The American Way, Part 2: Coincidence – Double Bay, NSW
Goldfinger said, “Mr Bond, they have a saying in Chicago: ‘Once is happenstance, twice is coincidence, the third time it’s enemy action.’”
– Ian Fleming, Goldfinger (1959)
One of Australia’s greatest sins is envy. In the early years our aspirations cast us firmly in the role of Little England, and ever since World War II we’ve aspired to be Little America. Look around: we’re doing a pretty good job.
But for a couple of decades there we achieved what appeared to be a national identity, entirely based on the most valuable export of all – celebrity. Movies, personalities and music we could call our own. Our Kylie. Our Hoges. Our Mark “Jacko” Jackson.
Up until the mid 1960s, it seems as if Australia’s music scene simply seemed to coincide with what was going on overseas. Johnny O’Keefe wasn’t overly concerned with copying his American contemporaries (for creative reasons, anyway); his association with US-born promoter Lee Gordon barely qualified as even a mere facsimile of an Elvis-and-the-Colonel style relationship.
Largely forgotten by the time of his death in 1963 after years of declining fortunes, Gordon’s contributions to Australian pop culture remain relevant. These include opening Sydney’s first striptease club and drive-in restaurant (sadly, two separate establishments), and translating into local parlance the blueprint for rock’n’roll success.
O’Keefe, Australia’s first “homegrown” rock star, may seem tame by today’s standards, but in 1958 he was a revelation. “Wild One”, his signature tune, persists today, best known to stoners and the unemployed as part of the opening of ABC’s Rage music video show.
The Wild One was soon outpaced by others inspired by his lead, and in 1978 finally bowed out of the race. His death (from a heart attack) had come a year after that of his idol, Elvis Presley.
Throughout a life and death which could only be deemed “wild” by the mannered standards of Australian society, Johnny O’Keefe forged a path for others seeking rock’n’roll fame and fortune to follow. That Col Joye is still alive and O’Keefe is not should tell you all you need to know about how to make it.
For better or worse.
But JOK’s failure to crack the American music market haunted the Australian entertainment industry. It was as if his inability was seen as a national slight – if he was our best, our wildest, and HE couldn’t do it…who could?
And so began the tradition that continues to this day. Musical acts form in Australia (or New Zealand), play the pubs, clubs and RSLs, top the charts and try to take their act – and Brand Australia – overseas. Sometimes they make it big in Europe. Sometimes in Japan. But only rarely is someone from the great brown land able to part the Pacific and Atlantic, and access the pleasure dome of riches in between.
While AC/DC was able to cross over (and stay there) by the late 1970s, the list of Australians to make a splash in the USA that decade is as short as it is dire: Helen Reddy, Olivia and the brothers Gibb. Were these really the ambassadors of Aussie music overseas, especially when there was so much good happening here?
In the following years, the dream seemed to die. The Bee Gees shattered records with their contributions to Saturday Night Fever, ONJ scaled Mount Celebrity with Grease; both acts were on the nose by the early 80s. AC/DC frontman Bon Scott, the most charismatic Australia had yet produced, didn’t even make it that far. In 1979, just as the band’s Highway to Hell was finally breaking through, he died alone in his car, in excess.
Bands used these cautionary tales as incentives to work harder and aim higher, but none quite topped the bill. Among those who came close were Dragon, a bunch of Kiwis who had the charisma and the attitude to make it, but none of the self-control. A disastrous 1978 tour of the USA, intended to break them, did just that, but not in the way they were hoping. When you learn what it eventually took to top the US charts, it’s clear how painfully close Dragon came.
That spectacular failure and the rise of a newer, more calculated sound crossed paths in this curio from 1982:
By that time, Dragon were seen as has-beens, having had their chance and blown it. You can see it in that video, in Dragon’s lead singer Marc Hunter. He’s trying the rock star act but without any real conviction. The shades appear to be shielding him (or us) from the regret.
On the other hand, quiet 22-year-old Michael Hutchence seems self-conscious, fidgety, totally unprepared for what the next few years will bring him. Given Hutchence’s babyfaced appearance and insular behaviour, we can file Hunter’s prescient advice to him firmly under coincidence.
