Amphetamine is best known as a drug of alertness: snort or shoot a line of speed and you’ll be awake far longer than the body can usually tolerate. The avoidance of sleep is one of its major benefits, especially for creative people who feel compelled to spend their time on this earth productively, rather than being laid out in bed for one-third of every day. But the drug can be used medicinally in this sense, too, especially if you’re in a band where others are burning the proverbial candle for days on end. As Mick Harvey found, using amphetamine was sometimes the only way to keep up with Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, the band that he co-founded and managed.
In the mid-eighties, while based in Berlin, the guitarist would look around the studio and realise that his bandmates were invariably loaded on one substance or another. He’d partake in half a line of speed and stay up for two days. ‘I don’t know why they would keep going back and taking another line every two hours,’ he says. ‘There was no need whatsoever!’ Sometimes, the group would spill into a bar at seven in the morning and rage on. All of this was fun to Harvey, then in his mid-twenties, who thoroughly enjoyed being part of a band perceived then – and now – as one of Australia’s edgiest rock groups. Speed was incredibly useful on those occasions, but its medicinal purposes only stretched so far. ‘I certainly never had a desire to continue to take it every day, or to deliberately go and find some and party,’ he says. ‘I just didn’t really do that.’
Those six words evoke the popular characterisation of Mick Harvey as a quintessential ‘straight man’. He just didn’t really do drugs, we’ve been led to believe, even though he was a founding member of two bands known for consumption: the Bad Seeds and its preceding incarnation, The Birthday Party. Regardless of the truth of Harvey’s own intake, the perception of excess that surrounded these outfits wasn’t exactly bad for business, either.
‘To some degree, there were aspects of what was happening that was feeding into the creative work, in an odd way; not always in a good way,’ he says of the latter band’s output around 1980. ‘And [feeding] into the whole mindset and attitude of the thing, which was the public image around it. We were being kind of rebellious, kind of “on the edge”. When the balance was right, it would actually work in our favour. I could see that. There were some nights where the degree to which certain members of the band were “out of it”, but we were still able to play really well, would create a very, very unusual vibe, a very dangerous kind of atmosphere. It was really exciting; they were just amazing shows. But you couldn’t harness it in any way at all. It was completely random. It wasn’t like I thought, “Oh, if everyone would just clean up, the band would be better.” It actually wouldn’t have been.’
Cocktails of heroin, alcohol and speed were flowing through the veins of several musicians, adding to the unpredictable nature of each Birthday Party show. ‘I wasn’t part of that,’ says Harvey. ‘Just as well. I mean, if everyone in the band had been doing it, it would’ve been …’ He pauses. ‘At least there were a couple of anchors there.’ With Harvey on guitar and a dependable percussionist locked onto the beat, the others could freewheel and improvise wherever the mood or mix took them. ‘There was a wild side to what could be going on that was pretty amazing sometimes,’ says Harvey. ‘And I could see that, so I wasn’t anti what was going on, particularly.’
On stage, intoxication could be an asset. This was rarely the case in any other situation, though, particularly when Harvey became manager through necessity – ‘there was no one else there to do it’, he notes – and began learning on the job, as it were. The pressure would build within him until, at a crucial point, he’d have a meltdown and blow his lid at those who surrounded him. ‘Things would be happening that were getting absolutely preposterous,’ he wryly notes. The stoned band members would look up in shock, slurring to each other, ‘Oh, what’s the matter with Mick?’
‘I’d just lose it, and nobody would understand,’ he tells me. ‘They’d just think I had a really terrible temper. It was like, Christ!’ He sighs in frustration at the memories. ‘God! The stuff I’d been putting up with; it was almost unbelievable. I mean, I used to have quite a bad temper sometimes. But they had no notion of what I’d been putting up with.’
