‘I’m still coming to terms with what I’ve been through … I cry every day’
On a steamy morning in an inner Melbourne street, I knock on a small square door, which appears to be the only entrance to this converted warehouse. It swings open and a stooped Red Symons appears. I bend down and enter what is effectively his brave new world. This is Symons' new digs, a property he bought 30 years ago as an investment, moved into in 2017 and is now considering renovating. It's very different from the five-bedroom family home in nearby Fitzroy North, where he and wife Elly raised their three sons.
The anti-trend curmudgeon wouldn't want it said, but this place screams hipster cred. It looks like the sort of Fitzroy share house his 17-year-old self lived in. There's a bike, amplifiers, a small office in the corner, a Hitchcock print on the wall and, as a room divider, a super-sized pair of 1970s blue jeans. Entrance to the next room requires you to part the denim legs and walk through, your head at about crotch level.
Symons' lean frame is in blue jeans and a white T-shirt. He's 69 but looks much younger, possibly due to his daily half-kilometre swim and careful diet. ("I don't eat sugar or carbohydrates, tend towards fish and rarely eat meat, and walk snottily through food courts eyeing off the people eating fried chips.") The former lead guitarist for Skyhooks is not very rock and roll these days. He's thinking of going on a health retreat. I ask about some guitars leaning on the wall – he says the last time he played one was "four years ago, sitting on the front porch having a bit of a noodle". For the first time in decades, Red Symons doesn't have a packed schedule.
The reasons are multiple and cumulative, reflecting a brutal few years that began in 2016, when Symons and Elly split up after 25 years of marriage. The following July, he fainted while shopping, hitting his head and ending up in a coma and in hospital for three weeks. Then in late 2017, ABC Radio told him that, after 15 years and despite good ratings, his contract to present Melbourne's breakfast program wouldn't be renewed. "I'd like to thank the ABC for putting my three children through exactly the sort of schools they pretend to disapprove of," Symons told talkback station 3AW in the wake of the sacking.
But the worst, what the family had always dreaded, came on October 2 last year, when Symons, Elly and their sons Raphael, 26, and Joel, 20, lost their beloved eldest son and brother, Samuel, to cancer. He was 27. Cancer had featured in Samuel's life since he was four.
"In the end, with his recent … let's say the word, death … what I clung to was just the idea of telling him that I loved him," Symons says. "That's fundamentally what was there. He went out with grace and dignity. He was in a good place with good people and I don't believe he went out with discomfort or fear.
"I did ask him the unaskable question … 'How do you feel about dying?' He said, 'I don't worry about death. It's been part of my life.' There's a fundamental truth there, that if you're confronted on a regular basis with the possibility of your death, you do come to terms with it."
Symons in his new inner-Melbourne warehouse-conversion home.Credit:Kristoffer Paulsen
Late last year, I emailed Symons to ask if he would meet me for the purposes of this story. I knew him from various roles, including my time as a music writer in the '80s and '90s – one of my first news stories was about Skyhooks breaking up – and our sons went to the same school. I knew him well enough to know he'd tell me if he minded me being in touch. He didn't.
At 8.30 on the morning we were due to meet, I received a text asking to postpone. "I am swamped today by grief," he wrote. "I imagine that it is dealt with, then it floods back, overwhelmingly."
I always loved him. What else is there?
A week later we meet at Marios, the no-bookings cafe in Brunswick Street, Fitzroy, that famously wouldn't make an exception when Jerry Seinfeld tried to reserve a table. Symons is a fixture; he's been coming for coffee virtually every day since it opened in 1986. He's around friends here, which he's needed in recent times.
It doesn't take long to get on to the most difficult subject. "I always loved him. What else is there?" he muses about Samuel. "I don't actually feel that I let him down in any way. I supported him, I believed in him. In his own way he was doing it alone. As much as when they're four years old the best you can do is cheer them, make them happy in whatever way you can. In the end it's between him and the medical profession. They're the ones doing the work, and they were good – no complaints there."
Samuel's bedroom had shared a wall with a power substation. What Symons and Elly were then told about the effects of this electromagnetic radiation made them move house immediately. "You cannot prove, there is no study that will show that that causes cancer and I don't know that I believe that it causes cancer, but we moved the next day because we could," Symons told the ABC's Australian Story. After his brain tumour diagnosis, Samuel spent his childhood in and out of hospitals, undergoing hundreds of scans and several operations. "When you get the first diagnosis, the notion of your four-year-old son having a piece of his skull lifted off like a boiled egg and somebody scratching around inside, it's just unthinkable, beyond comprehension," Symons says. "What I got used to was the idea that they were really good at it and they could pull it off. In a way this last episode was the first time I didn't believe that he would get through it."
