The Big Issue story: “A Rocking Release”, August 2013

A story for The Big Issue #440 — a profile of Australian musician Vic Simms and his recently re-released classic album of Aboriginal protest songs, The Loner. I was proud of the way this feature came together, Simms himself helping by being very generous with his time.

Click the image for a closer look, or read the article text underneath.

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Vic Simms doesn’t want to talk about prison. “I’ve been discussing it for over 40 years,” he says. “I’m pissed off with it. I’ve got grandkids. They’re going to get older and ask questions and things like this. So I don’t want to dwell too much on it.”

The request is easy, at least at first, to accommodate. Simms’s 1973 album, The Loner, was recorded at New South Wales’ notorious Bathurst Gaol, but it could have been made anywhere. Its clever combination of finger-snapping tunes and dark lyrics is the kind of concept you’d imagine dreamed up at a Sydney sound studio, not under an hour in an RCA Records mobile recording unit out the back of a country prison.

The irony is that The Loner was recorded as a PR stunt – a message from Corrective Services NSW designed to shift the public’s perception of life beyond the wall. “Conditions were atrocious at the time,” Simms recalls. “They were trying to paint me as the blossoming rose to carry on and give an impression that Vic Simms represented the prison population and this is the way it is. But it wasn’t like that at all.”

The now 68-year-old Simms – a Bidjigal man – is talking from Mascot, in Sydney’s southeast. And try as you might, a conversation about a Sandman Records remastering and re-release of The Loner naturally winds its way back to the time Simms served in Bathurst Gaol on a seven-year sentence for robbery. Mid-way through his sentence, Simms traded two packets of tobacco for an acoustic guitar and quickly set about learning to play.

But way before his time behind bars, Simms had a long history in music. He was just 11 years old when he sang his first gig with Australian rock’n’roll pioneers Col Joye and the Joy Boys, sharing the bill with Johnny O’Keefe. It was as a professional musician that Simms travelled the country and witnessed the undercurrent of racism that existed in Australian society. He vividly remembers a tour stop in Moree (which he describes as “the Alabama of western New South Wales”) with Joye, entertainer Peter Allen and pop-country singer Judy Stone. Simms was kicked out of the public pool – his only transgression the colour of his skin.

“My bandmates had seen the commotion going on,” he explains. “Peter Allen walked over and asked what the matter was. I said, ‘I’ve gotta leave, but you stay and enjoy yourselves.’” But Allen challenged the pool attendant, Simms says, “and [the attendant] replied… ‘You can stay, but this boy’s gotta go. [So] Allen offered an expletive or two: ‘Well, you can stick your pool up your arse. We’re outta here!’ Every time I caught up with Peter afterwards…even when he was really, really ill, he said, ‘Never forget that day at Moree. We stuck it to them, didn’t we?’ And I said, ‘Yeah, you did, brother.’ And I never forget that. Just a wonderful, wonderful man.”

It’s these sorts of stories that provide a through line for The Loner. On the album’s opening cut, ‘Get Back into the Shadows’, Simms sings the true story of being told to stand at the back of a bar, away from the white patrons. There are other songs with similar themes such as ‘Little Barefoot Urchin’ and ‘Stranger in My Country’. Matched to the spritzy tunes, they make for an album almost subversive in nature.

Bizarrely, the authorities didn’t seem to notice, so concerned were they with casting Simms as the shining light of the New South Wales prison system. The singer was treated to new clothes and toured prisons throughout the state, as well as playing the Sydney Opera House: “I thought I was going from one big house to another big house,” he observes wryly.

It didn’t last. Simms and his fellow inmates soon realised he was being used, the performances a diversion from the dreadful conditions in Bathurst Gaol and subsequent riots of 1974. “They pulled me aside and said, ‘Look, you’re our mate…all is not rosy on the other side of the fence and this is the impression that they want you to create.’ I said, ‘Yeah, you’re right.’ So I said, ‘That’s it. No more. The Vic Simms show is over.’”

Simms only returned to public performances after his release from prison in 1977. He would later work the club circuit and Aboriginal country music festivals, carving out a living as an entertainer. He even toured federal and state penitentiaries in North America with fellow Aboriginal singer-songwriters Roger Knox and Bobby McLeod.

But it’s The Loner that continues to define him. The songs seem to have a greater traction in the new millennium, when white Australians are more conscious of the plight of Aboriginal people. And musicians around the country are keying into the album’s importance, with Roger Knox recording his own version of ‘Stranger in My Country’ while Brisbane musician Luke Peacock has enlisted Nick Barker, The Saints’ Ed Kuepper and You Am I’s Rusty Hopkinson to record new interpretations of songs from the album. Even a few live performances aren’t out of the question.

“I’m astounded,” Simms says. “I never would have thought this. I never would have envisioned it having this sort of reaction. For an Aboriginal man to get these accolades, it’s just a wonderful thing.”

by Matt Shea

The Loner is out now through Sandman Records.

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