Lost Chord

Sydney Morning Herald

Saturday September 11, 2004

Richard Guilliatt

He was the most gifted member of a talented family, the heart and soul of one of Australia's favourite pub bands. Then things fell apart. Richard Guilliatt traces the dark path of the Sunnyboys frontman.

Success came so quickly for Jeremy Oxley, it would have made any country boy's head spin. He was 18 years old and fresh out of high school when he arrived in Sydney in January 1980, stepping off the train from the north coast clutching a clothes bag and a guitar case containing his Fender Stratocaster. By year's end he was fronting the hottest new rock'n'roll band in the city, with his big brother Pete standing beside him on bass. By 20 he had a gold album on his wall and a reputation as some kind of natural-born star.

The band was called the Sunnyboys, and for good reason. As kids, the Oxley brothers had roamed the surf beaches of Kingscliff, and something of that wide-open innocence radiated from their music. They were lanky, big-boned guys with mop-top haircuts and face-splitting grins - a bit goofy, perhaps, but inside Jeremy lurked a precocious talent. His voice had a yearning youthfulness, he wielded that Strat with the same quicksilver dexterity he'd once displayed on a surfboard, and the songs he wrote had a classic three-minute construction that evoked '70s garage-rock and '60s pop in equal measure.

But the Sunnyboys never cracked it big, despite making two more albums and slaying audiences from Sydney to London. Four years after it began, the band was suddenly playing its farewell tour, amid rumours of burnout and brotherly punch-ups. And when Jeremy Oxley re-emerged with a new band, darker stories began to take shape. He turned up onstage drunk or injured; he appeared on television with his jaw broken and swollen. Finally, he disappeared completely.

Oxley is 44 now, and lives alone in a modest weatherboard house in a quiet street in Ipswich, south-west of Brisbane. The place looks much the same as its neighbours: the lawn is mowed, a red Jaguar XJ6 is parked out back, a wind-chime tinkles on the wooden veranda. By the front door is a small painting of a single red flower on a white background, rendered in a few elegant brushstrokes. Inside the house are more paintings - landscapes in soft golds and greens, figurative sketches of nudes, a half-finished canvas on an easel in the living room.

The paintings are Oxley's, and they're so beguiling that it takes a while to notice that not everything here is in harmony. There's a framed gold Sunnyboys LP in the lounge room, but its gleaming surface is punctured by 14 bullet holes. A squat Marshall amp in the hallway has grown cobwebs. Oxley himself stands in the lounge room, dressed in chinos and a polo shirt. The lean physique of youth has given way to a slight middle-aged spread, of course, and his broad face has more lines etched into it. But it's his smile that is most different, the guileless grin of old now tighter and more wary, revealing teeth at odd angles.

"Want to hear some J.S. Bach?" he asks, striding over to the stereo. Instead, he puts on a pop record, which we listen to for a while until Oxley turns it off and picks up another CD. It's the first Sunnyboys album, the one that went gold and ended up bullet-riddled. He puts it on, turns the volume up loud, and the rolling chord progression of Alone With You, a classic song he wrote in high school, surges out of the speakers. Oxley stands listening with his head tilted back, lost in his own thoughts, and as he listens his left arm - the one that once grasped the neck of his Strat - extends at a right angle from his body and his fingers curl around thin air.

A new song starts up - Trouble in My Brain, another of his odes to teenage turmoil. Except today the song's lyrics seem freighted with heavier meaning.

I was always ill-at-ease,

I feel the pressures of my dreams,

Got a trouble in my brain...

Abeachfront apartment in Kingscliff, on that hallowed stretch of surf coast between Byron Bay and Surfers Paradise, will cost you a million dollars these days. But in 1965, when Eric and Jan Oxley arrived there to start a new life away from Sydney, the place barely qualified as a village. The Oxleys built a fibro house on the hill just back from Marine Parade, and their five kids - Peter, Jeremy, Melanie, Tim and Damien - had five kilometres of barely populated coastline as a playground.

