Entertainment Music The day Australia spurned the great Joe Cocker
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The day Australia spurned the great Joe Cocker

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The old Travelodge Hotel on the edge of Adelaide’s pleasant parklands hardly seemed a location for rock ‘n’ roll mayhem.

But back in the day – the day being the 1970s into the ’80s – it saw its share of the good, bad and sometimes downright unbelievable.

It was the place where the now deceased tabloid terror, the Sydney Daily Mirror, claimed that an overly devoted fan climbed six storeys up the outside of the building to reach the rooms of the quintessential boy band the Bay City Rollers. Remember them?

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The author of that literally tall tale, the late Jim Oram, the Mirror’s legendary colour writer, went to his grave swearing the story was true, although the intrepid wall-climber was never identified or photographed while Adelaide police were left bemused by the whole business.

But the Travelodge’s moment of real notoriety had come a couple of years before in the early hours of Saturday, October 14 1972, when Joe Cocker, the Sheffield gas fitter turned gravel-throated rocker who passed away this week, aged 70, was busted for marijuana.

AAP
Joe Cocker performs at Woodstock in the summer of 1969. Photo: AAP

The South Australian drug squad raided the hotel and local legend has it that on being asked where he had stashed the dope, a somewhat naive Cocker replied: “There’s some around here somewhere.”

After being charged and held for a couple of hours in the cells at the nearby police headquarters, Cocker and friends were bailed by the tour’s beleaguered promoter Harry M Miller. As dawn broke over sleepy Adelaide so did the story and it was soon international news.

Back then, I was an early shift reporter for the Saturday edition of the Adelaide News and its fellow paper, the Sunday Mail. Soon calls were arriving from media around the world, particularly the British tabloids who knew a screaming front page when they saw it.

The Saturday morning Magistrates Court in Adelaide was usually a pretty low-rent affair – drunk drivers, minor drug desperadoes and pub brawlers and us newspaper guys typically had them on our own.

Not this time, however. It was a packed house – but Cocker and his fellow miscreants were already in lockdown back at the Travelodge.

The media was not happy. Much of the day was spent camped out at the hotel photographing and ambushing anyone who looked like a hairy hippie rock star. But it was a waste of time.

By then, there was growing speculation about Cocker even fronting for his concert that night. It was to be held at the Apollo Stadium, a basketball court and makeshift concert venue that had the acoustics of a toilet bowl.

The place was packed and there was palpable tension in the air. Would Joe fall down drunk or drugged? Would he be booed off stage? Indeed, would he even front? Yes, he did – half an hour late.

And he turned in a classic performance. He was aided by his stellar band, driven by his long-time keyboard player Chris Stainton and guitarist Neil Hubbard and the all-powerful brass duo Bobby Keys, also recently deceased, and Jim Horn.

Cocker lurched about like an unhinged marionette, at one stage swigging from a bottle of something or other, but he never missed a cue. At the last second he would almost throw himself back to the microphone and hit the note hard and true.

AAP
The gravelly-voiced rocker died this week, aged 70. Photo: AAP

Back then, I saw virtually every big name who came to Australia – from Black Sabbath to Chicago, from Creedence Clearwater Revival to the Rolling Stones – but there was never anything quite like this.

A high-wire lunatic without a net, but somehow he survived – and received a thundering standing ovation.

But by Sunday the story had taken a darker turn and there were growing calls from politicians and conservative groups for Cocker and his entourage to be kicked out of the country. Meanwhile, he remained holed up back at the Travelodge and saying nothing.

On Monday, he was due to fly to Melbourne for three concerts and, along with a photographer, I was sent to stake out the lobby of the hotel for when he made a break for the airport. The editor demanded a picture and words – any picture, any words.

We waited through the morning and into the afternoon – nothing. Then, as our final deadline neared, there was a rush through the lobby.

There came a bewildered and dishevelled Cocker with some sort of minder dragging him along as a car pulled up outside. The photographer – I can’t remember his name but those old-school newspaper snappers were pros who backed themselves to take any pic, any time, anywhere – got his shot while I got a “get out of the way!” from the minder, plus a couple of incoherent guttural utterances from Cocker.

And then they were in the car and gone. Still, a pic and 10 quick paragraphs of colour. Jim Oram would have been proud.

In Melbourne, Cocker had a further run-in with the press and there were wild scenes at his hotel. After the three concerts there, and a drunken brawl with police, he and his party were ordered out of the country by the Immigration Minister Jim Forbes, a Liberal Party arch conservative from the Menzies days.

In his 1983 memoir My Story, promoter Harry M Miller wrote of the shambolic experience.

“His (Cocker’s) transgressions could not be excused, but he had the misfortune to be in Australia when the conservative knee jerk was lethal and the Federal Government of the time (the McMahon ministry) was reacting to an electorate disillusioned with its political performance.”

Mike Safe was a staff writer on the Weekend Australian Magazine for 20 years and spent his formative journalistic years at the now defunct Adelaide News.

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