Just off Brunswick Street in Fitzroy sits Handsome Steve’s House of Refreshment. Once you get to know Handsome Steve Miller himself (the length of time it takes to sip a pot of Carlton or enjoy a strong coffee at the bar should get you started) you start to think that if a better monument has ever been built to one man’s passions and executed more successfully, you are yet to see it. Once inside the door (‘No Hippies’ reads the sign affixed to it) you become a tourist within a personally curated, permanent exhibition reflective of a singular personality. It’s a clubhouse of enthusiasms that cover the Geelong Football Club, Cassius Clay, Don Dunstan, Gary Ablett, The Shangri-La’s and a hundred other things besides. All this, and Steve serves beer (Carlton), coffee (flat white) and toasted sandwiches (ham and cheese, ham, or cheese). It’s heaven. The overwhelming sense you get as you sit on a bar stool chatting with Steve, is that he’s pulled off the rare feat of transporting his internal world into the actual world, and found 50 square feet of retail space at the back of a clothes shop in which to house it.
All around the walls, above the bar and on various shelves are gathered the treasures of a life well lived that suggest a love of the erratic genius married with a keen eye for the absurd. Behind the bar hangs a framed newspaper headline from an old Sunday Age:
‘Record Star ‘Broke’ Exclusive’.
As if that was news to any of us.
Worth the visit alone is the life size bust of G. Ablett Senior. Frozen in time with his eyes cast downwards, God clutches a red Sherrin to his chest with the casual sense of proprietorship that defined a career. In my imagination, he’s been captured just as he walks back to his mark past the human carnage in opposition jumpers lying all around him. As a frieze, it’s slightly grotesque but mostly beautiful. It’s fair to say that pretty much encapsulates the way every non-cats fan and opponent felt about watching him play throughout his remarkable career too.
The stained wood and laminex-topped bar itself is a thing of beauty, a piece of history nearly lost. ‘Saved from a mansion in Toorak’ says Steve ‘They were ripping it out. I wanted to get the terrazzo as well, but someone managed to talk me out of it.’ One can only imagine the kind of ‘media room’ with giant plasma screen and surround sound that replaced the private drinking den’s former site, but fair to say that it’s trip from the penthouse to the ale house has finally given this beautiful piece of carpentry it’s due. To lean your elbow on its formwork is a delight, and you even sense the bar itself might enjoy the company.
I first met Handsome Steve many years ago when he ran a fantastic record label called WMinc in cahoots with his partner in crime ‘Evil’ Graham Lee. I think that it goes without saying that any organisation helmed by two gentlemen with adjectives as a part of their names is worth being a part of. I liked Steve immediately (and Graham too I hasten to add) and found him by turns hilarious, charming, smart, and bloody interesting. Steve grew up in Mount Gambier with Dave Graney and together they formed the incendiary The Moodists with Clare Moore and Chris Walsh. That alone would be recommendation enough of a man’s character. In this lightly perfumed modern age it’s hard to conceptualise just how hard it was for bands like The Moodists to exist in an era where being independent meant exactly that – you lived and operated completely apart from the mainstream and at best were barely tolerated, at worst completely reviled.
I hadn’t seen Steve for quite a few years. I heard that he had just re-opened the doors to his establishment (he was at another site in Abbotsford for several years) and thought I’d chance my arm and drop in to say hello. I timed my arrival perfectly. The doors had just been opened and I found Steve wiping tables and getting things in order for the day ahead. It was great to see him. Dressed in a New York Dolls t-shirt, a super pair of stovepipes and brothel creepers, he looked a million bucks as usual. I hope Steve will take it as a compliment when I say he defines the classic Australian descriptive term ‘a long tall streak of pelican shit’ with great aplomb. Atop his head sits a luxuriant tangle of hair tamed with Brylcreem into an elegant gentleman’s style. Upon looking up, he welcomed me in with a firm handshake and a slow flickering smile of recognition. In fairness I felt I had to remind him who I was as to do otherwise would be as potentially embarrassing for me as it would be for him – but there’s no need to stand of ceremony in there. It had been a while, and you need context.
We got straight down to it. Steve told me about his new band with the kind of enthusiasm that made his slicked back fringe start dancing wildly in and out of his eyes. He hadn’t played music for years he told me, and it had been getting him down. There was a girl who worked upstairs who had great taste in music, and was a fantastic singer. She played a Fender Twin Reverb just like him. One day as she was walking past the shop she called out to him
‘When are you going to call me about getting a band together?’
‘You call me!’ Steve shouted back.
Immediately regretting his hardline stance, he called her the next day and the band was born. He wanted to christen the new outfit ‘Duchess’, but was outvoted two to one (a drummer was now on the scene). The Steve Miller Band was born. Again.
