An Evening with Eric Bogle
This is the Living History podcast, broadcasting live across the airwaves.
Mat: Hello everyone. Welcome to Living History and an episode I’ve really been looking forward to. I’m sitting here with the wonderful Mr. Eric Bogle and we’ve got a couple of cold beers. We’re sitting in his front room and this is an evening with Eric Bogle. We’re just going to sit here and just have a chat about some of the wonderful contribution he’s made to the Anzac story because he has. Eric Bogle, he’ll probably deny it himself but has been instrumental in many ways of this idea of remembering the Anzacs, and he’s been involved in our shaping of the remembrance of Anzac. So I’m really looking forward to this. Eric, thanks so much for joining us.
Eric: No problem. No problem at all. There’ll be an invoice for the cold beer later on, by the way, but never mind.
Mat: I’d expect nothing less. Let’s start. I’d love to hear the Eric Bogle story. Why don’t we start way at the beginning? Tell us about your life growing up in Scotland before this Australian adventure even began?
Eric: Well, how long have we got? I’ll do the censored version. Basically, I grew up in a small country town called Peebles, which is in the borders of Scotland, about 5,000 people. Even though our nearest village in Alysom was only five miles away, we spoke in a totally different dialect. you’ve come across it yourself in your historical, no doubt. In peasant societies where I came from, people didn’t travel all that much in the old days, and so cultures and dialects co-existed side-by-side with miles in between them at times. So I was brought up in Peebles Scotland, which I thought was the center of the universe. When I became a teenager, I realized it wasn’t, and instead of being a haven, it became a prison. Any teenager listening to your podcast, there will not be many of them, but if there is, will recognize that feeling, and once I realized that there was a world out there that I knew nothing about, I wanted to see it, and so off I went.
So I left home when I was 16 and never really returned. I returned when I was out of work and broke a couple of times to bludgeon my parents but basically emotionally I’d cut it all off. I then drifted, basically. I’ve had about 15, 16 jobs. I’ve got fired from half of them for various reasons, and then I got engaged a couple of times. I sang for a rock group.
Mat: You got engaged a couple of times?
Eric: To women. Not engaged in conversation.
Mat: I love how you just throw that out casually. I was engaged a couple of times. Broke a few hearts.
Eric: I was a teenager. You know, I was young. I’m still a teenager really. It was part of my drifting process. I couldn’t put down any anchors anywhere to guide me, and I got involved with music early on. One of the things about growing up in Scotland way back then and the late 40s and early 50s was that music was part of our lives so much because we made our own, because we didn’t have all the social media stuff that’s available today, and we were too poor to afford the radio. So that music was a factor that… the only factor that bonded our family together.
Mat: Was your parents’ musical? Brothers and sisters?
Eric: My father played the bagpipes when he was younger so no, he wasn’t musical at all. My mother’s family were all musical. My mother sang in a slightly off key soprano. Nobody ever told her that. We were all, that was lovely Nancy but it wasn’t. My sisters were both tone deaf. I’ve got two sisters. They can’t even speak in tune, never mind sing. So I was the one who was gifted with what little tone was going around, and music initially was an anchor for me and also one of the few things that our family did together.
I came from a fairly dysfunctional family, and one of my fondest memories of the family, and I’ve gotten over many of them, were listening on a Sunday night to Vera Lynn sing all together, and we’d all sit there for half an hour listen to Vera Lynn. My father, mum, me and my sisters, and that was one of the very few things we did together as a family while I was a child. So music always meant that bit more to me than it meant a lot of people, I think.
I sang for a local rock and roll group, Eric and the Informers for a while. We were crap but we’ve had a great time, and then a few things happened in my life and I thought I’ve got to go here. I was still in Peebles and my life was going round in circles, and I could see the future and it wasn’t particularly attractive. So I thought, let’s get out of here so I came to Australia.
Mat: What age were you when you made the move to Australia?
Mat: And roughly, what year was this?
Mat: How was that experience? So you’re a young, fit….