Sitting there, hour by hour, some of the band members wouldn’t be thinking about their behaviour of the past few days that might have been problematic for a manager whose job it was to corral them into action to meet studio deadlines, board flights and buses, make it to the sound check. ‘After they all “cleaned up” – and Nick hates that term, so I’ll continue to use it,’ he smirks, ‘some of them would go through the twelve steps [rehab program], and sometimes they’d come and apologise to me about stuff they’d done.’ Harvey would inevitably respond by muttering a dismissive whatever under his breath. What was he meant to say to that? He wasn’t sure.
‘Usually, they’d get to that phase, and then just start abusing me about how I’d [reacted], which was really charming,’ he says. ‘I’d have to explain, “Look, I know that I lose my temper with you occasionally, but what you don’t understand is that it was over a long period of time. That was the way I handled it, by not getting angry, just coping with it for a week at a time, and then cracking. I know it wasn’t the best way to handle it, but it’s the only way I could do it.”’
There is a pause in conversation while we both consider those words. Suddenly, Harvey bursts out laughing for the first time. ‘I don’t know what they made of that!’ he exclaims. ‘I’ve got no idea. They just remember these incidents where I’d be angry at them, yelling at them about something, and they’d see no correlation.’ He laughs again. ‘It’s just unbelievable.’
Mick Harvey owns a studio in a nondescript laneway in North Melbourne. As I arrive at the gate, I happen to meet with a passing mailman, who can see that I’m heading into the property. He cheerfully hands me a few letters, which I take in to Harvey. ‘You’ve got mail!’ are among the first words I say to him. This entrance throws him, I think; we don’t properly shake hands and say hello for a couple of minutes, instead making small-talk. This icy reception is in line with my expectations, for reasons I can’t really place: I had supposed that Harvey might be a difficult interview subject, and these first few minutes set that tone, as we both hover awkwardly in the kitchen-cum-living room.
But, soon enough, the fifty-four-year-old with striking white hair and piercing blue eyes reveals his true nature. Warm and friendly to a fault, he shows me into the adjoining rehearsal room, which is stacked with an impressive array of instruments and amplifiers. A drum kit is set up at the far end, beneath a striking, enormous artwork by Italian painter Michelangelo Russo. Harvey had been puzzling over a computer prior to my arrival: his twelve-year-old son uses a machine in the music room to play video games. He’s in the midst of downloading a zombie shooter called Left 4 Dead 2 using Steam, a software platform with more than its fair share of quirks. I never thought I’d be sharing Steam grievances with Harvey within minutes of our meeting, but that’s exactly what happens.
During our interview at a kitchen table beneath a set of fascinating pinhole photographs, Harvey makes clear that it’s not as though decades spent in a social milieu rooted in heavy drug use is a barrel of laughs, not even close. ‘It had some really negative effects on me,’ he says. ‘It’s not like I was unscarred by it.’ He recalls an ABC Radio interview on the Conversation Hour in the mid-2000s where he was asked how he managed to stay sober while everyone else was high. ‘That’s a popular history – that I was “straight as a die” while everybody was [not],’ Harvey tells me. ‘I didn’t even say, “Well, actually, sometimes I might have been taking something too, or drinking heavily” – which is true, eventually. I just said, “Oh, you’re assuming that when you’re around people using like that, you don’t get damaged or affected by it.”’
To Harvey’s surprise and dismay, the Conversation Hour host began laughing and said something inane: ‘Oh yes, rock and roll!’ or words to that effect. ‘He just completely missed the point of what I’d said. I was sitting there going, “What’s the matter with this guy?” He just wanted to wade into the “sex and drugs and rock and roll” circus, and thought it was really funny.’
Like a punchline, I offer. ‘Yeah,’ Harvey replies. ‘I was trying to make a really serious statement about how the people who aren’t using drugs get very adversely affected by being around it, because I was the “straight guy”’ – he uses air quotes here – ‘across the journey, and was having to deal with that. Everyone says, “I don’t know how you coped all those years.” And I used to go, “Oh, yeah, I don’t really, either.” And eventually I realised that I hadn’t coped, that it affected me really badly. The eighties affected me really badly, being around that for a long time. It took me quite a while to get realigned, to get back out of that.’
