Books & Literature

Book Review: Behind Dark Eyes: The True Story of Jon English, by Jeff Apter

BIOGRAPHY: This authorised biography, written with the full support of Jon’s family, friends and peers, Behind Dark Eyes tells the complete Jon English story.

An extremely personal account of the life of one of Australian’s loveable larrikin legends of rock.
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Photo credit to Lynott88.

Jeff Apter returns with his latest biography—that of one of Australia’s great unsung (and tragic) rock heroes: Jonathan James English, better known as Jon English. 

In his latest work, Jeff Apter has sung his praises, and identified his foibles and faults, with a passion and dexterity that rivals an Andrew Denton live interview.

We delve into his family’s decision to move to Australia and the arrival at the wellspring of ‘ten pound poms’ that produced some of Australia’s finest rockers, singers, songwriters, and legends. Jon, like the younger Young brothers, decided to pursue his craft after witnessing the legendary Easybeats, Australia’s answer to The Beatles. This was to be a high octane influence on Jon, but his story did not begin and end with rock ‘n’ roll.

Jon English was part of Australian music, theatre, and television across five decades. His earliest defining moment was his (almost missed) audition for the first Australian production of Andrew Lloyd Weber and Tim Rice’s breakout hit Jesus Christ Superstar. He was cast in the eponymous role of Judas Iscariot in the Adelaide Festival’s 1972 production, witnessed by Rice and described as “Judas Christ Superstar”.

Over the following decades, he would make a Bob Segar (Turn the Page) classic his own. With intimate personal experience to back it up, he would write numerous hits—the clearly definitive ‘Six Ribbons’ at the fore—and compose a Rock Opera (ala Tommy and Jesus Christ Superstar) which would be his driving passion for over 20 years. Called Paris, it was inspired by his passion for the story of Helen of Troy. Into the mix would be thrown numerous years working with Simon Gallagher, while overshadowing him on stage in Gilbert & Sullivan, several seasons of All Together Now, for which he would fight until his dying days to prove he was no imbecilic acidhead, and, towards the last days, celebrating his rock ‘n’ roll influences in Nationally touring shows.

The greatest attribute of Apter’s work is in the contributions he has drawn from the English Family, Jon’s colleagues and friends, who do not hold back in their ebullience, pride, and awe, their desperation to address his alcohol dependency, and, ultimately, their heartrending disbelief when he succumbed to alcohol-related injuries on the operating table and then as the world reported his death.

Jon travelled on the road with each of his children, instilling in them a life-long work ethic, but it also exposed them to a side of their father that was the antithesis of the family man they had grown up looking up to. There is bravery that jumps from the page, encapsulated in the openness, honesty, and truthfulness that is presented here. It is often said to not speak ill of the dead and Jon’s children don’t. They speak from the heart about the impact of his on-road decisions, which included alcohol and affairs, on their image of the man they called Dad. 

Jon’s colleagues, who watched helplessly and hopelessly as Jon’s demons and the drink consumed him, are equally honest. Apter has captured a lifetime of friendships, moments of great joy, and heartbreaking pain. This is the secret ingredient that makes his works so captivating. The author is obviously a trusted confidante who goes on to make public the statements of his interviewees and this is a gift to the reader. 

The wonder of all facets of Jon English—brother, husband, father, and friend—are captured in laughter-inducing moments and the breadth of his career in intimate detail. The devastation of his early departure and its impacts are transcribed with careful attention and respect. 

Apter’s biography delivers a work that has emerged from the honest, genuine, and heartfelt support of English’s family and friends, making this a must-read for any fan of Jon’s work.

Reviewed by Glen Christie

Distributed by: Woodslane Books
Released: March 2021
RRP: $32.99

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