JOY MCKEAN (extended interview)



Joy McKean talks with Luke OShea, on her life and new book Riding This Road.

Luke: Well congratulations on yet another incredible book, Riding This Road,

You write so eloquently and so honestly that at times I had to remind myself to harden up. There were parts that must have been incredibly challenging for you to recall and to write about.

Joy: Yes there were parts that were hard to write and parts that I had to ask myself do you write this or don’t you – but I tried to be honest and show both sides of the coin and simply tell it as it was. Things were very different then.

Luke: Starting with the young Joy McKean, due to a variety of reasons you moved houses, schools and hospitals so many times. Do you feel by losing this fear of the unknown at such a young age, that this may have planted the wonder-lust seed deep inside of you?

Joy: It’s quite possible because when we moved, each time we moved, I find looking back, that I’d always look forward to it and what would happen next. I always remember something that sort of typifies that. When I was eleven my parents took me to Margaret Reid, the orthopaedic surgeon for treatment for my bad leg. I can remember mum took me up there and I remember (after I got changed) giving mum a kiss and next thing I just walked straight off, not a backward look or whatever, straight out into the ward to see what was happening, who was there and what was I going to see; and I look back later and I think ‘gee, how did mum feel?’ I just walked straight off and I think that is probably because I was so used to moving on and making new friends; so that probably did put a bit of a wonder-lust in me, but also I think I inherited a bit of it from my dad.

Luke: Absolutely, as a school teacher myself I cannot fathom just how many schools, in so many extreme locations, your father taught at, as well as enrolling in the Army during World War 2 with 4 small children, but that’s another story in itself.

Joy: Oh it is!

Luke: You wrote, “Most of the time the fact I wore a caliper and walked very badly was not my problem so far as I was concerned; if it was a worry to anyone else, that was their problem.”  That was a very mature attitude to have as a child, who helped you develop this outlook on life?

Joy: Well that was the attitude I grew up with because I was separated from my family at a very young age and spent a lot of time with other adults. I was separated by the time I was four when I got polio and was then living in a hospital for six months or so, then rehab after that. I was then boarded out into a family of adults and I didn’t live back with the family until I was seven going on eight; and when they did that I.Q test; and then took me to Sydney to do a lot more testing; they estimated then that I had a mental age of 19 years.

Luke: Yes, 164 is right up there with Einstein!

Joy: 163.

Luke: Whoops, 163 sorry!

Joy: Yes you cant be adding points for that’s what they thought Dad must of done, only he didn’t!

Luke: Yes I read that, and I looked it up and only 0.13% of the worlds test takers get above the score of 160 and it is described as being ‘exceptionally gifted’. That must have installed a serious bank of self confidence and belief in yourself back then?

Joy: Well I don’t know, I think it made me a bit too cocky when I was eleven. And I found out soon after that it was better not to talk about it!

Luke: Who taught you that lesson?

Joy: I think it was one time I’d confided in one friend and that friend then threw it up to me as something to be sort of ashamed of. And I thought, well you don’t understand and I was very, very hurt and I’ve kept quite about it all my life because people think your showing off. People think you should be a walking encyclopedia or in these days, a walking computer, but most don’t understand it is simply an ability to learn. It is not that you are going to be a great genius or do absolutely everything that is thrown at you. You can only utilize that intelligence or a particularly high I.Q, if you have the drive, if you have the interest.

Luke: Well you turned your interest and drive towards music, learning how to play multiple instruments, developing the craft of songwriting and all the other stuff that comes with surviving in the music business. But your interest was also sparked by a fellow you first described as a ‘reprobate’.

Joy: No (with laughter) it definitely wasn’t thunder and lightning and all of that when we first met but I tell you what, it developed pretty quickly! I mean I didn’t invite him and Shorty (Ranger) to my 21st birthday in January but I married Slim by the end of that year.

Luke: I like how you wrote you were engaged to him without knowing his real name,

Joy: Yes (laughter)

Luke: That was brilliant -Your mother had to ask what Slims last name was?

Joy: Yes and I felt a fool too, I said ‘Gee mum?’, and she sort of looked at me and she said, “well darling don’t you think you should ask him?” (laughing). And when I did Slim looked absolutely sheepish you know.

