A Pure Drop Chasing the Fortunate

22 04 2013

Jeff Apter is an Australian writer who has written biographies on people including Marc Hunter, Kasey Chamber, The Red Hot Chilli Peppers and the Finn brother. He also has a fortnightly spot on ABC radio. I was lucky enough to catch up with him recently.

Jeff Apter’s story starts in Sydney some time ago and sounds a little something like this: “Born in Sydney suburbs, raised in Sydney suburbs. Travelled a bit; has two children; married; lives in Wollongong. The End”, Jeff proclaims, crushing any chances of a future autobiography. You have to admit though, for someone who spends his time researching and writing 80-90000 words about other people’s lives, he clearly doesn’t value his as much as other’s would.

The man sitting across the small table from me in the corner of this slightly sensual red room is Jeff Apter. He has been described by the Sydney Morning Herald as ‘Australia’s most prolific writer of music biographies’. “I’m one of about only 10 people in the country who do this you know” he says, very matter of factly. O, very prestigious.

One of the first things that you can’t help but notice about Jeff is his appearance. ‘Googling’ him, you see on the screen a man that looks like someone that your mother might have warned you to avoid when you were young. He has unavoidably thick, angular eyebrows; but these may be accentuated by his minimal hair north of that.

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Yet pictures and the internet – “how can I double check and confirm that?” – can be very deceptive. Because sitting before me now is a man with an inviting smile and a glowing personality it feels like talking to an old friend after years of separation.

Despite knowing that he wanted to be a writer from a young age, life didn’t have the same plans for Jeff. “[I took on other jobs] out of necessity. I worked for the public service for a few years, which was horrible. I was in a factory for a year; airlines for a few years. But they were all really frustrating, dead end jobs. It took me 15 years of work experience to realise I work best on my own”, he says offering a glimmer of hope to those still struggling with career uncertainty.

By working on his own, Jeff kind of means it. “Sometimes I do preliminary run throughs”, says Diana, Jeff’s wife. “I did more before the kids came along, and I also have university commitments too. We sometimes discuss the direction of his work if he’s floundering”, she adds. “I’m not always able to add much though, as I didn’t grow up Australian, so I’m not as immersed in local popular culture”, she laments. “But talking things through seems to help.”

Jeff did an apprenticeship at Rolling Stone magazine for five years and acquired some skills that are paying off now he’s left. “I don’t just write the words you know. I’ve got a budget for the photos used which I then write the captions for. Sometimes you have to be able to say as much in one sentence as you can in 5000 words. I also write the text for the back cover. I’m involved in every stage.” So 80000 words plus captions and blurb means you really need to know your stuff.

We’ve all heard about the Rolling Stone and the high esteem in which it is held but, “the notion of Rolling Stone being the glamorous, big budget magazine is false is Australia. Here it’s just the redhead stepchild of the American magazine”. But it’s still a big name around the county, so why did Jeff leave? “It really is very intense. Back when I worked for them, it was just one guy who owned the business and it was just three of us trying to recreate the quality of the American magazine. We had to do 13 magazines a year. You’d finish one, breath in for a day then start on the next one; where as if I finish a book, I tend to get a period of time to enjoy the fact that I finished something. I can go ‘that was good. What’s next’?”

Even with years of practice, Jeff still gets a case of the nerves at the start of every assignment undertaken. “You’re given this name that you know about, but you just sit there thinking ‘how am I going to do this’?”, a believable sense of fear enters his voice. “It’s not until I’ve given what I have to someone else and they come back with more of what they liked about it than what they didn’t that I can relax a little”, his shoulders suddenly slump.

The relentless groan of the traffic outside and the buzz of the coffee machines are almost tidal in their intensity. The setting of a cafe lines up with why Jeff writes about whom he does. “I’m really interested in kind of demystifying of public figures. Not denouncing them, but showing them to be real people with kids, commitments and trying to make money. I try to break down barriers and draw a real picture of these people”, he says with plenty of hand gestures. So despite having had “really great offices with sweeping views”, here we are, in a coffee shop on the main drag on a Monday morning.

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The deadline is approaching fast. The clock strikes 2 a.m. The pressure causes sweat to bead up on his forehead….. This is a situation that you’ll never find Jeff in. “For some reason I work better in the mornings. It might be because I have a couple of kids, but I’ve learnt to focus all my energy into constant bursts. It’s all the result of 3 to 6 months of research beforehand though. I believe that people who work 8 hours a day are only good for 2 hours, so I try to filter that into my own writing in that 2 to 3 hours. When it comes 3 o’clock, I save what I’ve got and that’s it for the day”, he says with his children clearly in mind.

And could you blame him? Despite having an ‘office’ that is open and airy with a large window, it’s what lays beyond that ruins the room: it’s a red brick wall. “[It’s] really starting to bother me now that I think about it”, he says running an analysing eye over it. Taking a step back, the office could be described as slightly self-indulgent with constant reminders of Jeff’s previous works being ever present. A small bookcase full of Jeff’s previous work sits below the window. In front of which sits a box of “mini-Shirls” only recently delivered.

But why does Jeff like writing about musicians and their work? “I like writing about someone whose work I understand, not necessarily love, but I know their history. I know and am drawn to their story.  Elements of the story that I haven’t been told before, or told inaccurately make for a really good read.” He recalls a time when he was told by one of his interview subjects to just make it a good read and a page turner, “it took me about five books to learn that though”, he admits with a smile.

How about knowing what songs mean though? “No”, he laughs, “I’m not looking for a deeper explanation of the song. I’m not really intrigued by lyrical analysis or anything. I figure if you were all about the words, you’d write poetry. Music is more than that, its mood and emotion and volume. Frankly, you can sing ‘la la la la’ in a certain way for five minutes and you could still break hearts.”

It’s only when you look at the material Jeff has collated for past and present projects that you really understand why so few people in the country do it. Sitting beneath his work desk is a black box full of stuff from his research for his book on Graeme ‘Shirley’ Strachan. “This is a folder that can have everything from DVDs to notes and scrapbooks from the 1950s. It’s just full of stuff that you’re not going to find online, which is why the internet is only a good launching pad depending on who you’re writing about”, he tells me, referring to an earlier question. This is just one folder remember, because as Diana reminds us “he’s usually working on more than one project at a time”.

What’s next for Jeff? Well he has just finished another book on an Australian rock icon which he hopes will hit stores in August, just in time for Father’s Day. And after that? He might just well be putting his feet up pondering quietly to himself ‘what’s next?’

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