Mental in a good way

Andrew West meets the artist and rock legend formally known as Chris O'Doherty.

Chris O'Doherty was 12 years old, living on the rough side of Auckland, when his mother assured him it was OK for him to become an artist. "Just have something to fall back on," she counselled, probably picturing a back-up career for her son as a teacher or a carpenter.

Instead the young O'Doherty decided that, if art didn't work out, he would turn to that most stable of occupations - rock music.

But art did work out. And so did music. O'Doherty ended up as Reg Mombassa, lead guitarist in the iconic rock band Mental as Anything, designer for the fashion label Mambo and unique interpreter of the Australian landscape.

Mombassa - the name by which he is recognised by fans - is the subject of a recently released biography by journalist Murray Waldren.

He agreed to the project reluctantly, scared of the publicity a book such as this would demand. "To some extent, I am hiding from people," Mombassa says. "I'm afraid of people. I always have been. I'm not really a people person. I'm happy to be in a room by myself with a pencil drawing."

Art, and the lifestyle that comes with it, was always Mombassa's first and overriding passion.

His childhood in Papakura, in the southern suburbs of Auckland, was sedate, enlivened by the presence of British, Dutch, German and Yugoslav immigrants and the nearby forest, where he and the neighbourhood kids played. He later recreated the suburban idyll in his 1974 painting House at Beach Road with Kirk's Bush.

When he was 11, the O'Doherty family moved to the north side of the city. "I didn't want to go to high school there because I knew it would really be rough and I was frightened of that sort of stuff," he confides. "I was a bit of a sissy."

But during his teenage years he found refuge and inspiration in his school art classes. His art teacher affected a Bohemian look - corduroy trousers, turtleneck sweater and a jaunty beret - and conjured up an image of the European art world that entranced Mombassa. "He was as you would imagine an artist to be," he says. "He had big beard and he protected the art room boys, especially when we were starting to grow our hair long, which people disapproved of in New Zealand in the '60s."

Indeed, Mombassa recalls being beaten up a couple of times in the streets of Auckland, partly because of his longish hair. "You were called a poofter or a girl. People would pick fights with you because it was a rough teenage culture."

Years later, when his music with the Mentals would seemingly celebrate suburban life, there was always a shadowy undertone.

Mombassa also admired, and longed to share, the rebelliousness of the art and music worlds. His parents were authentically working class - both his father Jim and mother Gertrude were nurses - and a little socially conservative but he recalls their frustrated artistic ambitions.

Jim had won a scholarship to art school in his native Ireland but had to go to work when his own father, an alcoholic, died at 44, while Gertrude became a stalwart of the amateur musical societies.

Mombassa found himself drawn to impressionist and dada schools of art, largely because of their anti-establishment ethos. "I read about the impressionists and I liked the idea that they were radicals, doing something quite different at the time, going against the conservative mores of the time because painting in the 1860s was neo-classical, boring, dark brown, people being naked," he says.

The dada-ists, based in Zurich in Switzerland during World War I, also appealed because their art, design and theatre, as well as being anti-war, had an absurd quality, which Mombassa would reflect in some of his own work. (Many years later, in the 1980s, he would portray an "Australian Jesus", with a third eye in the middle of his forehead.)

It took a decision by the O'Doherty family to move to Mona Vale, on the northern beaches of Sydney, in 1969, for him to be able to begin to indulge in art as a career - albeit a poverty-stricken one - in earnest.

Mombassa was 18 when he arrived and wanted to enrol in a five-year course at the renowned National Art School in the Sydney suburb of Paddington. For the first two years, he had to attend classes at Seaforth then Randwick TAFE colleges and he also knocked around building sites doing labouring work.

With the election of the Whitlam government came a scholarship and, with it, the chance to live the inner-city bohemian lifestyle. He moved into share houses in Darlinghurst and Surry Hills, began painting, partying and, ultimately, meeting Martin Murphy (later Martin Plaza). Along with his brother Peter O'Doherty, Steve Coburn, David Twohill (Wayne Delisle) and Andrew "Greedy" Smith, they would form the Mentals.

For many late baby boomers and early generation X-ers, especially those at university, the combination of Mombassa's art and the Mentals music became a way of laughing at, and off, their own slightly daggy childhoods.

The Monash University cultural theorist Tony Moore, a friend of Mombassa's, even suggests - only half jokingly - that there was an element of therapy in the Mentals' music. It helped suburban kids who had transplanted themselves to the inner city to "deal with the kitsch of our childhoods".

While Barry Humphries created the patronising Dame Edna Everage, encouraging the audience to snigger at the three plaster ducks on the wall and gladioli in the garden, Mombassa was a lot gentler. "I put Reg up there in the pantheon of great Australian satirists with Barry Humphries," Moore says. "But Barry took a rather elitist view whereas Reg wanted to celebrate, in a cheeky and knowing way, that part of Australia.

