Wednesday, June 04, 2014


Photo of Doc Neeson by Tony Mott

Doc Neeson is gone. It's still hard to believe he was ultimately mortal, but of course he was.

He was kind, generous, vulnerable, and he suffered more for his art - the music and theatre of The Angels - than most so-called artists ever will. He physically suffered for his art, being knocked unconscious by crowd-lobbed missiles more than once, shattered knees, busted ankles, a broken arm, lungs scarred from decades of deep inhalation in smoke-filled venues.

There will never be another rock star like him again.

I've been writing a book about Doc Neeson and The Angels, and I'd recently gone back into my archive to re-read the dozens of interviews, stories and live reviews I wrote on The Angels in the late 1980s and 1990s. The story below leaped out at me.

This is the original version of a story/interview I did with Doc Neeson decades ago. A shorter, rewritten version appeared in Juke Magazine, in early 1990, but I'm publishing the original here for the first time now as my tribute.

Thanks Doc, thanks for all the rock.


By Darryl Mason

Doc Neeson signals to a guy standing at the centre of the stage, crushed up against the barricade. Behind him is a crush of two thousand people, the crowd fills every nook and cranny of Selinas at the Coogee Bay Hotel, right up to the front doors. Outside, people roar at bouncers they have tickets and wave them frantically in their faces, still trying to get in, even though The Angels have been onstage for 40 minutes. Some grown men are weeping, others trying to force their way in. But there’s nowhere to go even if they cross the thresh-hold.

Back at the barricade, at the front of the stage, the guy Doc signals to is in his early 20s, wearing a vintage Angels shirt that could only have come from his dad, or uncle, he is dripping sweat, the heat from the throbbing bouncing crowd raises the temperature onstage by ten degrees or more, the crowd is like the world’s largest radiator.

Doc signals the young man again, he waves back. Doc shakes his head, exasperated. He walks to the edge of the stage, leans down over the barricade and grabs the guy’s hands, pulling them into the air.

“Catch me!” Doc mouths at the guy, who finally gets it, and nods so enthusiastically his head might fall off.

Doc falls onto the guy’s outstretched hands, his shoes for the moment still touching the edge of the stage, his microphone clutched tightly in his fist.

The crowd goes crazy, and surges forward, crushing all those people already squashed up against the barricades. Some of the girls shriek in pain as their ribs crack and throw elbows back at those behind them to get off, but they can’t move either. Roadies watch nervously from the sides of the stage, hand signalling each other concerns over some of those down the front. Time to pull them out? A headshake, not yet. They swallow hard, their concerned eyes sweep the front rows.

Everyone wants to help hold up Doc Neeson, or touch him, as he is rolls across hundreds of hands. Some hands touch, some grab, some grope, some try to tear off pieces of his clothes, others grab his hair, he smacks away one girl trying to rip out some of his hair, angrily mouths, 
“No!” she apologises, then gets upset. The drama is intense. The passion of the audience so real real, so vivid, so dangerous.

Some go about their mission of holding up Doc as he speaks French during the Marseilles breakdown with a steely determination. Doc is a heavy bloke, even in his fitter, more nimble days, he's almost six foot four, but others hold him aloft with glowing faces, like they’re touching the Messiah. Which, in some ways, they are. Some in the crowd have driven long distances to be here, some have travelled pilgrimages of walking, bus, train, bus to get here from up the coast, or the outer Western Suburbs, they’ve come to worship, they’ve come to bear witness, to revel, to shout the words of the songs they love so much, to be a part of the gathering of the Angels tribes.

It's a religious experience. People are in raptures, losing their shit to the music.

And we love every single second of it.

For fifteen years now, The Angels have been doing this to audiences. Doc Neeson has managed to keep his crown of Australia’s Greatest Frontman firmly locked onto his head. The enigma lives.

New songs are debuted tonight, the Angels are preparing to head into the studio for their first new album in 15 years, and most of the new songs are welcomed, if not as warmly as the classics, they still get a debut reception most bands would kill their grandparents for.

Five hours earlier, in the empty afternoon cavern of Selina’s, the Angels are starting their soundcheck. 

In the bar next door, Doc Neeson sits down for an interview. His band launches into a booming pulse that rattles the wall. He looks about, on edge, as he chews the ice left over from his drink. 

He fixes that incredibly intense gaze on me as my mind goes instantly blank and I fumble for my question sheet. 

I’ve been watching Doc Neeson since I was a little kid, catching them on Countdown, staying up too late to watch a Night Moves live concert, watching and then rewinding and then watching again the extraordinary Angels: Live At Narara video tape. To an eight year, wild-eyed Doc Neeson could be terrifying. He seemed unreal, and even though our paths have crossed in recent years, I find myself incredibly nervous interviewing him like this.

“Relax,” Doc says, and smiles, then the intense gaze again as he studies my face.

“Have we met before?”

“Err, yeah,” I stumble, “briefly.”
“Where? When?”

