Extended version of article published in Orange City Life, 27 April 2017.
‘I got accused of being a softy’: Long time rock n’ roll exhibitionist talks to Denise Mills about spiritual transformation and the value of trauma.
Being on the wrong side of thirty, I’m very familiar with Angry Anderson – particularly his tumultuous childhood, his crazy bad boy days when Rose Tattoo were at their most infamous, and the extensive charity work he does for a variety of causes. But before our interview last week I did some light stalking anyway, just to glean some additional insight into the guy. What I found was that Angry is still painted to be a hard-arse, who does a bit of charity work on the side – just to put some good out in the world.
What I experienced in talking to him was quite different: a man who steps back and sees the big picture, who still wants to rock at the age of sixty-nine because it’s fun and life shouldn’t be taken too seriously, and a man whose spiritual beliefs form the crux of who he is. Angry is a walking contradiction: a family man who still rocks out; a “no-bullshit” humanitarian who is sometimes labelled a racist; a survivor of depression and abuse, yet by no means a victim; and a non-religious, yet deeply spiritual man with unyielding faith – a virtue he credits to the complex woman who is his mother.
“My mother was a dogmatically practicing Roman Catholic, so she was very, very narrow minded. We had to agree to disagree over that. I have fought against organised religion because of what it did to her – it trapped her in a bad marriage, and all these kinds of different things. I’ve never taken her to task over it because I know how important her religion – and practicing her religion – is to her, but what it taught me the value of faith. She has such complete faith, and that was an amazing thing. Even as a teenager I used to look at her, and she’d be sitting there with her eyes closed, she’d have her rosaries in her hand and I knew she was praying. And I thought, ‘My god.’ And it got her through.”
He mentions that his mother has dementia, something which was only brought to light after the recent passing of Angry’s stepdad, who had cared for her and kept her illness hidden to protect the family. His mother is now in a home, and often asks Angry to come and get her. “She says: ‘I’m better now, Gary, come and get me.’ It’s not the same as just losing your memory. It’s been tough.”
In contrast to his mother’s Catholicism, Angry’s views on spirituality centre around what he refers to as esoterics – a system of thought which focuses on personal enlightenment and is perhaps best explained by Henrick Bogan, who wrote in his book Western Esotericism and Rituals of Initiation: “Man is seen as a microcosm of the macrocosm, the divine universe.”
“I studied in a group for five or six years which looked at the language of esoterics, the wealth of knowledge of esoterics, and the wisdom of philosophies,” he said, before recommending a few of his favourite books, including Robert M. Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. He’s also read the Bible.
“It’s always troubled me that the Old Testament is just that. It’s the old knowledge, the old way of looking at things. It’s a book about the evolving perception of Judaism. It’s a world of fantasy about how people perceive the beginnings of the tribes of Israel. And then there’s thousands of years that take place [in between the Old Testament and the New] and it all comes to this person who was called the Messiah. And you know, there’s enough evidence around to suggest that the life of Jesus was a real thing, whether he was the product of immaculate conception is, you know, I can’t accept that.
“I remember when I was a kid, I belonged to a church for a while, it was a way of dealing with kids on the street in those days – police would say you’ve got to go into a Church Youth Group to get some sort of religious guidance. I remember talking to a young minister in those days, he talked about certain concepts that put him offside with the strict adherence to ‘The Word’, but he was a revolutionist. He was the first person who gave me the idea that you’re not supposed to take [the Bible] word for word verbatim. He was the first person who said, ‘What is the meaning within the story?’”
Angry describes the Bible as “a wealth of fabulous information, a work of inspiration”, before moving on to his sometimes controversial views on Islam. In particular, he discusses Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a 47-year-old Somali-born activist, who was scheduled to speak in Australia this year but cancelled her plans. According to The Guardian, her appearances had been “opposed by a group of prominent Muslim women, who said that she espoused ‘hate-mongering and bigotry.’”
“We have to do away with some really objectionable, supposedly cultural practices,” Angry says. “A very brave lady who was going to tour here a while ago, Ayaan [Hirsi Ali] was her name. She was brought up a Muslim, she was genitally butchered like a lot of young Islamic girls are. So you’ve got to get rid of that, you’ve got to get rid of the suppression of women. You have to get rid of the idea that girl children are worthless and boy children are worthy, the persecution of gays… There’s a lot of aspects of Islam that need to be reformed.
“People have said to me ‘you’re anti-Muslim’, and I say no, I’m not anti-Muslim. Muslims are individuals, and I take individuals as I find them. I’m anti-Islam. The ideologies [of that religion] are deeply flawed – as are some of the dogmatic practices of so-called Christianity.”