1991. The land at 33 Cross Street, Double Bay has been in a state of development for decades. Originally, the property had belonged to a John Gray, who in 1857 constructed his grand manor ‘Heath’ on the site. By 1934, ‘Heath’ had been converted into flats, and a bunch of other unit blocks had popped up on the site. As the 1970s rolled around, the greed that buried Juanita Nielsen came to Double Bay, looking to commercialise New South Head Road and the surrounding streets, and Cross Street was right in the crosshairs.
In 1986, while Hutchence was busy seducing the USA, ‘Heath’ and the surrounding flats were earmarked for demolition by council. Two years later, as Hutchence basked in the success of his biggest album to date, Woollahra Council approved a proposal to build a six-storey hotel complex on the site. ‘Heath’ was immediately demolished.
Being constructed in the early 90s wasn’t a pretty thing for buildings. More often than not you’d end up with spiffy new brickwork that made you look like that kid at school whose uniform hadn’t been worn in yet and looked a bit too dorkily crisp. Pretentious Roman-esque pylons, entirely too much concrete and a feeble attempt at a futuristic aesthetic intended to distance big cities from the all-too-recognisable frontages of the 1970s were common crimes among the new generation.
And so it was for Double Bay’s new Ritz Carlton Hotel, which shortly after opening for business in December, 1991 was hired out in its entirety by then-US President George Bush for his Sydney visit. Read my lips: no vacancies.
Meanwhile, Michael Hutchence and his backing group, INXS, are beginning their descent from the peak of global rock superstardom. Their monster single ‘Need You Tonight’ had topped the US charts in 1987, the first Australian song to do so since Men At Work’s ubiquitous ‘Down Under’ in 1983. There wouldn’t be another until Savage Garden’s ‘Truly Madly Deeply’ in 1998, by which time we’d apparently settled on lame MOR AOR music as our primary export. And Hutchence…
Well, we’re getting ahead of ourselves.
INXS had emerged from the same pub scene that had bred Cold Chisel, Australian Crawl and the Angels, all of whom had tried and failed to make it in America. But where those bands had brandished an idiosyncratic, very Australian sound which made for hard listening overseas, INXS drifted away from their earlier, quirkier hits and rough image towards something a lot more contrived.
Apparently overnight and entirely coincidental to the band’s quest for fame, Hutchence transformed from the shy boy in the above video into a feline rock god who seemed to effortlessly channel Jim Morrison. It was as if he had altered himself entirely on the whim of the band, which then found itself struggling to back him up.
Questionable visual appeal of the other band members notwithstanding, Hutchence’s image and the cool, slick grooves the band laid down provided the perfect package for American audiences who didn’t even know they wanted it. In a time of hair metal and butt rock, Hutchence provided Americans with a throwback to an era where rock and roll legends were born. Whether this was intentional on his part is unclear.
I’m sorry, but when you go back and listen now, INXS’s 80s hits are indeed all style and no substance. They’re like animated gifs in music form: just one groove or riff repeated for an often obnoxious five minutes. Hutchence’s sexually charged delivery and very slick production values go a long way towards elevating them beyond sounding dated. At least, they did for a while; sadly, anything from 1990’s X album onwards sounds painfully of its time.
There’s certainly nothing particularly Australian about INXS either. At a glance, they could be American (or at least Canadian). This factor made them a target in the eyes of the Australian media of the day. Hutcho’s profile increased with each supermodel he dated, each paparazzi he punched out, and the media were there to hound him every step of the way.
In retrospect, it’s hard to imagine why he was such a drawcard for the tabloids. Perhaps his sudden rise and boring fall coincided with a boom in Australian tabloid media, which in the early 90s was caught somewhere between American sleaze journalism and hardcore British pap-rags. Maybe he was just more interesting than John Farnham or Daryl Braithwaite. Hard to believe, I know.
Speaking of celebrities, the Ritz-Carlton was, by coincidence, also proving to be a breadwinner for the Sydney paparazzi. Madonna rented several rooms in 1993 (hope they washed them afterwards), and larrikin former PM Bob Hawke married his scandalous amour/biographer Blanche d’Alpuget in front of 150 guests there in 1995 (REALLY hope they washed those rooms afterwards).