Mat: Handsome. Pick an adjective, Scottish, talented musician. You arrive on these shores. Firstly, what was your impression of arriving in Australia from little old Peebles?
Eric: Well, my abiding memory of arrival, it was on July the 22nd, 1969, so it was winter. I was sailing up Sydney Harbour on this diamond-hard morning, bright as a diamond. It was Sydney, just shimmering all around the boat, and I can remember all of us, 2000 people in the fair style to the hale ship of the South Pacific, just lining the decks in silence. Just watching this incredible vista before us and thinking what’s it going to be like? It was a good start though. I’d never seen anything like it in my life. I’ve never forgotten it, and funnily enough, I don’t like Sydney but coming into it was beautiful.
Mat: Did you know when you arrived that this was your permanent move or was it just for a year or two? What was your expectations?
Eric: My expectations were nil. I wanted to get away from the past, such as the wars. I was only 24 so I didn’t have a huge past, but you have to realize that coming from a small society with a name, the name of Bogle within the wee town I lived in denoted drunkards and brawlers and it was just the way it was. So there was the “fastest gun in town syndrome” where strangers would come up to me in pubs and challenge me, just because of my name. That didn’t happen every night but that happened enough to get annoying.
So I’ve always described landing in Australia as a rebirth and a lot of people find that overly dramatic. It was for me… I got off the ship in Sydney, nobody knew who the hell I was, nobody cared what school I had gone, what my name was. The contract was I presented myself as myself and either they accepted or rejected it, and what I was was a reasonably quiet, peaceable man, and it was just such a relief to be myself after years in this small country town being a Bogle. That sounds dramatic but in some ways it was. So that was the great thing I remember about coming to Australia. A rebirth. I could be exactly who I was, not who I wanted to be or who I thought I was. Just what I was.
Mat: Did you know when you stepped off that ship that music was going to be your life, or was it just a part of who you were at that time?
Eric: Oh no. Very much a part. Not a big part.
Mat: I’ve got this impression of a young Eric Bogle walking down the gangplank with a guitar on his back and his wide eyes taking in the view and heading off to the nearest folk club and signing up for a gig.
Eric: Well, I certainly had a guitar. It wasn’t strapped to my back though. I was carting it and I headed to the nearest pub actually. But music I knew was part of my life. It has always been a strong part of my life, but I never thought it would take over my life, which it eventually did. What I remember when I walked down Pitt Street in Sydney and I was waiting to go to the airport to get a plane down to Canberra, which was my final destination because my sister lived there with my brother in law and they’d sponsored me to come to Australia. So the thing that struck me was this almost palpable air of confidence and energy and “we’re going places”. You could almost touch it. God, it’s changed but that’s what I remember most about Sydney walking down Pitt Street and there were just those crackling energy and I go, wow, this is some place. How am I going to handle this? I come from a very quiet country town, and then I went to Canberra and everything changed.
Mat: How did your career begin in Australia? How did you go from being someone who played a bit of music to making it such a major part of your life and beginning to achieve some success with it?
Eric: Well, it was by accident. My life plan has always been try not to bump into the furniture. That’s as much as I thought. It was by accident really. I got a within a week when I arrived in Canberra, way back in 1969. It was full employment, folks. You had the choice of jobs, happy, happy days, and eventually I started off working in a builder’s yard as a leading hand after lying about my past qualification, which has been a thing I’ve done all my life, and I worked my way into the office. Eventually I ended up as the state accountant for Queensland for the company I worked for, and then in 1980 a few things led me to question the future if this is what I wanted to do.
I always look in the mirror and talk to myself. That’s the only way I can get a sensible answer of my life and I said, do you want to do this for the rest of your life, Eric? And my reflections said, NO! So I said what are you going to do? And my reflection said, I don’t know. What I’m going to do is stop being an accountant. I have no idea what I was going to do, and that was really quite miserable. I wasn’t fulfilled emotionally and all that sort of stuff. So I went home and I said to Carmel, I’ve resigned. Carmel is my wife, and she wasn’t surprised. Wives know these things, and she said what are we going to do, and I said, I’ve no idea. I said, let’s leave Brisbane. Go back down south. I’ll take a pile of real work until I decided what I wanted to do the rest of my life, and music slowly took over.
