Yesterday hit like a sledgehammer. It was mid afternoon and I was sitting in the passenger seat, out on Goomburra Road in a town called Gladfield – a town just west of Cunningham’s Gap on the road to Warwick. I’d had no phone reception for the last few days, no internet, just the sounds of bell birds, whip birds and the Australian bush, and of course my kids and family around me. I knew my phone would buzz and beep and start going off the moment it picked up a cell tower, but the news was like nothing I could imagine.
I first met Tony a little over 10 years ago, in fact it was June 2007 when he rocked up at my front door in a van full of people to pick me up – me a random stranger – and take me with him to a little music festival gathering up in Brisbane. A mutual friend, Jayne, had sent him over to meet me, she knew we’d be mates, and as was the case all the time, Jayne was on the money. I stepped into the van and was handed a ‘beer’, it was a sort of welcome to the family moment. Such was Tony’s nature, always out to offer something to someone, give something of himself, add you to his circles and do some favour for a friend or stranger.
Of course I can’t speak for, or to, anyone else’s connections or friendship, or relationship or whatever with Tony, but only my own. What I can relate is what Tony meant to me and how I knew him, and how he even influenced my life in ways he probably never knew …. that I never really told him.
Tony, to me, was a round peg jammed in a square hole in many respects, perhaps a little intimidating to some people, at least until they got to know him. Emotion, passion and zest led his life and led his larger-than-life personality, often delivering the most spectacular outcomes, both positive and negative. For me, Tony lived by his heart and his bond and loyalty were unsurpassed. Once you were in with Tony, you were in for life, there was no getting out.
His infectious ability to very quickly form life-long connections with people is very evident with the outpouring over social media these last two days. Most of us run in a few circles of close friends and work mates, but Tony ran in almost infinite circles. He had a special circle set aside for everyone and often gave so much of himself to others that I wondered if he had left enough for himself.
I quickly became friends with Tony, and we certainly had some things in common – all too common – as I soon realised that we could end up being a dangerous team if I allowed us to feed each other’s demons. We partied sometimes but I knew Tony was very much a one-of-a-kind sort of person so we decided in a kind of unspoken way that sobriety and philosophy would be the cornerstone of our conversations, despite our shared passion for getting loose, for music and night life.
Tony was always interested in what I was doing, what I was up to and was never short of a compliment or uplifting comment – I guess he was a true gentleman and host when it came to friendship, a rarity in a sense these days. I would often ride to his place after work and he’d get me to fix his computer, set him up on something, especially social media. He saw from early on just how much he could reach out and connect in this new world online, and how much he could get that connection back in kind, even if it brought with it some of the obligatory frustration that the digital age inherently imposes upon a person.
We would often talk for ages, about bands, about our dreams and aspirations, and about people. Depending on if he had been banned from a venue or not (haha) he would come and see everyone else’s bands and was quick to support anyone doing something they loved, something just for the love of it. He was so proud of his past and his New Zealand background, his days in the mud on his bikes and his nights behind the drum kit. Work was just a means to an end for Tony, a way to pay bills and earn some hours on a bike or on a drum kit, to get him the gear he needed to do what he loved.
Generosity was uninhibited with Tony, and this is where he changed my life. I was often broke when I was younger, and by broke, I mean I had a couple of gold coins to last me until next week’s money. I was living on cheese on toast and weetbix sometimes – here and there – living with my head just above the waterline some days. I never complained, I never let it really bug me, I was happy and free and had my mates. Tony would insist on coming up with jobs he needed done on his computer, some virus infection or some graphic design thing, and he would call me up and almost pester me to get around to his place after work to help him. There waiting would be a couple of cold XXXX Gold’s in the fridge, a couple of $20 bills and a welcoming grin to match.
Here I was, owed nothing and asking for even less, but Tony saw straight through me and despite my usual insisting that he put his money back in his pocket, he’d never let me leave without us trading something, a few dollars for some work on his computer, some pictures, some help with this or that. It was always his way, he always made sure he gave back and often before he ever had received anything. And it was done with the least amount of words, just straight down the middle like the straightest arrow that ever flew, as honest as it comes. He’d give you a hug and look you in the eyes, and that was enough to convey a thousand words with Tony.
Tony set me up with access to his place – if I ever needed a place to stay or safe place to get away, he made sure I knew I had a home with him. This was something you’d expect from a life-long mate or cousin, but here was this guy I’d known for a few months who just reached out and shared, just threw his trust and his heart out there to help me and not judge me, to just be a mate as true as it comes. I was humbled and I hope I gave enough of my energy back and inspired Tony enough to pay back at least some of his generosity.
