The Mighty Eej peers out from behind a lank curtain of hair, loose-limbed, scrawny yet muscular, like a thirteen-year-old boy. Possessed of the most remarkable pair of eyes you'll ever see, women drift into him like ants to honey, and he frequently gets pawed (if not mauled) onstage.
By ROBERT BROKENMOUTH
Google-ing "Renestair EJ" gets a couple hundred hits. 'Bloodloss' plus 'music' gets you 22,000, mostly from overseas. Bloodloss toured extensively and actually made real money. There's an unreleased album needing a little attention. It's years old, but sounds fresh and new as a daisy. Nova would play it; so would Bob Francis.
In the USA, former Adelaidean and bandmate Martin Bland now has his own home, a partner and a child. In Adelaide, Ren does not.
A local band wanted him to play on their album. On the day, a phone call; "Hey, man, I crashed here [ie, miles away] last night and I left my sax at home [ie, more miles away]."
A few purple-faced expletives later, they rescue a hung-over Ren, rush him to get his sax, and hurry back to the studio (instead of beating him to death).
Ren's music is waywardly brilliant. He might produce dire, glassy-eyed, uninspirational muck, or squeeze out sparks and set your head alight.
In the '70's, Adelaide's first feedback band, Head On, Ren played a unique brand of guitar - a strange feedbacky wah noise. Head On lead to The Primevils, The Lizard Train and (via Zulu Rattle), Bloodloss. From about 1985 to 1989, they released three albums.
Bloodloss's gigs were remarkable. Ren would wander onstage, plug his battered guitar (the neck repaired with gaffa tape) straight into his wah-wah, and the wah-wah into the amp. Then he'd tune up. Squeal, wail; wail, squeal, squeal...squee wah whee phee. He'd look up hopefully, or sheepishly: ready to go!
Apart from the usual four men and a dog called Herbert, other guitarists would pay just to watch Ren tune up. Grown men muttered, awe-struck, into their beers or cackled drily.
One night Stu Spasm (a stage name) plucked former Bloodloss and Head On band-mates Martin and Ren (now playing sax) off on a world tour with Lubricated Goat (honestly), leading to brawls, drunkenness, heavy drug abuse and at least one throat-cutting. During one tour, young 'un Mark Arm (er, of Mudhoney) expressed a wish to play with Martin and Ren. Bloodloss now took a very different form.
"If you want to make a career of music you need to be a bit closer to the starting gate. Having said that, there are good musicians in Adelaide, but not many make it out because of the blanket of depression that keeps everyone down."
"Prevents us from feeling like we can do something, you're so far out of the game you're not even participating in it. Hence the weird little enclaves which get together just to be able to play. People will play a dive a thousand times rather than all the other places, than go on tour and conquer the world. Adelaide has a horrible magnetism to it which certainly doesn't agree with me."
So why are you plastered all over the internet? "That is a mystery to me. I have no skills of self-promotion, I don't know how it got there, who put it there. I find self-promotion icky. Big-headed. I know it's necessary, but it makes me feel disgusting. Some people can do it, some can't."
Wouldn't have anything to do with your association with Mark Arm?
"No. I'm a dinosaur. There used to be a time when you'd go out and play and maybe you'd end up in a magazine. Now you can be a skinny gay guy looking for sex and you're famous for that; I don't want virtual fame. If I wanted to be famous, I'd want it for standing up there and actually playing, touring, all of it, doing the work instead of typing it in. Computers have taken away the mystery, the game out of the game.
I was 12 years in the USA, playing music and doing every stupid job you can imagine [including, improbably, bouncer]. I fell in love with the place and the people. Americans, they take more risks because there's no safety net. Here you can fall out of the womb and onto the dole. It gives Americans a certain positive desperation, a desire to achieve.
The most poignant work I've ever done, with Michael Tohl as the Gentlemen of Leisure, looks like it'll never be released, much less performed live. The rest is just keeping my hand in."