But what the Ritz-Carlton didn’t want you to know, with all their boasting of celebrity clients, was that even early on, financial struggles had accepted a permanent residency. An October 1992 report revealed an average occupancy rate of just 37%. Remember that number.
That was also the year that marked the full tilt slide in popularity for INXS. That year’s album Welcome to Wherever You Are had tanked; the accompanying Sega Mega CD ‘Make My Video’ title was beneath the treads. The band, unable to capture their Kick-era glory, were floundering. Hutchence in particular seemed wounded by the fall, with a strange event in August of that year exacerbating things.
During a night on the town in Denmark with his girlfriend, model Helena Christensen, Hutchence had become involved in an altercation with a taxi driver. Punches were thrown, and Hutchence hit his head on the pavement, fracturing his skull. He lost his sense of taste and smell, and became, in the words of INXS bassist Garry Gary Beers, “a dick”.
While Madonna was justifying her love in the Ritz-Carlton in 1993, the band released yet another “comeback album”, Full Moon, Dirty Hearts, the occupancy rate of which would have made the Ritz-Carlton proud. Production of this album was troubled, with the band finding itself at odds with an increasingly volatile Hutchence, who had become prone to violent mood swings and outbursts.
INXS laid low for several years, perhaps sensing its ever-increasing irrelevancy. But despite the lack of success, Hutchence still found himself a tabloid target. Maybe the back-to-back unsuccessful albums were intentional; a misguided attempt to dissuade the paps. Even if so, he didn’t do himself any favours when he shacked up with UK media identity Paula Yates.
Yates was the wife of Live Aid mastermind/Boomtown Rat Bob Geldof, but in 1995, ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas’ was a decade old. For Paula, it was time to trade up. In 1996, she became pregnant with Hutchence’s child and divorced Geldof, sending tabloid media into a foaming frenzy. I’d just like to ask, even with the benefit of hindsight: who really cared?
Meanwhile, the Ritz-Carlton was in the spotlight again, also thanks to a high-profile British divorce. No less than Princess Di occupied the Presidential suite in 1996 following her divorce from Prince Charles. Can I stop right here and ask why an Australian hotel needed a Presidential suite? Why can’t high rollers choose to stay in the Prime Ministerial suite?
Hotels are dehumanising places. Underneath the colours, they’re fake, temporary shelters; a place where you can be someone else and leave yourself at your real home. A place where people treat you like royalty because of how much you spend rather than who you are. You’re never truly yourself in a hotel, you’re just waiting for your next role.
Princess Di would have known it as she pondered what to do with her life following the most scandalous royal decision since the abdication.
President Bush would have known it, as he assessed his plummeting opinion polls and an all but guaranteed loss to a newcomer Southern Democrat.
Bob and Blanche would have known it as they faced a future viewed not as former PM and author, but as adulterer and home wrecker.
Madonna…no, that’s too easy.
And so too would 37-year-old Michael Hutchence have known that gloomy feeling of dissociation and temporary anonymity as he checked into the Ritz-Carlton in November 1997 under his nom de plume. “Mr. Rivers” headed up to room 524, dumped his stuff, pocketed a few fancy soaps (probably), and headed out to rehearsal with INXS.
That evening, he had dinner with his father at Flavour of India at Edgecliff, where he spoke positively about the future, particularly about the prospect of spending Christmas with Yates, their daughter, and her three other kids.
When Hutchence returned to his room, he found himself despondent. He called some friends up to chat and get high, but they didn’t stay the night. Left to his own devices, his personal life imploded, and the tide went out for Mr. Rivers.
Is it coincidence that Hutchence’s final cry for help should place him in the pantheon of tragic rock star deaths, despite his intentions?
Is it coincidence that on the site of a manor named ‘Heath’, a drug-addled, troubled Australian should die alone in his room while riding a wave of international success?
Is it coincidence that in the years after the fates of Hutchence and the Ritz-Carlton became intertwined, both the hotel and Hutchence’s band changed frontmen several times in vain attempts to recapture their former glory?
