“Want to see my gravestone?” asks John Kennedy.
It’s a strange question that comes after spending an hour reminiscing with the 58-year-old singer-songwriter about the old days of Sydney’s inner-city. If Springsteen had New Jersey and The Clash had London, then Kennedy had Newtown.
Born in Liverpool, England in 1958, then emigrating with his family to Brisbane as a seven-year-old, he moved to Sydney in 1982 and was drawn to the inner city in general and Newtown in particular. What were his first impressions of the place?
“It was shabby,” he says. “Not shabby chic. Just shabby. But it was our shabby.
“You had the old Italian and Greek migrants, but you also had lots of uni students and musicians because rent was cheap. I liked the vibe – migrants and Aussies, old and young, pensioners and artists. They all lived alongside each other but got on with each other. There was a lot of tolerance and you were free to be yourself.”
The first meeting points for him and his friends were Maurice’s Lebanese Restaurant and Scratches record store at the northern end of King Street. He recalls Scratches had its own handwritten Top 20 chart each week. At one point in 1982, his band JFK And The Cuban Crisis were at number one with their Careless Talk Costs Lives EP and also number five with “Am I A Pagan”.
“I thought I’d made it,” he says with a grin. “It’s been downhill since then. I think you had to sell about three copies of a record to get onto the Scratches chart.”
Maurice’s is featured at the end of the video for Kennedy’s best-known song, 1985’s “King Street”, an ode to Newtown’s main thoroughfare that mentions The Hub and The Coles New World, the supermarket that used to stand where we are now sitting, in MilkBar café next to the Dendy Cinema.
“I’ve found a home, I’ve found a home,” Kennedy sang back then, over jangling guitars.
It’s still his home. Well, in nearby Erskineville, anyway. After leaving Australia at the end of the ’80s and living in the UK, Berlin and Hong Kong, he and his family returned in 2000.
“Of course, it’s gentrified now,” he says. “But that’s the trend with inner cities all over the world. You either roll with it or you move. Things have changed but it’s still an attractive place to live. You’ve got Sydney Park, which is fantastic, and as a parent (his kids are now 18 and 13) the public schools are great. For a little while I did ask myself ‘Where else would I move?’ And I had no obvious answer.”
Kennedy’s latest album is JFK And The Midlife Crisis. Many of the songs find him looking back. “From St. Peters To Kings Cross” tips its hat to Paul Kelly before taking the listener on a nostalgic trip through Sydney’s ’80s music scene around clubs like The Departure Lounge and The Exit Club, while “Strawberry Hills Forever” namechecks Surry Hills street names and bands such as The Triffids and The Scientists.
“Where did they go, those golden nights?” sings Kennedy in “Strawberry Hills Forever”. “Was it the drugs or was it just that the time was right?”
“It was a combination of both,” he says in answer to that second question. “And look, I know everyone is nostalgic for their twenties. But with the rise of the internet and social media, youth culture is fragmented now. It wasn’t like that back in the ’80s. In our twenties, music was the centre of youth culture and Sydney was thriving. You had a bunch of local record labels, triple J was a powerful platform for Sydney bands before it went national and all these venues were flourishing because of a lack of licensing laws and fire exits and pokies.”
And then he asks if I’d like to see his gravestone.
We pay our lunch bill and wander to nearby Camperdown Cemetery, behind St. Stephen’s Church. And there it is etched in stone – John Kennedy, age 39, died 24th October, 1835.
“I’ve told my wife that when I die she can cremate me and just sprinkle my ashes here to save money,” he says. Even when he stops breathing, it looks like John Kennedy is never leaving Newtown.
Kennedy’s current band, John Kennedy’s 68 Comeback Special, are playing the Django Bar in Marrickville on Saturday 1 July (it’s also his birthday).