We diverted off on to other topics. Will Minson is a lovely bloke apparently. Is he? Doesn’t surprise me. He plays jazz doesn’t he? He likes it anyway. He had a great year last year. Oh yeah, great year. Kathleen Hannah from Bikini Kill pulled up outside last week with her new band. No idea who she was. They ordered some iced coffees, and she knew the Go Betweens. I said, hang on, you know them? I tour managed them for years! Were you at the show at the Bowery in New York that time? What? I’ve met you! You remember now?
Steve showed me designs for some new House of Refreshment t-shirts, all featuring some of his favourite quotes, but not of the self-help kind thankfully. ‘You’re Ruining Everything’ was my favourite. We talked about how rare it was it was to see real danger in rock and roll now, probably because so many bands are evolving as a result of their parents’ record collections, not in spite of them. You don’t see too many terrified faces in the front row these days, which is a shame.
The Steve Miller Band’s debut show at The Tote was quite something by all accounts, or at least, the only one I’ve heard. ‘I had my head stuck up against the amp, I don’t know for how long’ says Steve. The amp was making a fair old racket, all manipulated by Steve. There was a heavy metal band playing next door, and they all came in to see what was happening. ‘They just stood there in their short with their mouths wide open’ says Steve. ‘They’d never seen anything like it’. Sure enough, he brings up a photo on his computer depicting the scene exactly as he had described. There’s Steve in the foreground with his head stuck up against his amp, while further back four bearded men, all dressed in black look on, their mouths agape. So there’s the danger. ‘It’s the first band I’ve ever played in where people don’t leave’ says Steve triumphantly. ‘It’s fucking incredible!’
We talk about the power of music and the friendships it creates. That’s why I’m here, I say. I like the people and the adventures and the travel and the stories as much as the music itself. It’s how we connect with each other. Sometimes the music itself loses it’s lustre when you’re caught up in it every day, like anything else. Steve says he lost the spark for a while, but it’s back with him stronger than ever now, he’s playing better than he’s played in his life. He’s having a party to launch the new digs next week he says. Four bands playing, including his own, ten minute sets, maximum. ‘That’s all they’re getting’ says Steve waving his hand dismissively. ‘I’ve had enough!’
I tell Steve about this blog and the live shows we’ve done with Francis, Bob and Paul, Tim and Richo, and how incredibly enjoyable it all is. We have a look at the site, and I show him Mark Wilson’s article (before this one) and the photo of Mark resplendent in his Cats jumper on the Grand Final day in 2007. Of course, that catches a Cats’ man eye.
As we talk customers wander in, take a table and pick up a paper, and have a look around. There’s a lot to take in. Steve gets to them in between our conversation, and that seems to be fine. It has to be I suppose, and that seems to be the understanding. It’s civilised like that. At times it feels like our conversation is being acknowledged by our surroundings: ‘…they sound like the Shangri La’s..’ (Shangri La’s record cover on the wall), ‘…and I realized that anyone can play these MC5 riffs, even me…’ (MC5 book in a pile) , ‘Ablett…’ (bust). Of course, none of this is coincidence. The things Steve loves are all around him, but I suddenly realise how rare it is for someone to actually live out all of their loves and enthusiasms with so much commitment. More often than not we compartmentalise those things and keep them as ‘hobbies’, when really, they mean so much more to us than just a weekend diversion. They’re the things that make us tick and we construct ourselves out of them. It’s not easy living with such a degree of genuine commitment to a style of life as Steve does, but then again, the alternative is harder, if not frankly impossible. He is his life and his life is him, and he won’t consider another way. That’s what makes his bar great. There wasn’t a focus group, and there were no meetings. There was consensus however, in that Steve agreed with himself about what kind of place he wanted to run, and trusted his instinct that other people would too.
My impending trip down the highway – to Geelong appropriately enough – is getting closer, so I start making my preparations to leave. I reach into my pocket to get some money. Steve looks at me and says ‘Don’t you dare try to pay for that coffee’. I attempt put up some resistance but realise that to try to pay would more insulting than pushing over a table and doing a runner, so I drop it. As we stroll towards the door we talk about VFL footy, and how Steve loves the ladies in the canteen down at Port Melbourne. ‘They don’t take shit from anybody’ he says admiringly. We talk about the atmosphere at local football grounds, tartan thermoses, and how you can take your kids to the footy and feel good about it, like you’re passing down an ancient rite. ‘Bloody hell, I might cry in a minute’ says Steve. So might I.
We say our goodbyes, and as I walk away I vow to get to back at every opportunity. It’s a treasure to savoured for any right-minded lover of footy, rock and roll and individualism.
Later on that night I get a text from the very same Mark who walked on the MCG the day his beloved cats won the 2007 flag. He had no idea I knew Steve or had been in earlier that day.
‘You simply must come to Handsome Steve’s house of Refreshment. He was in the Moodists and has a Cats bar. It’s probably the best bar in Melbourne. It’s most likely the best bar in the world.’
Gary Ablett and The Shangri La’s? I think he’s right.