He finds it difficult to pinpoint exactly how he was damaged over that period of prolonged exposure to self-abuse by the people around him. ‘It was just that association, I suppose,’ he says quietly. ‘They have those groups for co-dependents and people like that. I don’t think I was a co-dependent; I think I was only really there because of the band. I wasn’t along for the journey just because I wanted to help people on drugs, or be around [them] because I actually liked being around them, or something. I didn’t, at all. I suppose it just damaged my soul more than anything, really, just having to cope with that for years and years. It really took me a while to back out of that and patch myself up.’ He pauses. ‘And to feel okay about it.’
Within The Birthday Party, and later within the Bad Seeds, Harvey was not only manager but also bandmate and – importantly – friend to those men. I ask whether it was difficult to separate those roles at times. ‘Yeah, it was,’ he replies. ‘They were all intermingled, I suppose. The Birthday Party broke up; the Bad Seeds started in late ’83, and I started another band [a third incarnation of Sydney rock group Crime & the City Solution]. So I was in two bands then, through to the end of the decade. Both were filled with people with drug or drinking problems. And living in Berlin in 1986, it was pretty out of control. All-night bars; speed sent over from Stasi laboratories to corrupt the youth of West Berlin; people with heroin problems … It was pretty wild.’
And fun, too. Let’s not overlook that. If it wasn’t enjoyable, why would he have stuck around? ‘It was a fantastic social milieu there,’ Harvey says, smiling. ‘A lot of great friends; a lot of creative activity going on. It was really exciting. But there was this backdrop of a whole lot of weird stuff; people with drug problems; people being really out of it, a lot of the time. That was just the territory I lived through in the eighties. And it did affect me, over time, adversely.’
We won’t detail certain musicians’ numerous attempts at ‘cleaning up’; those are their stories to tell, and theirs alone. All Harvey can do is reflect on how he dealt with those matters at the time, and how they now appear in the rear-view mirror. ‘As much as they may have been sitting there thinking I was judging them quietly, not saying anything,’ Harvey says of his former bandmates, ‘I was not judgemental with people who were using drugs. I was judgemental of some of the behaviour after a while, when it was just completely useless.’
And it’s not as though Harvey was a teetotaller who steadfastly refused the experiences that those around him were attracted to. He tried heroin. ‘I didn’t really like it!’ he says with a laugh, after deliberating on the question for a few moments. ‘It made you feel a bit sick and delusional about how great everything was, while doing absolutely nothing. It just seemed extremely indulgent to me.’
Up the nose it went, never directly into the vein. ‘I’ve kind of got “hyperdermaphobia”,’ he says. ‘I’m hopeless with needles; I can’t go anywhere near ’em.’ These days, he’s more able to cope with injections, as his high cholesterol requires regular blood tests. But he could never watch his friends shoot up. ‘It becomes part of this mythology of the drug-taking; this fetishistic thing, with the needles and stuff,’ he says. ‘I find it gross, actually. It’s really grotesque.’
By the time the Bad Seeds were in a London studio recording The Boatman’s Call in 1996, Harvey was fed up. The judgement was starting to creep in; the drug abuse had gone on too long. It was beyond a joke; instead, a sad fact of life and an impediment to creativity. Having recently lost his father to a heart attack, aged sixty-nine, Harvey was in a delicate state. The sight of some of his peers being stoned every morning had worn thin. A kind of catatonic world-weariness set in. ‘I just didn’t need to be there, wasting my time,’ he says. ‘I just sat in the TV room until I was asked to come in and work on a mix. I wouldn’t go anywhere with them until I was actually asked to come in, ’cause I just couldn’t cope with it. I don’t know if that’s being judgemental, actually. I was just not coping with it. I just didn’t need to be around it anymore.’
