The announcement yesterday that Renee Geyer, the greatest soul and R&B singer Australia’s produced – and a pretty great blues and jazz singer to boot, not to mention a woman who could turn pop and pop standards into her own – had died at the age of 69, wasn’t just a shock, it was a body blow.
While I had the extreme good fortune to get to know her in the second half of her life, anyone who had the chance to see or hear her sing knew what a force of nature, a superb technician, an underappreciated songwriter and a thoughtful, sensitive interpreter she was.
But now, as we play her recordings and remember, which story to replay? Which unprintable but so “totally Renee” anecdote to share? Which possibly apocryphal tale to give fresh air to? Wind Back Wednesday lands in 2010, a year after a serious health upheaval, a regularly refreshed career flying, and Renee refusing to take orders from any doctor, any cancer … anyone.
PAUL KELLY DIDN’T KNOW THE HALF OF IT when he wrote the song for her but even cancer found Renee Geyer a Difficult Woman.
The lump she had noticed without much concern turned out to be an aggressive form of breast cancer, as she discovered mid last year. An aggressive and dangerous form. “The doctor described it like this,” she says in her husky and yet girlish voice. “A regular octopus will bite you and you'll be okay; a blue ringed octopus will bite you and could kill you. That's what you have."
Clearly it didn’t kill her: in fact it seemingly barely slowed the then 55-year-old down. Geyer was back on the stage two days after the emergency surgery performed following that diagnosis and then, during the 12 months of intravenous treatment with occasional radiology, she kept up regular live shows.
"I didn't cancel any shows [last year]," she says proudly. "In fact there was a little area of time when [her manager] was worried that I might not be able to do some gigs so that was like a month of absolutely no gigs: it drove me nuts.
"I think it [performing] saved me a lot of negative thinking. I just got on with it. It's very easy to ponder it and get very low if you're not doing what you always do."
Most of us would have assumed she'd be pretty tired from the treatment. People get sick you know Renee and it’s ok to lie down a bit.
"Even my doctors thought that. I just don't get tired - it's actually a bit of a problem. More for other people than for me," she laughs. "It's very hard to shut down this machine."
Some of the medical staff treating Geyer came to watch her perform, still a little sceptical about her ability to do so during treatment. Even her band were unsure. "They kept looking over at me and I felt like I owed them a fall or something," Geyer chuckles. “Just to fall on the floor and lie there for a minute so we would be done and we could move on.
Right from the time of her diagnosis Geyer told anyone who asked that she intended performing no matter what but now she can confess that "I was saying that but in the back of my mind I was a little more shaky about it” particularly given that one of the potential side-effects of her treatment was heart failure, if your heart is not in good shape.
“Mine was, thank God. The doctor said you’ve got the heart of a 20-year-old." Which, as she readily admits, is unexpected given the physical, emotional and pharmaceutical toll exacted by her full life.
"I don't deserve to be a very healthy girl, but I am.”
That healthy girl received the news in July that the cancer was in remission so she is back for her annual Sydney performances between Christmas and New Year, a decade-long tradition whose success belies the strong resistance Geyer put up when the idea was first mooted.
She just didn’t think anyone would go to midweek gigs at the fag end of the year but "it later dawned on me that most people are hanging around wondering what to do".
So now it’s a bit like a family get together where "it's not so much the faces I recognise as the feeling of that audience. They are all very familiar.” And there’s no end in sight to it.
"I think I'm going to know when it's time to stop. I don't think anyone is going to have to say it's time to stop now. My ego will stop me,” Geyer says. “I'd love to die on stage, when it comes. But I'd freak people out and I wouldn't want to do that.”
There’s a pause and then a wicked laugh. “Though there are a few gigs I wouldn't mind freaking people out."