When trust in institutions, figureheads, history and – gasp! – the media is bottoming out, from responsibility-dodging PMs and science-denying talking heads to the holy integrity of the hi-vis vest, who can we still turn to?
John Farnham. Of course.
He never let us down. He never did ads for hair-plug scammers. He never lied (as you’ll see below, he never said he was retiring; he said he wouldn’t do massive national tours anymore). And even when his signature song was appropriated by rioting neo-nazis, he never turned up on a screen to say “well, I can understand their frustration”.
So in our darkest hour, let’s turn to a pivotal time in the man’s career, when even as his devoted, multi-generational fanbase was as committed as ever, he announced The Last Time.
It was 2002. It wasn’t the end.
To understand John Farnham's singular status in Australia as he undertakes what will be his last big concert tour, take a look at the recent nostalgia fest that was Long Way To The Top (LWTTT).
On the back of a patchy but popular TV series, the concerts brought together two decades of Australian rock music, from Col Joye through Little Pattie to Billy Thorpe's many Aztecs.
Ticket sales were impressive, with thousands of baby boomers putting away the cardigans, slicking back the thinning strands and squeezing into a pair of dress jeans for the occasion.
All the acts were contemporaries of a teenager called Johnny Farnham who, 35 years ago this month, had his first hit, Sadie (The Cleaning Lady). But none has a significant performing career any more. Some hadn't played a gig in decades before LWTTT, others have been making a living on the rubber chicken circuit of the RSL clubs or waiting for the return of The Mike Walsh Show.
Over the next few months, 53-year-old Farnham will play 100 shows around the country on The Last Time tour, before something like half a million paying customers. He sold out the 10,000-seater Rod Laver Arena in Melbourne eight times and the Sydney Entertainment Centre, of similar size, six times. He has sold 960,000 tickets in the Laver Arena alone since it opened a little over a decade ago (not for nothing is the performers' backstage area at the venue named after him). Those are figures even Kylie Minogue can't touch.
And in case you'd forgotten that he still boasts the biggest selling Australian-made album (1986's Whispering Jack, which has sold 1.4 million copies), his latest album of new material, also called The Last Time, sold more than 100,000 copies within a month of release and will probably have doubled that number by Christmas.
If you're thinking that's a lot of wrinklies cashing in their pension cheques, take a closer look, this time at the audience streaming into the Laver arena on a mild Melbourne spring night. It's the opening night of the new tour and the show, which sold out in less than an hour, is half an hour away.
Coming up the steps are well dressed couples in their 40s, packs of women of indeterminate age, groups of "mature" citizens and many, many families: boomers and their teenage kids; thirtysomethings and their babies. Standing by one of the merchandise stalls, I watch the never-ending stream of T-shirts ($45), stubby coolers and mugs ($15), calendars and programs ($25), cross the counter. Even a moderate purchase of one T-shirt and a program will set you back $70, on top of nearly $100 for the tickets, but the crowds at the stall are three and four deep.
Among the buyers are friends Donna Maloney, 28, Rayoni Heal, 26, and Diane Ritchie, 31, who have seats up the front. When asked how long they've been fans they chorus: "since You're The Voice". "I learnt it at school," adds Heal.
Ritchie and Maloney have seen every Farnham tour since 1986. They can say which songs he played at each of those concerts and in what order. "It's the entertainment," beams Ritchie, on why they keep returning. "He makes you laugh at every show."
"I am completely depressed at the thought [that he may not be back]," says Maloney. "I can't imagine my life without a concert every two years."
You may scoff, until you've joined a Farnham audience and seen faces glow like those of the born-again. Fans repeatedly approach the stage. Some hold flowers, others little presents they've made. A few hold up towels so he can wipe his face. Still others have brought cameras and have their photos taken with him, or just reach out a hand to touch the hem of his trousers. The lucky ones get to kiss his cheek, sometimes clutching on as if fearful he might escape. He refuses no one and acknowledges them all.
When they let him go home, nearly three hours later, it is done with reluctance. The room still jangles, the foyer a jumble of voices repeating variations on "he's amazing" and "wasn't that wonderful?". One woman who has been coming to see him for 35 years, brought her daughter this year and only left her mum at home because the venue's steps are getting too much. She and many others will be back at least one more time during this eight-night run. Their reactions will be the same each time. This is love.
At 4.30pm the next day, Farnham arrives back at the arena. He is not long awake, having reached bed shortly before dawn, baggy eyed and croaky. "My voice hasn't woken up yet," he mumbles.
He is solidly built, his loose shirt hanging over his belt in a style every man over 30 knows too well. The famous blond hair - long since shorn of its '80s mullet - is brushed but not coiffured, long but not embarrassingly so. The handshake is firm. Lack of sleep aside, he is exactly the same man, with the same jokes, off stage as on - something, one suspects, the fans have always understood.
With the buzz of last night's show still palpable, it's reasonable to assume Farnham must have watched the LWTTT performers and thought "there but for the grace of God ..." But as polite as ever, Farnham won't take the bait. "I did look at it and think 'gee, how lucky am I that I'm in my circumstances?' but not 'there but for the grace of God'," he says.
It's left to Farnham's long-time manager and friend of 35 years, Glenn Wheatley, to put that answer in some context. Wheatley - who played on many of the LWTTT shows in his old guise as bassplayer for '60s group, Master's Apprentices - was approached to have Farnham join the tour but knocked it back. He knows all too well the cabaret heart beating under that tour's denim jacket.
