Phil - Shane, Solid Rock is one of the most passionate songs from a white fella about the dispossession of indigenous Australians. How did you come to write it and why?In 1980 the Goanna Band was doing it pretty tough. I went to Uluru because I had an interest in Aboriginal people and their plight. I grew up near Warrnambool in SW Victoria. The old Framlingham mission is just out of town so Aboriginal people were a fact of life. The history we were taught at school didn't equate with the disempowerment I saw around me. In those days there was no Yulara resort and you just camped at the base of the rock. I was fortunate enough to be invited to an 'inma' or corroboree. I sat in the red earth in the fading light. The singers began chanting and the clapsticks rang out across the desert as it descended into darkness. At the moment the dancers appeared in the circle of fires the full moon rose over the silhouetted form of that ancient monolith. It was a transforming experience for me and I entered into an understanding of the deep sacredness and connectedness of Aboriginal people to their homeland. A week later I was back in Alice Springs where the grog and violence and all the other evidence of the destruction that colonisation had caused, were clearly evident. It made me angry. Very angry. And I began the writing of Solid Rock after those two opposing experiences.
Phil - How would you describe your own politics?Much of my value system comes from my childhood world and my parents. We didn't live in poverty, but life was always a struggle financially for Mum and Dad with seven kids. Still, there was honour, dignity, a great sense of justice, of making an honest dollar and that that is more honourable than a quick quid. My Dad is the oldest surviving grandson of one of the Eureka diggers who was arrested at the Stockade. Many of those values have come down the line to me. I think I can draw a line from Eureka to "SOLID ROCK". In my town everything serviced the Nestle factory, where Dad worked. You could measure that some people were a bit better off than you were and some people were a bit worse off. The bosses, however, seemed immodestly well off, while the workers struggled forever. I wrote the song "FACTORY MAN" from those memories. I didn't want to have to jump for a boss.
Phil - We don't hear much from songwriters who defend black Australians or working people. Have you suffered from writing political or protest songs?Yeah, pretty much. Neil Murray says that the dominant culture don't like it when you "turn injun" and bat for the underdog. It was a lonely road for many years. I'm contradicting myself because "Solid Rock" was an overtly political song that also achieved commercial success. I guess it happens from time to time, like Midnight Oil or Yothu Yindi. In 1982 when "Solid Rock" came out an Aboriginal band wouldn't have been able to get away with singing it, and I don't know whether they'd get away with it in 2004. I don't know how a white band even got away with singing what we were singing. It is the exception and not the rule. So generally speaking if you want to talk about Aboriginal issues you've got to pay a price for that. And the price you pay for that is that you won't have mainstream acceptance. But the telling of the story truthfully is more important. Van Gogh never sold a painting in his life.
Phil -Many people don't spend a second thinking about where they came from. Why does it matter to you and does it inspire your writing? I think there is in all of us a great need for a sense of belonging. Most of white Australia doesn't have a very good sense of identity. I know I didn't. At this age - I'm nearly 50 - you enter into the land you create. It's another country. The history of song comes out of a deep well, a deep tradition. And in my own Irish background there is no better tradition of protest song and rebel song. I'm sure that's true of Scotland and lots of places that have been colonised. Look back at No Fixed Address and all those early days of Aboriginal contemporary music; it's all rebel music about dispossession and colonisation. But it's not a popular genre in its time necessarily.
Aboriginal people would say to me, 'where you from?' and I'd say, 'from south west Victoria.' 'But where are your people from?' they'd ask , and I'd say, 'predominantly Ireland.' 'And what's your story, what's your dance, what's your culture?' And you go, 'well I have this sort of thing but I don't know what it really is, I have a bit of an idea.' Aboriginal Australia demanded that I have an awareness of myself as an indigenous person. That came for me when I got back to Ireland and entered into the depths of my own indigenous reality, my own cultural reality, my language that was taken from me, how I was dispossessed.
When you stand in the place where your great-grandmother left as a famine exile you realise that your feet go right down into the earth in that place … there's billions of your ancestors in that place. And then I was fully able to enter into a sense of indignity and a sense of what I'd lost. I understood in a fuller way then what Aboriginal people have lost. Coming back to Australia I felt the need to enter deeper into the landscape and as non-indigenous people to find a way to enter into the story of this land and the landscape. "From holy wells to waterholes," my sister Adele says. In Ireland the earth is Mother, like Australia.
Phil - You'll be performing at the ETU's twilight concert in the park alongside the Eureka Centre on Thursday 2 December. What does the Eureka Rebellion mean to you?I've done a lot of research into the whole Eureka reality and it's full of contradictions. Lalor, once he got into Parliament didn't really support the notion of one man, one vote. He also sent Chinese labourers into Clunes to break a miners strike. That's one of many contradictions. Nevertheless, Eureka to me is the great 'white-fella' dreaming in this country, and one we should be justly proud of. Inevitably it was a blood sacrifice by ordinary men and women for the democratic principles we enjoy today. I disagree with Geoffrey Blainey, who has tried to discredit Eureka as nothing more than a rowdy rabble. The diggers didn't attack the government forces. It was the other way around. The diggers defended themselves against an unjust and corrupt system. It was a great triumph for a multi-cultural society who sought to change the old-world order. The diggers stood for decency and the government and its agents stood for much less.
Phil - What do you think about Peter Garret joining the ALP?I hope Peter can make a difference within that world. The music industry is pretty rough and tough, but the political world is even tougher. It's also too structured for me. There have been a few invites along the way to join political parties but as an artist I can't. I can't even be a member of any party because you've got to constantly reserve the right to cast a critical eye over anything and everything including yourself … self-mockery comes with the territory as well. I subscribe to the Groucho Marx principle, "I wouldn't want to belong to any group that would have me".
Phil - You have a new album out. What's on it?The album's called "ANOTHER COUNTRY". I despise the way that country music has drifted into the shallow realms of Nashville's worst elements. I have great respect for Slim Dusty, who I was privileged to meet on several occasions. Slim didn't change what he was doing to try and capture the American audience. He also spent many lonely years with little money as he and his wife Joy made their way, to many remote locations around Australia. That's why he's loved out there. He also wasn't afraid to tour to Aboriginal communities at a time when that would not have been a popular thing to do. He and Joy were great pioneers.
The other reason I called the album ANOTHER COUNTRY was because I am deeply saddened by where the Howard government have steered this country. The land I grew up in, the land I love, never invaded anyone pre-emptively. But I believed we were always ready to come the aid of those in need, such as East Timor. For many years, through many governments, we failed to help our friends there. The Howard government have also allowed a culture of lying to evolve. From Tampa to the refugees to ATSIC and any number of other issues, they have been underhanded and sly. I believe that this is a government without honour or dignity or credibility and they don't deserve the right to lead the nation. John Howard is a dismal failure as a leader. He has squandered the moral capital of our country. I want to believe in another country, a better Australia, an open, fair and multicultural nation that can hold its head high in the world and honour those great democratic principles that the men and women of the Eureka fought and died for.