Red Symons with then-wife Elly and their three sons, from left, Raphael, Joel and Samuel, in 2005.Credit:Courtesy of Red Symons
Symons is matter-of-fact. There are no tears, just the sadness of someone who seems to have had this conversation before – at least with himself – and who has had to become practised at not giving in to expressions of emotion. Observations and memories have stayed with him, the surreal alongside the practical. "There are absurdities to the hospital," Symons says. "I do recall 20 years ago when he was first going through all this, the registrar in the hospital – this makes me laugh, really – had a document which was really just a legal waiver. He wanted my signature. He said, 'Now you do understand the procedure that we're about to perform on your son?' I said, 'I've got no idea. And yes, I will sign the document.' I trust that these people have expertise. There's no point in trying to become an expert yourself."
With Samuel at a Father’s Day shoot in 1995: “All credit goes to Samuel for staging the scenario. He had an adorable smartness about him,” says Symons.Credit:Courtesy of Red Symons
Symons recalls Samuel receiving radioactive iodine. "The nurse wheels in what looks like a golf buggy with a lead box on it, pushes it into the room, walks back behind the hazard lines drawn on the floor and says, 'Just take the little tablet you find in there, it's perfectly fine.' Clearly it's not perfectly fine, otherwise we'd all be in the room with him." Doctors said if Samuel survived the intense radiation, he would likely not finish high school, due to its effect on his brain. He not only finished high school, he went on to Melbourne University, where he attained an arts degree with a psychology major, and a masters in management. He did a lot of volunteering – working with young people experiencing cancer – but also did things teenagers do, such as playing basketball and hanging out with his friends.
Symons recalls the phone call that was the beginning of the end. "A professor of surgery called me – and they're good those guys, they know exactly how much to communicate, they don't overdo it, they don't underdo it. He'd seen the biopsy. He just said, 'It's bad.' And that's all he needed to say."
Symons' friends gathered around him, chief among them ABC presenter Jon Faine, and musician Wilbur Wilde. "Jon and Wilbur have been intimate friends of mine for decades," Symons says. "Although I don't expect them to solve my problems – only I can do that – I value the fact that they care and show support."
Symons met Wilde in 1976 when Skyhooks and Wilde's band Ol' 55 spent eight weeks touring together. Symons approached the larger-than-life Wilde on the tour bus and asked why he'd chosen a seat in the middle. "Because it's the most sociable position," responded Wilde. "Oh good," said Symons. A friendship was struck. For 14 years through the '80s and '90s they worked together on Hey Hey It's Saturday, Symons the grumpy Red Faces judge, Wilde the rock-dog saxophonist in the ever-present black Wayfarer sunglasses.
Elly, Samuel and Symons in 1996.Credit:Australian Story
The two have been together at critical moments in Symons' life: Symons and Elly went to Wilde's house the night of Samuel's first diagnosis; 23 years later they were present after his death. "He was completely drained," Wilde recalls. "He said, 'My son is dead.' I won't say it was a realisation, but it was him processing the reality of having lost his son. Sitting on the couch with Red after a glass of red or two, he was leaning on my shoulder and I gave his hand a little massage and then he drifted off to sleep, to a well-deserved rest."
Faine, who had been instrumental in getting Symons on to radio after a chance meeting in a local supermarket, watched his friend deal with seismic life changes, virtually all at once. "When he and Elly split, [my wife] Jan and I said to him, 'Anytime you need to talk or have a meal, you're welcome to join us.' He kind of did. And it was the same when Samuel died." Faine was close to tears when he announced Samuel's death on air.
"As soon as I finished work that day, I went round to his place," Faine tells me. "Wilbur was there. Red was inconsolable, actually. Wilbur was magnificent. What can you do? Between us we tried to hug and cradle him, make sure he was able to somehow come to terms with what had happened."
In the days after losing Samuel, Melburnians embraced the man with the feigned scowl who they felt they knew – and, in many cases, had grown up with, through Skyhooks, then Red Faces, then morning radio. Symons was surprised by his own reaction to the kindness bestowed upon him. "I've spent my whole life making sure complete strangers recognise me and I've been truly, sincerely overwhelmed by people I don't know – they tend to be kind of my age – offering condolences. I embraced strangers."