At that stage, I’d written quite a few songs and just sang them in folk clubs. I’ve never sung them anywhere else, but the songs began to travel on their own. They got their own impetus in the folk circuit, the folk scene, the jungle drums whatever you want to call it. Carmel and I went back to Scotland in 1975 so she could meet my mom and dad and unknown to me The Band Played Waltzing Matilda was THE song in the clubs. I had traveled to Britain through devious means. I never knew they was singing it. I was totally unaware of this until when I was working at the local mill back home to get the money to come back to the Promised Land.
We had been in Scotland a couple of years. Mum and dad had both died when I was there. So Carmel and I were working jobs to get money to come back to Australia, and this fellow in a Scottish gas uniform turned up at my work, asked to see me and I went down to the front desk and he said, are you Eric Bogle? And I said I think so, and he said, did you write a song called The Band Played Waltzing Matilda, and you could have literally knocked me down with a feather. I said, how the hell do you know that? He said, don’t you know everybody’s singing it here? I said, no, I don’t, and a girl had been at the folk house the night before, a Scots girl who was living in Australia and she’d sung the song and Hardy Matheson, the chap I was speaking to said, A Scot guy named Eric Bogle. He’s in Australia now and she said no, he’s back in Scotland at the moment. I think he’s back in his home town. So he came down to Peebles, walked up and down in the High Street asking people if they knew me and most people said, no, no I’ve never heard of him. Such is fame!
And that’s how it started, really. But nonetheless, I came back to Australia and resumed my accountancy career, but in 1980 I’d had enough. So Carmel and I moved back to Sydney and I said to her, I’m going to do some music to earn some pin money and then I’ll probably go back into real life in a couple of years, and music just gradually took over my life. So it was never a huge ambition I had to become a full time musician. I won’t use the word professional because I’m not. It just happened to me, like most of the good things in my life have just happened to me without any effort on my part.
Mat: You mentioned that song The Band Played Waltzing Matilda, probably your most famous song, the song you’re best known for. What was the story? How did that song come about? It’s fascinating you’re talking now about the song took on a life of its own before you were well known as a musician.
Mat: So you obviously didn’t write it with the intention of it becoming the absolutely legendary song that it is.
Mat: What was the motivation? What’s the story behind writing that song?
Eric: Well, I wrote it in 1971 in Canberra after I watched my first Anzac Day parade. I’ve never seen one before. I watched it. The Vietnam War was going on at the time as you remember, some real bad shit happening. Lots of moratorium work and protests, Anzac parades being disrupted and all that sort of stuff. I’m a sucker for parades, especially military ones so I was torn. It was really strange because I was part of the moratorium movement at the Union and ACT, and yet I wanted to see this Anzac Day parade because I’ve never seen one, and as a couple of the veterans were being wheeled past, the band in front of me was playing Waltzing Matilda and I got the idea for the hook then, and I wanted to write an anti-war song because Vietnam was happening at a time. So really the song was about Vietnam. I didn’t set it there because nobody knew where it was.
It was really disturbing. Australian boys were being killed out there daily, and yet if I’d turned up to most Australians with a map and said, point to where Vietnam is, they couldn’t have done it. I have no idea why we were there, because the commies are there. It was a war that was happening in the newspapers in a place far away. So there’s no point in writing about forty powers and all that sort of stuff. No Australians would have identified with that.
So I said in Gallipoli and I’ve always made the point, it doesn’t matter where the song is set, where the war is being fought because all wars are the same with the same end results, and the motivations for most wars are exactly the same as well. So I could have set it in Patagonia and it would still have the same message, and that was the message I was trying to get across with my limited audience. I’d like to change the world with my songs, but I don’t think I can, and I expected the song to die when the Vietnam… well, the boys came home the year after 1972 and I put the song away.
