News National Cancer claims legendary Celibate Rifles rocker Damien Lovelock
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Cancer claims legendary Celibate Rifles rocker Damien Lovelock

There was nothing conventional about Damien Lovelock, dead at 65. Photo: Facebook/Damien Lovelock
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There was no-one in the world like Damien Lovelock.

He was the charismatic lead singer with one of Australia’s great live rock bands, the Celibate Rifles, and the man who taught Ryoho yoga to the NSW State of Origin rugby league team.

He was a spoken word performer who could riff for an hour about a bet he once placed on a sure thing at the Gosford dogs, who could then turn up at the SBS studios to give a lively dissertation to his great mate Les Murray about the genius of Dutch footballer Johan Cruyff.

To chat with Damien was like taking a mystery flight through the world of music, sport, philosophy and everyday life. The journey was always unpredictable, the conversation would usually land in one of two places, either deep insight or rib-cracking laughter.

Sadly, those riffs, those gigs, those gags, those enlightening conversations have come to an end after the rock-n-roller and raconteur died aged 65 of cancer at his home on Sydney’s northern beaches.

Damien Lovelock was born on May 21, 1954, in Amersham, a market town north-west of London that eventually became part of the city’s commuter belt.

His parents had moved to the UK to try and make it in the music industry. His mother Joan Wilton was a jazz singer who had her own show on ABC Radio in the 1950s. His father, Bill Lovelock, was a television producer, musician, arranger and composer.

Bill had decided to study music and composition after working as a war crimes investigator at the end of World War II. Traumatised by what he had seen, he decided to spend his time pursuing the beauty of music.

Move from UK to Sydney

As Bill’s career took off, the marriage broke down. Bill moved to New York where he wrote and produced songs for Burl Ives and Nina Simone. Joan returned to Sydney with their son.

Young Damien grew up in Sydney’s eastern suburbs breathing in the sights and sounds of Bondi, Paddington and Rose Bay in the 1960s and 70s. He later turned those formative experiences into vivid stories in song and spoken word.

The Celibate Rifles released 13 albums, including Roman Beach Party.

Damien’s various careers as musician, yoga teacher, writer and football commentator all came about by accident. He was the quintessential man without a plan.

His mother died when he was 19, and with his father in the US, he had no immediate family to share his grief with. His life went off the rails. He took drugs, avoided work and found trouble. It took him a number of years to find his sense of purpose.

After a short stint in the country, he moved back to Sydney in 1980.

“I was trying to get going again and I was a bit freaked out, so I started writing songs for something to do,” he told ABC Conversations in 2013. He played those fledgling tunes to his girlfriend at the time and she encouraged him to keep writing.

At the age of 26, he answered a “Singer Wanted” ad on the noticeboard at a music store in Brookvale and soon after joined the Celibate Rifles.

Most of the band members had just finished high school. Damien’s incisive lyrics delivered in a raspy Australian drawl with a laconic stage persona perfectly complimented the frenetic energy of a band that loved to play hard and fast.

The Rifles gained airplay on Double Jay, and then triple j, and toured the country at the peak of Australia’s golden era of pub rock, equally popular in the inner-city music scene as suburban beer barns. They were smart, funny and developed a reputation for upstaging bigger name acts. But they never quite got the success they deserved.

Lovelock once described the Rifles as having an ability to “stand on stage and blow your head off”. Playing live they were a force of nature.

In 1986 the Celibate Rifles played their first overseas gig at CBGBs in New York, the legendary venue that launched the careers of Blondie, Talking Heads and Patti Smith. It was a dream come true for Lovelock. He thought of his mother Joan, who as a jazz singer dreamt of playing in New York.

“My mum never saw me sing and that was a big thing for me that night walking down to The Bowery,” he said. “I was thinking about my mum and how much it would’ve meant for her to see that.

“We got on stage and I was so terrified I didn’t open my eyes for the first three or four songs. I just shut my eyes and concentrated on getting the words right and waited till this level of total panic dissolved.”

The Rifles had no record distribution deals in the US at that stage, so Lovelock was blown away when he finally opened his eyes.

“There was about 50 people there and 40 of them were singing along with the song,” he said.

“I remember walking home that night with my cousin, and I said to her if I died right now I wouldn’t have felt like I missed a thing.”

The Celibate Rifles as fans knew them in their Eighties heyday. Photo: Facebook/Caz Bah

Lovelock played with the Rifles for 39 years and was planning more gigs. The band released 13 standalone albums and a series of compilations. He also put out two solo albums.

Commentating a soccer game he didn’t see

It was while he was hovering around the corridors at triple j, talking the leg off someone no doubt, that his career as a football commentator emerged from nowhere.