I helped him with his band, more so with their little furore into the digital age. His band was Disfunktional by name, and occasionally by nature (after the shows mostly lol), but never short of a cracking good song and deep buckets of musicianship and mateship. Tony was proud of the band and never stopped telling me how good his bandmates were, how privileged he was to play with them all even when they all didn’t see eye-to-eye. He was so proud of its rich Australian character. The band, I think for Tony, represented his Australian life and his Australian connection – he was truly an ANZAC in that sense, he loved both countries and both cultures so much and he belonged to both nations at all times.
All over the Coast they would play, and I would try to get to a show when I could. Photographing Tony on drums was always a highlight, because I knew I was capturing so much more than just a scene of light and motion, but a soul and spirit of a mate who I knew would love my images more than anyone. I knew I was photographing the person and not the drummer at times, and I would try to find and recognise the moments in the maelstrom when he was in his element, lost from the immediate point in time and just plugged into the rhythm and pulse of his drum kit and the expression of his own life it was.
Sometimes I could see how people who didn’t know Tony could feel threatened by him or not understand him. He wasn’t always the best communicator and most defiantly was not a regular person. He loved a drink, often one too many, but somehow always landed on his feet eventually. He’d rub the bouncers the wrong way or end up in someone’s sights but never for the wrong reasons, always because he stood up for his beliefs and wore his heart on the outside so much that it landed him in hot water. He would speak his mind, too many people are afraid to do this enough these days. In a world of people desperate to fit in, Tony shouted his personality to the wind and was more of a leader than a follower, someone who created the wind and changed all things around him rather than conforming to leave no ripples. He wasn’t a pebble in an ocean, he was a boulder in a pond and he made waves.
I remember when he got his brand new see through acrylic drum kit and raced around to my work to unwrap it in the car park and show me, he was just frothing so hard on how much it was the exact thing he’d wanted.
I remember when he would get into a scrap and put himself on a sort of ‘good behaviour bond’ for a while, but the glint in his eye told you he was going to do it again.
I remember that if he opened the fridge and there was only one beer left, he’d offer it to you first.
I remember Tony never ceasing to tell me about how good the people around him were, how good at their jobs, at their music, at racing, at friendship. He never withheld giving out positive energy to others.
I will never forget how his generosity kept my chin above water when I needed it the most, when I was drifting on the edge – he helped pull me back show me a new horizon.
Last year he surprised me yet again, and I thought I’d already seen everything this bloke had to offer. I was wrong. After a little back-channel invite from my partner Rachel, Tony got in his bike and rode 300km just to turn up for an hour or so at my 40th birthday party. Yep, I hadn’t seen him in ages – almost a year – and suddenly there he is all leathery and road-hardened after copping 300km or so of bugs to ride just to see me. I was absolutely and positively so happy to see him and we shared a bite and a drink. There’s little I can say about his actions that day, only that they truly speak for themselves I have no doubt. What a gift, from my Rachel and my mate Tony.
The last time I saw Tony was earlier this year with his new musical pursuit, 2 Tone Nath. He and Nathan were opening for Kings Of The Sun on the Gold Coast and he invited me down and despite all sorts of things in my life and other gigs on, there was no way I was not going to be there. I sat with Tony on the stage for a few songs, just him and me with Nathan out front, taking shots and hanging out. We talked a bit, the usual catching-up sort of stuff and he was bursting again with energy for his new music and his friendship with Nathan. They were like brothers you could see, both the kind of people who just ooze raw honesty and passion for what they do, drenched in positive energy and a sort of glowing kind of vibration, if there is such a thing.
The music Tony was playing was right up his alley, good pub rock, with a little bit of punk and poetic rockabilly mixed in – definitely a happy place for Tony and Nath.
I don’t even know what happened, I can’t even bring myself to begin to dwell on how such a bright and shining light of a person is now gone. I stepped out of the car yesterday on that Cunningham Highway intersection, and briefly fell against a tree. My partner took the kids over to the playground and I just stood with that hot and dry wind rushing past my face and over my tears. It was a truly blank, hollow, thoughtless and empty place I was in for those few minutes, completely unable to digest any of what I had just learned. I thought of Darcy, his brother, and all of our friends. All of my friendship with Tony, from the moment we met until this moment rushed past me like a blur at light speed. I composed myself, gathered the family and we headed home.
Blessed are those that knew him, blessed are we all. I will miss you mate, and the hole you left behind will always be empty. I’ve done a lot in my life since I met Tony, since he helped me keep my head above water. I hope we all in the coming days and weeks celebrate his life as much as he did ours in his living years. Brother, farewell.