He continues to state that despite not taking the Bible verbatim, or believing Jesus was immaculately conceived, he still considers Jesus an inspirational example.
“Jesus was referred to as the Prince of Peace. I would follow a prophet who prescribed that you don’t set out to wreak vengeance, that you don’t set out to do violence, but instead you do the opposite. You love the humanity in all people. To me, that’s far more positive, nurturing, optimistic, than one that says ‘cut the hands off your enemies’. I don’t get it.”
While Angry has never been one to shy away from his opinions, his openness about his humanitarian views have come at the cost of losing some of his old-school, hardcore fans.
“[When] I was doing television a couple of years ago, I got accused of being a softy. A bleeding heart. Angry’s gone soft on us, a goody-two-shoes. One disgruntled fan said: ‘He no longer sounds like Angry Anderson – he sounds like my dad.’”
I start to say perhaps they were trying to confine Angry to some sort of concept they held of him, before Angry interjects: “I’m not going to criticise them because it’s more about them. I didn’t reply or retaliate, and it’s not being holier than thou. I just thought to myself, ‘You know what? I’m acknowledging my growth; I just hope it happens to you.’
“One of the great things, when you get to my age, is you get to a point where you just say, ‘You know what? I have my opinions, I’m not afraid of them, and I’m not afraid to express them.’ I was reading Jack Nicholson’s biography, and he said, ‘You get to a certain age where you don’t give a fuck. You are who you are, people can either accept it or they can fuck off.’”
Angry is the first to admit that his views have evolved over the years.
“People say to me, ‘Just when we think we’ve got you categorised, you say something or do something that contradicts!’ And I go, ‘Well, aren’t we all like that?’ I think very, very deeply that we should all be like that. That we should not be too predictable. It would be a boring existence if you didn’t learn something that changed your mind!
“Someone said to me recently, ‘You’re refreshingly honest,’ and I said, ‘At my age, I’m able to be.’ It’s not that I’m very sure of the things that I say, the views that I hold. I mean, it’s an ever-changing thing. If, or when, you give yourself up to the wisdom of the creational process, as I call it, then you become very fluid.”
The creational process, as Angry calls it, is all about spiritual transformation.
“When I was in [the spiritual group], the guy who led that group, he used to say constantly, ‘If you’re aware, life will offer you something every day – if not every second.’ In the simplest of examples, if it’s nothing more than you realise just the gift of another day, isn’t that enough? Of course it is. The whole experience is a valuable experience.”
I reply: Not to be wanky, but it’s a beautiful thing.
He laughs. “Absolutely! And it’s not being wanky at all, it’s just being real. The other thing is being aware. Consciousness is the realm of understanding. To be conscious of something is to live it or allow it to live. I’ve read so many books that have a said the same thing. After a while you start to see the concepts that you read about… If you trust life, life will take care of you. It will offer you things that it can only offer you, if you trust.
“I read a beautiful book years ago by Thomas Moore called Care of the Soul. He’s a very intense and intelligent guy, and he says the soul grows, it’s like the universe itself, it expands because of its own experience… I think these things need to be contemplated, but I don’t think you need to go sit in a cave for fifty years and contemplate one thought.”
I suggest that you can, though, if you don’t stop yourself.
“Yeah!” He laughs again. “Yes, there’s great wisdom there, if you don’t stop yourself you can become obsessive. But one of the things that I actually do prescribe to is accepting what life gives you. I often say when doing public speaking that there are pivotal moments in your life. By way of explanation, what changed me from being one thing to another.”
For Angry, one of those pivotal moments was fatherhood.
“You know, I never wanted to be a father. I had a very destructive father, he was also mentally ill. He was physically violent and a deeply flawed person, and he inflicted a lot of pain – on both myself and my mother, and on other members of the family, too, but more pointedly me and mum. So I never wanted to have children.
“That’s why I accept the wisdom of the divine – because at my lowest point, my most infamous part of my career, when The Tatts were overseas and causing people to look with wonder and amazement like ‘what is going on with these people?’ we were at our worst.
“We were all struggling with drugs, we were all struggling with alcohol and bad behaviour, and I needed a release from that. I didn’t realise it at the time, but I needed to be liberated from that slavery. My then-partner fell pregnant with our first born, that was basically the end of one thing and it insisted or necessitated that I become something else.”
Angry tells me his boys are 25, 27, 29, and his daughter is 34. “I’m learning about them, from them and with them, all the time. I spend a lot of time with my children.”