“First time was here, outside, around the back, years ago. I was underage, I was waiting around the back for you to come out before a show. You took the time to say hello. I told you I wanted to be a writer and you said, 'Well, writers write, so get writing.'”

Doc nods, “and now you’re a music writer.”

I nod. Shit, yeah I am.

“But we’ve met a few times since, haven’t we?”

We had, and I remind him of recent encounters and a few backstage visits when I was reviewing Angels live shows.

The Angels, without him, blast into Marseilles next door. He sits up straight, looks at the wall separating him from his band.

“Okay, ready?” Doc says, “questions.”

“I’ll be quick.”

“You’ll have to be,” Doc says, “we’re rehearsing new songs today.”

Sitting with Neeson, one on one, shatters a few myths you might have in your head if you’ve only seen him on TV, or in concert. For one thing, he’s nowhere near as scary. His eyes are gentle, than intense, then gentle again, soothing. His voice seems deeper, more silken, and he can be completely still, where onstage he can’t seem to stop whirling.

The four brand new songs showcased on this tour sound different to previous Angels songs. They sound like The Angels, but also something different, new.

Whereas before, members of The Angels wrote in pairs, or alone, this time new songs were jammed live in rehearsal, written as they were played by three or four members at once.

“Whereas before it was mostly Brewster-Neeson-Brewster writing most of the songs,” says Doc, "now the whole band is getting in on it.

“Then there are songs that the guys came in with already written, and even now we are still writing as he we set up to record.”

The Blood On The Moon tour raised a bit of controversy amongst Angels fans by dropping Be With You and See Your Face Again from the shows and finishing the night with no encores, which are almost as much a part of Angels shows as Rick Brewster standing motionless.

“It does get tiring when we’re touring,” Doc says. “I don’t mind the shows, it’s the travelling four or six hours every day up and down the coast to get the shows that I’m beginning to hate.”

And he means “hate.” He spits out the word.

“If there was a way for me to get to the shows instantly…”

“Yes” Doc laughs, “if there was a way for me to teleport to the shows instantly, then that would be fantastic.”

Doc also hates that in so many towns and cities around Australia, the band comes offstage to find anywhere to get late night feed already closed. He muses about insisting on a tour chef, and how fantastic it would be to have a freshly cooked meal waiting once he’d come down from a show.

“That’s probably not very rock n roll,” Doc says.

“The Stones do it, heaps of bands have cooks with them.”

Doc nods, “I might have to bring that up at a band meeting.” He laughs his unforgettable laugh.

Next door, The Angels begin another song, unfamiliar, a new tune. Doc shifts in his seat, we order another drink.

Three other new songs filter in and out of the live shows. Stop Being A Bitch was a regular on the last two tours, Money also made a few appearances, and a song with the working title Out Of Reach bobs up every now and then.

He won't go into too much detail about the new album.

“Don’t you like surprises?” he smiles.

The interview is interrupted by a young girl, perhaps 15, who has been hanging around the doors of the bar for the whole interview, clearly waiting to meeting Doc. She can't take it anymore and runs over to the table. She pours out her story to Doc - she was raised on The Angels, her dad played the band constantly, some of the first words she ever spoke, her dad told her, were words to Angels songs off their debut album. Her father died from cancer the year before, and she wants Doc's autograph to leave at his grave. Doc begins to tear up as tells her to calm down, that everything's OK, that he's so proud to hear her first words were from Angels tunes. He signs an autograph for her, as she trembles.

"Don't leave it at your dad's grave," he says, "he'd want you to keep it for yourself, wouldn't he?"

Yes, she gasps. She hugs Doc suddenly, then apologises repeatedly for interrupting the interview.

Doc says this sort of encounter is not unusual, the Angels have that kind of emotional effect on people.

The new album is due out towards the end of the year, and tours will follow. There is also a plan to return to the United States, with the blessing of Guns N Roses, who are telling music journos The Angels are one of their biggest inspirations.

Axl Rose has even told music press and European radio that The Angels inspired the band to form in the first place, and The Angels are one of the best bands in the world.

There is bound to be a tide of new fans and media interest waiting to see The Angels when they get back there.

Doc wonders if this time, “we’ll break America.” It’s been a long battle, and many tours, and many disappointments.

“We’re not going to give up,” Doc says. “We’ve worked too hard to get to this point to not try again. It’s frustrating to get so close and then see it all fall apart because some record label fires all the staff that are behind you, and you have to start over again. New record label staff always have other bands they want to champion….”
I ask if it’s not enough to just be the biggest live rock band in Australia, year after year, and know every time you hit the road, there will be full houses of dedicated fans?

Doc gives me a look like he thinks I’m a bit mad.

“That’s very important,” Doc says, “but, no, it’s not enough. We need to break worldwide.”

Doc Neeson has been songwriting with Guns N Roses Izzy Stradlin but the sessions only turned out some half-completed songs and a list of ideas.