"The Mentals' hits, sung as they were, often word for word by the audience in pubs, really became part of the great Australian songbook."

By the mid-'80s, the Mentals' hits were legend: Live it Up, Too Many Times, Romeo and Juliet and The Nips Are Getting Bigger. The video clip for one of their most loved songs, He's Just No Good for You, was filmed as the band danced and played down a street in Sydney's beach side suburb of San Souci, ending up outside a classic suburban corner store.

"The Mentals celebrated that culture even though it can be banal and, at times, quite violent and a mystery," says Mombassa. "But it can also be quite beautiful, driving through the suburbs at night, which you did being in a band, driving home from gigs."

The film clip hit a chord precisely because it evoked so many Australian childhoods. Most reviewers, including the nice ones, portrayed the Mentals as a lightweight party band, throwing around the terms "wacky" and "zany" with wholly original abandon.

"There was more to [us] than that," argues Mombassa. "Rock journalists and critics weren't doing it in an insulting way because, in a sense, we probably were and we did clown around and there was an element of buffoonery, but everyone wants to be taken slightly seriously - but we never were."

For Mombassa, part of the buffoonery was self-protection; the performer hamming it up to cover up his insecurity and lack of confidence. "I'm not a natural entertainer," he concedes. "I am quite quiet and withdrawn. I still find performing quite difficult. I love playing live but it is very stressful, so having a stage act and developing certain movements covers up any embarrassment you have."

But Moore, who has been working on a musical based on the Mentals, sees their work as a modern expression of the "carnivalesque", an art form that began in the middle ages used loutish humour to undermine the power of the church and ruling class. It was a trait shared with the British band Madness.

Moore, surprisingly, also puts the Mentals into the punk genre but with a twist. Where English punk was the music of black leather jackets, mohawk haircuts and "dole queue aggression" from alienated youths in Thatcher's Britain, the Mentals also resigned themselves to the sadness of life, in songs such as If You Leave Me Can I Come Too but then shrugged it off. "They decided to wear Hawaiian shirts and dress a bit like the old Australian bodgies," he says.

As the Mentals kept playing, Mombassa kept painting. In 1976, the author Patrick White had bought one of Mombassa's early paintings and Mombassa was now designing most of the Mentals' album covers.

They brought him to the attention of Dare Jennings, founder of the Mambo fashion label. Mambo's aim was to produce clothing - at a premium price - that helped Australians to laugh at themselves, typified by Mombassa's "Australian Jesus at the Football", in which the local Messiah produced the "miracle of the pies and beer" distributed to 40,000 hungry hordes at the Sydney Cricket Ground.

In "Advance Mambo", Mombassa took the mickey out of the Australian coat of arms by having a kangaroo and an emu sup from a can of "Mambo bitter". Across Australia, young professionals started wearing shorts and T-shirts bearing Mombassa's images of farting dogs, Iced Vo-Vos and Tim Tams and suburban streets lined with telegraph poles, winking to each other with in-the-know grins.

In 1996, even Paul Keating, whom Mombassa had interviewed a year earlier for Rolling Stone magazine, wanted in on the act and visited the Mambo studio to show that, under his government, Australia had become a confident enough country to satirise itself.

The appeal, and reach, of Mombassa's art reached it apex during the closing ceremony of the Sydney 2000 Olympics, when 10 inflatable versions of his characters - including Australian Jesus, Beer Monster, Amp Head and Violent Hen - floated through the stadium.

But some, including Mombassa, wondered whether the art had become too commercial. "I think some of the people who appreciate its left-of-centre aspects were annoyed that we did the Olympics and that might have had a negative effect," he says.

"Young people started to feel annoyed that all our overweight fathers and uncles are wearing Mambo shirts to the barbecue and it was less appealing to them."

Now 58, Mombassa can reflect on a 30-year career - he has survived without having anything to "fall back on" - that has reflected the tastes, humour and mild embarrassment of Australians. Thousands have bought his paintings, tens of thousands have worn his designs, millions have sung along to his music. Yet it is the simple interpretation of the Australian streetscape - his House at Beach Road with Kirk's Bush, a version of which hangs on his kitchen wall - that keeps him grounded.

"I never think much in terms of the big picture," he insists.

"I just keep churning the work out musically and artistically and I will go on doing that as long as I can. I have no global ambitions. Lately, at 58,

I have started to think I am not just a young ratbag any more."

Dinah Lee

The original version of this article contained a reference to the recording artist and singer, Dinah Lee. 

The article contained an allegation about her which was incorrect.  That allegation is withdrawn.  The Sun Herald apologises to Dinah Lee for the hurt and embarrassment that was caused to her by reason of the publication of the false allegation.