Catching the light of music and the sea in words

JOHN CLARE 1940-2020 

Journalist John Clare mostly listened to music with his eyes closed. If it reared up toward exceptionalism his expression was rapturous, and when it finished his eyes sprang open, and he grinned or even laughed ecstatically. This intensity of pleasure was the same when he was snorkelling, staring at a painting or cycling: he immersed himself to the exclusion of all else.

That he had grown up with the ocean as a regular companion seemed to infiltrate his writing, which, at its best, was iridescent. Meaning was not just conveyed, but sparkled off the words in gripping evocations of a melody or the airborne sensation of riding his beloved racing bike at speed. His sentences could seem to dance, so deftly were they crafted, and the words illuminated each other in such unexpected ways as could make some flare off the page.

John Clare. Photo: Ann Moir.

John Lester Clare was born in Maroubra on November 15, 1940. His father, Wilfred – or Bill – was a factory worker (whose mother was an art teacher) and his mother, Dorothy Doyle, a nurse and also a female surfer at a time when they were rare. The oldest of six children, he attended Maroubra Bay Primary School, where a teacher told his mother that  punishing John by banishing him to the hall was pointless: “He’s happy to study the pictures.” These included a Brueghel reproduction, so school gave him his first glimpse of art, just as his grandparents gave him his first taste of Beethoven. Meanwhile he was also a keen horse-rider, working during the school holidays at a riding school.

He briefly went to the selective Sydney Boys High School, before his father was promoted to manage a factory in Melbourne, where the family lived in Essendon. Clare tried spear-fishing in Port Phillip, but longed for Sydney’s open ocean. This didn’t help an already fractured relationship with his father, whom Clare claimed beat him so ferociously that at 14 he ran away. Later he crashed a stolen car, and, released on a good behaviour bond, started work at 15 as a layout artist for Myer’s advertising department. Concurrently he was sucked into the sonic vortex of live jazz, while jazz album covers escalated his love of modernist art.

Photo: Roger Mitchell.

Naturally athletic, he was 1957 Victorian amateur lightweight boxing champion. His father remained unimpressed. Considered a chance for the 1960 Olympics, Clare stopped boxing to preserve his mouth, as he’d taken up the trumpet. Around this time he moved back to Sydney, briefly working in David Jones’ advertising department, and, amid brief stints as an illustrator, landscape gardener and commercial fisher, concentrated on freelance writing for the next 50 years.

He was drawn specifically to journalism by the work of such Esquire contributors as Gay Talese, Hemingway, Mailer and Dorothy Parker. Regardless of subject matter, idiom or publication, Clare always sought to breathe harmony and rhythm into his writing, using techniques like muted internal rhymes.

In 1961 he married Pamela Greaves, and they spent the mid-’60s in London, where their son Mathew was born and Clare penned his first jazz criticism for Town magazine. The point, he observed, was to try to incorporate some of the music’s rhythms and cadences, however obliquely: “To make someone remember or re-live an event is the highest success you could imagine.”

Photo: Roger Mitchell.

When Pamela fell pregnant with their daughter Rebecca they returned to Australia and lived in Bondi, where Clare taught his young children to snorkel and bodysurf, and where Rebecca remembers rocks being thrown on the roof in response to her father’s trumpet practice. The marriage dissolved in 1969.

Across the ensuing decades he wrote for publications including Nation Review, The National Times, The Bulletin, The Financial Review, Jazz, On the Street, The Age, The Australian, extempore, Jazz’n’Blues and The Monthly. He also wrote extensively for this masthead (often under the pseudonym of Gail Brennan), including interviewing Miles Davis 1988, and massaging out the non-confrontational side of a man famously averse to journalists. He edited Music Maker, was music editor of Hi Fi & Music, and published poetry and four books: Bodgie Dada & the Cult of Cool, Low Rent, Why Wangaratta? and Take Me Higher.

The daredevil in him was most obvious in his cycling escapades. About 15 years ago I visited him in hospital after one of his crashes. Having ridden across the Harbour Bridge, he’d opted not walk down the stairs to Milsons Point, instead aiming his bike down the extremely steep adjacent ramp. Despite a broken collarbone, broken ribs and a collapsed lung, he seemed vaguely proud of the attempt.

His other highwire routine was extemporising poetry with improvising musicians, notably with the band Free Kata in the 1970s. He also read the poetry of others against music, most recently with drummer Evan Mannell in 2018. Two months later he entered a nursing home, where he still wrote occasionally, and died from complications from a stroke. His son Mathew, a gifted saxophonist, had died in 2014. Clare is survived by Pamela, Rebecca, four grandchildren and four siblings.