That was it. Even though not many people knew the song was written or inspired by Vietnam, I knew it and I thought, well, I’ve said my piece, and originally when I wrote the song as well, it was eight verses long and it lasted over 12 minutes. It was only after people kill themselves in films or threw themselves out of windows when I sang it, I decided to edit it to a listenable length.
Mat: Do you still have the old verses, the secret verses?
Mat: Do you even remember the secrets?
Eric: I can remember a few phrases, but the reason it was so long is I kept repeating myself all the time, so one of the first lessons you learn or should learn about song writing is to be as brief as possible and to the point, I would say. Most people who know my songs laugh when I say that, but believe you me, I tried to cut it down to four verses but couldn’t. it’s now five.
So the boys came back from Vietnam. The whole thing simmered down. [Inaudible 21:03] ushered in a new shiny era for Australia, and I thought, here we go again. After a hiatus we’re off, it didn’t last long. Anyway, the song was shelved for two or three years and then I sang it at a song writing contest by sheer accident. It’s a long story and I won’t bore your podcast listeners with it. Suffice to say, I opened the guitar case and there was the lyrics and I thought, oh yes, I remember that. So I sang it, got an incredible reaction to it, and this was the first time I think I sang the truncated version. I can’t be sure about that, but I think it was. Anyway, incredible reaction and the first prize – this was in Brisbane, a national festival in Brisbane in 1974. First prize was a Novation guitar and I thought it’s mine. It’s mine.
Thank God I didn’t win it. Anyway, I came third and it caused a furore. People jostling. The judges …we’re talking about folk music here. It was like being involved in a hip hop brawl and it’s sort of paradoxical because of the [unclear; 22:30] the song coming third had caused, it got the song more publicity. No such thing as bad publicity, and a few people asked me to sing the song on their little Grundig tape recorders, which I did. One of the lassie from the Channel Islands originally took it across to England was June Tabor picked that up. This was 1975 or 1974 I can’t remember, and the song, the art officials spread it to North America, and Liam Clancy and Tommy Makem recorded and got the number one in Ireland, and I was totally unaware of all this stuff.
So that’s how Matilda was born and how it was regenerated time after time. It’s the hook that people still hang my hat on and I’m happy for them to do so. It’s a careless song. I think it’s an honest song. If any future people when I’m dead criticize my stuff, if they agree that my songs are honestly meant, if lacking somewhat in talent, then I’ll be happy enough. Matilda was an honest attempt for me to try to say this is bullshit. All these young boys are dying for nothing. What are we doing across there?
So that’s what I tried to convey with this song so I can live with that. I could wish that I had put some things differently. There’s not a songwriter alive who doesn’t look at their past songs and like, Oh Wow. Maybe I should have said this or done this or done that. No such thing as a perfect song exists, however having said all that, I can live quite comfortably and proudly with the song. The fact that its comments means so much to a lot of people including veterans, which really pleases me. That’s what gives me impetus to go on with it if you like. I wasn’t there. How can somebody who was born decades after the Gallipoli expect to be captured? I hope veterans especially – I’m talking about veterans from Timor, from Vietnam, from all these different …Afghanistan, realize I’m on their side and that means something to them because so often, the public are not. Tommy this and Tommy that, and Tommy, how’s your soul? A thin red line of heroes and the drums are doing their roles.
So when they find a tree hugging, latte-sipping greedy like me on their side, it’s a bit of a fillip to them. They realize, well maybe we’re not wasting our lives now. Maybe we are doing something that people are supporting if not admiring, at least, and that pleases me about Matilda. In fact, it has been accepted by the veterans and the Greenies and the Peaceniks and so all that cross section of the population have got what they want out of all this, so it’s appealing to them all.