Where American hotels that play host to scandalous deaths, like the Chateau Marmot, revel in the sordid fame for years to come, the Ritz-Carlton took the very Australian route of distancing itself from the tragedy. For the next three years, there was no tribute, no signifier of what had occurred there. By refusing to capitalise on the by-association fame Hutchence had bequeathed it, the Ritz-Carlton had relegated his rock-star death to the realm of coincidence. ‘He would have died anyway, it just happened to be at a hotel,’ it seemed to say.
In 2000, the hotel itself experienced that feeling of dissociation when it changed hands and was renamed the Sir Stamford Hotel Double Bay. The Stamford Hotels and Resorts group was formed in Singapore in 1995, and named after the city’s founder Sir Stamford Raffles. I get what they were going for, but which fun-hating devils among us wouldn’t want to stay at the Raffles Hotel?
Here’s where things get a little…strange.
The Sir Stamford closed in 2009, with plans in place to demolish the hotel and replace it with 14-storey twin-tower apartments, presumably to keep Double Bay looking like the rest of Sydney. But Woollahra Council, bless ‘em, dared to be different and refused to listen like thieves, canning the proposal and leaving the Ritz-Stamford – and the once-prestigious Double Bay – to sink into destitution.
Illegal parties, prostitution rackets and Russian cabaret dinners all allegedly took place in the husk of the hotel for four long years, dragging down the reputation of the area just as Bondi Westfield dragged out all its money. For the blue bloods who believed Double Bay was still the beacon of avarice it had been in years past (as if that was something to be proud of), this came as a shock.
Now, when I was a kid, Double Bay had the dubious honour of being known simultaneously as “a really rich area” and “a place where smackheads steal VCRs”. Even with my mind conjuring up visions of the Foot Clan emptying delivery vans along New South Head Road, it was cemented for me as a place not to go. Rich people were trouble, “smackheads” sounded like trouble (no kid likes getting a smack, and especially not in the head), and the shops were all boring.
It’s amazing to me that in just 12 short years, Double Bay had gone from being a slam-dunk venue for a world-class luxury hotel to an absolute bomb site. Coincidence, then, that Michael Hutchence’s death had been the match that started the fire? Or maybe it had been destined to fall this far all along. Elegantly wasted, indeed.
In 2013, some extremely optimistic investors saved 33 Cross from the swing of the wrecking ball, and today, it operates as the InterContinental Double Bay, in the same building that played host to presidents, rock stars, Russian hooker parties, and all that other shabooh shoobah.
It wasn’t enough for me just to take some dodgy photos of the extremely difficult-to-shoot frontage; I had to get inside, and short of specifically asking for room 524 (let’s leave that kind of thing to the experts), I explored.
The chap at the front desk instantly denied any knowledge of anything that had remotely occurred on the premises prior to the moment I’d addressed him. In fact, he seemed almost terrified that one of the great unwashed had found their way in. Poor guy. They must have had a lot of stickybeaks coming in to see where it happened, so it must be in their training to deny everything.
Inside, the hotel looks quite vintage, so when I informed him that I was a guest, that I’d stayed there as a kid and wanted to know more about what the hotel was like then, he was much more forthcoming. He seemed quite proud of the place, despite only being the front desk guy – the finest loyalty money can buy. When he finished his spiel I turned to leave, anxious to go and take pics while I had this guy’s tacit approval. He called out after me, “Hey, what was your name, sir?”
The renovation work at the Intercontinental was pretty shoddy: most of the place was plastered up and looked quite tacky. I was convinced there had to be some evidence of the past here somewhere. You couldn’t go this long stagnating under the guise of “closed for renovations” and cover everything up. I was sure they would have changed the room numbers to confuse would-be trophy hunters, but there had to be something.
I found it in the retail warrens that criss-cross beneath the hotel proper. It’s not much, but it’s all you’re getting.
A country with a bad case of identity crisis, Australia backed its boy when he was on top of the American world, stuck the knife in when he wasn’t, and all but forgot about him once he fell on it. By Michael Hutchence, the coincidental rock star, the promise of Johnny O’Keefe was fulfilled. Ever since his death, once an Australian hits the top, they know where they’ll end up: falling down the mountain, end up kissing dirt.
