Unforgettable Charlie Tolnay
I was at Muscle Shoals Records Fayre, on Lygon Street in Melbourne, when I received the unwelcome news from one of my dearest friends, a character in and out of bands in Adelaide for decades, who I doubt you’ve heard of, but whose name (when you have to use it) you will always spell incorrectly, as I do: "Bad" Bob Lehermayr.
I was less than charitable with Bob, and he rightly gave me a serve.
Then he told me about Charlie Tolnay dying.
After Bob (also rightly) hung up on me, I received a text message from The Barman. Bad news had travelled fast.
Are you going to write a Charlie brief?
I was less than charitable with him, too:
He responded: You don’t have to
But… whether I like it or not, I do. I was asked by several of Renestair E.J.’s bandmates and friends to write something about Ren a few years ago, because I realised that right now was the time to remember him, but also "right now" was not the time for either Ren’s closer friends and now Charlie’s, to put words to screen.
Apart from that there’s the obvious truth that if you’re going to write about Ren you naturally have to write about Charlie when the time comes.
There’s a heap of comments on the Grong Grong facebook page; Bill Bostle’s page has this; “I listen pretty widely and can spot ‘genuine original’ when I hear it - it’s a very rare beast indeed. Charlie’s playing wasn’t about equipment or influences, although he knew plenty … it was about a sometimes difficult, but always uncompromisingly original spirit.”
Bostle knew Charlie far better; Harry Butler as well. There’s a raft of people who knew Charlie better than me.
For myself, Charlie was always relaxed and cheerful towards me, quite accepting and down to earth. He was a gregarious, friendly, enthusiastic fucker, with much broader musical tastes than his guitar style might indicate (he loaned me a Laibach cassette in 1986, for example), and had the kind of hearty, guttural chuckle which Sid James would have killed for.
Charlie Tolnay was one of those musicians who I didn’t see around an awful lot at gigs. Sure, I saw him a bit in the earlier part of the '80s, at gigs, of course Grong Grong gigs as well … but after he returned from Sydney (in what, 1990?), well. He and his brother seemed to keep to themselves. If you lived near them, you might bump into them. If you knew them well enough, you’d visit (as Lehermayr would from time to time).
So rather than call up Charlie’s closer friends, let’s have a quick chat with Lehermayr. This arvo we sat outside on his little balcony and I had the great pleasure of Bob, sans dentures (but two ludicrous teeth), capering about doing Charlie Tolnay impressions, cackling his head off, his mum yelling up at us from the ground to shut the fuck up, and the lunatic neighbours hollering as well…
That should give you some idea right there. Adelaide is an amazing place.
RB: How many bands have you been in, Bob? Not counting jams and muck-abouts..?
BL: Oh, god. Uncontrollable Urge, that was the first. Raw Power [Stooges cover band, did "She Creatures of the Hollywood Hills" on that compilation of Stooges songs done by Australian bands], Love Fever, Tardis Retardis, Rodox, Big Meat Ants, Yog Sothoth, White Tiger, Peterhead, Queer Looking Rooster, BBB, The Chuckle Brothers, The Hungry Brain, and Leonard Skinhead without a Mo.
RB: For fuck’s sake… alright, tell me a few Charlie memories…
BL: Alright. I’d seen Grong Grong while they were around, but I actually first met Charlie in early 1985, when I’d gone back to the Canadian Lodge [RB explains: a rather cheap and notorious flea pit down the arse end of Hindley Street containing "apartments" in diverse states of disrepair; it’s still in use today, god save us all] with Shereen.
Charlie turned up and we got on like a house on fire, and he was telling me about what happened with Michael [RB explains: Farkas, singer with Grong Grong, and Charlie’s half-brother] after his overdose. For the first few days the doctors were thinking of switching his life-support off, but Charlie - and you have to imagine this large, tattooed, menacing character with big meaty hands - grabbed the doctor by the arm and said, "You’re not switching him off!"
RB: It’s hard to explain Charlie’s presence, I mean, he wasn’t cartoonish, but you could build a hell of a cartoon character out of him.
BL: Oh, shit yeah. All the ingredients were there… I mean, that story about Michael, he was like this larger than life figure, like Michael’s faithful bulldog…
RB: … whose laugh was legendary!
BL: … that chuckle!
RB: Which brings us to BBB…
BL: Well, that was Bill [Bostle, drummer for King Snake Roost]; me on bass and Harry Butler [founder of DNA fanzine and record company and Fear and Loathing] on guitar; I think we did about two gigs, one at the Centralia (I think with Love Fever) and the other at the Royal Oak. But Harry was a dreadful guitarist, no sense of time at all. He was astonishingly bad, and you know, coming from me… so we got Charlie in. I think that was 1987 or 1988.
I remember Charlie playing this Head of David song to me, "Bugged", and he was so animated, with his ciggie out the side of his mouth, "Listen to that beat! Fuck yeah!"…
King Snake Roost.
RB: God, it’s going to be difficult to mimic that rough throaty laughter on a page.