"They cut the mustard, they were all very, very good, but John stands out from them all," Wheatley says. "We went on sale at the same time as [the LWTTT shows] were on and it was almost embarrassing coming in each night because I was selling more shows with John alone than we were as a collective unit."
How did this happen? In an industry where second careers are rare and when they happen are always short (remember Daryl Braithwaite?), Farnham has broken both rules. His "second career" has lasted 17 years and the only sign of it slowing is his professed desire to quit big tours. He's too polite, of course, to offer an answer for why he's succeeded where his contemporaries failed: "I don't compare myself to anyone else." But Wheatley has a go.
"The fact he can actually sing is a great help," he says. "He's a great entertainer. He doesn't try to be cool; he doesn't try to be hip so he's not at the forefront of any trend. He's hardcore entertainment: John is always back to basics, there's nothing tricky about his performance."
Nevertheless, for all his TV Week King of Pop awards (five consecutive years from 1969) and gold records (12 singles and six albums beginning with Sadie), by the early '80s Farnham couldn't buy a hit. The one-time plumbing apprentice who was born in the English Ford Motor company town of Dagenham in 1949 and emigrated to Australia a decade later, was still winning awards but they were on the cabaret circuit and had titles such as best "variety performer".
It was a career low point, one of many at the time before a brief stint fronting the Little River Band revived interest. There's a story told about a night in 1980, shortly after Wheatley took over as his manager, when Farnham was booked into a Gold Coast club. The band was so appalling that at night's end the pair ceremonially burnt his tuxedo and frilly shirt and declared "never again".
Farnham recalls another career lowlight, though in hindsight he sees it as the beginning of the Farnham we know today.
"I turned up at a club in Sydney with my [sheet music] charts under my arm and I was the headline act," Farnham says. "This was in the days when you could get into the show for 20 cents - the price of a beer - and the worst thing you could do was be any good because if you pulled them from the poker machines, the manager would come out and say 'get this shit off stage, my revenue's going down'. I arrived at this club and the band consisted of a trumpet player who was 80, a drummer who was probably his older brother and a piano player who must have been their mother.
“I was up there trying to sing One, Friday Kind Of Monday and Sadie. There were 500 people in the room and [the band] had no concept of how to do it so I told them to stop playing and I did the show on my own. I made stuff up as I went along, tried to read the audience, made a couple of them laugh which was encouraging. I did a 40-minute spot and at the end they stood up. Well those that could [he giggles].
"It's one of the fondest memories I have. That's where I learnt to work a crowd. Mate, the fact that I did that 'rubber chicken circuit', as you call it, enabled me to do this. That's the flat-out truth. I got bagged for it in the old days but it's paying off now."
He's right. No other artist I've seen has the connection, the two-way flow of affection and respect between artist and audience. After all, this is a performer who will stop a song just to let someone take a photo.
"But it means a great deal to them," he says. "People put their babies up to be kissed, or just want to be close [and] I try to envelop them a bit. I don't have a cool bone in my body; I'm not trying to cool anybody out and they know it.
"There was a beautiful Down syndrome girl there last night and she tried to shove her tongue down my throat and she got it down so far before I could stop her. But it was purely because she wanted to say hello and was able to. That's why I like [the audience coming to the stage]."
But his success can be traced to a few other factors, too. The most obvious one is song selection, beginning with You're The Voice, a rousing burst of optimism that gave full vent to his voice's dramatic bent and power and kick-started his revival. Farnham and his producer, Ross Fraser, have consistently found material that refreshes a catalogue rather than emphasise its past.
Then there's the consistency in his life. Farnham has had the same wife for 29 years, the same manager for 23, the same producer and record company for 17. Many of the road crew and band have been with him for more than a decade and the tour routines (such as a mandatory one-hour run-through every show day) have been the same for years.
Even with a health kick that saw him give up smoking, he didn't abandon a drink - something to please veterans at the record company, BMG, who still recall the night that a boisterous Farnham dropped his pants on the dancefloor ... and just kept dancing.
And, finally, there's fear. Despite the jocular exterior on and off stage, here is a performer still ruled by the spectre of failure. When the Herald approached Farnham's management for this story, the plan was to spend the first day of the tour with him but we were told "John gets too nervous on the first day to have any strangers around." (Something he confirmed when I said I expected him to be blasé by now: "No, no, no," he says. "Jesus, no. It still matters to me a lot.")
Spending a day in rehearsal was abandoned at the last minute when Farnham, who had been involved in benefit shows for Bali and bushfire appeals when he otherwise would have been in heavy rehearsal, refused to have us there. He was worried the band hadn't rehearsed enough, one week out from opening night.
Even the structure of the show, where the first set is done in small, acoustic mode, had him "terrified because you never know how people are going to take that". And now he reveals that his decision to make this his "last" big tour comes down to fear of waking up one morning and finding no one is interested any more.
"I love the fact that we sell full houses, I love the fact we've done really well, I love the fact we hold records at all the venues," Farnham, says.
"I think it's fantastic and I would like to be able to keep that. I'd rather someone came up to me and said 'why did you stop doing that?' rather than 'you should have stopped doing that a couple of tours ago'."