John Farnham – The Voice of Our Nation

As John Farnham struggles with serious health issues, Naomi Fryers reflects on the gifts one of Australia’s greatest music icons has given us.

BORN IN Australia in the early 1980s, there were some things that were constant in our suburb – The Comedy Company, AFL and John Farnham. I couldn’t have been much older than four when I received my first cassette from Santa Claus in the Southern Hemisphere, a hot Aussie Christmas. I was more than happy that it was home to a large number of Johnny Farnham’s ‘Greatest hits’ released in 1980.

From ‘I saw mommy kiss Santa Claus’ to the novel hit track ‘Sadie (the cleaning lady)’, that tape had years of airtime as I sang and danced my heart out in my older sister’s oversized T-shirt dresses. I’ve always loved the injection of joy that music can instantly infuse into life, but John Farnham’s classics make me think the best.

Since I’ve always been a writer, I wrote a love letter to Johnny as a kid. If the memory does, it was from a kind of little black book of celebrity “addresses” compiled by a teen magazine. I was delighted to receive a reply and to be invited to join his fan club. Weeks before that, I had won a Corinella coloring contest and had the coin to spare. So I promptly joined.

I can’t remember what I received as part of my fan club package when it arrived. But I do remember this – even before I received that first cassette, Johnny Farnham had put a stake in a huge part of my heart. Farnham’s ability to produce timeless classics, that charisma, his performance on stage, that remarkable ability to connect with everyday Australians across the country with his salt-of-the-earth lyrics, still gives me chills. I know I’m not the only one either.

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I put out a call among friends for their favorite John Farnham anecdotes and like the great man himself, they did not disappoint. Friends described him as a gem – something I agree with – both rare and precious. My friend Carolyn is a die-hard fan and has seen him live in concert three times, once around ’86 in Sydney, turning up fans as underpaid security desperately tried to contain the crowd. She remembers three encores and an extra 15 minutes of playtime.

She added:

“I bought his cassette and traveled through Canada, the US and on to England. I think I’ve worn it out.”

Nicole then said:

“I got Whispering Jack on tape when I was eight because he had my tonsils out. Absolutely hammered. Best album.”

Decades later, Nicole’s husband covered ‘You are the voice’ in death metal on Speckles and dots. My niece Tracey joined the conversation to note that she had fond memories of her parents taking her and her sister to the Johnny Farnham concert in Gosford on a “awesome” New Years Eve.

Leesa says that as a child, her father drove her to a street where he once lived near Park Orchards. But also that she had first seen him in concert in 2012, but loved him as the leader of the Little River Band. Emily whispered that she listens ‘Press down’ as part of her morning playlist.

Not long after, Chong Lim’s old PA slipped into my DMs to reminisce about meeting the “bigger than life” icon. And yet another cousin, Deb, who worked in showbiz PR for decades, can attest to being a man of the people.

Then there’s my old buddy Martine who tells me her mom used to do his laundry in the ‘sad’ days when they lived in Box Hill. They joked about that ‘sad’ had been written about their mother. When her sister later found out that he once held her as a baby, she swore she was so excited not to take a bath.

It was clear that mine wasn’t the only heart he touched, though I soon remember my own Johnny Farnham story. We had a friend who was a famous international DJ (known for producing original mixes of club bangers in trendy nightclubs all over Asia) who couldn’t attend my wedding. Rather than send a telegram to read that evening, I would have insisted that he put together a playlist for us.

Let me assure you he wasn’t too enthralled to notice he was meshing ‘Two strong hearts’ of ‘When I’m 64’ to be transported around the world on a secure Ipod before the big day. Which in hindsight is a bit hilarious. The fact that our mate now reluctantly obliged reminds me of his own strong heart, as well as Johnny’s incredible music and memories – like a mixtape compilation of the best.

With Johnny Farnham’s health in a precarious state, we must recognize his remarkable contribution and celebrate all the great memories and gifts he gave to the nation. With gratitude in our hearts and our toes that knock on ‘Chain Reaction’, fans across the nation can’t demand an encore from a man who has given more than enough of himself over the past few decades. But we can hope he makes the biggest comeback of all.

Naomi Fryers is a Melbourne based writer, author, storyteller and TedX speaker.

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