The problem was not so much the consumption but the fact that the lines between the band members and their personal lives had long since become blurred. As a result, it was quite hard to separate the two. ‘If loads of your friends are in these situations, you’re talking to half of them about their drug problems, and trying to help them as best you can – which usually [involves] hours and hours of conversations that lead nowhere,’ Harvey says. ‘It’s very, very draining.’ Combine that fact with the common issues that surround drug addiction – money problems, dishonesty – and Harvey found himself saddened by the erratic behaviour of those around him. ‘It’s a really hard thing to deal with over a long period of time. It upsets you.’
He and his wife, Katy Beale, were together already in Berlin, and have remained strong since. But that union was not without its challenges. ‘I think it affected our relationship indirectly, because we were around these people that we had relationships with, which impacted back on [us],’ Harvey says. ‘Then I’d be off on tour half the time. It really created enormous instability inside our relationship. When I finally came out of all of that, it was like …’ He pauses, sighs, then says, ‘I just wanted everyone to get better. It was then another decade of struggle with people sort of getting better, and then relapsing, and getting better …’
‘Draining’ doesn’t seem close to the right word for it. ‘I had to find my own stability, and my own course [as to] where I was going, despite anything else. It took a while to realign all of that,’ he says. At the heart of this process was the realisation that the actions of others were out of Harvey’s control. Little by little, he was able to disassociate from their behaviour. Luckily, he says, almost every person in his life affected by drugs was someone whom he’d known prior to those substances intervening in their friendship.
This is important: if you only ever know someone as a drug user, it certainly colours your perception of them. Harvey knew what these people were like deep down; he could discern that their drug use had added another layer of complexity to their relationship. Whether those layers were positive or negative, he found the inner strength to weather those storms. ‘I’m just glad that it’s really not around now,’ he says. ‘I still know people who’ve got their issues – some people still have heavy drinking problems – but a lot of the drug problems in my age group, people have moved on from it, for the most part.’
Harvey himself moved on from Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds in January 2009, ending a thirty-six-year-long collaboration with the band’s frontman. ‘They’ve had to deal with it or they’ve died,’ he says. ‘It’s one or the other.’
I mention Rowland S. Howard in this context: the distinctive guitarist who joined The Birthday Party in 1978 later formed These Immortal Souls and became an accomplished – if chronically underappreciated – singer and songwriter in his own right. Howard died in December 2009 at the age of fifty from liver cancer, a complication associated with hepatitis C, which was likely contracted from sharing needles earlier in his life. Ultimately, his liver gave up. Since the two had worked closely together for decades, most recently on Howard’s final album, 2009’s Pop Crimes, I ask Harvey whether he views his early demise as a waste, knowing how talented he was.
‘It’s difficult,’ he replies quietly. ‘I’m oddly kind of Buddhist in some ways. I just tried to treat it in terms of, “It’s what’s happening.” We would have rehearsed here with him a few times’ – he gestures at the adjacent music room – ‘around the time of Pop Crimes, when we were doing shows. J. P. [Shilo, who played bass and violin in the final incarnation of the band] would see Rowland deteriorating. He’d go, “It’s really sad,” and I’d be like, “Oh.” I mean, it was sad, but I couldn’t sit there and look at it that way. It felt like that would be me indulging. I just felt like – well, he’s got what he’s got, and he’s still trying to do what he can with his abilities, and he might get better. Just accept what’s there, and try and work with it, you know?
‘He just had a physical condition in the end, where there were toxins in his system and his liver wasn’t dealing with it. Every morning, he was almost getting a bit delirious with it. I couldn’t do anything about it. And then he couldn’t really play anymore. That was a real shame, and I felt really sorry for Rowland that he couldn’t exploit the level of interest there was in his new work, because he’d really been in the …’ He pauses, and sighs. ‘He’d spent a long time being not really “in favour”. He wasn’t out of favour, but there wasn’t a great level of interest in what he was doing for quite a while there.
