One of my earliest memories is standing on a couple of telephone books in a vocal booth at a recording studio in Melbourne, Australia. My father was recording a track called Dear Daddy and I was singing the part of the little girl pleading with her imprisoned father to “please come home”. A sad and melodic James Taylor-ish folklore song. Between the late night jams at my family home and the vague memories I now have of fiddle players and drummers interpreting his blues laden songs at local venues, I of course never contemplated that this was not a run of the mill childhood. Ours was literally a house filled with music. The only rebellion I could ever muster as a sullen teen, was to shut my bedroom door and listen to my favorite records through headphones. To this day, I credit every grain of bohemian and artistic open mindedness to both my parents.
Growing up in a quiet, tree lined street, in an extremely loving and colourful household in Sydney, I imagine myself and two brothers were raised in a vastly different environment to our dad. He grew up in suburban Perth, Western Australia, in the 1950’s, and I don’t imagine this was a particularly friendly place to grow up as a tanned, half Palestinian, Jewish kid. The racist slurs and physical assaults were typical of a pre culturally integrated Australia. But that was a mere buzzing fly compared to the physical abuse he was experiencing at the hand of his father, a handsome ex army officer/pro boxer, at his family home.
At 17 my dad unsurprisingly left his home, soon after he met my beautiful, also somewhat wounded, stage actress mother, Linda, and they went on to build a loving nest together.
I delve into his past, because I believe this absolutely informs who you become as an adult, as a partner and as a parent. There’s a definite ‘Rebel Without A Cause’ sprit that colours my fathers existence, a true survivor of the free spirited 60s and still very much lives by that ethos. No rules will bound him, no convention tie him, nor any expectation burden him.
He adheres to not just one, but many religions and ideologies; whichever brings him the most sense or salvation at that particular moment. He truly lives in his own magical universe. And yes, this at times has proved a considerable struggle, especially when trying to survive in a modern capitalist universe and within a typical family nucleus. Predictably, I somewhat rebelled against all of this and became a pretty dam focused and driven person in everything I do. Not quite the accountant or solicitor, the old cliché would have you believe. The heart of me breathes a nature adoring, spiritual, vegetarian hippie, however, I can’t avoid the ambition and strength, which guides my every decision.
Having watched my dad carry his music with him throughout his life, I see no other way to survive really. His sheer tenacity and self-belief in what he does is more than awe-inspiring. After all these years he still pens meaningful poetry and soulful blues and gospel, more recently selling one of his tracks to the great Blind Boys of Alabama. I’m sure all those past experiences, have given him that strength required to survive this God-awful industry.
There’s a certain legend that shadows my father back home: he’s that guy who played in a 70s alt country band called The Cahoots – they supported Roy Orbison when he came to Perth and he was the guy who passed along a demo to Bob Dylan’s manager, resulting in a backstage meeting with the legend himself (this experience only gave reinforcement to the expression, never meet your idols). He was the guy who thwarted a Hells Angel with his Gibson guitar mid Cahoots gig, after one of the angels screamed at my dad “You calling me a Sue?” (they were covering Jonny Cash’s A Boy Named Sue at the time). He revels us in stories of his favorite gigs of all time, Zeppelin being up there, and when I was 13 he gave me his giant Beatles songbook and a guitar and hoped for the best!
My band, Howling Bells has become much more than just another family whom I adore, but a place where my family connection survives. I’m able to express all those collective hopes and broken dreams as well as a place where I can tell my own stories and express those greatest loves and losses. Every time I can see that we’ve brought some semblance of happiness, beauty or hope to someone’s life, I’m magnificently reaffirmed and content. Raising my own daughter now, I’ve developed a new appreciation for the true sense of self my father retained throughout our childhood. He taught us the things that were important to him, love, music and honesty, and left out the things that weren’t, we figured those out by ourselves.
As dad says, let the band play on, and so they shall!
Juanita Stein: Girl in Howling Bells. Living in London. Missing the sea.