Skyhooks in 1976 (Symons at far right).Credit:Archives
If you were a teenager in the 1970s, Red Symons was a very big deal. The memory of his role in some personal teenage salvation remains as distinct today as it was in 1975. I'm sure I'm far from alone in this, but here's my experience. Struggling in year 10, despising maths and chemistry and bearing down on exams that involved bubbling purple fluids, there were just two things I held on to. One was my black Gibson Les Paul electric guitar (not real, a knock-off), which I would sit on my bed and play. The other was Skyhooks, whose name I carved into my desk with a compass I'd finally found a use for.
The 'Hooks arrived just in time for a generation of Aussie kids who were too young to have fully lived through the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, were negotiating puberty and needed something exciting to call their own. Aussie rock had been Billy Thorpe, 20-minute guitar solos by hairy guys with their backs to the audience, and Sherbet. Respect to Daryl Braithwaite and the guys, but we needed something sharper with which to prod our parents and teachers. Silvery Moon wasn't going to get us there.
So the 'Hooks were the business. It's impossible to overstate the synchronicity of TV exploding into living colour just as they released their first album, Living in the '70s. They were cheeky (Smut, You Just Like Me 'Cos I'm Good in Bed) and they sang about our city (Balwyn Calling, Toorak Cowboy). They had a shy genius called Greg Macainsh writing the songs, a tousle-haired blond surfer with a high voice called Shirley Strachan on lead vocals, and an imperious-looking, vaguely threatening, heavily made-up lead guitarist who looked like a kabuki dancer with a dirty secret. His name was Red Symons. He also played a Les Paul.
A few years ago, I found myself on a particularly icy Saturday morning, standing near the boundary line with Symons watching our sons play sport. I told him how important his band had been to me, how they'd helped me through adolescence. He sipped his takeaway coffee.
"How old were you?"
"You didn't stand a chance."
At about the same age, Symons first heard the Beatles on radio. He was living in then rural Emerald in the Dandenong Ranges, 53 kilometres east of Melbourne. His family – parents Don and Lesley and younger sister Jane – had arrived from England in 1958. "We had an acre and a quarter," he says. "We had goats and blackberries and guinea fowl." Don Symons worked as a nightclub photographer at upscale places like The Chevron in Prahran and The Embers in Toorak, which attracted international acts such as Ella Fitzgerald, who sang to glamorous city crowds. Don sold his photos to the people he photographed. "There's a fantastic photo of him with Ella Fitzgerald at The Embers," Symons says. "He's just sitting at the other end of the table looking not particularly engaged."
At 17, Symons moved into a Fitzroy share house and began a science degree with a maths major at Melbourne University in nearby Carlton. For teenagers in the early '70s wanting to be involved in campus life, pub rock and theatre, Carlton was the place to be, performing in plays at La Mama or The Pram Factory and gigging at local hotels. "I fell in with people who played the guitar, ended up living in share houses with them," Symons recalls. "[In his book Outliers] Malcolm Gladwell said to be good at anything you need to spend 10,000 hours doing it, and that's what I did in share houses." In 1973, he joined a fledgling inner-city band called Skyhooks.
Symons with Wilbur Wilde in 2010. Credit:Channel Nine
A few personnel changes later, and the new line-up was recording the album Living in the '70s. It was a strong echo of the times, with several of its racier songs banned by radio. "The first thing that Double J played was You Just Like Me 'Cos I'm Good in Bed," Symons says. "It was their way of saying, 'We're not like you guys, we're alternative.' "
In 1975, when ABC TV's music program Countdown started broadcasting in colour, everything changed, catapulting rock bands into living rooms in every city and town across Australia. Countdown was the greatest promotional tool the Australian music industry had seen, and the 'Hooks were one of its first beneficiaries. For a few years they were the biggest band in the land, headlining stadium shows and selling truckloads of Living in the '70s and its follow-up album, Ego Is Not a Dirty Word. But by 1980 the band had flamed out, and broken up.
"I never thought it could go on for years," Symons says today. "You always had this sense that you were lemmings rushing to the cliff. It's attributed to Keith Richards: you've got a lifetime to do your first album, a year to do your second and three weeks to do your third. Which was kind of true. The first two albums had been really well road-tested. By the time we got to the third we thought, 'We're going to have to make this up as we go along.' " It had been a wild ride, and Symons found that fame changed him. "You become a different person at that stage. When you start out, you just want attention – 'Look at me! Look at me!' … By the time you've got the attention you're not quite as comfortable with it. 'Stop staring at me!' "
The band never broke into the notoriously tough American market, which Symons is not unhappy about. "I've had a number of arcs in my life and you sort of get used to the idea that some things fall down and other things get up." He reaches into his bag. "I'll show you something." It's his passport containing a US work visa. He had work lined up last year on an American talent show, The World's Best, but withdrew to be near his family. "They may ask me back."
