Vic Simms is the loner no longer.
It was hard to tell whether tears or sweat were streaming down Vic Simms' face as he sang his signature song, Stranger in My Country, under the balmy winter skies of Darwin's Botanical Gardens. But the feeling was intense.
It was July 2015, and the 70-year-old Bidjigal rocker from Sydney was making his first live appearance in Darwin, celebrating his induction into the National Indigenous Music Awards' Hall of Fame.
"We are never, ever, ever again gonna be strangers in our country," said the late-'50s child rock'n'roller turned early '70s Bathurst Gaol inmate and 21st-century legend. Then he counted in I Wanna Bop and rocked the bats from the trees.
Luke Peacock remembers the gig with particular fondness. It was a couple of years since he had assembled his Queensland combo the Painted Ladies for the sole purpose of paying tribute to Simms' lost classic of '73, The Loner."That award definitely had a cherry-on-top kind of feel to it, with the journey we'd been on over those previous couple of years," he says today. "To go up there and have Uncle Vic recognised for what he'd done was something none of us imagined when we started out."
The truth is, the young singer-songwriter didn't even know if Simms was alive when he first came across a copy of The Loner in the Brisbane radio station where he worked in 2011. But he was moved enough to find out.
"It felt so close to home in so many ways," he said of his discovery at the time. "Not just the aspects of indigenous inequality and discrimination. There are love songs, songs about friends … if they weren't about me, they were about someone I knew."
The album had been recorded inside Bathurst Gaol, as a PR stunt by a corrective services department rocked by a series of riots. Simms was even trotted out on tour, but soon quit when he saw how he was being used. The Loner drifted out of print, and out of mind for all but the few collectors who knew it as the first Aboriginal protest album.The Painted Ladies Play Selections from The Loner covers about half of the original record, as well as a couple of rockers from the late '50s – songs young Vicky Simms used to howl on stage after Col Joye plucked him out of Sydney's La Perouse mission and took him on the road.
Simms' ascendancy was cut short, like that of so many others, by the Beatles' arrival. The rest of the '60s weren't as glamorous. By the time he traded a few packets of tobacco for an acoustic guitar in Bathurst, he was singing a very different kind of tune.
Simms wrote songs about barefaced racial discrimination, such as Get Back into the Shadows, and others about segregation and social inequality, such as Try to Understand and Poor Folks Happiness. And there were delicately crushed love songs, such as Karen's Song.
The Painted Ladies' masterstroke was their seven-minute version of Stranger in My Country, in which Ed Kuepper, Paul Kelly and Roger Knox traded verses with members of the band. Coloured Stone's Bunna Lawrie chose to sing in his first language, Mirning.We are never, ever, ever again gonna be strangers in our country.
A more joyous bridge between past and future was the late arrival of Simms himself to throw down a fiery rendition of I Wanna Bop, in a single take on a rainy Sydney afternoon.
"Yeah, we were very surprised," Peacock says with a laugh. "I hadn't seen him perform. I knew that he was still doing some shows around the pubs of Sydney but I had no idea how his voice was holding up or how he was doing energy-wise.
"The first time we managed to get him on a plane to do a show was for WOMAD last year, a couple of weeks before we went up to Darwin, and it just blew us all away.
"The professionalism and experience he carries is just incredible. I've seen him perform quite a few times now and it never ceases to amaze me how much he puts in. That's his life."
Simms will be on board, health permitting, when the Painted Ladies make their Melbourne debut for the current run of Friday Nights at the National Gallery of Victoria. The entourage has swollen to include horns, back-up singers and archival film and historical context by Clinton Walker, author of the secret history of indigenous Australian music, Buried Country.
But Simms remains the star, even if he might be excused for finding some of his own songs a little harder to revisit than others.
"He was very hesitant in the beginning," Peacock says. "It's something that was from his deep past. He'd put it all behind him and for obvious reasons. It was quite a dark period of his life. But slowly but surely, he's let himself be open to looking at the songs again. We've done a whole bunch of them together now."
He especially likes the ones that have been more dramatically rearranged, Peacock says, such as the quietly reflective take on Living My Life by the Days. "Yesterday I was one kind of puppet/ While today no one's pulling the strings," goes one line that must feel especially satisfying to sing in 2016.
"He still prefers the rocky ones though," Peacock adds. "He just loves rock'n'roll."
By Michael Dwyer
July 26, 2016 — 5.49pm