The legendary rocker Normie Rowe plays Maclean Bowling Club on October 25.
The legendary rocker Normie Rowe plays Maclean Bowling Club on October 25.

Normie Rowe: living a life less ordinary

FOR a musician whose career spans six decades Normie Rowe has no trouble recalling what would seem like relatively insignificant moments in what has panned out to be a rather extraordinary multi-faceted life for the 72-year-old.

From the crazy heights of Australian pop in the 1960s to the war fields of Vietnam and difficult return to Australia to that infamous tiff on The Midday Show, Rowe's lot is certainly full of defining moments.

But that doesn't stop him from remembering staying at the Jacaranda Hotel on the highway in 1965. Nor playing Grafton and recalling the beauty of the purple trees at festival time.

"It was a long time ago but I hope to play there again, and hope it is during Jacaranda. It's very beautiful there this time of year."

He also recalled flying over the area in '74 in a Fokker Friendship. "There were monstrous floods at the time and we weren't up all that high. I was astounded by what I saw."

On this occasion Rowe has Maclean in his sights, his concert set for October 25 in the rivertown with a Scottish heart.

"I can't tell you how many times I've driven through Maclean so it will be a pleasure to stop and do a show there. I do like Yamba too but I don't want to tell anyone what I think about the place because we don't want it to change. It's a pretty place, we don't want it to ever become a Gold Coast."

Talk of the refurbished Saraton Theatre also piqued interest in coming back for a new tour he is putting together with fellow entertainers Tony Barber and Max Gillies.

"It's a musical review called Senior Moments. I'll put the Saraton on the list and talk to the producers. You never know it sounds like it would be a really good match."

As you may glean, Rowe has no plans in putting up his musical feet any time soon, the septuagenarian literally taking each day as it comes.

"My attitude is to wake up every morning, get up, make the bed and have a plan for the day and at the end of the year you've had 365 successful plans," he said laughing.

 

LOUD AND PROUD: Vietnam Vet Advocate and rocker, Normie Rowe AM.
LOUD AND PROUD: Vietnam Vet Advocate and rocker, Normie Rowe AM.

For something that started working the industry at age 13, keeping the motor running is something he has had plenty of practice at. "You just keep going, keep yourself well, eat the right food, make sure you are active. I don't run any marathons or any of that sort of stuff but I can still hold my own for a couple of hours on stage with no problems."

The kind of resilience it takes to get to that place is something Rowe honed over a lifetime of ups and down learning a great deal in the process.

He said one of the earliest lessons he learned was to not rely on teenage culture to make a living.

"A lot is built fairly heavily on what people tell them what to do and think. Early adolescence to early adulthood until eventually young people start to think for themselves."

He bore the full brunt of this when enjoying a burgeoning pop music career here in Australia and the UK in the late 60s, he was conscripted by government ballot to serve in the military in Vietnam, a defining moment in the entertainer's career that set him on the path he still travels today.

"When I came back there was this incredible movement driven largely by universities and political parties using that (teenage) culture to try and get their own momentum. At that stage conservative parties had been in for decades so the Socialist parties, Labor and various other left-wing parties were looking for something to hang their hat on and they hung it on the Vietnam War."

Rowe said it got to the point where people were blaming the soldiers for the war.

"Yes we had an alternative. It was either go to jail for five years or go to war. The whole thing was very unfair. I came back and because I'd accepted my lot and served the country, it was frowned upon."

Rowe said his military service impacted on his music career "severely".

"When I got back I did one show and to say I was shunned would have been nicer. I was singing away trying to find my footing, and having a few problems with it anyway because I hadn't really done a show for over two years and I was getting 'child killer' and all that sort of stuff from the crowd out front. So I just walked away realising the audience I used to have is not the audience I'd come back to.

"My dad said to me the best thing you can do is forget you ever went and don't ever mention it in public but I lost three mates over there. It was pretty hard to forget them."

 

Normie Rowe the soldier during his Vietnam service.
Normie Rowe the soldier during his Vietnam service.

As history will attest Rowe never forgot any of it, instead using his experience in Vietnam and his musical profile to offer those suffering in silence, the support and recognition they deserved.

In fact he is soon off to his next call of duty, heading to the south of the state for an anniversary of one of those mates he lost.

"We have a fairly large contingent going down there to visit his grave and see his family. There's nothing more poignant for us than those first few words of the oath: 'they shall not grow old as we who are left grow old'.

"We still look at each other, we're all getting on now, and all we can think of is the memories of those young fellows who didn't get to be older than perhaps 21 or two."

When his music career stalled, for a while he thought of going back (to Vietnam) to become a telecommunications technician again.

"At that stage the only other thing I really knew was entertainment which I knew as well as anyone else doing that at the time but I felt if I was going to continue down that path it had to be for something really important. So I decided there and then that if I was going to be going anywhere in this business it wasn't going to be for my own self-gratification, which is what I previously thought it was about. Now I'd gained notoriety I used that as a platform to help people that don't have a platform. That was the beginning and the end of the whole thing for me and it's always been that way.

"I've stayed the course with it. That's one of my philosophies, find the course you want to travel and stay on it and don't be persuaded."

Rowe also cites the rugby league great Jack Gibson as an inspiration when it comes to challenging times in life.

"He was marvellous player and coach, not educated by any stretch, very smart, I suppose gutter smart is what they used to call it. He once said to his team 'now listen, if you ever come to a fork in the road, take it'. So from my point of view there is always going to be that sliding doors thing you just have to make a decision and stand by it."

Which brings the conversation to another war of sorts, perhaps deflatingly for Rowe more likely to be on the popular culture radar than any of his musical hits or war experience - the Midday Show altercation. (Rowe and divisive radio commentator Ron Casey came to blows during a segment on Ray Martin's popular live variety show).

So accustomed to dealing with that moment in history-making live television Rowe is, he measures the number of times he is asked about it by the number of times he leaves the house.

"If I haven't been out that day then no it hasn't been asked, if I have, odds are yes, someone brings it up. The only thing that changes is the time of day people ask the question," he said with the appropriate amount of facetiousness.

"Put it this way, it was a slow news day and still can be (when I have to talk about it again). There was a certain amount of passion there but from my point of view there were a lot of insults being thrown by Mr Casey at my brothers and sisters in arms. The people who hold utmost respect for and he was putting them down."

Rowe said he had copped plenty of criticism for that off-the-cuff moment "by people who actually knew what they were talking about."

"So it runs off my back like water off a duck's now. But still, when somebody's on national television insulting people who don't have the platform to defend themselves in my opinion that's inexcusable."

But among the trials and tribulations that make up the Normie Rowe story, there are also the hit records, the legendary entertainer's credentials including 11 Top 10 records in a row which will be forming "the nucleus of my Maclean show".

 

Normie Rowe in concert at Festival Hall, in Melbourne in 1967.
Normie Rowe in concert at Festival Hall, in Melbourne in 1967. Contributed

"There's also a period in the show where we visit my time in the army and point out a couple of poignant things but essentially it's about energy and memories.

"There are love songs and some good old rock and roll numbers but most of all there's a huge amount of fun involved."

"My main aim is to make it so people walk away from the show feeling a little differently. Perhaps I've touched on a couple of things that are important to them or helped them forget some of the daily grind, the s--y things that can happen in life. My job is to entertain people. That's all there is to it."

  • Don't miss Normie Rowe live at the Maclean Bowling Club on Friday, October 25, 7.30pm for 8pm start. Tickets on sale from the club or via their website.