[Music – The Band Played Waltzing Matilda]
Mat: It’s just a really wonderful song. I’m intrigued. Obviously you didn’t know and you didn’t intend for the song to resonate as much as it did with Australians. Why do you think that is? Why have Australians embraced this song as strongly as they have?
Eric: I really don’t know. I think it’s the reflective nature of it, rather than the top thumping, weren’t the Anzac boys great sort of thing. We got enough of that by the media and politicians, and I think most of the veterans got sick of it, and if you talk to any veteran and you in your capacity, you’ve talked to hundreds of them and I’ve talked to many, because I seek out their company when I can, and they won’t glorify it. They don’t thump any tops. They know how nasty a shitty business it is, and they know what it cost them personally as well as their mates who died, so that our brotherhood that I’m allowed associate membership in – which really pleases me – and I think it’s because there’s this reflective sadness in it as well. It’s an anti-war song but I’m not denigrating their part in it. They were just the meat in the sandwich. They did their duty for many reasons, mostly not a lot of mates there. As you and I both know many times you’ve heard the talk, I couldn’t let my mates down.
Mat: It’s the one universal, isn’t it? It doesn’t matter, whatever country you speak to. I’ve spoken to veterans from just about every country who has ever fought in a war. It’s the absolute universal. You ask that very inane question, why did you do it? And their answer is I was beside my mates. I had to. It’s universal and that’s what I love about that song is you capture that so brilliantly and not just that song, but other songs as well that you’ve recorded, including The Gift of Years, which is one of my favorites and if people are listening to this, go and buy Eric’s CD and listen to those songs, but The Gift of Years, I think sums that up as well.
What’s your relationship now like with Matilda? Matilda it’s not a song anymore; it’s an anthem. It is and I don’t know if you even know this from your perspective. I’m sure you do because I’m sure people tell you all the time, but it is one of the most engaging ways that people think of Anzac. when they think of Gallipoli they think of that song. That song rightly or wrongly, tells a lot of people the story of Gallipoli. It tells them everything they need to know. As I said, rightly or wrongly, that’s what they hear. What’s your relationship like with that song now, especially 40 years down the track?
Eric: Oh, it’s a good relationship. Matilda and I co-exist quite nicely together. I’ve not thought that Matilda has got in the way of other songs. Most songwriters give the right arm if one of their songs catches the public consciousness, and I’ve had a few that have done that, so I’m happy enough. I’m proud of the song. What attracts a lot of people to it is the emotion. Now you and I know there are a couple of inaccuracies in the song which I didn’t know at the time. I just went ahead.
Mat: So we’re talking specifically about things like…
Eric: Suvla Bay.
Mat: Suvla Bay and they gave me a tin hat. How do you respond to that criticism versus when the wounded people in coats tell you that you’ve got it wrong?
Eric: I tried singing, they gave me a forage cup. It doesn’t sound all that good. Suvla Bay to me because of a couple of musical songs and it was near Gallipoli, and funnily enough, most of us don’t question that at all. If you ask them, yes, our boys were there. It doesn’t matter. I can live with them. I think it was once I was doing an interview with Peter Guez of that elite radio station Thin, and this bloke rang up and said did you know, and he was very sort of forward- based, did you know there’s two glaring historical errors in your song, and I said actually there are three. There are two, and I’m hoping that he’s still spending his life spending researching and looking for the third historical. You expect I was trying to convey an emotion. That’s why the song resonates with all these people. The emotion behind the message behind the song. They don’t really care about crossing the t’s and dotting the i’s. That is your job, if you don’t mind me saying so, and you’d be crucified if you made the same mistakes as I did in all the learned academic books. Okay. You can make the excuse I’m a songwriter, not a historian, just so far, and that’s why I said Ellen is a careless song. I should have had more care about it, but I’m not.
