By Archie RoachNon-fiction Simon & Schuster Australia
Tell Me Why: The Story of My Life and My Music
A powerful memoir of a true Australian legend: stolen child, musical and lyrical genius, and leader.
Not many have lived as many lives as Archie Roach – stolen child, seeker, teenage alcoholic, lover, father, musical and lyrical genius, and leader – but it took him almost a lifetime to find out who he really was.
Roach was only two years old when he was forcibly removed from his family. Brought up by a series of foster parents until his early teens, his world imploded when he received a letter that spoke of a life he had no memory of.
In this intimate, moving and often shocking memoir, Archie’s story is an extraordinary odyssey through love and heartbreak, family and community, survival and renewal – and the healing power of music. Overcoming enormous odds to find his story and his people, Archie voices the joy, pain and hope he found on his path through song to become the legendary singer-songwriter and storyteller that he is today – beloved by fans worldwide.
Tell Me Why is a stunning account of resilience and the strength of spirit – and of a great love story.
Memoirs of well-known musicians often tread the same terrain, which means that a sense of discovery comes rarely. More than most, Archie Roach is familiar to us. His life and his music are almost indistinguishable. The lyrics spring from streets, landmarks and towns that we know.
Yet in reading Tell Me Why, we encounter untold depths in the man who brought the Stolen Generations into the mainstream with a single song. It is now difficult to imagine that the forcible removal of Indigenous children and its impacts were ever not widely known, but when Took the Children Away was released in 1990, the national inquiry that led to the Bringing Them Home report was still five years away.
This book could have been written primarily as personal tragedy – the pain is palpable in parts – but Roach is too good a storyteller and too clear-eyed an artist for that. His accounts of poverty, substance abuse and cultural dislocation, as well as the mental and physical fallout from these, are compelling for lack of embellishment. He embeds his story in an ongoing milieu where injustice afflicts the lives of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children: ‘How are we taken so far from the light?’
Yet there are also kindnesses woven throughout the telling, an understated refrain that suggests that survival is as much about the people around us as anything we can draw on internally. Roach’s yearnings for home shift as his sense of family shifts, all the way to the last page. The overarching, plaintive question of his life remains: ‘Why?’
Lilydale, Melbourne 1970
Sometimes you can go years without really changing as a person. Maybe you get a little rounder, a little balder, but inside you’re the same man. Same values, same hopes, pretty much the same bloke.
Sometimes, though, it can all change in a day. In the morning you have one life ahead of you and in the afternoon another.
That happened to me once, when I was a boy.
I was in Mrs Peters’s English class, one of my favourites, minding my own business, which was something I used to be very good at. Then that moment came, through the rickety old speaker in the classroom.
‘PSSSSSHT. . . Could Archibald William Roach come to the office, please? Archibald William Roach. Thank you.’
The message didn’t mean much of anything to Mrs Peters or the other children – there was no Archibald William Roach at the school – but it had me squirming around in my seat like it was a stove. Archie Cox had been my name for as long as I could remember, or so I thought.
I tried to go back to my work after the message, but couldn’t. My eyes glazed over and all I could hear was that name – Archibald William Roach. Afterwards, something deep in me started to take over.
This something had been in me pretty much as long as I could remember. It had tried to take over before, when I was alone in the bush, or when I was listening to certain sad and lovely music. It whispered in my ear, trying to tell me about another world and another life. I was usually good at ignoring those whispers, but on this day I couldn’t.
I wanted to stay in my seat and finish my day, live Archie Cox’s life.
‘I think that message is for me,’ I said, standing.
Mrs Peters was a lovely old lady. She loved my writing – espe- cially my poetry – and would encourage me to share my work in front of the class, but I would stumble through it, embarrassed. She saw something in me, though, in my love of words. She still had her Canadian accent but had been living in Australia long enough to know something wasn’t quite right.
‘You better go then,’ she said.
When I got to the office, the secretary asked if I was Archibald William Roach. I don’t know why I knew that name was mine, but by then I knew it was. I told the secretary that was me and she passed me a letter that seemed to vibrate in my hands.
Across from the counter was a wooden bench for students awaiting punishment, and there I sat, staring at the envelope. The front read:
Archibald William Roach C/O Lilydale High School 25 Melba Avenue
The boy I started the day as would have handed the letter back and explained that he’d made a mistake. He would have said this letter wasn’t for him and he would have gone back to his class, back to his schoolwork, back to his house where his guitar and supper and parents were waiting for him.
I took the letter out of the envelope and unfolded it.
Your dear old Mum passed away a week ago. Her name was Nellie Austin and she had been living in Sylvan. Your other brothers and sisters are Johnny, Alma, Lawrence, Gladys and Diana. Your dad already passed away, and his name was Archie too.
I thought it was time to get in touch with you. Love,
The world started to spin with names and faces and thoughts and songs and feelings that were brand new and also old and familiar. I saw a dormitory packed with beds and black children. I saw two girls. Big girls, bigger than me, anyway. I saw their names, Gladys and Diana. These were my sisters. It was all so suddenly vivid.
I flipped the envelope over and saw a return address:
1 Toxteth Road, Glebe, Sydney, NSW
I folded up the letter, tucked it into my school bag and dragged my feet to a classroom that was no longer mine. In Archie Cox’s favourite class, I stared past his essay and thought of my dead mother. I thought about my father, too, also dead. I thought of the brothers and sisters I knew nothing of, and about my name.
I thought about Toxteth Road, Glebe, Sydney.
‘Is everything all right, Archie?’ Mrs Peters asked quietly. It took me a little while to reply.
‘I’m not sure.’
I reckon that was the last thing Archie Cox ever said.
The Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards shortlist