How poet and hit song creator Joe Dolce makes it matter
Have a look at some of those essays and you’ll notice his knowledge spans across a breadth that is inconceivable for most people. Read on as he shares his reflections on choosing between convention and creativity, working with your life partner and creative output as business.
How do you give it mouth?
Well, first a quote by Australia’s most eccentric composer, Percy Grainger:
“Anyone can write an oratorio. I want to write one of the world’s songs.”
In other words, it’s one thing for a baker to create a nine-metre sculpture of the Opera House, out of gluten-free bread dough, to celebrate a visit by the Prince of Wales, but another thing to produce a brilliant loaf of bread that everyone in your town has to buy weekly. The same baker, with ingenuity, can do both.
My ex-sister-in-law, fashion icon, Prue Acton, once remarked to me, after my song “Shaddap You Face” had reached number one on the pop music charts, that wasn’t it good to be able to get into so many people’s heads. I had never experienced that before. She had been doing it for years.
Sometimes you never know what things you do, naturally, will even have social impact. I knew my song was catchy and the audiences liked it but had no idea that it would actually become ‘important’ to many immigrants as a means of ‘giving them mouths’. Remember, I had come over from the States where immigrants had been a lot more integrated into the mainstream. The presence of Italians in American culture was firmly established, from entertainers to politicians.
Here in Australia, things were quite different. What might have been an amusing song, like “That’s Amore”, in the States, in Australia, had deeper social implications that I couldn’t possibly have foreseen. Luckily, the melody and humour and sing-along aspects of the song also translated internationally – and didn’t even need its specific Australian social context. But Australia’s unique culture in 1980 was the key to the song’s breakthrough here.
Of course, one can strive toward social impact, consciously, especially in protest music or art projects…intended to make waves.
Difficult Women was, from the outset, a clear and conscious activist work designed to entertain, but also to challenge assumptions about women artists. The show got up a lot of men’s noses, too. One memorable gig was an afternoon show at a University in South Australia. We had been warned that an anti-feminist men’s organisation had been defacing our posters and planned to take over the venue and freeze us out.
When we arrived to perform, the first three rows of tables were filled with young men with their arms stubbornly folded, leering at us. The women students, a bit nervous, were all standing at the back of the hall. We just persevered – scary as it was at first – and eventually the boys got bored and left, and the girls came forward and took their seats. One of our most powerful shows.
Can you tell me about your decision to drop out of college and pursue music? How did you feel when you’d made the decision?
I had been majoring in Architecture – which really had been an extension of one of my father’s goals for me, to be a draftsman, or engineer, as he always told me that was where the serious money was (pre-computer days).
In my first year at Ohio University, I shared with a roommate who had an electric guitar and amplifier in the room. He would let me tinker around with it. I amused myself for hours playing with the reverb effects. Quite hypnotic.
Over time I taught myself chords and discovered I was a quick learner and had a voracious aptitude for guitar. My roommate also performed in a ‘James Brown’ style soul band and, eventually, I became good enough to become one of the band’s two lead guitarists.
The lead singer chose to quit the band to pursue serious collegiate studies and suddenly our cooking little group was ‘headless’.
One night, we were performing an instrumental blues show. At the end of the night, the lead singer of another one of the campus bands, came up on stage and announced to the audience that they had just seen one of the best bands on the campus. I was impressed because I didn’t know this person and, music being a competitive and bitchy business, felt it was a generous thing to do.
Later in the week, this singer, and a couple of his band mates came over to my dorm room and suggested that we form a fusion band together, which became The Headstone Circus. Within a year, we were the most popular band in Southern Ohio.
In my second year of college, I was growing increasingly bored with architecture studies and increasingly excited about music, so everyone in the band decided to drop out of college and pursue music full-time.
‘Better to starve than do anything else for a living’ was our mantra. It was a big and scary decision, and it put a real rift between me and my father, but my new friends had each other for support and our great musical group to keep us distracted. It also gave us the standard lot of rock & roll ‘perks’, as you can imagine.
Did you ever regret that decision? Do you ever wish you’d been, say, a banker?