Eric Oxley was an art teacher from Manchester but his kids grew into Aussie grommets, hair bleached to straw by sun and saltwater. Jeremy was the second-oldest and the most natural surfer, just as he was the best soccer player, the most gifted artist, and the funniest comic of the family. At 14 he was Queensland's schoolboy surfing champion, although by then he was already being lured away from the waves by another siren call. He'd picked up the guitar and formed a high-school rock band with older brother Pete on bass and a friend from primary school, Bil Bilson, on drums. In time, all the Oxley kids would get involved in music, either singing or working in production, but they all recognised Jeremy as the prodigy of the family.

"He was kind of gifted in a way, Jeremy," says Tim Oxley, the most quietly spoken of

the siblings and a singer/songwriter who has worked for years on the independent side of the music business. "So it kind of put him in the spotlight from an early age. His disease wasn't around then - I remember him being a normal person." The memory provokes a pensive pause. "It's been a long time since then."

As a teenager, Jeremy played regularly around the north coast in several bands, so by the time he joined big brother Pete in Sydney in 1980, he already had a swag of songs and a dazzling facility on guitar. The pair roped in their old mate Bil on drums and a south coast guitarist called Richard Burgman to debut the Sunnyboys at Chequers nightclub three months before Jeremy's 19th birthday. In a city already teeming with tough-sounding guitar bands, they quickly acquired a hot reputation and a deal with Mushroom Records.

There was, from the start, an artless quality about Jeremy Oxley - in early publicity shots his big, toothy grin looked too wide for his face, and in interviews he seemed beset by the eternal adolescent struggle for self-expression. Asked about the band's first single, Happy Man, he told one DJ: "Yeah, well, it's a pretty happy country, Australia. We don't have too many problems ... So I thought, you know, it'd be a good song to put out and start in a positive way." Yet beneath the naivety was an intensity that came out in his ferocious playing onstage; look closely at the band's first video and you can see dried blood on the scratch-plate of Oxley's Strat.

"If you saw Jeremy onstage, well, he gives his all," says his father. "He gives everything."

Like the rest of the family, Eric Oxley believes the music industry bears a large measure of responsibility for the problems that beset his son. The Sunnyboys' first album sold 50,000 copies, which was just enough success to throw them headlong into the grind of relentless roadwork. Tours were three-month long-distance hauls, and in one visit to Melbourne alone they racked up 27 performances in 10 days. Melanie Oxley, who shared a house with Jeremy in Sydney, recalls him returning in the wee hours from a gig outside Sydney only to be woken, a few hours later, to stumble ashen-faced out of the door to the next show.

"I think being in a hugely successful pub band at the age of 20, having it all at your feet - drugs, alcohol, being carried around the country with this massive PA system, people saying you're fantastic - it's a situation of excess and it's bound to have an effect on some people. And to the person who writes the songs and is the frontman onstage, the centre of attention, it's different. Other people handled it. With Jeremy, something happened."

The Sunnyboys were cleanskins compared to many narcotic-addled bands of their era, although when it came to booze and pot they could keep pace with most. These days, of course, marijuana's potential as a trigger for mental illness is more widely recognised. But if the Sunnyboys had a vice, it was overwork. They made their second album in such a rushed break between tours that it turned out a commercial disappointment. Then they discovered they were $60,000 in debt, largely due to their management's failure to control on-the-road costs. A new manager, Michael Chugg, gave them the only advice he could: get back on the road and make more money.

"It was a blast, it was almost fantastical, being in a band at that age," says Peter Oxley. "But it was completely out of our control. We were told what we were doing, and where, and we did it." In 1983 the band flew to London seeking fresh inspiration, playing the fabled Marquee Club and recording a third album. But the costs of that trip blew out, and the pressure of expectation seemed to trigger some new and indefinable troubles for Jeremy Oxley.

"He would spend lots of time just on his own," recalls Peter. "In the studio, he had this fixation with a certain drum rhythm which didn't suit our songs. It struck me as odd."

Jeremy wanted to get back home, but once there found himself back in a familiar cycle.

In one punishing week the band slogged up the Queensland coast playing one-nighters from Rockhampton to Cairns. Back in Sydney, Melanie caught Jeremy cutting his arms with a razor, giving himself "tatts" which he displayed onstage by ripping the sleeves from his shirt.

"I knew there was a problem when he started self-harming," she recalls. "I just thought: 'That's not Jeremy in there, that's someone else.'"