I’m pleased about how I managed to convey the emotion in the song, and how it worked to this end, where the old veterans are there sitting down and thinking what’s all about? Why am I here? Why did we do it? How would I feel about it? So ends in that it goes from probably slagging off to the army to sitting on his porch watching the parade passing. So I was pleased with the structure of the song, how it took the listener start to finish and how it posed questions for the listeners. I didn’t come to any conclusion and I say, this is all bullshit. It was all totally wrong. We used to tell them the boys died for nothing. I just let the listeners make up their minds about that so that’s a long answer. I get to live with Matilda quite nicely. This become an anthem. I’m not a big one for anthems. They tend to divide us rather than unite us. Yes, I can live with it.
Mat: What about the line? One of the last lines in the song, the young people ask what are they marching for, and I ask myself the same question.
Mat: Most people interpret that as Anzac Day is waste of time. We shouldn’t be doing it. Not most people, I’ve heard people say that. It’s the veterans saying, why are they bothering? They should just move on with their lives. Is that how you intended that line to be?
Eric: Not really. We should never forget, of course, but if we, in 2000 years, oh, let’s say 200, we’re not going to last 2000 – 200 years, if Australia is still defining herself with the blood of our soldiers killed in Gallipoli then we’re really going nowhere. One day, no one will march at all. That’s the important line, and it’s happened already. If the song’s all about Gallipoli, then no one who fought at Gallipoli is marching there anymore, so that’s come true already. But what I was trying to say really badly, well, maybe not, who knows, was that we can’t keep on defining ourselves which maybe the average has shown just about the media not just politicians make mileage of the bloody Anzac Day.
In 200 years’ time, if we stand up and say what quantifies your civilization in Australia? It was all these soldiers who died in Gallipoli 200 bloody years ago, and that’s still happening. We’re really not moving forward as a nation. Of course, we should always remember, not just the soldiers, but everybody who’s worked and died and help to create the society that we live in, and the soldiers deserve their place as much as anyone else, but it can’t be the be-all and the end-all, and what worries me about Anzac Day today is the huge media event it has become, which I think does a great disservice to the boys themselves. That’s my own personal view.
I get asked the question and Victoria recently held a couple of concerts there only for the money. I wasn’t there for pleasure. So I went to Victoria, I did a couple of concerts. This week a girl asked me if I was going to do anything this Anzac Day, and I said, no, I’m going to try avoid it, and she said, well, what was your best Anzac Day as though I was a bloody soldier. I said, a town in Victoria called Balmoral, 2000 people, middle of nowhere, middle of the Molly’s Club, not the most attractive really. The people who live there love it, and they invited me, the police sergeant who was a prime mover in the Anzac Day, he was an ex-Vietnam boy. He invited me to come sing at the service and it was great. There was a school band. It was amazing. Me and John sing a couple songs, couple of other people. Not a camera in sight. Not a media person in sight. It was a community, small community doing the best to remember that there’s somebody who died in World War I and we all went to the RSL afterwards. it was a huge asbestos building and had tea and sandwiches. of course you see women’s association, CWA, it was an Australian event and it was great. A community Anzac Day.
So if Anzac Day has no other application at all, if it brings the community together, then it serves the purpose. No matter what the purpose had to be all these boys dying in the war, but small communities and small young countries like us need this. So that’s why we make this big thing about Anzac still. But I guarantee… no, don’t guarantee anything… I hope that after this centenary stuff has died down, which is dying down already, that the hype, the media hype and the political hype surrounding Anzac Day will start to die down, and it will become less of a media event, and less of a political pitch and become again a community event. I’m hoping that’s going to happen. I see no sign of it yet. The Anzac Day march is in the major cities anyway. The commercial towns rub their hands to go like, oh boy, here we go free.
Mat: I think you’re right. I mean I grew up in West Wyalong New South Wales, 2 1/2 thousand people and I used to march on Anzac Day as part of the school and my dad was in the town band, and my grandfather was president of the Mallee Plains sub-branch of the RSL, so I agree the community spirit. I say that to people all the time. You want to go to Anzac Day, get out of the city and go out to the bush. You’re right what you say that there is a dark side. I don’t want to be too melodramatic, but there is a dark side to Anzac remembrance today. It is commercialized in some respects. Some people use it for nefarious purposes in some way. It has moved away from where it began. When it comes to your songs, I know that most people love them and relate to them and it’s a really important part of their lives, but do you see a negative aspect to the way your songs have ever been used to the way people remember the war via music?
