Rebel Yell

David Campbell in Shout. The musical Shout! doesn't shy away from the sex, drugs and demons that haunted Johnny O'Keefe, writes JAMES COCKINGTON.

Where: Capitol Theatre, Haymarket
When: From February 28 to March 22
How much: $48.85-$78.75 (includes booking fee)
Bookings: 136 166

More information:

David Campbell has vague memories of seeing Johnny O'Keefe singing She's My Baby on The Don Lane Show. This was in the twilight of O'Keefe's career when he was wearing Italian-style wedding suits and a perm, eking out a living on the RSL nostalgia circuit. JOK was no longer a star, he was no longer The Wild One, but Campbell remembers watching and thinking that he was nevertheless a pretty cool guy. He would have been one of the few around at the time to think so. Campbell's father, Jimmy Barnes, met O'Keefe for the first time at around the same period. He wasn't impressed.

"He said he wanted to punch him out," remembers Campbell.

Now the 27-year-old Campbell has been given the task of trying to capture the spirit of O'Keefe in the musical Shout! It must have been a dilemma at the musical's planning stages - whether to do a pastel-coloured tribute or dig deep for the grim reality.

"I'm not trying to impersonate the guy," Campbell says from Melbourne, where he says the show is receiving standing ovations. "We want to try and get as much truth as we could. The sex, the drugs, we can't hide from this stuff."

O'Keefe remains an enigma. He is our best-known pioneer rocker, yet he had a tendency to sing out of tune, something noted by jazz player Ron Falson in John Clare's book Bodgie Dada and the Cult of Cool. Still, he was admired by many very good musicians (Falson included) notably the saxophonist Bob Bertles, who played in JOK's original support band. Bertles says O'Keefe "wasn't the greatest singer in the world but when he was on stage he looked as if he belonged there".

If not the voice, JOK had the presence, a kind of ratbag arrogance that he expressed humorously in his trademark line - "you're booing me, but I know you really LOVE me" - first delivered at one of the early Sydney Stadium supershows when the audience resented having a non-American band on stage.

"He had a real energy," says Campbell. "There's not a lot of [performers] who had that power. It was like watching a raw nerve."

On stage at his peak - and there is some very powerful footage of JOK performing in the late '50s at the Stadium - O'Keefe looked as if he was under the control of some demonic force. Later, those demons well and truly took over.

The musical also covers this period when, as Campbell describes it, "he was not mentally well", although the stints in mental homes are suggested rather than depicted on stage: ten days of deep sleep is not exciting theatre.

Shout! is very much a musical, yet "it's not a concert," Campbell insists. "It's definitely not soft, it's hard going."

It's also a theatrical marathon for him. Campbell only leaves the stage for costume changes and has to perform 17 songs in the show. In only one of these has he the chance to sit for a while.

JOK is obviously a tough act to follow. The man treated every show as if it was his finale just as, in his personal life, he raged as if it was his last day on earth.

"It takes a lot out of me," says Campbell. "My social life is crumbling around me - I'm becoming a bit obsessed by it." Sounds like he's turning into the real Johnny O'Keefe.

But what was the real JOK like?

There is an almost schizophrenic edge to the man. While his private life really was extreme - recommended reading in this area is Behind The Rock by Jon Hayton and Leon Isackson (Select Books) - he also tried to reinvent himself as The Mild One in the early '60s, singing show tunes (badly) on his Sing, Sing, Sing television show. His father was the mayor of Waverley, and he too sought respectability.

In one of the few surviving episodes of his television shows there is footage of him proudly accepting honorary membership of the Lions Club for his "attempt through his program to raise the standards of the young people of Australia". He is so thrilled by this honour he appears stuck for words. Either that or he's off his face.

In many ways he was a conservative. In 1969, when many Australians were protesting against the Vietnam war, O'Keefe volunteered to go to Saigon to perform. He saw this as his patriotic duty.

"The Australians look on the war as a great adventure," he said at a press conference on his return. "I did not hear one complaint from an Aussie over there." He described the American soldiers as "whingers" for complaining about fighting a war that they felt didn't concern them.

It showed how out of touch O'Keefe was with the young generation protesting on the streets. He spent the rest of the '70s touring RSL clubs, an increasingly sad figure trying to resurrect his glory days. As he aged he looked increasingly like an elf. Yet, as Campbell had noticed as a kid, he still had that magic something.

The author Stephen MacLean knew him socially before making the TV documentary The Singer and The Swinger - about the lives of O'Keefe and his manager Lee Gordon - shown on the ABC in 1998. MacLean describes O'Keefe as totally charming, admitting that he was surprised to hear so much bad stuff about the guy while researching his documentary. He says it was like hearing about someone else, a different man to the one who had magically produced a silver bowl of Mandrax and whipped cream after MacLean had jokingly told him that this was how he preferred his drugs to be served.

If nothing else, Johnny O'Keefe had a wild sense of humour.

Sydney Morning Herald - February 2001