On NYE 1990/91 I found myself leading 3000 people from the top of Carhenge in a pagan drumming frenzy under a full moon and in the midst of a huge tropical thunder and lightning storm. It was definitely a peak life experience. And possibly the closest I will ever come to a rock star moment.
Almost 3 years earlier, I’d left my squat in Primrose Hill the day after Valentine’s Day in 1988 and driven like a maniac across London to Heathrow Airport. There is no way that in today’s hyper-sensitive climate I could get away with doing what I did then. My plane for Tokyo was scheduled to take off at 7pm. I arrived at the Terminal at 6.40pm and drove right up to the doors, where I abandoned the car and ran for the check in counter. Today, I would have been shot before even getting out of the car. At that time, I tossed the keys to my then girlfriend Kate Mead and told her I would see her in 6 weeks.
I had every intention of returning within that time as I was in love and also deeply enmeshed in my London life with the Mutoids. But it was not to be as I didn’t return to England for another 8 years. But that was all much later. The plane I caught out of Heathrow that cold February morning took me to Tokyo, where I stayed for a week with my good friend Koichi and photographed George Michael at the Budokan on the opening night of his first solo world tour.
Once back in Australia, I bought a car in Sydney for the long drive to Byron Bay, where my daughter was living with her mother. It was definitely one of those ‘it seemed like a good idea at the time’ notions as I was going to give the car to Sharna and her Mum. It was unfortunate that the Renault I bought was actually a pile of scrap on wheels. The car somehow managed to make the 500 mile journey to Byron, where I picked up Sharna and drove on to Nimbin where I was planning to stay with my good friend Jonh Ridley (who came up with the idea for The Recycle sculpture we built in 1997) on Pinpuna, the property he shared with about 20 other people. The principal problem with Pinpuna is the hill one has to climb in order to reach it. The Renault died half way up the hill. I didn’t realise at the time, but my idea of returning to England in the next few weeks died along with it.
Anyway, I digress from the subject at hand. Which is my experiences with the Mutoid Waste Co. in Australia. After bouncing around for about a year on the North Coast of NSW and South East Queensland, I decided it was time to go back to a city, so I moved to Melbourne.
Sometime in September 1990, Robin Cooke showed up on my doorstep in St. Kilda. As mentioned in my previous blog, he started working with Joe Rush in 1984 and the two of them spearheaded the growth of the Mutoid Waste Co. in London. His ex-wife Sandy had taken his son Luke to Tasmania and Robin had decided to come out to Australia to visit him.
We’d met briefly in England but didn’t really know one another when he arrived in Melbourne. We found we got on well and agreed to start the Mutoid Waste Co. together in Australia. I subsequently introduced Robin to a lot of the people I’d become friends with in my time in Melbourne and helped set him up with some jobs so he could begin to generate income.
We held the first Mutoid event in Australia on October 27th 1990 in the Gershwin Room at the Esplanade Hotel in St. Kilda (to celebrate our birthdays – we’re both Scorpio’s). I built ‘Rose’, a soft doll like figure that utilized a Chinese lantern for the head and he built the ‘Wizard Of Oz’, a very cool 9 feet tall sculpture using metal pipes and we both decorated the room.
After the Mutie Party, Robin busied himself with the outfitting of the Blue Meanies shop in Elwood. This was run by Fiona, Hugo and Brendan who made tie dye surf wear. He created a huge fluoro muffler tree in the centre of the shop which they used as a clothes rack and a very cool spiders web in the window to stop people breaking in.
Whilst he was busy with the Blue Meanies, I started to work on organizing the next big Mutoid step.
Confest is an annual conference/festival that was established in the early 1970’s for politicised hippies and greenies who would get together to talk about direct action, hold workshops and then party at the festival. It’s now held every New Year and Easter a few hours drive from nowhere, half way between Sydney and Melbourne on the NSW and Victorian border. Generally anywhere between three and ten thousand people show up for the best part of a week to get bent, do some healing, learn how to run a protest and discover how chakras work. All before doing a drumming workshop before tea.
Dress code runs from naked to relaxed, in perfect Australian weather with blue blue skies, a river for swimming, stalls to grab food and clothing, camp fires (fire walking optional), mud baths and a crude sweat lodge built like a humpy full of steamy people chanting North American Indian songs. In the nineties ‘doof’ (as in repetitive beat doof doof doof) music began to feature at the festivals, but before that it was mostly large drumming ‘happenings’ and dodgy rock bands interspersed with mad performers. It was the perfect place to dig low and chill out in the country over New Years before going back to the city.