Lifeline 24 hour crisis support number – 13 11 14
Devonshire Street Cemetery/Central Station – Sydney, NSW
“I once walked through the burial grounds on the Surry Hills, in the commencement of Spring, just as the flowers were beginning to bloom forth in all their beauty…”
Bridget Flood was in the same situation too many of us have found ourselves in all too often: stranded at Sydney’s Central train station, hopelessly late. The big difference is that she was waiting there for over 60 years.
As we’ve previously learned, 1820 was a good year to die in Sydney. Rather than ending up beneath the public piss-pot that was once the colony’s first burial ground, you could find yourself in a brand new plot freshly dug at the just-consecrated Devonshire Street Cemetery.
Chosen for its abundance of space and central (heh) location, the area bordered by Elizabeth and Devonshire streets was chosen to replace the Old Burial Ground as Sydney’s premier final resting place. Quartermaster Hugh McDonald, 40, was the first lucky stiff to be buried there following his death in 1819. Long waiting lists…so Sydney so chic.
“It was early in the morning when I commenced rambling amongst the tombs, the dew had not yet been dissipated by the genial rays of the invigorating luminary, and the cool fragrance of the atmosphere had not yet given way to the noon-day heat…”
Bridget Flood died in October 1836 at the age of 49 and, like virtually all deaths in Sydney at the time, was interred at the Devonshire Street site. Quoth her headstone:
“Pain was my potion
Physic was my food
Groans were my devotion
Drugs did me no good
Christ was my physician
Knew what way was best
To ease me of my pain
He took my soul to rest.”
They don’t write ’em like that anymore. And rest she did, as did all those buried at Devonshire Street Cemetery well past its 1867 closure.
Although steadily employed by the city’s dead between 1820 and 1866, the nail in the coffin (heh heh) for the cemetery was the latter year’s introduction of the Sydney Burial Grounds Act (NSW), which prohibited burials “within the city of Sydney from 1 January 1867, with the exception that persons with exclusive rights of burial at that date could still be buried on application to the Colonial Secretary who needed to be satisfied that ‘the exercise of such right will not be injurious to health’“. Phew. Just tie some rocks to me and throw me in the harbour!
You’d think this act would be in anticipation of some kind of grand plan for the burial ground, but no. With the exception of infrequent additions to family plots as outlined by the overly wordy act (and even these ceased in 1888), Devonshire Street was largely ignored by the growing city while new sites like Waverley Cemetery and the Rookwood Necropolis served the public’s burial needs.
By 1900, its advanced state of neglect and decay reflected its residents and disturbed the public:
…although it wasn’t all bad:
“In short, it was exactly such an hour as an imaginative or sensitive being would delight to rove about, and lose himself in the regions of fancy…”
It wasn’t long before some of the more opportunistic voices began to speak out about the the site’s real estate value:
And as early as 1888 there were rumblings about how best to use the land:
It made sense, given that Central Station’s predecessor, ‘Sydney Station’, lay opposite the cemetery along Devonshire Street.
Since 1884, Sydney’s existing rail network had been under the stress of increasing traffic and a limited reach (sounds familiar, doesn’t it?). Sydney Station was constantly receiving upgrades and additional platforms, culminating in a messy setup of 13 train platforms and numerous tram sheds (sounds familiar, doesn’t it?). The city’s railway commissioners initially struggled to decide upon a plan for the future which would provide Sydney with a central hub expansive enough to extend the rail network to the suburbs (sounds- never mind).
An 1897 royal commission proposed the resumption of Hyde Park for use as the central terminal and, to counter the public outrage over the loss of parkland, the Devonshire Street Cemetery would be converted into a park. For a time this plan seemed to be a go until the unexpected death of Railway Commissioner E M G Eddy (of Eddy Avenue fame) that same year. This forced a literal return to the drawing board, where it was decided that it was probably easier to resume just one giant park instead of two. Nice thinking, guys.
In January 1901, the Department of Public Works served notice that anyone with relatives buried at Devonshire Street were to front up and make known their desire to have the remains reinterred at other cemeteries by train, with the cost to be borne by the NSW Government. These days, they’d just tell you to bring a shovel.