I once wrote a blues songs called “Starvation Box Blues”, which was a depression-era term for the guitar. The last verse goes: “Sometimes I wish I had a regular job and was making steady money like you,
instead of living with so much damn uncertainty, and all these Starvation Box Blues.”
The decision to drop out of college was essentially a decision to be an entrepreneur, not an employee.
Of course, I sometimes imagine roads not taken, and where they might have led. But I don’t regret the decision. I also now know I had no choice. Destiny only becomes apparent with hindsight.
As an ex-psychologist I’m interested in the link between creativity and emotional health. Do you think it’s harder for creative people to stay emotionally healthy?
‘Creative’ is a loaded word. Anyone who excels in what they do is necessarily creative. It is hard for anyone in any serious field of endeavour requiring focus and specialised skills, to stay emotionally even consistently, when interacting with other people who have different focuses and different skills. The more specialised and visionary your skills, the less the non-specialised person can understand them. One becomes isolated in a little bubble filled with jargon and shorthand – specialised knowledge that gives you little in common with your neighbour – unless they are in your field. So one can become alienated.
Now put that in a family environment. With kids and partners, parents and extended family members. One must maintain successful and fruitful relationships with a whole circle of people – long-term – people who, for the most part, have very little in common with you, and only have a glimmer of what you really do, what your real potential is and who you really are at your core.
Close family and friends, paradoxically, need you to be in a fairly fixed and unchanging state so they can understand and communicate with you, and depend on you for their security, their ‘home’, in order to maintain their love and friendship.
This, for a visionary, in any field, is extremely difficult, without partitioning off your psyche. One compartment for kids, one for your partner, one for your new friends, one for your old friends, one for your employer, etc. Hence why so many artists are loners, suicidal, stressed out or have shipwrecked relationships.
But there are enough role models out there who have succeeded. So in my opinion, chose your mentors wisely.
You can’t learn from everyone, so learn from the ones who have already walked a similar difficult path to the one you have chosen – and learn from their experience, and do not be too distracted by the ones who say it can’t be done or have failed. One learns a lot from failures but one also learns a lot from successes. Don’t forget to find a few success stories and put the jealousy on the shelf and learn how they did it.
Is there something we can do as a community to improve in terms of support?
I think a basic clearer understanding of the differences between the polymath and the monomath, in our culture, is a pretty good start. These are two basic ways of learning and understanding other creative people.
The monomath is someone who excels at one particular skill, but has little comprehension, or even tolerance, of those who excel in other fields, and how they do it – especially if those fields overlap with theirs and are threatening to them.
The polymath, on the other hand, excels in many skills and actually requires inspiration and education from many monomath specialists, in order to develop their variety of gifts. Polymaths can be a real threat to monomaths. Monomaths, on the other hand, are essential to the development of polymaths.
Hence, great misunderstandings and the way we related to each other, unconsciously. But once you accept what kind of person you are, and how you learn – then it becomes much easier to relate and empower others who are different, without finding them threatening. Some people might call this a variation of people skills but I think it actually has to do with different learning curves and aptitudes.
What other artists/works of art inspire your own work?
In music, J.S. Bach, Jimi Hendrix, The Beatles, early Bob Dylan, many others. In poetry, Les Murray, E.E. Cummings, Dylan Thomas, Sylvia Plath, many others. My partner Lin van Hek is the single most important influence on my work, over the long-term, as a whole.
The other influences, too numerous to mention, are in the areas of dance, theatre, performance, cooking, film, photography, painting, chess, sex (& abstinence from sex), child rearing, gardening, travel, building, and all the renovative and fix-it-yourself arts.
“Shaddup You Face” was such a success. Do you recall the moment you discovered it had made it to the Guinness Book of Records? (What do you get as a record holder? A medal? A certificate? An award ceremony?)
It was a seminal moment when I got the letter from the Guinness people. I felt I had transcended the narrow area of the music world pop charts and reached into some other way of looking at my achievement. Up there with plate spinning. (Laughs).
