Originally published in Sounds of the City (Winter 2016/Issue No. 1)
Jeff Duff - This will explain everything (Melbourne Books, 2016)
Review by Ian McFarlane
It’s 1975 and renowned Melbourne jazz rock combo Kush are performing at a fancy dress ball for students of Ballarat Art College in rural Victoria. In honour of the outrageous decadence that the art ball promises, flamboyant, androgynous front man JEFF DUFF unveils an even more outrageous costume: a one-piece leotard with added rubber bosoms and a sex doll’s face strategically placed over his crotch. Ever the prankster, Duff has also concealed a 10-inch, flesh-coloured rubber hose in the doll’s open mouth which he whips out at the climax of ‘I’m Your Football Kick Me, I’m Your Ice Cream Lick Me’. It was all in the name of theatrical expressiveness, right?
Unfortunately, not everyone got the joke. Several young ladies were so offended by the real or imagined body part that they called the police who promptly hauled the bemused Duff off-stage. Duff was summoned to Ballarat Civic Courthouse in front of Judge Nolan, where he pleaded “but your Honour, it wasn’t my penis...”. Following the rather comical court case replete with Keystone Cops styled testimony, the packed gallery applauding and chanting “Duffo! Duffo!”, the singer yelling “Not guilty!”, the judge pounding the desk with his gavel, “Order, order in the court!”, Jeff Duff was charged with offensive behaviour, fined $60 and ordered to perform a charity concert (sans offending rubber hose, one assumes).
This is just the hysterical opening chapter to Jeff Duff’s wonderful new memoir, This will explain everything. It sets the reader up for a stimulating reading experience. In Duff’s inimitable fashion and words he brings all the highs and lows, the pain and excitement to the story of his extraordinary life.
Following a successful career fronting Kush, Duff relocated to London in 1978 where he developed the waif-like, alter-ego persona Duffo, cladding himself in cling-wrap and attaching large rubber ears to his head. He sang his songs, such as ‘Gimme Me Back Me Brain’ and ‘Tower of Madness’, in a pronounced strine accent which only served to heighten the satirical nature of his presentation. Duffo fitted in with the weirder end of the New Wave scale, a crazy mixture of Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band silliness, The Tubes over the top theatricality, Pythonesque humour and Bowie glam rock gone bonkers. Some of the British music public and media got the joke (such as Anne Nightingale, presenter of BBC TV’s The Old Grey Whistle Test) but most didn’t. At least the British were willing to embrace Duffo’s eccentricities for what they were – just a unique performer expressing himself in a truly individual manner.
I consider the charismatic and ever stylish Jeff Duff to be one of Australian music’s great treasures. He’s an exhibitionist of the highest order, no doubt about that, but he backs it up with one of the finest voices in the country. A classically trained baritone voice with rich tenor leanings and a natural vibrato, the guy can sing anything and everything. Kush’s 1974 recording of Jimmy Webb’s epic, and vocally challenging ‘MacArthur Park’ is the best rendition ever recorded (check it out) even outstripping Richard Harris’ original 1968 hit. Duff has nominated his favourite singers as David Bowie, Frank Sinatra, Ray Charles and, most importantly, the great Scott Walker, so you get an idea of how far the man himself has been willing to push his gift. It’s worth mentioning that Duff has issued 25 albums and numerous singles, either solo or with a range of bands from Kush and the Jeff Duff Orchestra to Jeff Duff and the Prophets and the Alien Sex Gods.
This will explain everything doesn’t just focus on his successes; Duff is willing to describe the downs as well as the ups of his life. Although he is assuredly heterosexual, throughout his life Duff has had to contend with people’s perception of his sexuality – is he or isn’t he? For example, he tells of being threatened at knife-point by a burly wharfie type wanting to have his wicked way with him in a toilet cubical in a gay club in Paris. In the late 1980s, he was severely beaten by a gang of gay-bashing thugs in Kings Cross. He had to have surgery to re-attach his badly dislocated shoulder. There’s a heart wrenching chapter where he describes his despair and attempted suicide following the collapse of the relationship with the love of his life, Tawny.
Duff’s writing style is fast paced, generally well measured and easy to read, making for a page-turner of a book. It’s not all ideal, however, because amid all the light-hearted prose he can tend to get overly profuse and long winded in certain passages which detracts slightly from the value of the story. Likewise, his sense of chronological time is somewhat fluid and in some sections he tends to jump around in an illogical fashion. He probably could have done with a diligent editor who was willing to rein in his occasional excessive delivery. (Apparently, two of the more explicit chapters were excised from the final book and are accessible to read at the publisher’s web site.)
Of course, that’s just nit-picking isn’t it... because overall this a fabulous encounter. And as an artifact in itself, the book is a thing of beauty. The attractive hardback cover is presented in gold foil with pink end-papers, while the pages are of high quality white paper stock. Congratulations to Melbourne Books for willing to go the extra distance with the production costs. And to cite the 1980 Andy Warhol quote displayed on the back cover, “Sinatra, Presley, Jagger, Popeye and now Duffo”.