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Notable Residents: Steve Connolly

Updated: 7 days ago

This post is part 4 in a series on notable residents of Ashburton and surrounds. Other posts have featured golfer Robert Allenby, education expert Professor Kwong Lee Dow, brothers Allan (diplomat) & Kym (actor) Gyngell, and Denis Vaughan (conductor).


Edited to add: Additional photos supplied by Steve's friend Meataxe Kelly. Further edited to add a link to support the proposed documentary on Steve's life: Steve Connolly: Like a Lowdown Guitar.


The plaque near Maxwell Street bridge

If you walk along the Anniversary Trail near the Maxwell Street bridge, just as you see the large green water tanks, perhaps you’ve seen a black and bronze plaque nestled under a medium-sized eucalyptus tree.


It’s not easy to find, as I discovered myself when I went looking for it last Sunday. My thanks must go to Colin and Kim who happened upon me rummaging in the dirt like a disgruntled echidna and spent a solid half hour looking for it with me.


The plaque is dedicated to Stephen James Connolly. The dates of Steve’s lifetime imprinted on the plaque, 1959-1995, show he died shockingly young, at only 36.

Under his name are the words ‘guitarist/composer’ and the melancholic phrase ‘the melody lingers’.


It turns out Steve was not just any guitarist and his melody really does linger.


Who was Steve Connolly?

Steve Connolly grew up in East Malvern and attended Lloyd Street Primary School. His sleepy suburban upbringing belied the fact he descended from a family of eccentric vaudeville performers. His great-grandmother, Mary Agnes Connolly, began performing in 1890 as a vaudevillian and burlesque artist. Having left her first husband and two sons for another man, Mary Agnes went on to have three more children: Gladys, Keith and Gerald. Bizarrely, all of Mary Agnes’ children by her second husband had the name Connolly, despite this being her first husband’s last name.


As Steve’s sister Sharon documents in her charming book, My Giddy Aunt, their great-aunt Gladys became an expert siffleur (whistler), singer, dancer, and comedian who performed with various entertainment troupes throughout Australia and New Zealand. Sometimes she would perform with her brother Keith, Steve’s grandfather, who would play the straight man in her act.


Keith married Elsie, another singer and dancer known for singing happy songs that belied their precarious livelihood. Until the age of four, their son, Steve’s father - also called Keith - lived a nomadic existence travelling between gigs. Eventually, Keith and Elsie sent younger Keith to Perth to be raised by his maternal grandparents.


Growing up in East Malvern, Steve, Sharon, their brother Rohan and sister Linda did not see much of their grandparents in Perth. But after Keith’s mother died, he returned from Perth with an old suitcase full of papers and photographs.


‘Steve and I opened Grandma Elsie’s archive,’ Sharon wrote in the introduction to her book.[1] It was full of photographs of 1920s entertainers striking gleeful poses and looking like they were having a ball.


‘I want what they’re having,’ Steve told his sister.


Steve’s musical genius

Steve Connolly started on his musical path by teaching himself to play a ukulele that belonged to Grandma Elsie.[2] He soon graduated to guitar and by his early 20s, began playing with local bands. Then in 1985, he met an up-and-coming singer/songwriter called Paul Kelly.


Steve Connolly, lead guitarist for Paul Kelly, pictured on the far right.

‘Steve,’ wrote Kelly in his memoir, How to Make Gravy, ‘had the great party ability to remember whole songs, not just bits, with the right chords.’

Steve's talent was obvious to Kelly, who made him lead guitarist in his band, the Messengers. For six years, he played on all Kelly’s albums. He also wrote Leaving Her For the Last Time and co-wrote one of Kelly’s biggest hits, Darling it Hurts. The song tells the story of an ex-girlfriend of Kelly’s who has turned to prostitution. That’s Steve playing the song’s grinding guitar. It’s also him playing the guitar solo on To Her Door, Little Decisions and Happy Slave.


‘No one in this country has ever come up with anything as close to the perfect pop guitar solo as he did,’ said Perth DJ and journalist Steve Gordon. ‘What he could put into 15 or 20 seconds could just put a crown on a song.’[3]

In 1990, Connolly and Kelly produced Archie Roach’s album Charcoal Lane. Wrote Kelly, ‘Steve Connolly called and said, ‘I’ve just seen the most amazing singer on TV. We should get him.’ Steve had been watching Blackout, an Indigenous arts show and seen Roach performing They Took the Children Away.


