The Dead Friend Blues
I arrived back in Australia on 7 March 1997 after 8 months traveling rough in India and Thailand. I visited my parents home in Queensland for the first time in a year but soon bad news came. A dear friend Alesia Lanham had finally lost her battle with the Black Dog and at 22 years old had taken her own life on 12 March 1997. The specifics were spectacular. She had evacuated herself from the psych unit she was being held in and headed for one of her favourite spots on earth; the forests of the Upper Colo River, north west of Sydney. Here she had access to an old dairy that had been converted into a small cottage. I had stayed there with her and other friends on weekend getaways from the city.
She hid out in the bush for a week. Searchers were searching but she was as smart as a whip, complete with camouflage gear she easily evaded the eyes that were desperately looking for her. She had been a Tarkine Tiger, protesting against the opening of ‘the road to nowhere’ in western Tasmania, and she knew her stuff when it came to the Australian bush. After a week she removed her clothes, lay down on a sandy bar on the Colo River and opened her veins, letting the blood from wrists and ankles flow out into the sand, the sun and bushland filling her. That is how they found her.
Alesia and I had first met in early 1995 and been members of a performance art group called Senselesss when she was an art student at the Sydney College of Art in Balmain. She lived for a time in an old stables just off King Street Newtown, and I remember visiting her there in the strange creaky old building in Church Street. She had left Sydney at the end of 1995 to travel and wander around Australia. She had been living in the forest in Tasmania and had been involved in the protest against the Tarkine road.
It was her picture that appeared on the cover of the Hobart Mercury newspaper the day the road opened. In it she was crying and held a flower in her hands across her heart. Alesia was an artist and activist. She created the Hydraphone, an instrument that worked with contact microphones, water, metal bars, a 40 gallon drum, a circular saw blade and a pulley system.
The last time I saw Alesia alive was at Avalon beach, north of Sydney in early 1996. She had called me and asked if I wanted to meet as she was passing through town. Another friend came with me and we all walked along the sand and rocks talking for about an hour. The friend had to go to work so he caught a bus back to the city and I stayed on the beach with Alesia for the rest of the afternoon as we spoke of travel and the future. She said she wanted to get away from Australia also and had dreams of traveling to Africa. She told me a story of how she had been arrested in Victoria on a charge of indecent exposure. On a whim she had been riding on the roof of a VW Kombi van through wheat fields on a beautiful sunny day. She had taken her top off and exposed her small breasts to the sunshine. In the middle of nowhere and against all the odds a police car came toward them, stopped the car and charged her. She laughed so much she fell over in the sand when she told me the story. I also attended Confest in 1995 on the Murray River with Alesia and her friend Lowen, and my girlfriend at the time Simone, who was a close friend of hers.
On 20 March 1997 we all gathered for her funeral in the small church in Windsor. On one side the ferals and artists that Alesia called family and the other side the Family. After the service her mother gathered together 12 of us, and we treked back into the Colo, along the river, sometimes chest high in it, with Alesia’s ashes. We would spread them at the spot she died. We found the sand still blood stained and we let her go there.
But there was a suicide note. We read it together on the sand there. She sent us all a message and it was about the forests. Alesia cared passionately about the forests. She begged us to take a stand, as she had again and again, and for us to go out into the logging coups and down the forest access roads and stop the bloody destruction. I decided to do so.
I arrived in Goolengook via Orbost and GECO in May 1997. I spent three weeks at the blockade and was arrested twice. Once getting on the Melbourne news being carried out of a coup by four cops. It was cold and wet in the forest. There were hundreds of people protesting. The struggle and tensions were great. I drove a van through a logger’s counter blockade. We surrounded the coup, the loggers surrounded us. My job was to get through the blockade back to Orbost to pick up people and supplies. It was touch and go for a while as we were chased down dark dirt roads through the forest by loggers in pickup trucks. These guys were angry and could be violent.
Leaving the forest blockade after three weeks, I found two things discarded at the safe house in Orbost; a tape and a book. The book was “Voices of the First Day- Awakening in the Aboriginal Dream Time” by Robert Lawler. The book has been with me ever since, although I gave that copy to another friend, I bought a newer copy at the same time. The tape has been a favourite, which I knew to be John Lee Hooker, but not which album it was….I had wondered about it for 20 years.
Then just the other day I finally found out the name of the album that was recorded on the unmarked tape I found back in 1997. I have recently installed Shazam on my phone and I was sorting through the hundreds of cassettes I still have as part of a book writing project I am working on about my experiences in the 1990s. This is a playlist I just now made of the album by John Lee Hooker and his cousin Earl Zebedee Hooker (January 15, 1930 — April 21, 1970), released in 1970. Earl died the same year from TB, but this album; If You Miss ‘Im…I Got ‘Im is a blues masterpiece. It was recorded in 1969.
I still think about Alesia often, even though it has been 23 years since she died. Some of the many things she taught me are that life is short, pain is real, actions speak louder than words and help should always be at hand, but beauty is always a possibility………..