I’d been to Confest over New Years Eve 1989/90 and realized once Robin arrived and we started planning the expansion of the Mutoids that it was also perfect as a venue for the first Carhenge in Australia. There are many abandoned cars out in the bush in Australia and for a long time I’d thought it would be good to find a way to encourage people to drag them together so they could be turned into artistic features instead of eyesores.
I approached the organisers of Confest and suggested we build Carhenge so it could be used it as a water tower and so encourage people to start creatively recycling some of the rubbish found out in the bush. I’m not sure what it’s like now, but back then the Confest Committee was a collection of misfits, wierdo’s and generally strange characters who had somehow managed to gain control of this politically correct event. Robin and I attended several committee meetings trying to persuade the members to allow us to build Carhenge. With the support of activist Benny Zable (who painted Nimbin in rainbow murals) and after an impassioned speech by me promoting the virtues of Creative Recycling, the committee finally agreed to allow the project to go ahead. They also agreed that they would pay for two cars worth of petrol, so we wouldn’t be too much out of pocket.
As Robin was going to catch up with his son in Tasmania over Christmas and New Year (and also go to a festival), we agreed that he would go up to the Confest site before Christmas to put the cars together and I would go up on Boxing Day to finish off the sculpture. Soon after arriving in Melbourne he’d become smitten with Karen Snyders, who was a good friend of mine and so the two of them drove the 275 miles to Walwa where Robin found some old cars at the local tip and got them to the Confest site.
Once there he persuaded one of the workers who was using a backhoe to excavate holes for latrines to help him put the Carhenge together. They managed to push 2 cars upright and balance the remaining car on top, creating the single arched Carhenge. Robin and Karen were very happy when they got back to Melbourne as they’d succeeded in building the Carhenge and the beginning of their 6 year relationship had also taken root whilst they were away.
I arrived at the Confest site on Boxing Day and told the gatekeepers that I was there to work on the Carhenge. I was surprised at the response I received. I was immediately and vehemently attacked by several of the hippies who told me in no uncertain terms they thought Carhenge was an eyesore and dangerous and should be ripped down immediately. And they hadn’t come out to the bush to see cars lumped together like that. I told them I couldn’t comment as I hadn’t seen it yet but if they pulled it down then they would be responsible for taking it back to the tip as I wouldn’t lay another finger on it.
When they realised I was being serious and they would have to take responsibility for the removal of the cars, they backed off and let me on the site. I made my way to the Carhenge and although I never admitted to anybody at the time, I could certainly see they had a valid point of view about the safety issues. Unfortunately, Robin hadn’t had time to do a proper job. The upright cars were only buried about 2 feet deep in soft sandy earth and the top car was simply balanced between the two uprights. One good push and the whole lot would have fallen over.
It was obvious the cars needed to be welded together but there was no power to be had for miles. Handily enough, an electrician by the name of Ray Etherton was camped very close to the Carhenge and just as I was wondering what to do next, he came wandering over and explained that it was possible to arc weld using 2 car batteries in sequence and offered to help if I could find the batteries. I fished the battery out from my car and a very cool character by the name of Brad offered to lend me the battery from his car. Brendan from the Rainbow Power Company welded the cross bar into place between the two upright cars to make the sculpture stronger.
I should make an honourable mention of Ray at this point because not only did he help on the Carhenge, but he subsequently became the crew Sparkie for Imagineer in Adelade when he rewired our 10,000 sq ft building and also did all the wiring and installed the Solar panels for the Recycle sculpture in Sydney.
Once the cars were secure, I made my camp and went for a wander around the festival and found it was set up much as it had been the previous year.
When they heard I was on site, various other factions involved with Confest came and made their opinions known as well. After several eyeball to eyeball confrontations with representatives from the Dept of Conservation & Environment and sundry radical hippies, radical Greenies and radical idiots, I managed to beat them all off and got on with getting the sculpture ready for New Years Eve.
Having dug through several dusty old files I have just found an extensive and detailed account of that amazing (and now legendary) New Years Eve with Carhenge at Confest that I wrote a couple of months after the event. I will be transcribing it tomorrow, so if you want to know what happened next, then come back and visit again.
And leave a comment here if you like it…..