In early 1984 the Sunnyboys played to the biggest crowd of their careers when the band supported the Police before 70,000 people at the Melbourne Showgrounds. But the following night in Adelaide, a strange scene unfolded in Jeremy Oxley's hotel room. "We were watching television," recalls Peter Oxley, "and the video for our new single came on. Jeremy started shouting, 'That's not how it sounds! They've sabotaged it!' I kept saying, 'Jeremy, it's fine, the song sounds fine', but he insisted that our record company and manager had sabotaged it. That's when I knew we had a huge, serious problem."

It's not clear when schizophrenia was first mooted as an explanation for Oxley's problems. Not long after the Adelaide incident, Eric Oxley came down to Sydney and took his son to a psychiatrist, but he doesn't recall getting a definitive diagnosis. Given that schizophrenia involves repeated episodes of psychosis, it may have been too early to tell.

By mid-1984, however, it was clear that Jeremy wanted to quit, and he agreed to one last tour at the end of the year. Mick Mazzone, the Sunnyboys' former road manager, recalls that by then he was already aware that Jeremy might be suffering from schizophrenia.

"Knowing a lot more about it now, I can't even believe we went out and did that tour, let alone finished it," says Mazzone. But the band were in debt again, he recalls, and they wanted to bow out with dignity. From the outset there were near-disasters: at the first gig in Canberra, Oxley put his fist through a pub window, thinking someone was staring at him; a week later, a gig outside Melbourne was abandoned when he took to the stage drunk, talking like a pirate, huddling for hours afterwards in a broom cupboard until Mazzone found him. Yet when the demons were at bay, the band were almost perversely great, culminating in a blistering final show on Christmas Eve at the Graphic Arts Club in Sydney.

When the Sunnyboys ended, Jeremy Oxley's dark years began. The onset of schizophrenia can be terrifying for its sufferers - thought processes begin to fragment, the mind is gripped by a fearful sense of being plotted against, and voices murmur sinister imprecations. Like many sufferers, Oxley began drinking hard while trying to maintain a facade of normality, the bands he formed never lasting long. In an industry where self-destructive behaviour is almost de rigueur, many people turned a blind eye to his obvious instability.

In 1988 he launched a new line-up of the Sunnyboys without any other original members, but it was a shambles; he turned up to one gig unable to play guitar because he'd put his arm through a window; he appeared on a Saturday morning television interview with his jaw broken in four places after a savage beating in a bar the previous night. It was several days before he got to hospital.

"To me, that incident shows just how bad the whole management of mental health is," says Melanie Oxley. "He comes into the hospital, wild-eyed and with a broken jaw - it should have been obvious to them there was a psychiatric problem. When I got there they'd wired his jaw, and he said to me through clenched teeth: 'Get me some Mogadon!' But they gave him some Panadeine and let him discharge himself after a few days."

For many years, Peter and Melanie Oxley alternated in rescuing their brother from disaster, retrieving him from bar fights or car accidents, offering him a bed when he would turn up at their front door, penniless or even shoeless. Hospitalised in 1990, he was given a definitive diagnosis of schizophrenia and put on anti-psychotic drugs. But it was in this period that Oxley made a choice that still agonises his family: although medication quelled his paranoia and quietened the voices in his head, it deadened his talent for painting and music. It even gave him lockjaw, literally robbing him of his voice.

"It was just a really sad situation," recalls Tim Oxley. "Either you take this drug and hope you get to a point in a few years where you can stabilise, or you carry on trying to be creative and living without the drugs. He made that choice, and I totally understand it."

Drug treatments for schizophrenia have improved over the past 20 years, of course, but Oxley has resolutely refused them. For several years he retreated to a Housing Commission flat in Sydney's northern suburbs, occasionally checking himself into Hornsby Hospital when his condition became unbearable. Later he moved to Queensland, and found his current place in Ipswich four years ago.

What especially pained his family was that most people in the music business saw him as just another rock star self-destructing. It's a misconception the family have only recently resolved to clear up, now that a new retrospective CD of the Sunnyboys is being released. "A lot of people just seemed to regard him as this alcoholic bastard who thought he was the best thing around," says Melanie Oxley. "There was nothing we could do about that."

