Photo credit: Sylvia Liber
Last month (March 2021) marked five years since the Australian entertainment industry lost the uniquely identifiable Jon English. It was a timely moment for the release of Jeff Apter’s Behind Dark Eyes: The True Story of Jon
As Jeff told me at the start of our chat, Jon’s youngest son, Julian, was driving through Parramatta and saw a window display for the book. “He said to me, it caught him by surprise; ‘There’s my dad!’”
Jeff’s new work has been on the burner for a number of years and he has been open in his communication with Jon’s family.
“They have been very supportive, but
So, what brought Jeff to writing about Jon English?
“I was asked by my brother if I wanted to come and see Jon English, who was playing with The Foster Brothers at the time, and I was into Bowie, Dylan, and Lou Reed. I was too cool to see Jon English, but I went along. It was like being hit by a truck!
“There was no comparison between the recording artist and the live artist. These guys would sing a song and then they’d be having a joke. There was a completeness to what they did, a floor show that had all the bases covered.”
It was this ‘floor show’ spontaneity that carried Jon English’s career from stage performer to stage rocker and back again over the years. It was a career which had truly begun with his casting as Judas Iscariot, in the Australian production of Jesus Christ Superstar: “Even now, almost 50 years later, Sir Tim Rice still identifies Jon as the Judas Iscariot.”
“Jon was a natural talent. He could sing, he was a ham. He had that distinctive look and physical presence. Most of all, he had work ethic. He was a 10-pound Pom, he’d seen his father work and he knew its value. Even though what he did for a living looked glamourous, to him it was a job.
“When he was doing The Pirates of Penzance with Simon Gallagher, he started with a 12-person male chorus. As the season went on it went from 12 to 10, from nine down to six. One day, he called the chorus together and tore shreds off them. He told them, ‘People are paying good money to see this show! I’m sorry you’re not feeling well, but you need to go on!’ And they did because he scared the shit out them—but that was Jon’s work ethic.”
That work ethic would be shaken by the hits he took, rather than made, in his later years.
“Jon built a career on other people’s works but he made them his own, [such as] Turn the Page and Hollywood Seven, but what he wanted to create was a legacy.
“He’d been brought up on Greek Tragedy, while other kids were listening to Dr. Seuss, and this inspired his passion project Paris, based on the story of Helen of Troy. Jon sank a million dollars, most of it his own, into creating Australia’s first Rock Opera. He tried to encourage Cameron Mackintosh to take it onto the stage, but it just didn’t click with him. He felt it was too Superstar and he wasn’t interested.
“He then tried again with a piece called Angels & Buskers, which industry colleagues and even his own kids told him was not quite ready and it failed. He then went into a production of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, for but not with Simon Gallagher, which didn’t perform well and it was another blow to his ego.”
The result would see Jon lose the family home, begin a battle with the bottle and, after a drunken fall and an unsuccessful operation, be lost at 66 years of age. Ironic, considering his passion for Greek Tragedy, that he would meet such a tragic end. Jeff agreed with me, saying that that word has been used by so many of Jon’s friends and loved ones, to describe his passing.
“The saddest part for me is that, for whatever reason, Jon hasn’t been inducted into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame. Researching this book, I thought I knew the man, but the more I dug, the more I found out. It was a whirlpool of emotion. He took big bites out of life.”
Let’s hope that, alongside Jeff’s powerhouse work, Jon receives the recognition from the industry he most certainly deserves
So, as I asked him last time, who’s next for Jeff Apter?
“My next book will be on AC/DC’s Bon Scott, because you can’t be an Aussie Rock biographer without a Bon Scott book.”
There are plenty of them out there—let’s hope they’re displayed in alphabetical order!
Interviewed by Glen Christie
Behind Dark Eyes: The True Story of Jon English was published in March 2021 by Woodslane Books. You can read Glen’s review here.