Wild One's spirit still rocks music scene

WHEN Johnny O’Keefe died in 1978, music-loving, 17-year-old Jeff Apter and his friends mourned.

Despite the fact they were listing to Bowie, Neil Young and Dylan, they had grown up with JOK in their loungerooms – on their TVs and on their parents’ turntables.

“We all got together and we were grief-stricken,’’ the Wollongong music writer recalled.

“Johnny O’Keefe was part of the furniture and part of the cultural fabric. If there was a telethon, he was on it. He was always on the Paul Hogan Show. Everyone knew who he was.

“I really felt a great sense of loss when he died, even though he wasn’t one of ours.’’

Apter had been raised on stories of O’Keefe’s antics from his father Jack, who worked at one of the Wild One’s regular venues – the Revesby Workers Club.

Apter wrote his biography Johnny O’Keefe - Rocker. Legend. Wild One partly with his late father in mind and also to shine a different light on a story many were already familiar with.

The writer will talk about his book for the Friends of Kiama Library on Saturday, February 1.

With a number of biographies, tele-movies and a stage show on JOK already having been written, Apter said he had to adopt a different take for his work.

While for consultation purposes, more of JOK’s contemporaries were alive than dead, Apter spoke to surviving (and still playing) members of O’Keefe’s band the Dee Jays, Johnny’s brother Barry, peer Lonnie Lee and “super star’’ DJs of the time John Laws and Bob Rogers.

“They remembered him fondly but with certain reservation,’’ Apter said. “He had some fairly rough edges. He over-imbibed in life it’s fair to say.

“I like to think I captured the spirit of somebody who, frankly, I only knew through his music and footage.

“People who did know him say it feels like he was alive on the pages of the book...’’

With much of O’Keefe’s battles with alcohol and drugs well documented, Apter also chose to reflect on the Wild One’s lasting legacy.

“I wanted to look at why when you turn on the TV show Rage, he is still there (Iggy Pop’s cover of O’Keefe’s hit the Wild One and footage of JOK) feature in the show’s opening credits.

“I would not say he was a musical trailblazer so much, but it was what he did to the entertainment industry in Australia.’’

Apter said JOK can be credited with creating the playing circuit that many artists still enjoy today.

O’Keefe’s early stomping grounds included the then working class and far-from-trendy suburbs of Balmain, Leichhardt and Newtown.

The author said O’Keefe then later created the now well-trod club circuit including venues such as the Revesby Workers, Wentworthville Leagues and Rooty Hill RSL.’’

Apter also said he delighted in writing of the simpler place Sydney was in the 1950s.

“It was all new and fresh,’’ he said. “It was not the money-obsessed and spray tanned place it has become,’’ he said.

“There was a kind of innocence to it. You could touch your stars.  Now there are literal and metaphorical barriers to people in the spotlight.’’

Last year also saw the release of Apter’s book Up from Down Under how Australian Music changed the world. The Rolling Stone Oz staff writer is now working on a book about the Gibb brothers.

His other work includes books on Marc Hunter, Shirley Strachan and Casey Chambers.

He will be at the Family History Centre in Railway Parade, Kiama on Saturday, February 1 at 2.30pm for the Friends of Kiama Library.

Afternoon tea provided. All welcome. Donation $5 for non Friends members.

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