Eric: I’ve been accused of it quite a few times of perpetuating anxiety through my songs and I can see some truth to that. So when you’re accused of doing that, any creative artists who are accused of doing things for nefarious reasons or what they see have to examine their own selves and their own conscience. Why did I do this? Why did I write this song? Why am I still singing this song? Am I singing this song to perpetuate anxiety? to have people clapping and cheering to make money? That’s a joke, that last one. Why am I doing it? Well, we’ve already explored why I wrote the song and people can believe me or believe me, my motives for writing it. Why do I keep saying it? Because it’s still bloody happening. I sang it in Semaphore RSL last year. Some local boys revived this dead RSL. Did a great job. I went and did a concert with them, and there’s a couple of Afghanistan veterans there – 41, 42 boys were lost there, and they were telling me a couple of stories, which are really off-putting. Of course I’m fascinated and I’m all ears, and they’ll tell me, half hoping that maybe something might come of one of their tales.
They hang on every word of Matilda because they can identify with quite a few of the things within the song, the ethos of the song. So the day that Australia is not sticking their nose in other people’s business and send their boys and girls out in harm’s way, then Matilda will become a relic of a past existence and it will be consigned to the dustbin of history sooner rather than later, but it still has got some legs here unfortunately. So that’s why I keep doing it. Keep humming the little message. I’m a peace maker, I’ve always been. I always thought I should have been wasted. That’s why people hang on it still. I can hear the sounds of them singing it, and every reason the only different space when they’re listening to that song and all these different videos are playing and always different heads in the audience. I know all this. The day that I sing it and they go, Oh Jesus, not the bloody Waltzing Matilda again, then God help me I’ll stop singing it. It’s not happened. Will it happen before I die? I don’t know, but there’s no sign of it.
We seem to be enmeshed in this endless cycle of violence, and I think in some strange way, the song gives people some kind of comfort. Here we are all listening to this anti-war song together, and all identifying together so we’re not alone here. That’s what music does. It unites people. I’d like to think that’s what Matilda does.
Mat: I think it was John Lennon that said about music that if you want to listen to it and form your own interpretation, that’s fine. I’m happy for you to do that. But they’re my songs that I wrote about my life and my experiences and he went into terms to demonstrate that it was pretty basic, the process that he led to. Do you feel like that with your songs? I feel sitting here talking to you that we own Matilda. It doesn’t matter what you think about it, Eric. We own that. That’s part of our story now. We all get something out of it. How do you feel about your songs, not just Matilda, but your songs in general? Do you feel that there’s something you wanted to say and you’ve put them out there and people are welcome to interpret how they like, or is it a gift that you give to everyone so that they can do what they like with it?
Eric: A gift is too strong a word. I have always regarded my songs as sort of a presentation with a canvas. I know this is pretty corny, but a canvas with quite a bit of blank space here. Fill in your own colors. I’ve always thought the best songs leave spaces for your mind to get in there, in between the words. The songs were just so wordy and so fast paced and so dense that’s hard for you to get in there. I always thought that one of the better things about my songs is it leaves spaces for peoples’ minds and souls and hearts to get in there. I’m quite happy to present it to people and say right this is the canvas I made, but there is still space here for you to put in your own color. Do what you like with it. I’ve never felt precious about my songs. They are not tablets from the mountain but they are just bloody songs. Some of them are good; some of them are really crap. I’ve never felt precious about them. There’s a thing on Facebook just now that’s a parody of No Man’s Land, and it’s actually a parody of the people who sing it, rather than the song itself. I’ve heard it before quite a few times and there have been a few negative reactions to it from our fans.