Were you ever looked down upon by other people in the music industry for the popularity of the song or because people regarded it (and you) as a ‘one-hit wonder’.
I still am. But I’m wearing out my opposition and I am outliving many of them. That’s an advantage.
Has it been difficult to establish your talent/skills/authority in other areas (you’re a poet and essayist) because of the song?
Not talent or skills. But authority – yes – it is a continual struggle. But this was also true in pop music. Most contemporary pop musicians didn’t take me seriously as a musician during my “Shaddap You Face” period. Mainly because my musical skills weren’t that necessary to perform that song. It was more akin to theatre. And most of my old friends from my Headstone Circus days have a hard time reconciling that huge hit song, with my previous reputation as a cracking hot virtuoso blues harp player and prolific lead guitarist who could play Jimi Hendrix solos note for note.
What you look for is the next generation to come along, with more open minds, who can see what you are doing, and are not afraid to embrace it, because they are hungry and can learn from it.
It is important, when you have multi-talents, not to be influenced too much by the opinion of others, who do not have these talents, but merely have an ‘appreciation’ ( e.g. opinion) of these art forms and artists. These kinds of people can be stubborn and bull-headed and think they understand when they really understand nothing.
Wagner once said, “If a person cannot DO what you can do, do not give them the authority to criticise it.” This is hard. Especially when this kind of criticism comes from well-meaning family members. The first thing I say to these folks is: show me, don’t tell me. Otherwise, “Shaddap You Face”.
How did you feel when you found out KRS-One were doing a rap version of “Shaddup”?
I loved it. I have always known there were an infinite number of ways to perform the song. I do a half dozen myself including a Christian version and an aboriginal language translation.
Wagner also said, “A great composition is greater than any single performance of it.”
The KRS-One version also proves, incontestably, my point about ‘novelty songs’. When that version arrived at the radio stations, it went straight into the hip-hop pigeonhole, not the novelty song pigeonhole. SSDA. Same Song. Different Artist.
The context is everything in popular music.
If the Beatles had only released “Yellow Submarine”, they would be classified as novelty artists. But, in context, with the rest of their work, “Yellow Submarine” takes on a different meaning.
You’ve said in another interview “success in a relationship…has come out of an utter retreat from commercial music.” Can you explain what you mean by that – is a career in commercial music incompatible with a successful relationship? Why?
I didn’t mean this as an absolute for everyone. Only for my particular circumstances. Because I enjoy working and spending a lot of time with my partner. To make it commercially in pop music requires a serious commitment to touring and travel.
I prefer earning income from non-performance kinds of art, where you can spend most of your time alone, or at home or in the bush, with your partner enjoying life. And that doesn’t mean it’s not hard work. It’s just a different kind of hard work where you can be in proximity to each other.
Lin van Hek (Joe’s partner) and I committed to performing together on the road for almost fifteen years, in Difficult Women…That was wonderful and we saw the world and hung out together.
Now we are doing it differently, but we still hang out together. She paints, and I write poetry. We are in the same house, but in solitary dedicated spaces – coming together for meals and movies and cuddles at night.
Can you tell me a bit about Difficult Women?
Difficult Women evolved after years of my partner Lin and I exploring different ways that we could work together and be with each other as much as possible.
I met her about six months before “Shaddap You Face” was a hit, in 1980, so we were already in love, but not living together.
After “Shaddap You Face” started earning, we moved in together and she became part of the small portable stage show that I put together to take around Europe, mostly to do television and pop music shows.
That wasn’t very satisfying for her as an artist, but it was a start and we got to see the world together, like an extended honeymoon, which was absolute bliss.
Next, we began performing and singing harmony together as a duet, doing my songs and some traditional folk songs. That grew into a rock band with Lin and I as the primary singers, bass, drums and keyboard and allowed me to return to playing electric lead guitar, which I missed.
That band phase produced the song “Intimacy” which we co-wrote and became part of the soundtrack of the first Terminator movie.
The next evolution was a band we developed which used multi-media, 16 mm film projectors, slide projectors, sequencers, ultraviolet light sets and costumes, but still in the rock genre.