At a Skyhooks concert.Credit:Archives
In July 2017, Symons was shopping in Melbourne's CBD when he fell over, hitting his head on the pavement. "I fainted," he says. "And a collection of professors were unable to come to a specific conclusion about why." He spoke to a blood pressure specialist, who told him he had low blood pressure – that of a 14-year-old girl, in fact, "which kind of sounds good, except I am not a 14-year-old girl, clearly".
He suffered frontal lobe concussion, and spent three weeks in hospital. He has no memory of that time, but has been told he was placed in an induced coma for two weeks. The first day or two were touch-and-go as to whether he'd survive. He woke up surrounded by family and friends. In a letter to his ABC listeners a couple of months later, he wrote: "They looked desperate and bleary-eyed. This didn't worry me – having slept through the doctors' discussions of worst-case scenarios, my belief in my immortality had persisted unchallenged."
Symons credits his daily swim and careful diet for his swift recovery. "In rehab there were guys much younger than me who'd had much worse accidents. They were struggling to speak and to walk. There was a pool there that I was allowed to go in. It was a bit like the pool in Cocoon, full of old people just holding onto the edge and trying to walk. And I'm doing laps." He feels totally recovered now, "other than having lost my sense of smell. Like Michael Hutchence", and says other than his time in hospital, he's had no memory loss. "Older people worry about Alzheimer's and memory loss and they forget that they could forget things when they were 20 years old too," he says. He recalls getting into a conversation with three blokes while walking through town one day. "They said, 'You're looking well.' Why do people keep telling me this? I guess I am looking well, given my improbable age."
As a judge on Hey Hey It’s Saturday’s Red Faces "talent" segment.Credit:Channel Nine
He had two months off work, returning with what he believed was full cognitive capacity. "Most weeks I would get one or two people saying, 'You are the worst thing in the world, don't ever be on the radio ever again.' So I was kind of used to that. But I didn't get any commentary about my intellectual incapacity," he says. "When I spoke to the professor at rehab I said, 'I am not getting feedback.' I asked him, 'How do you think I was?' He said the funniest thing. He said, 'I used to listen to you before you hit your head and I listened to you after. Afterwards, you were nicer.' And I said, 'I've lost my mojo.' "
Symons' career has run in three acts. After breaking through as a musician, his popularity on TV was based on being a cheerful, sharp-tongued but loveable villain. In the more grown-up world of radio, he set himself apart by celebrating the gaps in his knowledge about areas like sport and mainstream politics, feigning a detached dismissiveness that he was always too smart to really get away with.
ABC Radio National broadcaster Jonathan Green lived next door to Symons in the '90s and they've been friends since. Green says Symons' appeal as a broadcaster lay in "a strange combination of naturalness and presenter craft, which has the effect of giving you the sense as a listener that you're receiving an undiluted personality. Not many people can pull that off. That's why you can listen to that person every morning for decades, because you're engaged by their personality".
Sometimes Symons' quirky, polarising style failed him. In June 2017, he interviewed ABC journalist Beverley Wang about her Radio National podcast It's Not a Race. Symons told Wang he was unhappy about her new podcast because he too had an idea for a podcast; he wanted to call his What's the Deal with Asians? "First question is, are they all the same?" Symons asked. He went on to ask Wang if she was yellow. "It became an interesting conversation for me because there was this kind of combative edge to her, and because we were recording it, I was happy to keep pursuing this ebullient quality she seemed to have," Symons recalls. "I [thought] we'd tidy it up afterwards."
An edited version of the interview was referred to management, which gave it the okay, and it went to air. Wang, meanwhile, uploaded the entire, unedited version to her podcast, introducing it by saying: "I want to give you the full, uncut audio of my conversation with Red." Following headlines of outrage the next day, the ABC released a statement apologising, saying it had removed the episode from both Wang's podcast and Symons' show, and that a review of the editorial processes regarding it was in progress. Symons made an on-air apology.
With former ABC colleagues Jon Faine, Virginia Trioli and Derek Guille.Credit:Simon O'Dwyer
"I don't feel any guilt about it," he insists today. He can understand people perceiving the interview as having a racist tone, "but I didn't worry because I know there are people in the world who have formed opinions based on the little information they have about who you are. You don't take it personally."
