PORTRAIT OF AN ARTIST AS AN OLDER MAN
Rolf Harris is singing Tie Me Kangaroo Down, Sport in Russian to a pretty Latvian waitress in the garden of a hotel in Windsor, on the banks of the River Thames. Verse after peculiar verse flows from the aperture between his famous moustache and trademark goatee, like a decadent tsar's lavish and inexplicably syncopated lunch order.
He perseveres until the middle eight, in the apparent hope the waitress might finally risk a smile, but she simply looks baffled.
I ask if she knows the song.
"You do now," says Harris, grinning.
"Yes," she replies slowly. "Now I know."
"It's a mad Australian song that I wrote," says Harris, "and it was translated into that silly Russian version."
"Very nice," says the waitress carefully. "Thank you very much."
Harris, 76, is gamin, beaky, toothy, animated, engaging and amused. He remains excitedly cheerful as the waitress backs away, but there are words unsaid hanging in the air: that one time - perhaps not so long ago - he could have charmed her out of her uniform with a few stanzas of doggerel in any language.
In our two hours together, Harris sings fragments of Tie Me Kangaroo Down, Sport in English, Spanish and German. He offers a chorus of the Beatles' All You Need Is Love, but gets the words wrong. He hazards Al Jolson's Sonny Boy, and most of Rodgers & Hart's Blue Moon, including the piano part. He performs the last verse of Jake the Peg, a fraction of his adaptation of Led Zeppelin's Stairway to Heaven, and a tantalising snatch of a punk-rock version of Two Little Boys.
Rolf Harris, AM, MBE, OBE, CBE, has been intermittently famous since his TV debut in England in 1953. Over the years, it has become clear that he is some kind of genius. He wrote Tie Me Kangaroo Down, Sport ; he invented the wobbleboard; he popularised Jake the Peg¿; he even built the extra leg. He is one of the biggest TV stars in the UK, and the most recognised painter in the British Isles. According to a 2003 Encyclopaedia Britannica survey, one in 14 Britons believes he painted Monet's Water-lilies. Which he did. It's just that Monet painted it first.
In Australia, his homeland, Harris is often still regarded as a stage ocker, a professional Aussie, an expatriate caricature. In England, he was adopted in mockery by a generation of students, but when they saw him they really did love him, because he was the face of their childhood, and because that face had hardly changed; because his drawing is a kind of magic, and his songs took them back to innocence. Most of all, though, they loved him for Two Little Boys. Not so deep down inside, Australians love him for it, too. We just cannot get over the British Paints "Sure Can" ads.
This year, Harris became the 130th artist to create an official portrait of Queen Elizabeth II. She looks gamine, beaky, toothy, animated, engaged and amused. If you gave her a moustache and a goatee, you could imagine her singing Tie Me Kangaroo Down, Sport in the garden of her Windsor Castle home, on the banks of the River Thames.
The first of Harris's alarmingly disparate achievements came in 1946 when he won an Australian swimming title. The second son of a Welsh migrant couple - Cromwell, a turbine driver at a power station, and Agnes (known as Marge), an analytical chemist - Rolf grew up with his older brother, Bruce, in the Perth suburb of Bassendean, on the Swan River.
"My childhood was like being a small-scale Tarzan," he says, "just climbing trees and swimming and continually having fun, in and out of the river all the time. I won the junior backstroke championship when I was 15, as a result of continuously swimming and swimming from the time I was about three."
Today, he lives in Bray, near Maidenhead, a little way downriver from Windsor. He still swims, but not too much. ("We've got a little heated pool but my swimming nowadays consists of being trampled and trodden under by my grandson, who has races with me and cheats, hits me and pulls me back, and pushes me to the bottom.")
His grandfather, George Harris, was a painter who died before Rolf was born, but Rolf grew up with the example of his Victorian realist paintings around the house. After leaving school, Rolf flunked a degree in psychology but graduated from teacher-training college, when he suddenly became very ill with what he guessed was polio.
"I was paralysed. I couldn't move my head, couldn't put my chin on my chest. I thought, 'My life's gone.' It just got better, over a period of a month, and I remember lying there thinking, 'I don't want to teach. I want to paint.' "
Aged 22, he sailed from Fremantle to London, where he made money painting portraits, acting and playing the piano in nightclubs. He won TV roles in the early days of broadcasting in the UK and Australia, but it was Tie Me Kangaroo Down, Sport that made him a star.