But none of these experiments, as entertaining as they were to do, were exactly right for our unique skill set, as Lin was primarily a writer, and a strong feminist thinker.
We both wanted something that expressed our unique visions better.
So we developed Difficult Women – a two-person show, a literary cabaret, with a strong feminist backbone, that brought to life, in performance, through music, readings, vignettes and acting, women who had been labelled ‘difficult’ in their time for being ahead of their time – and stayed stubborn about it.
Many women artists, back in the 80s, were marginalised, in many ways, but one subtle way this was done, in popular media, was by portraying them as unstable, quasi-mad individuals, prepared to sacrifice family and sanity for their art. (This is done with male artists, too, but it is actually admired in men, while being used against women to ‘bring them back into line’.)
Sylvia Plath and Virginia Woolf were commonly known, as unstable and suicidal. Frieda Lawrence left her children (bad mum!) to pursue a life in art with D.H. Lawrence. Frida Kahlo (a Communist!) was bedridden and crippled in the second half of her life. Emily Dickinson and the Bronte Sisters were viewed as ‘old maids’ or spinsters, despite their brilliance.
In other words, if you were a woman artist, in the 80s, the view was: be prepared to have a fucked-up life – forget about relationships and children – in order to be an artist.
So Difficult Women took these artists, and many others, and expanded their ‘stories’ beyond the media caricatures, to show audiences that these women were also real everyday people who lived full, humorous and colourful lives – not simply ‘victims’ of their art. That, in fact, their practice of art enriched their lives, and those around them. And that was only one example of the many themes that Difficult Women addressed.
Any hints for people working on projects with their partners?
“A room of one’s own”, as Virginia Woolf said.
Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera had ‘houses of their own’ right next to each other and were connected by a second-story walkway.
Get over the obsession of having to know everything there is to know about your partner. A secret life is important to an artist and a visionary. If you are truly a visionary genius and you consider your partner to be one, you CANNOT see their vision entire – you can only get a glimpse of it. Most of that iceberg is underwater and you can only have faith that it is there and will reveal itself over the course of your relationship.
We share much of our creative life together but we both have ‘a room of one’s own,’ not only physically, but also mentally.
People have no idea who the real geniuses are around them – until these artists make something that is so obvious to their understanding that the wonder cannot be denied. The rest of what they do and how they think is invisible to us.
Is there any advice you would give people who want to sustain a living working in their creative field?
Don’t be afraid of wearing many hats in your creative field. The redhat people may not relate to the greenhat person in you, and throw darts. But there’s a saying:
‘Criticism is like an arrow shot at your heart, but falling at your feet. You can choose not to pick it up and stab yourself with it.’
For example, J.S. Bach earned his weekly living cranking out cantatas every Sunday and teaching students, which he disliked.
He also wrote large works, like the “St Matthew Passion” and the “B-Minor Mass”, the former only heard a couple of times, and the latter, never in his lifetime.
But both of these works, today, are now cornerstones of Western music. Bach pinched bits out of his ‘serious’ hardly heard works to put in his never-ending stream of weekly cantatas that he had to deliver to get paid.
He never declared, ‘I am only a SERIOUS artist and people should accept my serious compositions or go fuck themselves.’
He was able to effectively compartmentalise his imagination, and output, into areas – some commercial, some very uncommercial.
Beethoven said the same thing a little differently: “I can no longer create for my peers – now I create for the future.” Paradoxically, his last Choral symphony, the Ninth, written when he was deaf, did both.
I call my ‘temporarily’ uncommercial work, my ‘B-Minor Mass’ box. And it is very full and growing.
But I also keep a responsible eye on how to make a living with my art, whether selling poems to magazines, teaching music, licensing for ads and creating royalties.
Then, of course, there are also the traditional ways to earn, that are available to all: investing in property, and the stock market, term deposits, etc.
There are many party hats. But you need clarity as to which hat is appropriate for which party. i.e. don’t wear your Playboy bunny ears to the International Women’s Day March.
Photographs: Lin van Hek