Recognising the enormous significance of Roach’s extraordinary message and talent, Connolly and Kelly set about ensuring Roach’s songs would reach the widest audience possible. ‘We invited a few musicians in to help here and there,’ wrote Kelly, ‘but were mindful not to clutter up the songs. This was before the Bringing Them Home report detailed the breakup of Aboriginal families, before the term ‘stolen generations’ became widely used. ‘I didn’t know this kind of thing was going in this country, was a common response.’’


After Charcoal Lane, Steve Connolly continued to support indigenous musicians, producing Kev Carmody’s Eulogy for a Black Person. Steve also played on Paul Kelly’s original version of the indigenous protest song From Little Things Big Things Grow, a song that would become synonymous with both Kelly and Carmody.


Steve, seated with the guitar, in the photograph Paul Kelly posted on Facebook to commemorate the 25th anniversary of his friend's death.

By the early 1990s, Steve began to forge a musical career as a solo artist. His friends remember his expansive intelligence and curiosity. His family described him as witty, intelligent, stubborn, cynical and charming.[1]


‘I knew him as a friend, rather than a musician,’ wrote journalist and writer Suzy Freeman-Greene in her obituary to him. ‘He was incredibly well read and had a writer’s love of words. Fascinated by history, he could talk at length about the American Civil War. He loved pop music but also red wine, detective novels, good films and talking politics.’


But his heart really lay with Essendon Football Club. According to Suzy, one of his most prized possessions was a photograph of Essendon greats Michael Long and Gavin Wanganeen.

Steve’s insights into the world of 1990s music were on full display in an article he wrote on the death of Kurt Cobain, the lead singer of seminal grunge band Nirvana. ‘Has rock ‘n roll lost a great innovator, or was Nirvana’s meteoric rise to fame just an industry-hyped flash in the pan?’ questioned Steve.[2]


He then goes on to write a concise and articulate analysis of the influence of Cobain on a generation and predicted his unique position in the broader history of rock music. ‘The grunge phenomenon came out of the grim industrial cities of the US Northwest, created by bored, alienated youths like Cobain who felt disenfranchised by, and alienated from, the mainstream of American society,’ surmised Steve. ‘Cobain’s genius, was to articulate these feelings.’


At the conclusion of the article, Steve correctly predicted Cobain's incredible legacy.

‘We should be thankful and appreciative of Cobain’s contribution to pop culture,’ Steve concluded. ‘Perhaps a whole new generation of pimply, awkward misfits with cheap guitars and bad attitudes has been shown a way to express themselves and to make their mark.’ He was talking about Kurt Cobain but perhaps even himself too.


Steve's tree on the creek side near Maxwell Street bridge

The last year of Steve’s life was spent doing what he loved, making and playing music. It is clear he did not expect to die. His cause of death, publicly described only as ‘a short illness’, hit everyone around him exceptionally hard. He had recently recorded an album with his band, Steve Connolly and the Usual Suspects and was about to go on tour. It was instead released posthumously.


As his plaque near the Maxwell Street bridge promises, Steve’s memory lives on through music. Wrote Paul Kelly on the 25th anniversary of Steve’s death, ‘He’s still with me every time I play any of the songs we recorded between 1985-1990. His classic guitar parts ring out and ring on.’


So next time you hear To Her Door, Darling it Hurts or Before Too Long on the radio, listen out for Steve’s perfect guitar solo. Steve's melody can linger for you too.


Edited on 19 May: I'm so pleased this post has resonated with people. Steve (or "The Beef", "Cramsack", "Curve Connolly") is obviously still dearly missed by those who knew him. His friend Mickey sent me these photos and asked to include them in the post.

From left, Steve and Paul backstage in Perth (taken during the America's Cup Challenge, 19 December 1986); promotional photograph from 1987 for a US tour; Steve's signature bottom of the frame.



For more information on the proposed documentary on Steve, visit the dedicated page Steve Connolly: Like a Lowdown Guitar.





References


[1] Connolly, Sharon, My Giddy Aunt (Perth: Upswell Publishing, 2022).

[2] Freeman-Greene, Suzy, "An Ear for the Perfect Pop Song," The Age, 18 May 1995.

[3] Ibid.

[2] Connolly, Steve, "Rock 'N' Role Models," The Sunday Age, Melbourne, 24 April 1994.

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Thanks for a worthy tribute to a gifted musician and a much loved man whose legacy lives on.

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