Well, that explains a lot. I wonder if the other bands he plays in know this; for example, Peterhead, Lovebird Society, Leather Messiah. On the other hand, the last time Ren played with the Messiah, he was brilliant, on top of the world.
The band Ren formed shortly after arriving back here, The Billion Dollar Bums (a forceful Alice Cooper cover band, with two originals, Mysla's Plan and Tricia's Ruler - don't ask) are a remarkable force of nature. Apart from anything else, Ren may as well be on a huge stage as the Exeter Hotel's dirty floorboards.
Their first gig was slapstick. Swinging his mike stand, Ren biffed Sean. Justly annoyed, Sean felled Ren with ridiculous ease. Eventually, Ren staggered up and, to show no hard feelings, hugged his attacker. Who promptly walloped Ren, sending him sprawling over the monitors. The last show I saw, they got banned (again) after Ren's trousers were hauled down with some delight: no underwear. You could say that the Bums have had their ... ups and downs...
Despite being close to a broken man when he arrived back, Ren is in the slow and painful process of turning himself around. Bourbon for breakfast is no longer on the menu.
"I'm drinking a lot less. I went to my doctor today and he had a look at the blood test result and said, "I think you saved your life by coming to see me.' If he knew how many doctors had said that to me..."
On the other hand, Ren can't complain. Hell, he won't be here in Adelaide that long. He's saving for a plane ticket back to the USA. While he's here, you should ask him to spill you a few of his huge collection of stories. For example, Ren is the only person I know who was in New York on 9/11... and he slept through it.
Improbably, he chuckles. "I can't remember what we were doing the night before, but we crawled home to Avenue D at about 5am. The girl I was going out with did interpretive dancing; she'd try out new moves on a borrowed camera, we'd watch it and she'd figure out what she wanted to keep. So we tried to borrow a video camera - we called everyone, and everyone was saying, 'No, not today', but without explaining why. So we were thinking we had fallen out of favour with everyone in New York. So, by 5pm, still in the apartment, a friend of ours came in, crying and upset. We were amazed. She said, 'turn the TV on!'...we watched the smoke over the river for a while, then made some food for the rescuers...it was pissing rain by then, about midnight.
Last year he read at Friendly Street under his original name (nope, not telling), sometimes from what he describes as 'The Books of Idiocy', usually a notebook which looks like it's been salvaged from beneath a skip, and twice from the work of the late Polly Dale.
He's recording a bunch of songs with a variety of characters so that when he returns to the USA, he'll have a calling card, of sorts. [Viva Vas Deferens - there's two lps out - contact Anton Becker]
Renestair EJ is the real thing, humanity trying to make something of itself, mankind attempting to rise above an ordinary, cold, grey plateau. For all his faults, Ren's charismatic wayward genius takes him to places where he lands in the gaps, between theatre and reality, stardom and failure, self-parody and stature. Adelaide is his pit-stop before going out to conquer the world (again)...
By their actions shall ye know them.
A Couple Weeks Shy
I looked around at us, gathered in the hiccuping rain, age and gravity doing its best to run us down, and all I can think of is ...
Such a small, loaded-gun of a word. And not what you want to hear at a funeral, which is why the puzzled looks out-numbered the black ones. Serve me right for saying it. I really am an insensitive oaf, an arsehole.
Yet what could have been done to prevent this? Would it have been prevented if... Should we have...?
Woulda, coulda, shoulda.
We've all buried friends I suppose, who shouldn't have died, couldn't have died, wouldn't have died yet if...
Ren, as he preferred to be called, woulda told me to 'shut up, man' at this point, and, if he coulda come back to console us, woulda said the same thing. 'Shit happens'.
But damn. A couple of weeks before his 50th. It's like some magic figure. Do not pass go.
We're lucky with Ren, all us lot. We all know people who, once they're gone, there's precious little to remember them by. My Dad put up walls, laid concrete, built houses: most of all this, I have no idea where. But Ren, he made music. People filmed him, recorded him, went from one side of the city to another to drag him back, rescuing his sax along the way, just for a few magic seconds. People gave him stuff, money to get back to Adelaide so he could recover, people gave him drugs, opportunities and love.
