St Kilda, I hardly knew ya

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By Sidney Shaw

Recently, I saw two people I know who think they’re cooler than me eating at St Kilda Lentil As Anything – through the window of Spudbar. ‘Ha ha! I eat at Spudbar … and YOU eat at LENTILS!’ I rejoiced. Even though that was probably another reason why they claim to be cooler than me. The Lentil As Anything ‘pay what you feel’ policy serves a fundamental purpose for dole bludgers punk rockers, and my bowl of potatoes cost $15.

‘But your honor,’ they would start, ‘she pays for her food … that isn’t very punk rock.’ With the evidence presented to him, the judge would banish me back to Elsternwick, with an order to stay 300 feet away from rock and/or roll at all times.

But even with the evident gentrification throughout the years, St Kilda still possesses the punk rock reminisce of when the beachside suburb was a haven for criminals, corrupt cops, and misfits. In the civilians who roar about the influx of burger joints and the departure of music venues, in the business owners who won’t rest until the souls of people who live to make noise complaints reside in their vacuum cleaners, and in the fact that the lentil eaters who rely on government benefits to live the punk rock lifestyle are a paradigm of what would have been the norm for everybody in the past.

It’s why people like Colin – my mother’s partner – who have lived to tell tales from when every mother’s son was in a band and there was a whiff of danger and hairspray in the air are still there. To remind us, or educate us, of St Kilda’s infamous history.

St Kilda was settled in the 1850s as a seaside holiday village. Colin’s parents, Ruth and Ivor Holst, would visit St Kilda to dance to traditional jazz bands when they were young and courting 65 years ago. But in time, all of the opulent buildings became decrepit, and the underground music scene took their place. Colin watched legendary punk outfit The Cramps in the same place that his parents used to waltz.

In the summer of 1980, Colin – a longhaired seventeen-year-old with a Motörhead patch on his jacket – walked into The Crystal Ballroom, and hasn’t left St Kilda since. A set of marble steps lead to a pair of glass doors, and a foyer that was probably swanky – once. The sunken bar was consistently flooded with an inch of water and had the staff working in gumboots. The standard attitude of a St Kilda socialite was to be pale faced with an unhealthy slouch.

‘The first time I walked in there, there was a girl with a Mohawk and leopard print stockings – she had a toy ray gun and she was shooting it at everyone that walked through the door. I knew immediately this was where I belonged.’

‘We had an array of local characters from Jewish shopkeepers who made St Kilda their home after the horrors of WW2, a local Indigenous population who were always up for a chat, tough old barmaids in even tougher old pubs and a huge music community. We were creative, vibrant, and balancing on the edge between anonymity and total obscurity’ says long-term local Peter Kohn.

St Kilda was my stomping ground for nearly a decade, although my experience of growing up was vastly different to what it was like throughout the 80’s. I grew up in St Kilda, but it seems like St Kilda grew up around them.

‘I played my first gig at The Crystal Ballroom. The beauty of the place was that while it hosted international acts, you could also get a gig there as a young and unknown band. The bigger acts played upstairs. I saw Iggy Pop, New Order, The Birthday Party and The Cure,’ says guitarist Rusty Tulek, ‘many bigger bands also played downstairs, which was our stage. Public Image Ltd, The Fall, Violent Femmes, and all of the touring Australian bands.’

‘It was the energy that I most remember. The feeling that if you went out, something special could happen. That’s why we went out so much.’

On the contrary, the first memory of my youth I could think of was my phobia of a man who had eerily long fingernails and wore a different wig every day of the week. ‘If I don’t believe in God, then who am I supposed to believe in?’ he would yell at me whenever he had the opportunity to.

The ‘Thursday night crawl’ was during a period where The Crystal Ballroom and The Prince of Wales both had prominent weekly gigs. Hundreds of young punks would be shuffling between the two venues all night. When I walked down the street, the homeless would comment on how much I’d grown over the years. The community aspect was still evident, but in different ways.

In St Kilda’s prime, The Helter Skelter Club was a music venue that had a stage made of chipboard and milk crates. Home to legendary local punk bands such as Depression, Vicious Circle and Civil Dissident. I know it as The Barkly Hotel, a less than reputable backpacker bar with a hostel upstairs. Its inhabitants wouldn’t have to travel far for a beer, but there were always one too many stairs when the bar closed for the night.

The hostels were around before I moved to St Kilda. But it was the discovery of the faded beach resort that inspired the corporate plan to be put into effect. It was clear that money could be made from the forgotten suburb, and it wasn’t going to come from the likes of its current natives. The increased cost of rental properties forced many of the long-term residents to move, taking the artistic character of the area with them.

‘Even back in the late 80’s it started the change, the yuppies started to move in. They’d buy an art deco flat and renovate it. Mandelay (a once notorious building on The Esplanade) used to be full of drug dealers, musicians and sex workers. It got renovated and became apartments’ says Colin.

‘Nobody went to the beach, it was filthy and was where really bad stuff was rumoured to happen’ says ex-resident Liana Lucca-Pope. After the beach was cleaned up, business owners began catering to the backpackers and tourists that appeared. Former boarding houses became hostels. The Star Wars Bar, a popular hangout amongst locals, turned into a bottle shop.

‘The “glory days” were when people from the suburbs were scared to come here. It was our town.’ The locals were driven out, and they didn’t feel like it was their town anymore.

‘The share houses started to disappear; rundown houses would be renovated and sold. The halfway houses shut down, except The Gatwick.’

Since opening in the 1950s, The Gatwick has been home to recovering drug addicts, ex-convicts, the mentally ill – or a likely combination of all three. Sisters Rose and Yvette Kelly have worked at The Gatwick since they were 14, and have spent most of their lives battling to keep the doors open. Locals argue that The Gatwick is the last bona fide piece of old St Kilda left.

‘The Greyhound was the St Kilda melting pot; a biker, a punk, a drag queen and a sex worker all waiting for a drink at the bar. A combination you wouldn’t see together anywhere else around Melbourne. It was dubbed “the last real pub in St Kilda”, and when it was sold and renovated, it was devastating.’

St Kilda has changed dramatically, but there is still a village mentality, likeminded people, and an affinity to the suburb. Young people don’t move there as often as they would have when it was a nefarious wonderland, but there are still a handful of community-minded hangers-on.

‘The reason why people like me are still here is that we feel a connection to this town from our youth,’ says Colin, ‘in 1982, Hunters and Collectors played a New Years Eve gig at The Crystal Ballroom. Afterwards everyone staggered out and followed the sound of music until we found more than 1,000 people dancing to Garry Gray and The Sacred Cowboys.’

‘Some were unconscious and others were having sex in the corner, it was debauchery at an impressive level. Yesterday, we played with Garry Gray at The Winnebago Lounge, and we were home by 9 o’clock.’

St Kilda has constantly changed. In the 1800s, St Kilda was a playpen of Melbourne’s rich and elite. When the underground music scene took up residency within the once opulent buildings, the rich and elite weren’t far-off from reclaiming them. An interesting observation to make, considering the clear cycle. Perhaps if it continues, then the nefarious wonderland of yesteryear is closer than we think.

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