Jeremy Oxley is driving his Jaguar through the Queensland countryside, a symphony blaring from the stereo, his eyes flitting over the landscape. Dressed in moleskins, a maroon rugby shirt and a flat houndstooth cap, he looks a bit like a rural English motoring enthusiast. "Look at that tree," he says, pointing to a white-trunked gum that has caught his painter's eye. Oxley is driving fast but seems content, as if the acceleration matches the speed of his restless mind.

"Out here it doesn't rain, because it's too cold..."

he says, scanning the winter sky for clouds. "In this weather it's still cold and it just hangs in the air." Then his thoughts shift a gear, and he's suddenly talking about a friend called James, and the significance of biblical names.

This is Jeremy Oxley as he spends most of his life now, captured on two hours of digital film shot by Peter Oxley when he visited his younger brother last month. On the film, Jeremy's initial wariness gradually softens, until he's offering a guided tour of his house and dropping off-kilter wisecracks (he calls his car "Haggis the Jaguar"). His thoughts have a fragmented, zig-zagging trajectory, with frequent asides about the Bible and God. But the house is clean, he's clean-shaven and in good physical shape.

It was during that visit that Jeremy agreed to talk to Good Weekend for this story. But when we turned up, only a day later, he'd already started drinking to quell his nerves, and within half an hour had succeeded in making himself incoherent. Unfamiliar faces are not always welcome to him, and the subject of the Sunnyboys can trigger anger or silence, as if the injustices of that time are still fresh in his mind.

"The mention of the Sunnyboys seems to make him a different person, pull him into a different state," says Melanie Oxley. "Because his breakdown occurred at that time, I think part of him is stuck back there.

"He's a bright guy," she adds sadly. "I'm sure he thinks: 'I was 24, and that's it.'"

The question of what should or could have been done still lingers among those who watched Oxley's disintegration. If he had not been driven to exhaustion, might he have recovered? "I remember so vividly that day in the hotel room in Adelaide when Jeremy was yelling 'They've sabotaged it!'" says Peter Oxley. "Sometimes I think, 'Oh man, should we have stopped it right then?' I don't blame any particular individual, but I do think there was negligence in the way the industry put Jeremy under such intense pressure. And there's that misgiving, too, about whether I should have seen it coming. But I was just a young man, same as Jeremy, caught on this treadmill. I don't think anyone thought there was anything seriously wrong with him until his illness became really pronounced."

Peter Oxley runs a restaurant in Sydney these days, but when he read about the recent turmoil in the Vines - the hugely successful Sydney band whose young leader, Craig Nicholls, was vilified on radio for his increasingly erratic behaviour - he wondered whether much has changed in the past two decades.

Up in Queensland, Jeremy Oxley still plays and composes music - schizophrenia never impaired his musical dexterity, although his songs no longer have the universal appeal they once did, their meanings decipherable only by him. Some of the music he has composed on piano, like his paintings, has a gentle lyricism that suggests he is far from tortured. Schizophrenia is an illness that its luckiest sufferers sometimes learn to manage, and it appears he is one of those lucky ones. He cooks for himself, he has a beer at the pub, and according to the neighbours who watch over him, he is essentially happy as long as his familiar environment is not intruded upon. The spectre that hovers over many sufferers - suicide - seems remote. He always was an optimist.

The last time Oxley played in public was six years ago, when he was coaxed to Melbourne for the Mushroom Records 25th anniversary concert at the Melbourne Cricket Ground. It's doubtful that anyone present that afternoon appreciated how much courage it took for him to stride out onstage and plug in before 70,000 people. With Bil Bilson back on drums, Peter Oxley on bass and Tim Oxley substituting for Richard Burgman, the reunion was doubly poignant - four guys who'd roamed the dunes of Kingscliff as kids, playing together more than 30 years later. Dressed

in jeans and a leather jacket, Jeremy struck up the opening chords of Happy Man as if none of the horrors of the previous 10 years had happened.

The Sunnyboys played only two songs that day, but they went down a storm, as usual. At his house one afternoon, Peter Oxley plays me a videotape of the performance, smiling in wonder at his brother's guitar playing, almost note-perfect after only three days of rehearsal. It's hard not to feel a pang when Jeremy Oxley leans into the mike and sings the opening line of their second song, Alone With You: "We can lock away the bad memories together..." When I turn to say something to Peter Oxley, he's leaving the room, blinking back tears.

© 2004 Sydney Morning Herald

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