Inevitable. Tragic? Our loss is, certainly. That Ren never realised his dream and obvious talent of being a star, was... his tragedy, his inevitable tragedy.
"I'm 18, and I don't know what I want ..."
Every young man who hears this can instantly relate to it. The essence of Alice Cooper's classic songs is, like the Stooges', their utter simplicity.
If you don't get it? You shrug and walk away. Like dismissing an awkward or ugly truth. Woulda, coulda, shoulda, you know? There's always people who come to music late and can sorta relate to it now they've got a few years under their belt, but who never got it then, and really, will never get it now.
But if you do get it, it's like hearing a voice from inside yourself, saying exactly what you feel. There's a stupendous, joyous recognition. Alice's voice is your voice.
It was after seeing the real Alice Cooper a few years ago put on a stunning performance that I realised an awkward truth: sometimes at the front of my mind, sometimes at the back, always Alice is indivisible from the performances of Renestair EJ, with the fabulously trashy Billion Dollar Bums.
Every lunkhead asks the musician their early influences. Ren? He told me he got into the Stooges via Metallic KO. Thought it was brilliant.
I mean, can you fuckin imagine discovering Metallic KO and then wanting to be in a band?
Suicide's first lp, and Armand Schaubroeck Steals' mythic lp Ratfucker (never heard of it? try here) - the latter of which he bought at short-lived Adelaide record shop Modern Love Songs in Twin Street in ... I think ... 1979. And the Stooges' Funhouse.
Influences? He'd get home, slap 'em on the turntable, and off they'd go, a bizarre time-warp to some, a world beyond the drabness of Adelaide and its godawful Southern Suburbs. Think about it - those records are the real modern jazz. Folk music for people who want to get the fuck away from here.
On the 18th of August 2012 many of us visited Ren for the last time. So much I could've said to him. So much I probably should've. So much we all should've, if it came to that.
Ren lay in his casket, immobile, utterly unlike the animated, vibrant and slightly cartoonish star that he was.
Cartoonish? Sure. Not in a nasty way. But yeah, cartoonish. Ren's life contained adversities, absurdities, wealth and poverty, loves and betrayals, drugs and booze and, lest we forget, an extraordinary and unique creative gift.
As a photographer, Ren's take was to slightly distort the image to display a different, more powerful reality. It didn't always work, but when it did the result was striking. In his mind's eye, the photographed reality itself wasn't enough, it required input.
As a guitarist, he seemed to be the only man able to create what he created, the only one with his own stamp; any of the bands he played guitar with simply would've sounded unbalanced and unfinished without him. At the very least, they would've been profoundly different; dare I say it, a lot more ordinary.
I'm going to get beaten up for that last remark, but it's true. Woulda-coulda-shoulda.
As a saxophonist, well, kinda ditto; Ren's idiosyncratic method of playing didn't rely on practice but inspiration - one girlfriend once asked him when he practiced; he responded 'I don't, man, I know how to play'. He was at his best and worst, musically, when he was up against it, forced by circumstance to pull the rabbit out of the hat. And he did, over and over. No-one could play like Ren. Which was wonderful.
As a writer, he required only practice. I was delighted to hear him talk about a story idea he had, and then to read what he'd put down. We talked about it (it involved a Nazi concentration camp guard) and I hoped he'd continue with it. I was not his friend, just a mate, I suppose. Woulda-coulda-shoulda. A friend is someone much, much closer. I'm privileged to know a few of them.
When a chum was in jail for being a total dickhead, I asked Ren if he'd like to go visit with us that weekend (it required an hour's drive each way: on a Sunday morning, Adelaide doesn't have traffic, btw) and we went to see him. What a startling day. Bourbon and ginger ale for breakfast. Ren, not me.
Our chum was - and, I think, still is - in denial. Love him to bits, but ... what a fucking waste. Ren was frustrated with our chum, not disturbed (he'd been in jail in the US, for about a day) but tried very hard to talk our chum into recognition. I loved Ren for that. And then, at the end, Ren was trying to get the guards to give our chum twenty bucks - 'It's really hard in there, man' - generosity which was unsurprisingly refused. On the trip home Ren and I scoffed the remaining booze and he invented The Sorry Chair, an excellent idea for a TV show.