Speaking of kids, I ask Angry about his youth work, and what advice he gives young people who are now in the same situation he was once in – using temporary “Band-Aids” to numb their lives and avoiding looking at themselves?
“I think you lead more by example than you ever do by instruction. If you know within yourself that they’re worth it, you hang in there with them. Having kids teaches you to do that. You know, I’ve given up on very few people. There are some people who don’t want to have a better life or be a better person, so you say, ‘Well, I’m not going to waste my time because eventually they either will or they won’t.’ But what I say when I do public speaking is, regardless of how life seems – it might seem insurmountably difficult– but nothing is that difficult, nothing is impossible. Don’t give up.
“Another thing, when I talk about depression, I always say, ‘Don’t let anyone ever convince you or lead you to believe that what you’re facing cannot be overcome.’ We develop differently because of parenting, the environment we grow up in and that sort of thing, but in all of us we’re all born in the same vision, if you like… I deal with [depression] every day but I deal with it. It doesn’t define me, I define it. And if one person can do it, anyone can do it. The worst thing you can do is say to kids is ‘It’s hopeless.’”
In the same breath, he explains that, while it’s never hopeless, it’s not going to be painless, either.
“One of the things I do talk about when public speaking, particularly at schools, is don’t expect a painless life, because that’s a life not lived. We’re sort of led to believe that we’ve got to avoid pain.”
Angry goes on to talk about how he’s dealt with the sexual trauma of his childhood, and speaks with the same nonchalant tone he used when he apologised for munching on an Easter egg during the start of our conversation.
“I’ve had kids say to me, ‘You said you’re a victim of a paedophile,’ and I say, ‘Yeah’, and they say, ‘Well, how do you possibly cope?’ I tell them, well, you either do cope or you allow yourself not to, and then you’re a perpetual victim.
“When I was burying myself in alcohol and drugs and bad behaviour, it was [my way of] dealing with the pain. It was trying to hide something that was ugly and disgusting – also trying to anaesthetise the constant agony where you don’t know how to deal with it… Once life intervened and said, ‘Well, you can’t do drugs and alcohol anymore,’ [due to the birth of Angry’s daughter] the pain was still there, so I had to find another way to deal with that.
“I could have walked away and ignored the whole situation, but what I did was accept it, embrace it, and go, ‘Ok, well, this my life now, it’s not about me anymore, so I have to go about it an entirely different way.’”
Given that he is in the public eye, and has changed a lot from the young bloke who headbutted amps until his forehead bled, I ask Angry if he ever feels pressured to be who people expect him to be.
“Nup!” he replies quickly. “But one of the learning curves for a young person is that you do get trapped for a while – hopefully it’s only for a while – into being what you think people think you should be. And then there’s a moment of realisation at some point in your life, usually after a point of trauma.
“I remember talking to a trauma surgeon years ago, when I was working with hospitals. He said, ‘You know, trauma is an amazing thing. It can be life-changing and people can just become so much better for it. They really come into themselves.’ Trauma releases people from years and years of being trapped inside. Trauma can be conducive to something very positive.”
Despite all the spiritual talk, Angry informs me that he has no intention of slowing down, gracefully retiring or getting old.
“I caught up with Angus [Young, from AC/DC] a while ago, when my band was doing the support for Guns and Roses. We hadn’t seen one another for at least twenty, maybe thirty years. We were standing backstage catching up having a bit of a chat and I said, ‘One of these days we should do a blues album together.’ He said, ‘Yeah, let’s wait until we get old.’ Pretty funny, these blokes in their late 60s talking about when they get old – which says something about our attitude. We don’t acknowledge the idea that, supposedly, if you’re in your late 60s you’re traditionally required to retire gracefully.”
According to Angry, an important part of living a full life is embracing what comes, and doing so with a good attitude.
“To go back to Thomas Moore, spirit is the spirit of life. The soul is what life can become, so you can add to it to subtract from it. If you’re a person who looks at life with negativity, who always looks at the dark side of life, your soul diminishes. If you’re a person who embraces life, enjoys life and lives life to its fullest, that’s your soul, and it grows. To have a full life, going back to depression and those kind of things, you can’t just experience one emotion, which is love. You can’t just experience one emotion, which is peace. You have to experience all the emotions, and then you’ve lived a full life.”
I end our chat with the question I like to leave until last, because it’s a tough one. I ask him how he defines himself – his true self, beyond the rock star or humanitarian persona.
He answers simply: “A living question. And defiant.”