He honed the song in the Down Under Club in Earls Court, where he ditched self-penned verses such as "Brush the bunyip's back teeth, Keith" in favour of the classic denouement, "Tan me hide when I'm dead, Fred ... So we tanned his hide when he died, Clyde / And that's it hanging on the shed", lines that were actually written by his brother, Bruce.
Harris regularly moved between the UK and Australia, and Kangaroo met a wider public on Relax with Rolf, a weekly comedy/music show that Harris wrote and presented for TVW7 in Perth. After the song's first broadcast more than 300 viewers wrote letters to the station, eager to hear it again, if only to figure out what it might be about.
It was released as a single by EMI in 1960, sung to the accompaniment of the wobbleboard which, to the uneducated eye and ear, was simply a bendy piece of hardboard. Harris promoted it on Bandstand and it hopped to No. 1 in the Australian charts.
The sneers began early. When Harris flew into Sydney, one newspaper correspondent reported that he "looked like a man who wouldn't know a kangaroo if he saw one". The Sun-Herald made a half-hearted attempt to stir up moral outrage over what it called a "death song" in the mould of Tell Laura I Love Her, which had just been withdrawn from sale by Decca in the US on the grounds it was vulgar and tasteless.
There was even a backlash against the song, prompted by the verse, "Let me abos go loose, Lou ... They're of no further use, Lou."
"I know what I meant," says Harris, apologetic rather than defensive. "When I came from Australia to England, we came from a different attitude to everything to do with Aborigines. We didn't know anything about them. The people who had these cattle stations would employ the fit and healthy guys to work the stock, and they would keep the rest of the tribal unit in food. It was like a very paternalistic thing: 'We own you,' as it were, in an awful way. And I suppose all us young Australians travelling around the world, we took that attitude with us. We knew no better."
He no longer sings those lines.
Harris cracked the UK charts in 1962 with the Aboriginal-inspired Sun Arise. A year later, he interviewed a young, four-piece beat group called the Beatles for BBC Radio, and later had them singing Kangaroo, with lines like, "Don't ill-treat me pet dingo, Ringo ...
He can't understand your lingo, Ringo."
He still has the master tape, but the Beatles and their estates have blocked its release. "I think probably it was Yoko Ono who put the kybosh on it," he says.
Nonetheless, Harris had acquired the Beatles' George Martin as a producer, and was soon to acquire the third leg that would make his physiology complete.
Harris first came across a version of a Jake the Peg act performed by Dutch amateur entertainer Frank Roosen at a charity cabaret in Canada. He has since discovered that the song is 150 years old, and regularly appeared in circuses across the Netherlands. Roosen offered Harris a rough translation of the lyrics, and Harris added his own last verse.
When I was a child, I believed Harris was the only tri-pedal being in the universe.
"Heh-heh," says Harris. "Well, the whole Jake the Peg exercise has been one of making it look as real as possible. I had a really complicated piece of equipment at one stage. I spent about a month making all the fakery of the three-legged bit, and I took it to Malta to do my show. The guy at the airport took my bags, said, 'I'll sort this out, Mr Harris', went away with two suit-carrier bags and gave me back one ticket.
"When I got to Malta, it didn't come off the plane. So my Jake the Peg outfit, with the false leg and the proper gear, and all the wonderful, complex machinery that I had worked on disa-bloody-peared."
What was the mechanism?
"That's a good question," says Harris, "and I'm not going to tell you."
In case I embark on a tri-pedal career of my own? "I had to work out how to do it," he says. "You bloody work out how to do it. I'll give you a clue, though." He leans across the table, as if to take me into his confidence. "There is a false leg involved."
For all his singing and wobbleboarding and tri-pedal high jinks, Harris never stopped painting and drawing. He continually managed to put together shows that somehow combined cartooning and crooning, portraiture and pantomime. His UK TV show, Hi There!, in which he did big paintings, sang songs and introduced pop artists, was succeeded by Hey Presto, It's Rolf, in which he did big paintings, sang songs and introduced pop artists. The ABC bought and broadcast both Hey Presto and its successor, The Rolf Harris Show, in which he did big paintings, sang songs, etc.
