Pages Menu
Abbey's Bookshop
Plain engish Foundation
Booktopia
Categories Menu

Posted on 5 Apr 2022 in Non-Fiction |

LO CARMEN Lovers Dreamers Fighters. Reviewed by Virginia Muzik

Tags: / / / / / / / / / / / /

Lo Carmen’s memoir celebrates some of the fearless creative women who have shaped Australian popular culture, and her connections to them.

Musician and actor Lo Carmen has said she thinks of Lovers Dreamers Fightersmore as a cultural history than a memoir … It’s more a kind of love letter to all the musicians and women that have inspired me.’ She’s right: her book offers important acknowledgement of female trailblazers whose contributions to the arts and Australian society are often underplayed or forgotten.

During her free-spirited childhood in the seventies, Carmen absorbed the influences of the musicians and actors her father, professional rock pianist Peter Head, worked with, including singer-songwriter Robyn Archer, and the ground-breaking, but now largely unknown, blues-soul singer Wendy Saddington.

At 16, Carmen was ‘discovered’ working in a Kings Cross pizza bar and invited to audition for the lead role of ‘wild girl’ Freya in the award-winning 1987 film The Year My Voice Broke. Perhaps it was no accident she was cast as a rebellious character so young, having been influenced by real-life rebellious women growing up.

Sometimes I drown in idols, icons, chosen masters, those who have drilled into my heart. Mostly it’s women with a type of fearlessness that thrill me … Some of them I was lucky enough to spend time with, to observe close up … I see them, and I see a version of myself in them.

Carmen’s next notable acting role was playing Sallie-Anne Huckstepp in the 1995 TV mini-series Blue Murder – a role she modestly figures she got ‘simply because we had the same gap between our teeth’. The experience fleshed out the real woman behind the headlines for Carmen, who urges us to remember Huckstepp as more than the ‘murdered prostitute/drug addict’ the eighties media reduced her to. Carmen claims Huckstepp’s courage in exposing police corruption (which likely led to her murder in 1986) contributed to the establishment of the NSW Independent Commission Against Corruption in 1988, and to 1994’s Wood Royal Commission into the NSW Police Service.

It’s time [Sallie-Anne] is reframed in the public eye as the whistleblowing whip-smart feminist force she was, and we collectively recognise and pay our respects to the fact that her actions successfully said ‘fuck you’ to the status quo, to the very real fear that kept most people silent on both sides of her world …

But music had a stronger pull for Carmen. And a school holiday job in the eighties, working for Vince Lovegrove, a family friend and manager of the Divinyls, gave her access to the band’s uncompromising lead singer, Chrissy Amphlett, whose brazen sexuality on stage opened her eyes to the power of performance:

She proved you don’t have to be charming and nice and professional onstage – that fear, anger, lust and all those intense, frightening emotions are intrinsically entwined … She showed me how to wear a costume like armour, and how to subvert expectations. How to own your sexuality in such a way that it can’t be used against you.

Lovegrove’s wife, American actor Suzi Sidewinder, was another strong, if brief, influence for Carmen. She lovingly reveals Sidewinder’s irreverence, her creativity, and her courage in facing her AIDS diagnosis, illness and death in the public eye, when there was still so much ignorance and prejudice surrounding the disease.

There’s a strong theme of intertwining influences between the lives and careers of the women in this book, what Carmen calls ‘spiderwebs and connective tissue’. Wendy Saddington directly inspired Chrissy Amphlett and Renée Geyer to become singers; Geyer’s early career included opening for some of Saddington’s shows; in Saddington’s later years, Carmen performed with her, and was eventually invited by Geyer to be the support act for her shows. Carmen traces these connections back even further, acknowledging Black American blues and soul singers like Etta James, as well as Country singers Loretta Lynn and Dolly Parton,  whose influences she felt keenly during the years she and her husband, actor Aden Young, lived in Atlanta in the USA.

Carmen’s description of the relationships between the talented women featured in Robyn Archer’s show A Star Is Torn could equally apply to the relationships between the women in her book:

Invisible feminine hands intertwine in these histories, reaching out to help each other into the secret stratosphere ruled by song and feeling and dreams. There is an obvious circular structure to the artistic relationships … the inspirations, the idols, the invented selves; the longing, commitment and determination.  

Deftly mixing Carmen’s own recollections with intensive research about her subjects, the book follows a mostly chronological narrative, with chapters on the individual women spliced in between those sharing stages of her own life. Carmen has a lot of stories to tell, and the focus is clearly more on her subjects than herself, and her gratitude to them. The prose moves at a brisk, engaging pace, with enough reflective moments for the reader to pause and consider their own relationships to these musicians and their music. I found myself drawn to YouTube to play some of the many songs mentioned, as I read!

Carmen shares her insights on the creative life and process – how much hustle is involved for those who don’t readily find fame, and how motherhood has impacted her creativity:

As an artist, you must be undisturbed, focused wholly on your work, or on the pretty dust motes that might bring inspiration; as a mother you need to be present and available … I’ve had to accept that I haven’t been completely free to chase or abandon myself to my muse in a physical fashion for most of my creative life, so I have found ways to channel my creativity in with my family.

For Gen Xers and those who grew up with these names on the news, on Countdown and on turntables, this is an enlightening and inspiring read as much as a nostalgic one. Whatever your age, Lovers Dreamers Fighters gives unique personal insights into some otherwise unknown aspects of these women’s lives and the importance of their achievements – showing how we’re all richer for music, and the people who make it. As Carmen puts it:

Dynamic, non-conforming artists like these women encourage us to dig deeper, to find our own mettle, to speak our minds, be bold, be brazen, be ambitious – and also to dress better.

Lo Carmen Lovers Dreamers Fighters HarperCollins 2022 PB 368pp $32.99

Virginia Muzik is a writer based in inner west Sydney on Gadigal land. She’s had short memoir works on music and sibling loss published in online journals, and is slowly working on a full-length memoir. Find her on Twitter @writeNOISEComms and www.virginiamuzik.com

Or check if this book is available from Newtown Library.

If you’d like to help keep the Newtown Review of Books a free and independent site for book reviews, please consider making a donation. Your support is greatly appreciated.