Hell, even visiting him at home, his father's place, was a minor adventure.
The most careless-looking house in the street, it was also the first at a time when the fields drew a boy like mice to a barn. His dad was a creative type, more mechanical. So you'd open the far-too-wide heavy metal gate, which promptly tore itself out of your hands as the gradient is quite steep. Running down after it, you rescue and secure it. You'd head down the driveway past the house, almost trotting the gradient is so damn steep, past the huge home-made swimming pool with the gigantic crack in the bottom and no water, past the old wardrobe filled with a huge swarm of bees and the old car which has sat there while Ren was in America, turn right and along a metal shed to the far front door of a converted metal shed.
You bang on the door. Silence.
You bang again. More silence, so you sit down on the step. It's three in the afternoon.
The door leaps open and Ren, wearing only those astounding longjohns and nowt else, glares at me with disgust. 'I couldn't have been more asleep!', he declares.
You follow him in and he roams the clutter looking for clothes in places no-one else would put clothes but him.
It's always the personality, never the instrument. You know the origin of the term 'beat', don't you? As in 'beatnik' ('beat' came first, btw)? Wikipedia, that (coughs) paragon of accuracy, has 'Kerouac introduced the phrase "Beat Generation" in 1948, generalizing from his social circle to characterize the underground, anti-conformist youth gathering in New York at that time ...' and '... The adjective "beat" was introduced to the group by Herbert Huncke, though Kerouac expanded the meaning of the term. "Beat" came from underworld slang—the world of hustlers, drug addicts and petty thieves, where Ginsberg and Kerouac sought inspiration. "Beat" was slang for "beaten down" or down-trodden, but to Kerouac and Ginsberg, it also had a spiritual connotation as in "beatitude". Other adjectives discussed by Holmes and Kerouac were "found" and "furtive." Kerouac felt he had identified (and was the embodiment of) a new trend analogous to the influential Lost Generation', which is not entirely correct, or balanced. Kerouac and bloody Ginsberg are too often regarded as the chroniclers of the Beat gen, which in itself is as much a newspaper invention as punk was and is.
The Beats were beats because they felt beat (as in 'tired') as well as 'beaten' and 'beaten down' by society and circumstance, and a scathing, crystalline literature and art scene developed. Similar in some ways to US punk's origin in the early 7ts (but not the 'new wave'). Ren was very much in that genre, a true beat musician, a true beat poet, someone who didn't rail against boundaries (because he just didn't see them in the same way) but created a new and unique way of expressing himself. Hell, anyone who can develop themselves from Albert Ayler...I mean, Ayler was found dead in a river for fuck's sake. To slightly misquote Akif Pirincci, 'He should have had a better death. Probably a better life, too. But [isn't] that true of all of us?'.
Counting the bands Ren was in and played in would take a while, and ultimately be to no purpose. Ren lifted a band because, despite the occasionally erratic nature of his performance, he was always indisputably THERE. And you couldn't really ignore him. One bandmate - who was with him at the beginning and the end - once remarked that Ren was, simply, a star; he had that appeal and that ability to communicate; at first we were astonished, derisive. Yet it was obvious. I realised that at the next Bums show. I should've told Ren myself. Maybe I did, I don't remember. Would it have made any difference? Would he have remembered?
So there we were, on Sturt Road, named for a twat of an explorer who damn near starved his expedition while they trekked near a river teeming with fish, there we were older and more haggard, in the light of day instead of in a dirty pub with the ugly lights off, and Ren in his casket looking not a day over 24.
(Yeah, I did remark that we all looked dreadful, ugly. 'You speak for yourself', I was told by one chap, clearly and rightly offended. Okay, I'm an ugly old man. And I must be the only fucking ugly old man.)