Musically, however, he did not have much impact again until 1969, when he recorded Two Little Boys, a story of childhood friendship and adult heroism, written in 1903 by Edward Madden and Theodore Morse.
When he first heard the song, Harris assumed it was set in World War I, and many Australians took it to refer to the Third Light Horse Regiment. In fact, the two grown-up soldiers are supposed to be fighting on the Union side ("the ranks so blue") in the American Civil War.
Two Little Boys was the last UK No 1 of the 1960s and first of the 1970s. In Australia, it reached No 7. If there is one ballad that defines the hopes and fears of a generation, and that will live on forever as testament to the noble rage of youth, it certainly isn't Two Little Boys. But anyone who denies that the hairs on the back of their neck tingled the first time they heard "Did you think I would leave you dyyyyyyyyyy-ing" must be a mystified Latvian waitress who does not quite understand the words.
Ten years, no hits, and several TV shows later, Harris felt directionless. His business affairs were confused, and he handed over his management to his brother Bruce who, he says, turned his life around.
The young Rolf was a "show-off", says Bruce, 82, remembering when they were two little boys. "I was very conservative as a youngster. I would try to avoid being seen with him, because he'd be walking down the street on his hands, or singing loudly, or whistling, and I would want to disappear."
The brothers were not close until they began working together in 1981. Bruce had recently retired, so he was able to give all his time to Rolf. "I've always admired him since he's been an adult," says Bruce. "I think he's a genius. With some of the faults of a genius, including a complete lack of financial understanding. We get on great, but it's still better that I live here [in Sydney] and he lives there."
Bruce taught Rolf to watch his costs, raise his fees, and choose his jobs more carefully.
"His wife is an artist as well," says Bruce, "and to me they're both widely read, clever people, but they're naive about some aspects of life."
Rolf had married sculptor Alwen Hughes in 1958. She gave birth to their only child, a daughter named Bindi, in 1964. At first, Rolf would often take Alwen and Bindi on the road, but as Bindi grew older, he was away for long stretches at a time and she and her mother seemed to become invisible. Harris later discovered that Alwen had contemplated suicide, and that his lifestyle had left Bindi distraught and rudderless. When he talks about Bindi's childhood, Harris refers to himself in the second person, as if he cannot bear to face the fact that he is the "you" in his story.
"As you get older," he says, "and as your child grows older, she then has the courage and confidence to say, 'This is what it was like when I was a kid, and I never was able to tell you this before: it was quite a lonely life, and I never saw you. You were never there.' And that hurt a lot, when you realise that you never felt she was able to talk to you as a real person. You'd breeze in and breeze out, then you'd be off to Australia for two months again. Again."
Bindi only knew him from letters, he says.
"And she copped it hot and strong all through her childhood, because all the kids at school would say, 'You lucky dog, your father's rich.' She didn't know what that meant when she was little. She was always isolated and criticised. She had to realise that kids weren't being her friends for friendship's sake, but as a possibility to meet me, to get an autograph."
His voice has lowered, become unstable. It is crackling like a radio tuned off-station and playing in a distant room.
"You think you're doing the right thing when you go along to the school, but then you realise that you're some figure of stunned amazement. Because you've turned up, and you are this guy off television, and you do some sort of a speech, and you sing a few songs with them and everything - and it just isolates her more."
Harris seems to forget where he is, geographically and conversationally, lost in the country of his regrets.
"Do you pick up your child when your child is crying?" he asks. "My piano player, my musical director, when he had his little lad, he said, 'When he cries, we pick him up. Why wouldn't you give them that comfort?'
"I remember we were in a restaurant in New York, and the baby was in a carrycot and started crying, and somebody from the table said, 'Your baby's crying', and we said, 'Yeah, she's just trying to get attention. She's been fed and she doesn't want any more food, her nappy's dry.' But why wouldn't you pick her up? It's like, you think you're following the right ... precepts ... of parenthood ... and what ... should be.
"You think to yourself, 'Jesus, maybe I did it wrong all the time.' "
How does Bindi (a painter herself) feel about her childhood now? "She realises that it's a fact of life," says Harris, "and we didn't know how to handle it."
