MICHAEL Schack is not a man prone to regrets, but there’s nothing quite like cancer to make a person stop and take stock of their life.
In August last year, the Yarpturk musician was diagnosed with liver cancer but is on the mend after a transplant in February – he’s quick to point out he’s the second member of revered country band The Dead Livers to have undergone the procedure.
While he has played in many groups over the years, Schack has been part of The Dead Livers on and off for almost 40 years. It is the band he is most deeply connected to – it earnt him a Golden Guitar nomination, took him around Australia, and is perhaps the musical project he is most proud of.
But it is also the source of some regret. The Dead Livers is a great example of that oft-told rock ‘n’ roll story of a band that “almost made it”.
“Yes, there was a sense of regret; that we’d cheated ourselves to some degree in not realising our full potential,” Schack said recently.
“I don’t know if we were anything spectacular musically but there was just a certain mixture of things with the original songs and the presentation of them that did appeal to people and it could have gone further I think if we’d wanted to apply ourselves better.
“But we were having a good time doing what we were doing, and like everything else you take it for granted a little bit at the time. You don’t think it’s going to end. It’s only later you can reflect on what could have been.”
The Dead Livers story probably goes back to a Hamilton band called The Dogs, which was the high school outfit that saw Schack team up with future Livers singer Marty Atchison for the first time. It was 1965 and they were “just playing hits of the day - Rolling Stones, The Kinks, Beatles, that sort of stuff”, Schack said, but it started a musical connection with Atchison that has endured for 50 years.
Atchison said it was Schack’s dad Jimmy that encouraged them to pursue music after they finished high school.
“He was pretty integral,” Atchison said.
“We were 18 and out of school (and) Jimmy was getting us gigs at the Willaura Hotel and Mac’s Hotel in Glenthompson … and wool shed gigs. He’d probably drive us there and we’d have a few beers and be pissed after the third pot.
“By then we both worked in Melbourne and we’d come up to Glenthompson on the weekends to do whatever gigs were around.”
It was about 10 years after leaving high school that The Dead Livers started to take shape, Schack said.
“I had a job at Telecom (and) I met a lot of musicians at that job,” Schack said.
“It seemed to be the sort of place where people didn’t have to work too hard, where people had other interests outside of work. I worked in the office with John Berto who became the guitarist in The Dead Livers and (guitarist) Rodger Delfos who was also a member of The Dead Livers.”
The Dead Livers formed in 1978. Atchison, Schack and drummer Richard O’Keefe would prove to be the core of the band, while Berto and Delfos were among the many musicians that joined the oft-changing line-up later.
The band joined a growing country music scene in Melbourne that was new and fresh, and somewhat removed from the traditional country and western music that appealed to a typically older audience.
“We copied a couple of other bands we’d seen,” Schack said.
“One was called Saltbush, one was called Hit & Run and they were bands that played at inner suburban pubs but played (original) country music. They were reaching a new audience of younger, hipper type people I suppose, rather than traditional country fans.
“(Those two bands) were incorporating original songs with an American style rather than that Aussie bush ballad style. (It was) Australian lyrics with redneck rock style.”
The Dead Livers quickly found fans, fitting into the country scene revolving around the Polaris Inn and Stockade Hotel in Carlton, and the Station Hotel in Prahran. They made it through to the finals of radio station 3UZ's country music battle of the bands, which helped spread their name in 1978.
Among those early fans was David Dawson, a journalist from Warrnambool, who was working in Melbourne and took a shine to The Dead Livers and their original songs.
Atchison called Dawson the band’s “self-appointed publicist”, and Schack said Dawson had a big influence on the band.
“I guess it was a media manufacture to some degree,” Schack said of The Dead Liver’s growing profile.
“Journalist Dave Dawson ... chose to start writing about us as having a sort of outlaw image. We didn’t really plan to present ourselves that way but once it started happening we were generally recognised as an outlaw country band. It was something that was out in America at that time - Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson had done the Wanted! The Outlaws album in the mid-’70s, that’s where the whole subgenre came from, but there wasn’t really that many (bands) in Australia portrayed that way.
“I suppose we did have some characteristics that were outlawish in terms of country music norms, like we wouldn’t traditionally dress up in matching suits or cowboy hats, although some of us might wear (cowboy hats). We did get criticised in the battle of the bands competition for not doing that ... of being outside the ‘law’ of country music.”
Part of the outlaw label probably connected to the audience and the band’s love of a drink, he said.
“We played a thing one night for PBS FM at the Prince of Wales Hotel in St Kilda and the publican said he liked us there because we only attracted half as many people as the jazz night but they drank twice as much beer,” Schack said.
Atchison said “every night was a party” as the band started racking up residencies. Every Friday night, the band played The Espy in St Kilda. Saturday nights were at The Renown in Fitzroy. Over the next couple of years they would also score long-running residencies at the Aberdeen Hotel in North Fitzroy, the Rising Sun Hotel in Richmond, and the Sydenham Hotel in Richmond.