No, that wasn't the magic of the undertaker; Ren always looked incredibly, deceptively youthful. A few years ago, at the third Bums gig, there he was, topless (imagine any normal man in their mid-40s looking like he's in his 20s), with a handgun drawn on his chest in magic marker (the barrel a squirting penis), cavorting brilliantly while a crowd of young women (celebrating a 21st) squealed around him. Women found him irresistible, frequently offering him gifts and ... I suspect he found it difficult to refuse. Ren was no predatory lothario, nor a callous man; quite the reverse in fact, he was a quiet and generally easy-going type. But what was offered freely, he often took. Like most of us.
But what went on inside him I shall never know. As I say, I wasn't his friend.
A few years later, at another Bums gig at a place I shall not name, when Ren was singing and rubbing his hand up and down his crotch, I and several pints decided it would be a capital notion to go up to Ren (the stage is about a foot high) and unzip him (I was inspired by Kym Tonks' (RIP, that magic number again) story of unzipping Iggy in NYC). Most amusing. Also, I knew that Ren favoured white (well, kinda whitish) long johns beneath his trousers so nothing too dreadful would occur.
So I and several pints did so; I undid the top button while Ren was singing, unzipped him and, as I wobbled back toward my corner a gentleman (who I shall call Bob) dashed forward emitting a distinctly wicked cackle and, in mid-lyric, hauled down Ren's trousers.
There was an audible gasp from those in front of me: everyone's eyes went from blurry squints to bulging saucers in a split second. This was followed by disbelieving and very delighted laughter. Carefully, so as not to topple over, I turned around.
Ren had not put on his long-johns.
Perhaps they were in the wash.
But, lo, Ren was not wearing undergarments of any description.
Still singing ... he continued manfully on, finally turning and bending over to reveal a nightmarish sight (which I am convinced all who beheld it will see again before us as we die) and slowly, with the dignity of a drunken colonel, hauling up his strides.
And the band played on. Oh, dear.
I apologised afterwards. He told me it was okay, and hoped the ladies got a good look at his cock.
"I'm 18, don't know if I'm a man or a boy..."
Ren started in bands in the late 1970s with Head On, Adelaide's first real feedback-based band. They were more influential than they'll ever know: Harry Butler has described his first encounter on the RIP Eric Reynolds facebook page; a friend of mine who was also there pointed out two things: one, that the other band that night had attacted a huge crowd of violent and hostile skinheads (forcing all the longhairs to cluster together), and two, that Head On's sound turned the hall into an enormous washing-machine, with Ren apparently the axis around which everything else rotated.
Endlessly creative man. His 'Books of Idiocy' were legend. When Polly Dale died, he and I pulled out some of her publicly available poetry and read it - twice, each with different material - at Friendly Street, a place who knew nothing of Ren or Polly. I'd written something as well, so had Ren. We practiced, got the horn in. The first time was gratifying, people were crying. But the last time ... was amazing. Ren got away with breaking Friendly Street's three-minute rule (there's a lot of poets itching to blurt in public). At about the three-minute mark, he spectacularly pulled out a battered penguin A Tale of Two Cities and started to read - we were hypnotised by his power and conviction. He'd never read Dickens before, it was a revelation to him. He finished - some ten minutes later - waved the book in the air, banged it against his open palm and declared, 'Dickens, maaan!'
Everyone else that night was irrelevant. Magic.
I've forgotten the number of bands which Ren guested in; I doubt we'll ever know the number of bands who formed or altered as a direct result of seeing him in Zulu Rattle, Bloodloss, the Primevils, Lubricated Goat ... hell, the list of Australian bands is long enough.
Yeah, enough. It wouldn't have made any significant difference to Ren's trajectory if any of us had told him what we always shoulda told him, that we coulda told him, what we woulda told him if only ... and that's the truth. Inevitable.
I mean it woulda been nice for us and him to have told him. But nothing woulda changed.
Our tragedy is that now we have to live in a world without Ren.
Tragic, magic, Woulda, coulda, shoulda.
Fuck off, then.
Animated gif courtesy of Thank Your Mother For The Rabbits blog
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