Unfortunately, these relatives were given a strict time limit of two months to act, and by the end of that time, only 8,460 bodies had been claimed (not among these was Eddy, who had been buried at Waverley following his death). This left 30,000 remains unclaimed, most of which were transferred to other cemeteries anyway, but due to the rushed nature of construction and given they did such a bang-up job the last time, it’s safe to say there are more than a few commuters at Central waiting for a train that will never come.
With that many bodies to exhume, you can imagine just how many creepy stories must have come out of the venture. Here’s just one:
The reason for the rush was that Melbourne had started work on their Central equivalent, Flinders Street Station, that same year. Sydney was determined to get the drop on Melbourne this time, as Flinders predecessor ‘Melbourne Terminus’ had been Australia’s first city railway station back in 1854, pipping Sydney by a year. The Devonshire Cemetery site had been completely cleared by 1902, and stage one of Central’s construction, which aimed to have the station operational, was completed in 1906. On opening day, the new station featured…13 platforms. Despite being twice the size of its predecessor, this was no improvement, and did nothing to alleviate Sydney’s transport woes (but then again, what ever does?).
“I directed my footsteps to a cluster of tombs on an eminence, which was thickly covered with green and blooming geraniums…”
But the unexpected fruit of the Department of Public Works’ labour was the emergence of commercial activity in the areas surrounding the new station. Its proximity to the city made department store shopping for those out in the sticks a treat, with Grace Bros., Marcus Clark, Anthony Hordern, Bon Marche and Mark Foy all within walking distance of Central by 1908. The Tivoli and Capitol theatres became entertainment meccas for those starved of entertainment in the ‘burbs.
The station itself was hardly the thing of beauty its early designs had suggested, with the rushed development cycle omitting many intended features – least of all Central’s iconic clock tower, which wasn’t completed until 1924.
The construction wasn’t just focused on making sure the station would be operational before Flinders Street, though; there was particular care taken to ensure no trace of the Devonshire Street Cemetery remained, going so far as to completely eradicate Devonshire Street west of its intersection with Elizabeth. Other structures that once stood on the land now occupied by Central and its surrounds – the Belmore Police Barracks, the Benevolent Asylum, the womens refuge – have similarly been lost to time.
“I at first almost forgot the ravages of the grave in contemplating the enchanting appearance of the place.” – James Martin, 1838.
Today, nothing remains to remind commuters of the morbid nature of Central’s past. The cemetery itself was largely situated underneath today’s platforms:
Devonshire Street Tunnel, once Devonshire Street, runs directly underneath the path once carved between the cemetery and Sydney Station, depositing Surry Hills pedestrians into Railway Square amid el-cheapo bargain shops, youth hostels and fast food joints.
Also in Railway Square is a series of plaques designed to inform passers-by on the history of Central Station and railway in NSW. The cemetery is mentioned in passing (heh).
The uneven terrain of Belmore Park perhaps provides us with the nearest idea of what the Devonshire Street Cemetery was like in its natural state as is possible today, although even it has a sordid and ugly past as an open gutter for the refuse of the nearby Belmore Produce Markets and Paddys Markets.
Rookwood Necropolis, Eastern Suburbs Memorial Park, Woronora Cemetery and many others were the recipients of many of the (not so) permanent residents of Devonshire Street, but none feature as striking and immediate a memorial as the tiny, eerie Camperdown Memorial Rest Park. Here, amongst the sombre atmosphere of tombstones and gloomy, gnarled trees lie what were once the gate posts met by visitors to Devonshire Street. These were removed along with everything else in 1901, and mysteriously disappeared from existence until 1946, when…
It seems almost sacrilegious that thousands of commuters tread all over this once-consecrated ground every day without any kind of marker to signify what was and who mattered, even if it was nearly 200 years ago. C’mon, NSW Government! They’re even in the right electorate! Meanwhile, to the 30,000 Sydneysiders scattered to the four corners by the winds of progress, the term ‘final resting place’ has little meaning.
Finally, here’s a fascinating account of a visit to Devonshire Street Cemetery just as its demolition was beginning. It originally appeared in the Clarence and Richmond Examiner, October 1 1901.