Alistair Hulett – friend and comrade
This tribute by Diane Fieldes to my comrade of song Alistair Hulett is re-posted from Socialist Alternative.
Alistair Hulett – comrade and friend, socialist, songwriter, activist, singer, guitarist and much more – has died. His passing at only 58 has come as a shock to the great many who valued him, his talents and the uses to which he put them. Our deepest condolences go to his loved ones.
Alistair was a revolutionary socialist, joining the International Socialist Organisation in 1991 and then becoming a founding member of Socialist Alternative in 1995. He was there, sometimes with his band Roaring Jack, at benefits and rallies for so many struggles against exploitation and oppression.
One of the first such acts of solidarity I can remember is when the militant Builders Labourers Federation were under attack by both federal and state Labor governments in the mid-1980s for not toeing the wage-restraint line. Alistair wrote “Lads of the BLF” – “down with the right and up with the left” – to take their side.
Later in the 1980s, as the Cockatoo Island Dockyard workers occupied their workplace for 14 weeks to try to stop the Hawke government selling off the site, Alistair and his songs were in the frontline of their supporters.
Alistair moved back to Glasgow in 1996. But he happened to be touring Australia during the MUA dispute in 1998. Of course he offered himself as the featured performer at one of the fundraisers that we organised to back the wharfies.
Understanding the centrality of working class struggle was not just sentimental support for the underdog with Alistair. He knew there was a class divide – and he knew which side of it he stood on. In one of his tributes to Glasgow socialist John Maclean, “Don’t sign up for war,” Alistair has the wonderful chorus:
He said, A bayonet, that’s a weapon with a working man at either end
Betray your country, serve your class
Don’t sign up for war.
The power to change the world came from the workers who produced all its wealth. In an interview for The Living Tradition magazine in 1999 he summed up his beliefs: “I see myself as a socialist in the Marxist tradition. I believe that the way forward in society is for the producers to take control of the means of production – for the working class to take political and economic power”.
On the other hand, he was merciless about those who stood on the wrong side of the class divide. In his song about the 1949 coal strike, which the Chifley government sent the troops in to break, “Chifley and his government stood on the bosses’ side”.
Alistair always lived for the moment that the working class would once again go on the offensive, for those days that shook the world – and he was scathing about the fashionable doomsayers, of both the right and the pseudo-left, who wanted to say the class struggle was a thing of the past:
It’s not post-modernist
It’s not post-structuralist
It’s not the end of history like they promised
It’s not post-feminist
It’s the new age of the fist
But things aren’t always easy. As so often, Alistair had a telling phrase that captured the mood of many, even while he himself stood against it:
Everyone I know is looking for someone to vote for
Turning away from the class war
Forgetting the world ever shook.
That ability to come up with the memorable phrase was not confined to Alistair’s explicitly political songs. Living as I do in “Suicide Town”, there’s many an early morning when I am reminded of
Down at the cab rank we all stand in line
In the alfresco casualty ward
as I see young workers trying to get home after a big night.
Whether it was the use of their land for atomic testing in “The plains of Maralinga” or the original invasion, with Aboriginal people Imprisoned on missions or hunted for game, Blood stained the soil of Australia it was invasion not “settlement”.
Nor was Alistair one to be taken in by Australian imperialism masquerading as “humanitarian intervention”. His song “Good morning Bougainville” sums up every Australian intervention in the region from PNG to East Timor and the Solomons:
Foreign aid Australian-made
Death squads trained in Duntroon dropping hand grenades…
Australian capital dressed up to kill.
And of course he ended the song ..And victory to the BRA (Bougainville Resistance Army).
It was only natural then that when Australia went to war against Iraq in 1991, Alistair was part of the anti-war campaign that sprang up. It was arguments in the campaign itself – against equating Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait with the US’s invasion of Iraq, and opposition to UN sanctions as an “alternative” to invasion when they were in fact part of the imperialist assault on Iraqis – that led Alistair to join the International Socialist Organisation.
Although his own level of activity diminished more recently, Alistair’s commitment to the political tradition he joined in 1991 never did. Amongst his last gigs in Australia last year were two marvellous fundraisers for Socialist Alternative, “Traditions of Resistance” – introducing a new generation of socialists to the back-catalogue of our movement.
At his final gig in Sydney just last December he and the band Wheelers and Dealers gave a fiery rendition of one of his two great songs about asbestosis, “Blue Murder” (the other being the now even-more-poignant “He Fades Away”). Both songs were originally written as part of a project to produce a play based on Blue Murder, a book about asbestos mining by journalist Ben Hills.
The project never reached completion due to circumstances surrounding the Free Tim Anderson campaign which Alistair was actively involved in. In 1999 Alistair explained the link: “[Tim] was accused of a particularly horrendous crime – planting explosives outside the Hilton Hotel, where a summit meeting of the Commonwealth heads of state was taking place. Two bin-men and a policeman had been killed and Tim was being framed as the culprit. He was completely innocent, as was later proved, but Ben Hills wrote an article for the Sydney Morning Herald defaming Tim, and I felt I couldn’t continue to work with Ben after that”.
It was also at that final gig that Alistair was convinced by a refugee activist in the audience to dredge up “Behind barbed wire” from his memory, given what Rudd’s now doing on Christmas Island. One of Alistair’s early songs, “The old divide and rule”, springs to mind as does Dylan’s “Only a Pawn in their Game”.
We take the blame for what your system can’t provide
Behind barbed wire
Used like a curtain to conceal the class divide
The common threat that binds the nation
And maintains the status quo
Protecting power and privilege
At the expense of those below
When we retire
Behind barbed wire
Another fence goes up around the ones outside.
Alistair’s desire to use his songs for political purposes saw one of his most recent songs, “Way Too Long in the Tower of Song” taking on Leonard Cohen for playing in Israel instead of honouring the Palestinian call to boycott the apartheid state.
But in tone and content (if not always in lyrical beauty) it’s another song from the early 1990s that seems appropriate to end with – “Kick it over”. This is the recession that we had to have/Cos this is the system we live under is basically a timeless lyric while capitalism continues.
Who but Alistair could have got an idea from Lenin, an attack on the now-forgotten John Hewson, and that rhyme between monetarists and Stalinists into a single song.
Let’s honour his memory and keep kicking.
Like a rope supports a hanged man
We support the ALP
But a vote for Labor only means I did not vote
For that rich prick
In the Ferrari
Reject the reformists
And fight the monetarists
But forget the Stalinists
It’s time to raise the fist
Kick it over.
In about two months time: Alistair’s friends, family, fellow musicians,etc are planning a big event, details of which will come through when they have had time to grieve and have the funeral.
In the meantime, Socialist Alternative is organising memorial events in Sydney and Melbourne.
Melbourne: we will pay tribute to his life and music at our launch of the new Socialist Alternative centre at Trades Hall at 7pm on Friday 5 Feb.
Sydney: We will be having a larger memorial on Sunday 14 February, 3pm – 6pm at the Gaelic Club. Tim Anderson, about whom the song “Framed” was written, will be among the people paying tribute.
For those of you who didn’t know Alistair’s musical work, check his website at http://www.alistairhulett.com/ or the clips from Youtube in Diane’s article for some great clips of Alistair and a few of his many memorable and inspiring songs, Plains of Maralinga, the Old Divide and Rule, the Internationale, Framed, Don’t sign up for war, New age of the fist, Everyone I know, He fades away.