“I don’t know who will record them,” Doc says, mysteriously, as though he’s hiding something, “but it will probably be whoever gets around to finishing them.”

Doc wants to get back to the soundcheck rehearsal, that’s clear, and in the short time we’ve been talking, the crowd for tonight’s show has begun to mass outside the bar. For now, the bar doors are closed, while staff prepare and move tables and chairs to make way for the late afternoon, pre-gig rush. Some of the Angels fans outside have spotted Doc and knock excitedly on the glass. The young girl is showing other Angels fans her autograph, proudly. They look at her enviously, then in at Doc Neeson. More knocking on the windows.

Not much time left, one more question.

As hard as it might be for Angels fans to imagine the livewired maniacal Doc Neeson onstage becoming a quiet, laid-back, sitting at home with his wife and two kids father, reading a book in the evenings off tour, that is exactly how Doc likes to relax.

What’s he been reading lately? Biographies. He’s been particularly caught up in Albert Goldman’s controversial biography of John Lennon. But unlike many Lennon fans, Neeson is not quick to condemn the book. He admires it’s brutal honesty, it’s attempt to get at greater truths about Lennon and his art, even if it fails to do so, or is too gauche in the getting there.

“The book was good in the sense that it showed another side to John Lennon that we never got to see,” he says.

“Too many other books and media have built up Lennon into this God-like image, and he was totally against that sort of thing. I loved John Lennon, his music, his lyrics, even some of his poetry and prose. It’s important to find out more about this man. Even the bad stuff. It’s all part of the art he created.”

So would Doc like a warts-and-all book about him to be written one day?
He laughs, “maybe I’ll write it myself.”

Then he falls silent. His mind somewhere else.

What do you think about at this point in a show day, when you’ve got such a big gig ahead tonight?

He looks troubled, briefly, ”I think about how our fans will react to our new songs, how we can keep the energy up, unfamiliar songs always drag down energy levels a bit. We’re also dropping a few songs many will be expecting to hear. We can’t fit them all in, with the new songs.”
Are you afraid of disappointing fans?

“Of course.”

We talk briefly about acting, and his interest in films. He wants to get more into the subject, but there isn’t time.

Do you still want to act in a movie? “Of course, I’d love to. It would have to be right role. I thinking about doing some theatre.”

It’s time for him to go. A band member is on the mic at the soundcheck rehearsal next door, chanting “Where’s Doc? Anyone know where Doc is?”
Doc stands, we drain the remainders of our drinks. He asks if I want to come in and hear some of the songs they’re rehearsing. Shit, yes.

He gives instructions to get through the crowd outside.

If you see that girl, bring her with you, he says. She won’t get into the show tonight, but she can watch the rehearsal. He wants me to walk on his right side, he will walk next to the wall, be polite when the fans close in on him, keep moving fast, head for the front doors of Selinas like you are supposed to be inside, don’t ask the bouncers to move, just walk in. Won’t they all know who you are anyway? Doc shrugs, “not always.”

We go outside, we move quick, people close around us, Everyone calls Doc’s name, it’s only a short walk from bar to Selina’s but it quickly gets claustrophobic. The girl who asked for the autograph is amongst them, thanking Doc endlessly.

“Bring her,” Doc tells me, she falls in behind us and clutches at Doc’s shirt. The bouncers step aside, hold the doors, all three of us are inside Selina’s. Onstage, The Angels have just started one of their new tunes, the place is empty except for roadies moving road cases into position beneath the stage, to get them out of the way and to help hold back the crowd, others scramble across lighting trusses, bar staff empty cartons of beer cans into walls of fridges.

Doc Neeson jogs across the vast empty space of Selina’s towards the stage. The band nod as he hauls himself up quickly, easily. The song is building quickly to a climax, the power of The Angels in this empty room is stunning.

The autograph girl is dancing by herself, lost in the music, her eyes closed, loving this moment, she opens her eyes then and takes it all in, the empty dancefloor, the Angels onstage, playing it seems just for her.

“I can’t believe I’m here!” she cries out.

Neither can I. Neither can I.

Doc grabs the mic and screams out an improvised line, “It’s Killllliinnnnng Time!”

The song doesn’t make it onto the next album. It never appears in a live show again. It simply doesn’t make the cut. ‘Killing Time’ exists only in this brief moment at a soundcheck. Outside of the band, the roadies, bar staff, the autograph girl and I are the only witnesses to its existence. I still think about it two decades later.

The song finishes, about 12 hands applaud, a small sound in this huge empty space. Doc bows to his tiny audience. They kick into Blood On The Moon.

We stand there and enjoy this private show until The Angels call it quits, pack up and disappear until show time.

Five hours later, thousands fill Selinas, and the autograph girl is still there, somehow having avoided bouncers, she’s deep in the crowd, going off. Like everyone else. 

Raging with The Angels, like we always do, like it's the last night of our lives.

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