BL: Well, you’ll just have to, won’t you? … Charlie drove that minibus to Sydney and back, and all the way he kept saying, “I could really handle some fuckin’ chips right now!”…
RB: Ah. The infamous tour of Sydney in 1987, Fear and Loathing and King Snake Roost…
BL: … eleven people in a 12 seat minibus, amps, guitars, bags and drumkit… If you were at the back you had to get in and out of the bus through the window. We had a bugle which we blew every time we stopped at a town, just heralding our arrival …
RB: The same bugle that Steve Albini was blowing at the end of the Big Black gig in Adelaide after the Student Union refused to let them continue..?
BL: Yeah, that’s the one. Anyway, Charlie was tucked away at the back of the bus, and we’d just pulled out of 205 [RB explains: O’Connell Street, North Adelaide, a lively and extraordinary block of flats populated by many of Adelaide’s underground musicians - most of whom were in about three bands as practices and proximity meant constant fertilisation] and we’d got about half a kilometre down the road to the traffic lights. And there was this car alongside, with this meek and mild looking old codger in it.
And Charlie leans out of the window and roars, ‘ow yer goin’, mate?’, and he slaps the side of the bus really fucking hard. ‘Ya got any fuckin’ smack, mate? Ay!’, and kept pounding with those big beefy arms. The poor bloke was terrified, didn’t dare look up. ‘Ay! got any fuckin’ smack? Shoot it in your eyeball!’… and this guy was ramrod straight, trying hard to ignore Charlie yelling at him, praying the fucking lights would change…
We were pissing ourselves, of course. I mean, he was emulating the lawyer in the convertible in Hunter Thompson’s "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas"…
It was Charlie’s 30th birthday on that tour, and everyone had given him a bottle, so we were all pretty drunk. But Chris Cashell gave him a jar with a poo in it. Instead of being offended, Charlie looked pretty pleased and told Chris it was what he’d always wanted; I think Chris might have been a little upset that Charlie hadn’t been outraged, but that was Charlie…
Oh, Christ, what a golden child he was… larger than life, a golden child…
RB: In a broader context, it’ll be a while before Charlie’s particular idiosyncratic contribution to Australia’s underground is fully assessed - if it ever will be.
Within a couple of months of their arrival on the scene, tapes of the band circulated swiftly here in Adelaide, and they gained a reputation again, quite quickly. The sheer racket, and astonishing sight of these young men, was exhilarating and intoxicating.
As far as I know the first time anyone in Adelaide had "slam-danced" was at a Grong Grong gig at Flinders Uni Bar; I think that was the second gig that Michael wore the rapist’s mask. That night the floor was very dusty and we were rather muddy and wet as it had been raining. So the dancefloor became rather slippery and muddy. We were falling, picking each other up and flailing away. Rather enjoyable. But let me assure you - most of the students kept their distance. We few, we happy few weirdos, had the band to ourselves.
Grong Grong came to an abrupt end on December 22, 1984, when Michael overdosed, damn near died, and was in a coma for months on end. These days he’s in a wheelchair - note the date, too; if you watched "Underbelly", I think the second season, about the heroin wars, that describes the purity of the smack which hit Australia around that time. That’s what hit Michael.
God alone knows what would have happened to Grong Grong had that not happened. Perhaps Jello Biafra would have hauled them across the world. Perhaps not. There’s just as good a chance that smack would have struck them down. There’s no way of knowing.
King Snake Roost were Charlie’s next project, in between playing in other bands here such as Bloodloss and Fear and Loathing. Getting attention from interstate plus other factors had the Roosters heading for Sydney, where I rather lost track of them although I still have that splendid single they did with Bloodloss.
When the band re-formed a few years ago with two of Adelaide’s most talented filling in the bass and drum seats (Nathan Dale and Michael Wilczek, if you must know), I noticed that Charlie had a rather horrible-looking skin condition which disturbed me greatly. I didn’t like to see him so ill; however, the illness retreated a bit more each time I saw them.
Charlie also had quite bad arthritis in his hands. We talked a bit; his guitar style involved hundreds of notes in complex sequences (a bit like Django Reinhardt) and he simply couldn’t do that anymore. What he was doing instead was to "cheat" by using the wammy bar, filling up sequences with longer, developed notes. Charlie was a bit anxious about it - me, I thought it was an improvement, because all of a sudden the songs opened up somewhere else.
When we went to see Grong Grong play at 3D Radio in 2013, Charlie impressed us hugely - he made everyone happy just by his presence and peaceful aspect he emitted.
Grong Grong were damn fine supporting Jello Biafra the next year, too.
If you don’t have any or have never heard Grong Grong, get their CD or the bootleg live gig ; extend yourselves to discogs to grab some King Snake Roost. Bloodloss’s first LP has just been reissued - on vinyl for the first time. And, just for fun, harass Hermann Lauss of Fear and Loathing and pick up some of their records as well.
Many of us never create a damn thing in our lives, never contribute to the great tapestry of human endeavour beyond consumption, sleeping (and the rest), going to work and titting about on anti-social media - that is, we take from the world, we don’t give back. Charlie struggled with his problems, but he not only helped create a unique slant on the world, but remained enthusiastic about creating until the end. Like Ren, Charlie was one for the ages and I’ll never forget him.