Archie Roach has emerged from grief and illness to produce the album of a lifetime.
The face is a little fuller, movement comes slower. A small tremor ripples across his hands. A slight cough betrays a recent illness. But the old presence is here, the gentle dignity that comes to a man who knows more loss and pain than men should; who found not rage nor bitterness but forgiveness and gratitude.
Along the way Archie Roach nearly gave up. In 2010, his partner Ruby Hunter died; she’d been his music soul mate and the mother of the couple’s two boys. The next year a stroke felled Roach just as he was resuming his musical career at Turkey Creek, near Broome. Last year he was told he had lung cancer.
Who could not understand his desolation? The stroke was as cruel as the loss of Ruby. The pair, who had been together almost 40 years, met as teenagers on the streets of Melbourne; both were homeless then and heading for addictions. Children came. So did more alcohol. Ruby left with the kids and Archie had to make a decision: the bottle or the family? She’d told him: “Alcohol — I can’t do that anymore and see my children suffer.”
Archie remembers: “Ruby took the kids and left me. So it was a choice I had to make. Either keep drinking alcohol or have my children with me. So it wasn’t really a hard choice.”
Good decades together followed and so did the songs. Fame came with Roach’s 1990 album, Charcoal Lane
, and the haunting ballad, Took the Children Away
— an ode to the generations of Aboriginal children, Roach and Ruby Hunter included, who were forcibly removed from their parents by Australian government agencies.
He was to take the loss of Ruby hard: “I just wanted to go away, to be left alone. I just wanted to lead a pretty quiet existence. It was a hard thing when Ruby passed away. It knocked me down pretty hard and I didn’t want to get up.”
He resumed touring a year or so later. Then the stroke. Roach could not walk, could not play his guitar and had to be wheeled into his bathroom.
“My right hand was just useless,” Roach recalls. “I couldn’t pick up things, I couldn’t button up a shirt, I couldn’t put my clothes on, for goodness’ sake. When that happened I felt pretty depressed. That was just pretty devastating.”
Despair stalked him, and Roach wasn’t sure he wanted to continue with anything much at all.
Offended by the loss of his dignity, he resolved to drag himself into his bathroom.
His strength slowly returned. Urged by medical staff to fight to regain the use of his hand, Roach again picked up his guitar and, slowly, the chords came back. So, too, did that smokey, weary voice that carries so many stories in from the missions and the desert.
“Ruby took the kids and left me. So it was a choice I had to make. Either keep drinking alcohol or have my children with me. So it wasn’t really a hard choice.”
But Roach had trouble finding his old songwriting skills. Says his friend, the Melbourne record producer and founding member of The Killjoys, Craig Pilkington (who accompanies Roach on guitar in our video and audio): “He had not been writing songs and he felt that his life had changed. He didn’t have the usual infrastructure, I guess, of sitting around the kitchen table with Ruby, playing songs to each other, which was how they had worked. He found himself a little bit at sea and he was worried that he’d sort of lost his creative mojo. He did say he was really concerned that the shock and change in his life had made him creatively impotent.”
Pilkington remembered that years before, Roach had recorded a couple of songs for a demo tape that had never been released, but which deserved to be. One song Roach had written, a couple of years before her death, was an ode to Ruby. Mulyawongk, a haunting, spare love song, is named after the spirit that guards the part of the lower Murray River where Ruby had spent her childhood. The song had been inspired in Roach when the pair travelled back to the river. Ruby tumbled back into those waters, shedding tears of joy. It was there that she had been taken away from her parents as a child.
And Ruby left the river,
she cried so bitterly,
she was born by the water’s edge, underneath this tree.
“Craig got that old tape and as soon as I heard it again, it hit me straight in the heart,” recalls Roach. “I think it means more to me today than when I wrote it, when Ruby was still alive. It’s the Mulyawongk calling Ruby back to her river and her dreaming.”
As Pilkington had hoped, Roach’s rediscovery of the song penned long ago for Ruby served to kickstart a new album that would revive his songwriting career. The album, Into the Bloodstream, is a triumph over everything that has been thrown at the man. And it is, arguably, Roach’s best yet.
Roach has set down his life in the album’s dozen tracks. The cover is a reproduction of an Aboriginal man’s painting — done in the desert style — of the Framlingham Mission in Victoria’s southwest. Roach had lived there with his six older brothers and sisters before he was forcibly taken from the family when he was three years old. Looking at the album cover, Roach picks out his old house. He never saw his mother or father again. Instead, he was to pass through orphanages and at least one bitter experience in a foster home until he ended up with a kindly farming family, the Coxes. They had a large record collection, and in amongst it Roach discovered Mahalia Jackson, Nat King Cole, The Ink Spots, and happy years in what he describes today as a beautiful family.
Eventually, a letter from one of his sisters arrived, telling of what had happened to him as a child. This would later trigger his spiral into teenage homelessness.
Roach writes more personally than he has ever done about being taken from his family in the track Old Mission Road; he imagines his hand in his mother’s as he walks with her through Framlingham and hears her stories of his early childhood. It is a burning lament for the mother he lost.
Won’t you walk with me, darling,
Just a couple of miles,
Won’t you tell me the stories of when I was a child.
Now age 56, Roach still has flashes that come like Polaroid stills of the day he was taken; “I remember running through bracken near the mission. I do remember stopping somewhere. They told me later it was the old Geelong prison. All the children stopped there for a break. I do remember some big man in jacket, a navy-blue jacket with a lot of silver buttons, picking me up on his shoulders and walking around.”
The dark years of living homeless and in the grip of alcohol are sung, relived, in Big Black Train — a story of his experience and a plea to young people to avoid that journey; “It was pretty hard. Me and Ruby, we ended up going to a half-way house. It was Ruby who led the way. She just grabbed the children one day and said, ‘I can’t live this life anymore.’”
There is a striking gospel influence in Roach’s latest work, enhanced by Craig Pilkington’s arrangements. Pilkington says: “The new songs that Archie was writing were such message songs that they’d naturally fallen into a bit of form that to me was traditional Gospel.”
“When your body starts to fail and you get sick, you’ve really got to dig deep in yourself to come out of that, to also find the strength to be grateful.”
The arrangements were also inspired by a special moment in Pilkington’s recording studio in the Melbourne suburb of Coburg, when Roach was talking about his hard-living, hard-fighting Uncle Banjo, who still got himself to church every Sunday because he loved to sing hymns. Then Roach led the musicians in an impromptu version of Just a Closer Walk with Me, and talked of his own love of that hymn as a child.
Says Pilkington: “In some ways, this is Archie returning to a musical form he was really comfortable with.”
One day during the making of Roach’s new album, the singer/songwriter and Roach’s old friend and collaborator, Paul Kelly, turned up at the studio. Kelly had brought along a half-finished version of the song I’m On Your Side, to work on with Roach. Roach also had the beginnings of his own song, We Won’t Cry.
Says Pilkington: “It was a really magical studio afternoon… because we realised they’d both brought songs of mateship and support and of sticking together for each other.”
Both songs made the album. Kelly features on one.
It was in the midst of making the album that Roach’s manager, Jill Shelton, noticed he was sometimes short of breath. She spoke to Roach’s doctor and arranged a chest x-ray.
“We had started doing the album and, bang, I was diagnosed with lung cancer,” says Roach, who had been a smoker.
Late last year half of Roach’s left lung was removed. Again, he raised himself from a terrible setback to complete his new album.
“You have to really. When your body starts to fail and you get sick, you’ve really got to dig deep in yourself to come out of that, to also find the strength to be grateful. To be grateful just to be here. Grateful every day. It could have been different. It could have been much different.”