Someone realised the World Youth Cup was about to start at the Sydney Football Stadium that afternoon and Lovelock was asked if he knew anything about soccer. Of course he did …

Before he knew it, he was at the stadium, but there was no accreditation waiting for him. He walked up to Oxford Street to see if any of the pubs were showing the game. No such luck. He found a pay-phone, dialled the triple j studio number and started his high wire act.

“I launched into a monologue about a football game I hadn’t seen and didn’t know the score of, using the Tibetan book of the Dead and the 49-day journey of the spirit and all these parallels and just went on and on,” he told the Weekend Australian.

“When I finally stopped there was dead silence down the phone. Finally, the producer came back and I thought he’d say, ‘Thanks mate, don’t call us, we’ll call you’, but he was weeping with laughter — and that was it. My soccer reporting [career] was born.”

Lovelock went on to publish two books about football, have his own segment called Fan’s Corner on The World Game on SBS and covered countless World Cups for ABC Radio.

Just as music had led to football, football led to yoga.

Soccer led to yoga

His unforeseen emergence as a commentator revived his interest in the global game and he started playing park football again. In 1995, he injured his neck during a match and nothing he tried could alleviate the pain.

An old World War II digger in the steam room at Manly Leagues club told him: “Oh mate, you’ve got to try that yoga business.” Lovelock went to the next available class at the club and was hooked for life.

The yoga classes sorted out his debilitating neck injury and he embraced the practice to such a degree that he took a year off to learn how to teach it. He would end up helping others to recover from injury like he had himself.

A Lovelock yoga class was no place to empty the mind or reach union with a supreme spirit. In between poses Damien would give hilarious monologues about what was on his mind or happening in his own unique world.

One of his students described him as the Keith Richards of yoga. He was such a good teacher he was hired by professional football teams like the Central Coast Mariners, Sydney FC and the NSW State of Origin team.

Damien was at all times a man who ran his own race, spoke his own mind and to hell with the consequences. At school he boycotted compulsory cadets and was dropped from the rugby team for his troubles.

Once, in the 1990s, a highly influential ABC radio manager was giving him some unsolicited advice about how he could improve his regular segment on triple j.
“In my experience as a producer…” he began.

Master of the quip

Damien did not like what he was hearing and cut him off mid-stream.

“Mate,” he said in that distinctive drawl, “I don’t think you could produce a turd with a bowl of All-Bran.”

An outrageous presence onstage and off, Damien Lovelock never lost his love of life. Photo: ABC

It was that kind of unfiltered comment that ended up doing him no favours in landing the high-profile gigs that others with less talent so easily fell into. But that was Damo. He instead relied on his late mother’s advice: “Speak your own mind, absorb the beating, and carry on.”

Damien loved the beach and it was a part of his daily ritual to walk up and down the sand at Newport and finish off with a bodysurf. He was not a slip, slop, slap kind of guy. His skin was like a cross between crocodile leather and a Burt Reynolds man tan.

I once stupidly asked him if he ever used sunscreen. “Mate,” he said, looking at me as if I was a moron, “when you’ve been clinically dead three times, you don’t worry about dying from kicking back.”

He was that rare breed who always had the perfect comeback to any comment or question. During the Sydney Olympics, when locals were overly exuberant about welcoming visitors to our shores, he was somehow mistaken for a tourist. While on the escalator at Warringah Mall he was asked innocently: “So, what do you think of Sydney?” He turned around and deadpanned: “The first 46 years have been great, thanks.”

Damien in many ways was a man at odds with the modern era. Money, materialism and social media were of little interest to him. As long as he could talk, play music, teach yoga, watch sport, walk along the beach and bodysurf he was happy.

He was furious when the 2G network was shut down and he could no longer use his silver Sharp flip-phone. He couldn’t understand why you would need a phone for anything other than phone calls or text messages.

He took a curious disregard to having things stolen. Whether he was at home or not, the front door of his house in Bilgola Plateau would always be flung open, with the television on and the sound of football games blaring out into the street.

Thankfully no-one ever stole his prized guitars.

He was similarly cavalier with his car. If you met him for a bodysurf at Newport Beach, the first thing you would see would be his Tarago in the north end of the car park, unlocked, windows down, a pair of sluggos hanging over the wing mirror, with his keys placed on the top of the front tyre.

His attitude to money and worldly goods was best summed up by his lyric in the Celibate Rifles’s 1989 song “O Salvation”:

We’re getting older but no more wise
I’m looking but I don’t believe my eyes
Kids with machine guns selling crack
I’ve never seen a hearse with a luggage rack
One thing baby I know is true
You make it but you can’t take it with you

Despite the harsh realities of living with late-stage cancer, he was playing gigs and teaching yoga right up until his last weeks. He was cracking jokes and telling stories right until the end.

He is survived by  son Luke, his pugs Alvis and Zoki, and countless friends and fans.

-ABC