August 16, 2003
Having multiple sclerosis has not stopped "the freaker in the speaker" wielding his influence over Melbourne's underground music scene for more than two decades, writes Chris Johnston.
There was a time, says Stephen "The Ghost" Walker, veteran 3RRR DJ, when it all came crashing down. When the music was close to fading out. Instead of sitting at the radio station's console to broadcast, he would be forced by multiple sclerosis to lie on the studio floor, stricken by pain and tremors.
Unable to sit, unable to stand, Walker could only lie prone. He'd raise himself up to play the next song, then collapse. Then he would pull himself up once again to speak. "This was when things were bad," he says.
Now his MS has, for the time being, stabilised. He's largely immobile but he can broadcast normally. He is driven to 3RRR's Fitzroy studios from his home in St Kilda and is gently helped up the station's "alpine" stairs. His legs are wasted but it's under control - as much as can be when there's no known cause and no known cure.
"My name is Walker but I am unable to," he says. "I rail against God some days. I rail against the irony of the cosmic plan."
"The Ghost" - the "freaker in the speaker" - hosts The Skull Cave on Friday evenings. In simple terms, The Skull Cave is an underground music show with a popular rock trivia quiz. The host, aged 53 with 21 years on air, is, in simple terms, an institution.
But both are much more. Walker calls himself a cult figure, which is fair enough, because he is. He hides behind his on-air persona. He has a reputation to do with his polarising personality; former staff and volunteers of 3RRR still feel aggrieved by perceived wrongdoings during his 14-year reign as program manager.
His taste in music, however, and his counter-culture sympathies, as well as his disdain for anything sullied by commercial interests, have influenced Melbourne's underground for two, perhaps three, generations. He and his broadcasts have become part of the cultural fabric.
As he gets older - older than most of his 3RRR listeners - his tastes get more far-out. He's wiser and, if this is possible, more philosophical. Nothing like a chronic neurological illness, he says, to sort out your priorities.
"It's tough but it's toughened me. I threw out a lot of baggage. It's tough. But I tend to think I'm a better person than I was."
Since being diagnosed with MS 10 years ago he has re-created himself as someone with useless legs but a vital brain. "Ian Dury said everyone has a handicap but some are more obvious than others. My handicap is very obvious but I like to think the rest of me is better than normal. I read a lot. I listen to music a lot. I think a lot. I take great joy in the fact that those faculties are OK." His mind, he says, is "crystalline".
As a teenager in 1960s Ringwood, Walker discovered radio. It transported him out of the suburbs. "Voices would appear - like Like a Rolling Stone by Bob Dylan - that made me realise there was something else, that there was this other." He religiously tuned in to the few adventurous DJs of the day. "Like Stan Rofe," he says, "or Peter Mann, who would play Tibetan chants and Sonny Terry & Brownie McGee and Big Bill Broonzy, on 3AW of all places."
Walker became an actor, then a high-school drama teacher. He moved north and worked on farms around the Murray. He made jewellery. He was involved in the early days of the Pram Factory, La Mama and Arena theatres. In the late 1970s he toured a government-funded one-man show through remote rural schools. He worked with unemployed kids doing street theatre. Then he set up and ran a crisis counselling centre. Which is when he heard about 3RRR, or 3RMIT as it was then known. At the time Walker was living a semi-rural hippy lifestyle with a young family at Menzies Creek in the Dandenongs.
He trained at the station, did graveyard and fill-in shifts and then got his own show - From the Bunker - in 1984. "My music taste at the time was psychedelic, experimental industrial noise kinda stuff. The first track I played was The Voice of America by Cabaret Voltaire, which had this spoken-word bit of a southern cop saying 'there will be no dancing'. I thought that was kinda fun."
He became program manager soon afterwards. He still lived far from 3RRR's inner-city demographic. "I am sure there were people who saw me as a Genghis Khan, this pagan primitive from the hills in the outer suburbs, but it gave me perspective in terms of decision-making for the station. It was like a decompression."
Walker's marathon stint at the helm of Triple R was controversial, to say the least. It culminated in a grim period in which several long-term announcers and staff rebelled against his management style and quit.
There were even angry on-air recriminations. "The station had to change to survive," he says, "and people react in various ways to change. We needed more people that saw themselves as part of the station, not outlaws who breezed in for an hour a week. They are valuable but the idea was to balance it."
Now, however, Stephen Walker has no responsibilities at 3RRR save for three hours a week on air doing the perennially popular Skull Cave. His days of management and administration are over; it's all about the music again. And this is a man for whom music has deep meaning.
"I have a thirsty ear that is never quite quenched. There's a lot of old music that I missed first time round that I'm tracking back into now. Then there's the exciting new music. Rhythm music. The drum. The bass. There's no traditional structure to songs now, which is so exciting.
"Some records," he says, "I have to work on. I make it a project. I can't crack the code but I know I have to integrate it into my reality. I still get a thrill from hearing people who, regardless of the marketplace, sound like they want to sound. They just . . . are.
"The most records I've got by anyone is John Coltrane, followed by Hendrix and Bob Marley and Captain Beefheart. There's something triumphal about those people." The Ghost snaps his fingers next to his thirsty ear. "Good music like this just stretches my head."
3RRR's radiothon runs until August 24. Phone 9419 2066.
Copyright © 2003, The Age Company Ltd