Luke: Why because he realised it himself or…

Joy: Because he realised too that I hadn’t been to concerned about that, I was only concerned with him. He’d had a few hang-ups with his home-life and with his bringing up and I think it was something very special for him to realise that I just fell in love with him regardless of what his name was, who he was or where he came from sort of thing. Any way it worked for us!

Luke: It certainly did! I’ve compared yours and Slims partnership in the song-writing arena to that of John Lennon and Paul McCartney but combine that again with the adventurous spirit and recklessness of the Leyland Brothers and then combine that again with all the pressures and responsibilities of a normal married couple with kids. What do you think it was that made your relationship so special, so dynamic?

Joy: I don’t know… perhaps because it was so opposite. It was absolutely so opposite. I mean I liked reading and study, poetry, plays, I had a leaving certificate under my belt and a couple of years at University and Slim had about five years of primary school teaching; that was all he had; but he was a man who had this really deep poetic gift; but he also had this tremendous drive and ambition.

But with us, it was the song writing.

We both discovered we had this real love for song writing and that actually drew us together; and also the fact that Slim wanted to travel.

He really always wanted to travel and all the girls he’d ever met up to that stage always seemed to have their eyes on getting married, settling down and you know, living happily ever after. And that wasn’t what he had in mind and when he discovered I liked the idea of travelling we both started to talk – and you talk about things when your young, about what you’d like to do, as you know – we talked about that and discovered we both had a lot of the same aims – but that strong link – that was with us always, was the song writing.

Luke: Given that you and your sister Heather were very well known thanks to a lot of hard yards and hosting your own very successful radio show ‘Melody Trail’ – long before the boy from Nulla Nulla came down from the bush, you wrote, “I didn’t mind doing my share, but I got a bit browned off when my radio show was used to publicize others more favourably than myself.”

Joy:That happened when we were touring, doing shows and so on, there’ be posters and things and the idea seemed to be was that I was part of the furniture you know, if you want to put it baldly. But it was never ever done that way thinking it was deliberate, that’s just how it was in those days. In the 40’s and the 50’s women were particularly; in professional life, they were not supposed to be up there with the man of the family. He was the head of household he was the main one and everything had to be aimed at supporting him. Well I didn’t mind doing that to a certain extent but when you come to work it out I had a radio show and Heather and I were selling very well on Rodeo Records and that radio show ran for eleven years actually.

Luke: Yes every Saturday night on 2KY.

Joy: So I thought it was a bit unfair if someone else got billing above me; besides I had a pretty healthy ego and I couldn’t see why that should be anyway (laughing), you know. I was never taught to sit in a corner nor be sat upon. I think my parents might have overdone the pushing of my self-confidence, I had a bit too much of it at times! (laughing)

Luke: Nah I think you needed it given the times and challenges you still had to face but would you do the same today? Would you put your career and your name so completely behind Slim if you were in the exact same scenario starting over today?

Joy: (A long pause) I probably would… because he had something special Luke. I probably would… because I loved him very, very much and I knew how much it meant to him.

It had brought him out of a very isolated and at times a very unhappy background. And for him he kept trying all those years from the time he was about 13 or 14.

I think I probably would but I would not do it to the same extent, and I would not be prepared to hide my light under a bushel the way I did then for many years. For I played a supportive role for many years then, and then, I don’t know, you start to see things, you start to realize that what you’re doing is as good as anybody else’s and why don’t you get the recognition for that?

But it’s funny, I never aimed at it – it grew. I just thought there should be a lot more equality – it’s not that you make these big decisions or that your going to fight for this, it just happens. And it wasn’t until people started seeing just how many of my songs were getting recorded XXXXXX

Luke: You wrote, “If I had not been strong and therefore, as a woman, classified as tough, I would never have survived my life and my marriage – but it took some time to get there.”