‘When Pop Crimes was in production, there was this huge new groundswell of interest. There were about fifteen years where there wasn’t a lot of it. Rowland sensed that very acutely. It was a struggle for him to get people interested in what he was doing – which I know about from different projects that I’ve been involved in. When you don’t get the buzz behind it, it doesn’t really have a lot to do with how good the music is; it’s just whether there’s a willingness to listen. I’ve seen it too many times. But for Rowland, it was very frustrating for him, and then there was finally this groundswell of interest, and he wasn’t able to take advantage of it – or finally get his “just desserts”, or something,’ he says with a mournful chuckle.
For as long as anyone could remember, Howard – forever rake-thin, with spiked hair and dressed in a smart suit – would perform on stage with a lit cigarette dangling from his lips as he eked out evocative notes on his Fender Jaguar. Harvey, too, was a lifelong smoker but gave up at the age of forty, some thirteen years prior to our conversation. ‘I’m a nicotine person,’ he says, even now. ‘It’s a really cool drug, actually.’ He laughs as if he’s just revealed an embarrassing secret. ‘People would think, “Oh, what’s it do anyway? They’re just smoking and it’s not doing anything.”’
I admit that I’m one of those people: I’ve always viewed smoking as a dumb, pointless habit.
‘It takes the edge off your emotions, which is really nice for a lot of people who are a bit edgy and prone to being emotional,’ Harvey explains. ‘It makes it all a bit easier to get through those difficult bits and pieces in the day. And that’s why people, when they get aggravated or upset by something, they’ll reach for a smoke, ’cause it just takes the edge off your emotions. I really liked that. In fact, for years I’d just be like, “Blow it over here; it’s the only cigarette I’m going to get!” I didn’t mind passive smoking at all!’ He laughs. ‘I wasn’t one of those reformed, anti-smoking fascists.
‘Any mind-altering drug has a different effect: making you happy, or slowing you down, or picking you up. They’re all mind-altering substances, and so is nicotine. So it seems like people are just puffing away on this weird weed that smells, but they’re getting a dose of this stuff that’s helping them cope with their emotions.’ Was it hard to quit? I ask. ‘Yeah, it is,’ he replies. ‘People say, “Oh, harder than heroin!” I don’t know about that – literally. The thing with smoking is that it’s just so readily available, and so easy to go back to, so you really have to be vigilant and just decide, “Nah, I just can’t have one.” It’s a little bit easier to have one than to go and score heroin, if you know what I mean. So maybe that’s where the difference lies. But I can’t imagine that it’s actually a harder addiction to shake than heroin. It’s certainly not as extreme a set of sensations that you’re dealing with.’
Despite the wide-ranging conversation we’ve had over the last hour and a half, Mick Harvey ultimately takes the position that illicit drugs aren’t necessarily the problem: instead, it comes down to the way in which people choose to use them. ‘All drugs can have grave associated problems,’ he says. ‘First, they’ve been banned, and then they’ve been demonised.’ Any change on this topic at a governmental level will require a spine, so to speak, and an ability to backtrack on the negative messages that Australians have been sold for decades. ‘There’s not the political will to do that – or even the awareness, perhaps. And, if there was [an] awareness, then how would they go about doing it? How are they going to change their tune to the public? It’s a big job, to re-educate and re-inform.
‘Because I’ve been so surrounded by [illicit drug use], I’ve seen a lot of the problems that come with it. But I’ve also seen a lot of people, as well, who’ve used in different ways and not had problems. So the point about banning it across the board is that then you remove that freedom of choice of those people, too. I mean, why does alcohol remain available when other things aren’t? It’s not a great drug, at all; [there are] quite an awful lot of negative associations with alcohol abuse, particularly health-wise. It’s a shame that Western societies have closed it off so much and made it such a ridiculously complex and bitter issue, because it didn’t have to be handled that way. But it has been, and now that’s the way it is.’