so neatly describes how I felt about Tony myself that I'll shut up and let Tony have the last words: 

You should start smoking, Robert. It's cool.

My girlfriend would KILL me!

No! Girls think it's sexy! Men smoke Drum.... But it's very expensive these daze.

and

Only time heals.... NOT that one wants to heal completely... sweet sorrow... thanks friend! x 

Tony's funeral is on Friday, April 23 at 10am at St. Matthew’s Anglican Church in  Guildford, Western Australia. 

Tags: beasts of bourbon, kim salmon, surrealists, the beasts, tony pola, the brass ring

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