Joy: It did… I was very naive. I was very naive in so many ways and I wouldn’t have survived even as a child if I hadn’t been pretty strong just within my fiber. But all through on the road, in the showground’s and everything like that – yeah I did have to harden up. If you didn’t you got pushed into a corner. I could see too many women lose their own identity and even their own personality and I resented that and any efforts to do that. And also there again you see, you come up that problem of that IQ Luke, it was like ok you went out to a gathering, where the women were supposed to congregate and talk about nappies and cooking while the men went up and talked about their manly occupations or whatever they were doing, discussing interesting things like songs and that, well in the end I got bored stiff and I protested to Slim and said enough with the separation bit, why can’t we all be talking together? You know, I just didn’t see it. I was brought up differently I came from a different era I came from a different world and it clashed from the way Slim was brought up and a lot of his friends and a lot of the people we met were brought up as well.

Luke: Because you spent so much time on the road it must have been so hard being away from the kids, especially in those formative years, but you must pinch yourself to see how grounded they are today.

Joy: It was hard; but our kids knew they were loved and were missed and when we had our holidays together we spent every minute with them.

Don’t they say it’s the quality of the time not the quantity?

Luke: Absolutely

Joy: And – of course my kids are special!

Luke: Of course!

Joy: Yes (with laughter) my children were special and thankfully they were mature. David said apparently one time “Oh well Dad’s job was the same as if he was a banker and went off to work everyday, it’s just that mine travelled around Australia.” And he had to go off to boarding school in the meantime, (laughter) but at the very least we wanted a good education for the kids, Slim especially, because he hadn’t had it himself and because as a kid, he said he didn’t want it! And he realized how wrong it was. He said his mother tried very hard but then of course he left school at twelve to work on the farm. And thankfully the kids realized that if they were going to be able to do anything they had to have an education first. We always tried to talk to them and I think that helped but it was very hard on them; and very hard on us. Anyway, I still say they are my two best friends; so I am very fortunate.

Luke: With all the travel that you and Slim did and the deep bond you formed with many indigenous communities around Australia, Peppimenarti in particular, were you aware of the ancient indigenous Songlines that aboriginal people used to follow when singing up the land?

Joy: Yes, yes, Bruce Chatwin who wrote the Patagonia and all that, and he wrote about the songlines, yes I have heard of them.

Luke: Did you and Slim ever feel that connection with the land like you were establishing your own songlines and keeping that ancient tradition alive?

Joy: I have never thought of it like that, but it’s a good thought because we were always coastal people, I was born in the Hunter Valley and Slim in the Macleay, but we took to the outback and we took to the big spaces and we were happy there wherever we were; and we did get very close to the land. We were living in caravans and we were travelling and camping in isolated places and isolated towns and you get to know the country and you look for your camping spots that you know. Like going across the Nullarbor, we could go across there and come back three months later and still look for and go into the same camp spot. We did that one time when a bloke lost his wallet on the way over and he’d just got his weeks pay, Bob Clarke, and three months later we came back and Slim said there’s the campsite and do you know what? The wallet was still there, in the dirt with the money and everything still in there, no one had been there since we had.

Slim knew the right spots to camp and everything, and you do get very close to the land and you get close to the people because you were able to talk to them all, and over the years it’s been like that, one generation after the other, we’d get people that you saw as young couples and then they brought the kids along, the kids grew up and would start to bring their boyfriends and girlfriends along and then you know there we are another generation and we’re starting to feel old. 

Luke You wrote, “Sometimes I wondered if we really did choose it; maybe the music and the lifestyle just took us over without our really knowing it.”

Joy: That could be true because we found it very difficult and very different the very first time we went into the outback, and up into Queensland at the wrong time and all that sort of thing, yet we went back for more; and you wonder why? Because at times it was hard and at times it was a bit close, you know the bank account wasn’t real good at times, other times we’d just get by and sometimes we’d do well. I suppose also it must have been a bit of the gambler in us, I don’t know, but the road does become addictive I reckon. I mean I’m never happier than when I can get out and get behind the wheel of the Prado or my little motorhome, and Anne is the same, she cant wait to get out on the road and start travelling, moving.

Luke: The gypsy soul

Joy: Yep!

Luke: With all that touring that you and Slim did, was there a purpose to it?  What was the goal that you were striving for and did you achieve it or are you still striving for it now?