In 1990, Harris was asked onto Andrew Denton's The Money or the Gun. Like all Denton's musical guests, Harris was told to prepare his own version of Led Zeppelin's Stairway to Heaven. Harris had never heard of it, and wanted to play one of his own hits instead, but the producers insisted. Harris learned the song from the sheet music.
"I'm reading verses about the fairies in the hedgerow," he says, "and thinking, 'What's this all about?' So I made it really short and sweet. With the wobbleboard. And I changed the tune slightly.
"All together now!" sings Harris joyfully, "And she's buying a stairway to heaven!"
All the Stairways were collected on a compilation LP, and Harris's version was released as a single in 1993. It reached the top 10 in the UK, and brought him a new British student audience, who were not sure whether the joke was on him or them.
"Suddenly Birmingham University said, 'Do you reckon you could come and do a show?' " says Harris. "So I went along thinking I would do a cabaret-type thing, with jokes interspersed. We started off with Tie Me Kangaroo Down, Sport and got everybody singing. Wonderful. And I started to tell a joke, and a fella from the back said, 'Just sing the fuuuucking songs!' So I took a big breath and went, 'Oh, you're right. How right you are', so we just did song after song after song. And I finished up at midnight. It was bloody amazing.
"And, as a result of that appearance, I had the courage to approach Glastonbury. And I think they booked me as a joke."
Harris played the Glastonbury rock festival for the first time in 1993 (he has since featured in 1998, 2000 and 2002). "Every song I did, they sang every word with me," he says. "They voted me the best entertainer they'd ever had there."
His TV renaissance came the next year, with Animal Hospital, a hugely popular documentary series that ran for a decade in the UK. By the time it was axed, Harris had already started Rolf on Art, in which he and small groups of amateur painters attempted to replicate the styles of various impressionists, including Monet. The program was the most-watched art show ever produced by the BBC, and a national survey revealed Harris to be the best-known painter in the UK.
"I'm certainly way up above Rembrandt and Picasso [in the UK]. But those guys, like Van Gogh and Monet, they didn't have a weekly television show where they were painting every week."
"Whereas I did," says Harris.
His latest vehicle, Star Portraits - an unlikely contrivance in which three established artists each paint the same celebrity, who ultimately takes home the picture he or she likes the best - is also improbably compelling, partly because of the endearing way Harris relates to the rest of the cast. (It premieres, with Michael Parkinson as the subject, on ABC-TV this Tuesday night.)
Harris was to return to Australia to make another ABC show, but the last time he flew here he was laid low by a "weird bug" that his doctors thought might be pleurisy. "The doctors said, 'Don't do any long-haul trips for the foreseeable future, because it's been brought on by that long flight back,' " he says.
He was supposed to film the new show two weeks later, but did not feel able. "I get worried at my age," he says, "doing these long-haul flights. I'm 76 now, and you think, 'Am I tempting fate?' "
He looks the same as he ever did, except greyer, as if another artist had tried to paint him and mistakenly coloured his black hair white. He is slightly bent over, but the athleticism of youth has served him well in old age, and he seems strong and able.
I ask about his health, virus aside.
"I might have to have a knee replacement shortly," he says. "I've had my right knee partially replaced, and I'm having gip with my left knee, but I feel wonderful."
Sometimes it can be hard to hold Harris's attention. His eyes are everywhere, his attention always moving. He seems happiest doing at least two things at once.
"I don't want to miss this mating here," he says, suddenly, pointing to a trio of flapping ducks.
Is it a duck threesome?
"Well, there's always a third fella," says Harris, "another bloke hanging around in case the first one fails. Oh, look out! My God, you've done such a good job!"
Eh? Was it a successful mating?
"No, no," says Harris confoundingly. "He failed miserably. What a lovely smile you've got!"
Then I realise that, at least part of the time, he has been complimenting the pretty young waitress standing behind me.
"Where're you from?" he asks.
"Latvia," she replies hesitantly.
"Latvia!" exclaims Harris. "I don't know what language you speak in Latvia. Latvian?"
"Yes, Latvian," she says, "but I'm Russian. So I speak Latvian and Russian."
"I have a wonderful song in Russian," says Harris, "and it goes like this ..."