Between 1979 and 1984, The Dead Livers went from strength to strength. They filled rooms in Melbourne, they supported American acts Leon Russell, The Amazing Rhythm Aces and Charley Pride, and they were a hit at Tamworth, where Schack’s song Star Of The West saw them nominated in the best group category of the Country Music Awards aka the Golden Guitars.
They played to upwards of 20,000 people at country music festivals, were offered a recording contract (which the band turned down over publishing/copyright issues), performed on TV, played interstate, and released a couple of singles that scored radio airplay.
They also caused a minor scandal and won the heart of country music legend Willie Nelson.
“Dave Dawson wrote this song I’d Love To Have A Joint With Willie - a parody of Slim Dusty’s (I’d Love To Have A Beer With) Duncan, which was out at the time - then Willie Nelson was coming out to Australia,” Schack said.
"So (Dave) got us to record (it) on a little cassette EP and Peter Bain-Hogg, who is now a Rockwiz producer, sold it out of the boot of his car at the Willie Nelson concert and they played it over the PA prior to Willie Nelson’s performance.
“We got a lot of publicity. It was a song that was supposedly controversial. I think the headlines that were in The Truth were ‘Willie Drug Song Outcry’ and I think someone on 3DB got banned for playing it. Some of this was sort of manufactured. There was an element of truth in it but (it was manufactured outrage).”
According to The Truth – a paper renowned for being scandalous – Nelson had endorsed the song and played it over the PA before each of his Australasian concerts.
But in 1984, Schack took a job in Warrnambool and quit the band. Atchison had already left the previous year and the band had even broken up briefly in 1983, only to reform some months later.
“In retrospect I probably could have maintained a presence in (the band when I moved to Warrnambool),” Schack said.
“I wasn’t used to travelling down to Melbourne that far at the time but now I do it a lot so it would have been possible.”
The Dead Livers almost called it quits again, but returned with a new line-up. The momentum slowed, but eventually Atchison, Schack and O’Keefe reunited and the band settled into a more sedate routine, gigging a couple of times a year. The halcyon days were over.
In 2000, they finally recorded an album Reaching To The Western Sky to go with their previous compilation Greatest Misses.
In the meantime, Schack had made himself home in south-west Victoria.
“I was surprised to find a very vibrant music scene in Warrnambool,” he said.
“I spent about a year not doing anything much (except) a couple of fill-in things, then I was offered the opportunity to join the Emu Creek Bush Band around mid-’85. It was Australian bush music - we used to do bush dances. They were popular at the time, we’d do one a week at least somewhere.”
Over his three-plus decades in the south-west he’s been a part of bluegrass trio The Ryegrass Staggers, cover bands such as Old Spice and Louie & The Rustlers, country stalwarts Lost In Suburbia, folk-country trio Rusty Bucks, and even a short-lived cover act with his daughters Hannah and Rebecca called Behind The Mic.
While his recent battle with cancer saw him reflecting on what had come before, Schack looks forward to a continuing future in music. He’s keen to add banjo to his repertoire of instruments (which already includes, guitar, bass and dobro), he’s pursuing an interest in Irish music, and is not adverse to the idea of doing something with the stash of original songs he’s written over the years.
“I’m still experimenting with different instruments (and) I still write songs – they just never go anywhere really,” he said.
“The market for original music in Warrnambool is limited, as you would know. So it’s just something that’s become a secondary thing.
“I’m not a lead singer. I do sing a little bit but the songs (of mine) that have been recorded, Marty’s sung them – he’s a much better singer than me, but it’s always difficult persuading someone to sing a song you’ve written. It’s much easier if you’re a good singer and you can just sing it yourself which I’m not quite game to record.
“I’ve certainly thought about (my music lately and) wished I’d done this or that. I’d wish I’d stuck with my guitar lessons at school longer than I did. But I’ve been grateful for the opportunities that I had given my capabilities. I’ve had my fair share of things to be thankful for. I don’t harbour too many regrets about not doing things.
“Perhaps I wish I’d applied myself to music more in those immediate post-school years. Perhaps focused a little less on drinking and a little more on music, even when playing music. I did give up drinking in 1989. I’d had a couple of drink-driving offences. I just found I couldn’t do both - drive and drink. One had to go.”
Through it all has been his wife Helen. They married in 1982 on a Saturday in Parkville – something that forced The Dead Livers to change their “regular Saturday gig to a Friday the night before it so we could still have a gig for the week as well as the wedding”, Schack laughed.
But the other constant in his life is music – Atchison called music “the big mover” in Schack’s life.
When Schack’s not playing, the Yarpturk musician maintains a blog (swmusicarchive.blogspot.com.au) that continues his former work at South West TAFE as a compiler of the modern musical history of the south-west. He also regularly appears on Jeremy Lee’s breakfast show on ABC Radio Warrnambool, highlighting the many talented artists and great songs to have emerged from the south-west.
While he’s not one to blow his own trumpet, he would be a more than worthy subject for his own radio segment.