Joy: Well when we began, I suppose it was to have our own show, to travel Australia, to write songs, record them and be able to get out there and sing our own songs. One big thing, when we realized, after I found that cutting on the wall of the old Dunmarra Roadhouse, and it was George Crowley’s poem ‘The Wave Hill Track’, we began to realize there were people out there writing about the life they were living. And as I’ve always said later, I think they were really just waiting for someone to give them a voice and Slim became that voice and I think ‘that’ is what the aim was for the rest of his life. I’ve said it before, I still say it, Slim said, “Oh there’s so many good songs out there I’ll never get them all down.” He wanted to collect them he wanted to get them down, he wanted to get them out there because he said these are the stories from people who are living the life they’re writing about. And those were the stories that needed to be put out there. I mean someone called him once the ‘Historian of the Bush’ and maybe in a way that’s what he was.

Luke: That may well be the enduring legacy of Slim but what will yours be? You are your own artist Joy and what would you hope will be your legacy?

Joy: Mine? …Maybe mine I hope will be to have paved the way for women to write what they want and be seen as writers and as equal partners in the music business. And maybe I opened the way for a lot of women in that respect and if I did, I’d be glad. You know, if I somehow paved the way on how to kick back if they’re being pushed down, to get up there and whack back (with laughter) I think that’s a good thing for them to do!

Luke: Well I think that has certainly been achieved, there’s a lot of very talented and very scary women out there! (laughter)

Luke: Was there any one who inspired Joy McKean?

Joy: No I don’t think so. There wasn’t anyone to follow you know; particularly in the music… or anything like that. I didn’t have anyone to really follow that way, except what Dad used to tell me about the heroes throughout history and all that sort of thing. My family were all school teachers and I was going that way until I got a good knock back (Joy wasn’t allowed to become a school teacher on the grounds that her disability would stop her ‘relating to the children’). So, no I can’t say I looked to any one person. I was just trying to be my own person and to make people accept me for who I was, not for my disability but for what I could do and what I could give.

Luke: Your book ‘Riding This Road’ is a fascinating story and I’m wondering if you noticed as you were writing it the number of times you, and Slim faced so many life-altering T intersections, did you ever have times where you felt,‘hang on, there’s more at play here?’

Joy: Yes I often think, Slim and I used to say, you know we’d come to a point where we’d have to make an important decision and we used to say that there’d be two channels and we have to take one of them. And then sometimes we would say ‘one channel will open to us’ and we’d be guided into it and I don’t know what that guiding was? You can say it was because we were subconsciously weighing up pros and cons; or you can say that there is something else helping you and guiding you. I sometimes prefer that reply.

Luke: So the spiritual, the muse, angels? What name did you give it?

Joy: Hmm I think it …I’m no longer a regular Church goer but I have my own very strong beliefs as did Slim and I believe very often, that if you are just doing your best, there will always be something there to help you when you are really in bother.

We’re getting deep aren’t we (laughter), whether it is your subconscious; another being; God; I think we’re only part of a fabric aren’t we? I think that everybody has a spiritual side to them and I believe we are guided at times. That things happen to help us on our way; and sometimes people have said to me ‘oh you must feel more or less hard done by because of what happened to you and all the rest, but I say ‘no’, because if something was taken from me, something else was given to me to replace it – or even better!

And so if I did lose the ability to run, to dance and that sort of thing, I was given music, I was given a good mind and a loving family to help me get there. So I think there’s always something that does guide you and something that does help you, if you are willing to look for it, or open yourself to it. And I think opening yourself to it is one of the most important things, I really do.

Luke: Well I think you’ve lived your life being open to it and perhaps that’s why it’s been such an amazing journey. What a wonderful adventure!

Joy: It has been a wonderful adventure Luke and I am very grateful to have been able to experience it. A lot of people have worked very hard the same as we did but have not done as well as what we did, so we can say – we are the fortunate ones and are very grateful for it.

Luke: Well I know I speak on behalf of so many people when I say that we are very grateful to you and Slim, for your behemoth efforts and thank you once again for your openness and for sharing your very inspiring story in ‘Riding This Road’.