This is sacrilege, that sort of thing but I don’t mind. Whatever people do, if it’s going to be a parody, try and make it funny or witty and it’s not, then you are wasting your time. Parodies are supposed to be funny or witty. So do what you like with it. Do a parody but make it funny. Do a critique of it but make it thoughtful, make it thought provoking. Just don’t come out with blank statements and whatever people do with my songs, whatever people think of my songs, I don’t give a fuck! I honestly don’t. I wish I did, but I don’t.
I know what went in making them. I know the motives behind all of them and I can’t question any of it, so I can live with them quite easily and happily because I know why I wrote them. I am an imperfect human being in most ways, but it’s a purest thing I’ve ever done in my life. It’s the most honest thing I’ve ever done is writing these songs. I keep coming back to the word honesty, and that’s because all over the world is full of fakery, and the only recourse I have as a performing creative artist is to point and say well, at least he’s honest. It’s a word that’s not in great use these days, so I can live with them fair enough. The next song, First the Children, as I say, it’s a theme I’ve revisited a few times. I’ve not sang this as much. I don’t know why. I’m attempting it now actually.
[Music – First the Children]
Mat: Is this song a book end to Matilda?
Eric: No. No. It’s just a continuation of a theme. It doesn’t say anything that Matilda has not said already. To be honest, just definitely reinforces the message. I mean, No Man’s Land, The Gift of Years, few of those I’ve written about, as if he knows even what the law is. So it’s just reinforcing the message of Matilda per the 1971. They’re not presenting anything particularly new. Everyone knows war is a waste of life and a waste of time and stupid business that shouldn’t be encouraged and yet we still dive in it. So I’ve never thought I have said anything particularly original or thought-provoking. I just kept hammering away the message.
Mat: Finally, what’s next for Eric Bogle? What’s the next project? What are we going to see next?
Eric: Well, that’s the thousand dollar question. Used to be the $64,000 question, but at my age, it’s the thousand dollar. I find it hard to motivate myself to write songs. To give a song a good chance in life, you’ve got to care about writing. You got to care about the subject matter. I don’t write love songs. I don’t write songs about bonking other people or other people want to bonk me. There’s a big market for that, I’ll leave that to other people. So I’ve always had to get involved with writing. I had to motivate myself to pick up the pen, and if I don’t care, which I increasingly don’t, then I’m finding it hard to pick up a pen to write anything. Also people keep sending me about modern things, for instance when all the bombings and Muslim stuff started, people would send me stuff and say, well you should write a song about that, and I said, I have. I’ve written two. And that’s the troubling thing as well. I’ve lost count of the number of times people said you should write a song about this, and I said, well, I have. That’s because mainly I’m a fairly obscure songwriter, so that leaves me with a question, do I have anything new to say? No, I mean some people think I’ve drank at the well of World War I often enough as it is, and I think that as well.
So I think I have reached the ultimate saturation level as a songwriter, and what I want to avoid is writing. I’ve lived for a long time and here’s my wisdom being imparted to you, sort of songs which a lot of elderly song writers start writing when they get to a certain age, and I’m avoiding that like the plague. The thought of me actually trying to tell people how to live their lives, it’s a joke because I’m still a witless, directionless teenager as we all are really. Maturity is just a word invented by somebody and you know, it doesn’t exist. Experience, yes, but maturity no.
So I’m not sure, again, what life have to offer. I’ll be honest with you. I don’t want to say that happily or lightly. I say it regretfully. Well, I try to be as grateful for what I’ve produced so far, because I’m not ruling out either anything. I wrote a song as a tribute to my mate John Munro just a few weeks ago, a few months ago, so I’m still capable of writing. It’s just getting the motivation to do so, and to be honest, I think this world is a pretty shitty place at the moment, and any song I write is not going to make it any less shitty.
Mat: Well, I’m sure I speak for everyone listening that anything you do decide to put out in the future, we will gratefully receive. But just thank you so much for your time. It’s been really wonderful to hear your insights and thank you for sharing.
Eric: Okay. I’d offer you another beer, but you’ve drunk them all.