Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Ian Rilen: "Someone must have put the mozz on me"

Former Cold Chisel songwriter Don Walker calls him 'a national treasure'. Hunters and Collectors made his song 'Stuck On You' a live anthem. Rilen even sparked a minor craze for singlets on Oz Rock front men when Mark Seymour, then Tex Perkins, imitated his on-stage look. Indeed each new generation seems to rediscover Rilen as an inspirationally authentic figure akin to a modern-day bluesman.

Unless you're a music fanatic, though, or a denizen of Darlinghurst or St Kilda, it's unlikely you would know of him. Because as much as they say a lot about Ian Rilen he probably puts it best himself when he sings, with a succinct blend of humour and menace and pride, 'I'm bad for good.'

It's not something he entirely controls, of course. Lately, for instance, every time he tries to show someone a video of his new group Ian Rilen and The Love Addicts, it breaks. He shakes his head and works away at my complimentary cassette with a pencil, muttering 'Someone must have put the mozz on me.'

"I've very rarely fucked up in live shows in the last thirty years, though," he states defensively. "Afterwards maybe. but I don't do any shit before. I don't smoke pot or anything. I still remember the time I had a line of coke years ago before playing. We were four songs in before my feet hit the ground. When I realized I said "Good evening ladies and gentlemen, I'm back!"

The word 'bad' comes up a lot around Ian Rilen, you see, not least in his own songs, notably the Rose Tattoo classic 'Bad Boy For Love', which he says 'still keeps me in beer money'. By the time it was becoming Rose Tattoo's first hit in 1977 Rilen had left the band because "they weren't hard enough" and "it was turning into the Angry Anderson show". "I was also starting to write songs like 'Hate City' and Angry didn't like that. He thought it was too punk."

A reformation tour in 1999 that featured their original and toughest line-up included a contract stipulation that amused Rilen. 'Pete Wells and Angry demanded that they not be on the same floor as Mick Cox and I in any hotel we stayed at. We always did like to party out more than they did.' Rilen forgets to add that Anderson and Wells also requested they not travel in the same vehicle because of he and Cox's inability to wake up and get to the next gig in what might be called comfortable time.

Rilen has 'heard all the bullshit' before, of course, how he's halfway between Iggy Pop and Dorian Gray, how he's gifted with a reptile handsomeness that mostly belies his demonic lifestyle. "It's better than being half way between Johnny Farnham and Perry Como," he supposes, puffing on a Camel and breathing out a burst of smoke that suggests he must be laughing, a distinct blue 'X' tattooed on his index finger.

Now into their 25th year, X are arguably the most important and enduring underground rock band in Australian music history. Rilen still recalls seeing them at an early rehearsal session. 'They were playing their instruments so hard they were soaked in blood.' The passion impressed him enough to leave Rose Tattoo and join up.

As their bassist and sometime vocalist, Rilen still shares the unit creatively with its other great survivor, guitarist and singer Steve Lucas, after a series of deaths, departures and sporadic break-ups that would have wiped out most other acts. X recently celebrated their 'silver jubilee' with the release of Evil Rumours, a double live CD recorded at Sydney's The Basement. 'No one ever really captured the full flight of X on record,' Rilen says now. ‘It was unfortunate. You just had to be there to cop it.'

Over that time Rilen has distinguished himself with a downward stroking, 'wall-of-sound' bass style, a gravel and honey voice that hints at Tom Waits and even Jacques Brel, and hardcore, surprisingly melodic songwriting reinforced by lyrically minimalist pictures of street life. For a man who claims, somewhat awkwardly, to be 'no good at reading books', his taste in songwriters is decidedly refined, with a notable passion for Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen as well as the fine and low arts of conversation. 'If you can say it in a few words or less it's always better.'

Given X's wayward approach to everything and a highly charged personal history that included Rilen taking up with Lucas's wife for a while, it's no surprise there has been a need to pursue other tangents. Ian Rilen and The Love Addicts are but the latest example. In distinguishing the two bands Rilen says The Love Addicts "rock like shit, but with highs and lows. It's soft and lazy and sleazy, but then it snaps out," he adds with an excited snarl. "As opposed to X, which snaps out all the time."

He's just recorded a new CD with The Love Addicts for Christmas release under the title of "Passion,Boots and Bruises". In that group Rilen prefers to play a loose style of rhythm guitar, saving his devastating and punishing bass work for X. He points to the bass guitar that has kept him company for so long, lying in a corner of the room, noting that he has no copies of anything he has ever recorded, nor does have a car, a home, or a stereo. "Someone could come to town for three weeks and own more than I do. I've thought about it lately. Music has taken everything I've got."

His Fender Telecaster 61 has burn marks on the side and an atmosphere of long-term damage written all over it. Aside from his aggressive playing style, it bears the marks of his relationship with then girlfriend Cathy Green, who was X's extraordinary drummer from 1984 till 2002. Rilen and Green's relationship would prove as combustible as his friendship with Steve Lucas. "Girls are girls," Rilen says, as if it were a futile mystery, before confessing, "I came home late one." He pauses for quite a while without saying a word. Finally I say, "night?"

"Actually I was gone about a week," he says. "I remember pulling into the driveway and sitting there too frightened to go inside. You'd know the sound of my Buick pulling in anywhere though. When I did finally go in Cathy was sitting at the kitchen table reading the papers. She just said 'hello'. And that was it. I thought, 'I've gotten away with it!' Then I said, 'Can you smell something burning?' I looked over to the stove and there was my guitar, both jets on full bore. It'd taken me five minutes to do my cowardly creep inside. She must have put it on as soon as she heard me."

Rilen admits he doesn't make a living from his music "yet, but I'm working on it". The fact he's on his way back down to Melbourne for his girlfriend's 21st birthday tonight might give some indication of both his charm and his energy along the way. Does getting old frighten him, I ask? "No," he says. "Music is about how you feel inside and how you give that to people. If you're lucky it's enough to do the job."

- Mark Mordue 

* Article first appeared in The Weekend Australian, 20th September 2005.
+ Portrait shot by Richard Sharman,, accessed via Flickr. Shot with car from Bang Records website.