Beverley Wang declined to comment on the incident to Good Weekend. Green makes this assessment: "Some saw it as his bantering as he does, but making an error of judgment. Other people saw it as him going way too far and being very inappropriate. Depending on who's listening, each of those was a sustainable argument."
When Symons' contract was not renewed six months later, ABC insiders tried to join the dots, some suggesting the combination of his accident and the Wang interview played a role in his demise. "I think it was largely about money" is Symons' own feeling. "If you look at the way they've chiselled away at the ABC in a variety of ways, there has been a very large number of people who have been dispatched – unloaded – from the ABC. Welcome to media. Same is true of television and newspapers."
Perhaps it wasn't so much that Symons was too edgy or dangerous, as that the radio landscape was changing, with ABC Radio tending towards youth, diversity and double-header presentation teams. Symons' successors, Jacinta Parsons and Sami Shar, about 20 years his junior, were on a hiding to nothing. Symons' style is so distinctive that anyone else was going to sound a little bland, especially two people talking to each other. Ratings fell off a cliff. They've recovered to a 9.4 per cent share of the audience last October, but are still short of the 12.6 per cent share Symons averaged in 2017.
"I am swamped by grief. I imagine that it is dealt with, then it floods back, overwhelmingly."Credit: Kristoffer Paulsen
In 2016, Symons met Melbourne doctor and writer Karen Hitchcock. He'd read a piece she'd written in The Monthly about the over-prescription of drugs for people with mental health issues, and asked his producer to invite her on to the show. "I have listened to it with her and it's really embarrassing because I'm flirting like mad with her; someone I'd never met. We ended up getting to know each other and we deconstructed our lives." Meaning? "We both separated from our partners."
His sons Raphael, a politics graduate who works with the Victorian government in communications, and Joel, an engineering student, no longer live with him. He misses seeing them every day. "The brutal twist is that my sons are acerbic, they're ironic and they're deadpan, and I'm thinking – where did they get that from?" he says with a laugh. "Your children leave you … they're pursuing their own lives now. And as my friend said, 'What were you like when you were 20?' I was long gone when I was 20. It's disconcerting. It's a different sort of singleness."
He misses the structure that came with morning radio. "The disappointment is to lose the regimen, the routine of your life, which I'd completely settled into. I still wake up at four in the morning. I read a book or listen to a podcast. I wait for the light to appear. I get up, do a bit of yoga-ish exercise." He read some pop psychology which resonated with him. It suggested that in your mid-40s you still reckon "I can be a contender", while by the time you get to your 60s you think, "Well, that's what I've done."
Symons is now dating doctor and writer Karen Hitchcock, who he met in 2016.Credit:Getty Images
"I had a great conversation with [singer and former Australian Crawl frontman] James Reyne about exactly this, that the useful thing about success is that it gets it out of the way. You don't spend the rest of your life thinking, 'Oh I wish I'd been a rock star, I wish I'd been on TV [or radio].' It's just done. I have no overriding need to work." Symons visited Hong Kong last month with a friend, but after 45 years in the public eye, is not making any firm plans for the future. "I'm still coming to terms with what I've been through in the last year and a bit. I nearly died, I was dispatched from the ABC by people who haven't exactly covered themselves in glory. And my son died. I still cry every day about that."
At his warehouse, Symons shows me the TV ad he made for his radio program when the ABC told him there was no budget to make one. He points to his father's Minolta camera hanging on the wall; when he moved out of home he would regularly return to Emerald on weekends to help his dad print his photos. I ask him what the rest of his day holds. "Seeing my analyst."
He is finding his way into a new chapter of his life. He'd like to build a nice bathroom and kitchen here. He lunches with friends. Maybe he'll do the health retreat. Things you do when the craziness of life calms down a little, when you've done everything you set out to do, when all the teenage dreams have been realised. He's asked himself what he wants out of life. The answer: "I don't know."
Symons walks me to the small square door. His deadpan, dry-as-dust persona is never far away; always ready to smile at absurdity. He remembers a funny moment. "I was standing outside Marios and a truck pulls up; youngish guy, delivery man, probably early 30s … jumps out, says, 'Oh, my dad used to make us watch Hey Hey It's Saturday all the time. I love you, you're great, can I get a selfie?'
"As he's walking away he holds out his hand and says, 'What was your name?'"
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