When I heard Anita Lane had died aged 61 in April 2021, a memory flashed up: I’m sitting beside her at the foot of a bed in the mid-1980s, and she turns to me to say how much my hair has grown.
I don’t recall why we were sitting on that bed in a darkened bedroom of the unpretentious Paddington flat in Sydney she shared with her boyfriend, Andrew. I don’t know why I remember this moment, out of so many insignificant moments evaporated by time and lost in the wash of youthful substance use. But it vibrates with aching, incomprehensible poignancy. Perhaps, I sense a glimmer of the fleeting subconsciousness connecting us in our vulnerability.
We were young women then, in our 20s (Anita some years my senior), trying to free ourselves from the hold of charismatic exes, who both happened to be living legend “punk” musicians. She and Nick Cave had called it quits several years earlier (they would soon reunite), and I was raw and messy after a parting of ways with Rob Younger, singer of the influential band Radio Birdman and singer-songwriter in The New Christs.
We weren’t friends, as such; we just had encounters around the traps over a period of many months – though she was an indie “it girl”, so I’d heard of her well before we met, and we had mutual friends over the years.
I remembered, too, that Anita once saved my life in that flat – but that story would only distract us.
More than a muse
Anita Lane was a singer, songwriter and recording artist, who released a solo EP and two albums between the late 1980s and early 2000s. A central player in the 1970s Melbourne art scene – peopled by the likes of Nick Cave, Rowland S. Howard, comedian Gina Riley and filmmaker Richard Lowenstein – she contributed lyrics to some of Cave’s most famous early songs.
Their first co-written recording, A Dead Song, from The Birthday Party’s Prayers on Fire, caught John Peel’s attention for high rotation. She co-penned From Her to Eternity, the classic song on the Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ first studio album of the same name. She is often cited in the music press as a founding or brief member of The Bad Seeds.
She worked closely with Mick Harvey, who produced or co-produced all her major recordings, and she was also an impressive visual artist.
After the announcement of Anita’s death, obituaries popped up in online music magazines celebrating her as Cave’s muse. It is understandable journalists and biographers underscored crucial Cave/Lane collaborations – she directly aided his ascent – but these nods provoked indignant criticism among fans and friends.
A New York Times article was a prime example of how the media outs itself as sexist. The headline, tagging Anita simplistically as a “rocker”, was followed by an intro that read,
Ms. Lane was Nick Cave’s collaborator and girlfriend during his formative period and helped define his sound. She also made records of her own.
It could have been ironic comedy gold in other hands, but instead stands as an illustration of how women’s creative accomplishments are devalued.
Anita seems to have been sprinkled with an extra dash of je ne sais quoi fairy dust. So, she was idealised and rhapsodised over as a “muse” – a tag that followed her into the mediatised afterlife.
As Cave wrote on his blog, The Red Hand Files, Anita “despised the concept of the muse but was everybody’s”. She profoundly affected people and their art-making, and the media can’t be expected to disregard that. But the coverage throughout her career failed to convey that, as Cave candidly proclaimed, Anita was “the smartest and most talented of all of us, by far”.
Conversing with the divine – why we still need our muses
‘A living artwork’
Melbourne-raised, Brooklyn-based composer, producer and performer J.G. Thirlwell (known as Foetus, Manorexia etc., and for his work on Archer) knew Anita from around Melbourne. They became firm friends after she moved to London to be with Nick and Co. “She resonated wherever she went because she had an incredible magnetic presence which was very alluring […] this incandescent presence,” says Thirlwell.
He is not alone in describing Anita as “a living artwork”. It wasn’t just a matter of putting out a few records, and she didn’t inspire people just by being captivating. She had a huge impact, Thirlwell says, because she was a great artist, but
not the sort of person whose art you could catalogue and quantify; her art was the way she thought and moved through life. Everything was artful about her.
In The Andy Warhol Diaries, Warhol says he coined the term “superstar” for people who are very talented, but whose talent can’t be sold. Anita was a superstar, and that’s why the reductive coverage galled many. They had it the wrong way around, casting her a muse-artist – when her innate creativity meant she was always an artist first: an artist-muse.
Commenting on a public Facebook thread, after her death Mick Harvey took the press to task for straining to make tasteless and banal connections between Lane and Cave. He conceded that Anita’s mystery and her rebuff of showbiz glitz disadvantaged her. He added that he took solace, by contrast, from the outpouring and accolades from fans and acquaintances, which, he felt, got closer to the truth.
Anita was a contradiction. She had friends scattered far and wide, but was guarded and notoriously isolated, especially in her maturing years. She was a conspicuously absent interviewee in the 2011 documentary Autoluminescent: Rowland S. Howard. She did not cooperate with Mark Mordue’s recent Cave biography, Boy on Fire: The Young Nick Cave. And she would almost certainly have declined an interview request from me. (As did Harvey and Cave.)
If you search the internet, you’ll find many images and references to her, a Wikipedia page, and album reviews. You’ll find a few thoughtful homages, such as Eleanor Philpot’s Unearthing A Pearl: Praising the Sexual Mysticism of Anita Lane in The Quietus, which argues that her musical body of work was a pioneering study of “female sexuality”. And you might come across the Anita Lane Facebook page, run by a French fan.
The only remnant of interview footage I unearthed was a degraded and grainy 21-second clip from the 1992 Dutch documentary Stranger in a Strange Land, where Anita, otherworldly, responds to an unheard question, presumably posed by filmmaker Bram Van Splunteren. “Well, he really does have a muse,” she says of Cave, in her distinctive doll voice, “and it’s not me. It’s a real one.”
Anita was precocious from an early age, with an organically Fluxus experimental bent, and she was known for being a fount of inventive ideas that mostly vaporised once aired. As a visual artist, she had an assured hand that could magic an image in a streak of fast lines. Her eagle eye for weakness informed her merciless caricatures, and she often turned that laser vision against herself.
Bronwyn Adams/Bonney, a violinist with Crime & the City Solution, says Anita was always busy “doing little drawings and making artworks” in a homely, creative practice mode. Cave confirms this, declaring that she would sit at his kitchen table sketching with a “clear, light line full of humour, throwing each drawing away and starting another”.
Anita was a disarmingly singular person. Yet, she is also the epitome of a certain kind of restless, unorthodox, creative young woman who came of age in the vapour trail of postwar nuclear-family modernism, transmuted by the 1960s and 70s counterculture.
Unconventional women coming up in the 70s and 80s were influenced by various art and fashion movements of the 20th century and second-wave feminism, but mainstream culture was still trapped in a patriarchal time warp. Anita grew up in the crosshairs of that cultural tension, oblivious to the looming, corporatised arts sector of the future. During that period, artistically inclined young people concentrated in inner cities, mostly surviving on the dole, dressing in op-shop fare, and often self-medicating on the regular.
In Sydney and Melbourne, hard drugs were everywhere, and were relatively plentiful and cheap. Some say heroin flowed so freely due to America turning a blind eye to poppy production and distribution during the dubious alliance between the US and the Taliban. Heroin was funnelled through Southeast Asia and ferried into Australia on private boats.
In the indie music milieu, we ran in packs, taking hours getting ready to records played loud, heading out to navigate dark clubs and suburban pubs when most were settling down to sleep. There were state-based rivalries, die-hard cliques, and miscellaneous sub-genres – sometimes allied, sometimes warring – and allegiances were forged and broken with the furore of ancient battlefields. Computers were in the realm of 2001: A Space Odyssey science-fiction; some of us didn’t even have a landline. People visited each other, dropping in with new vinyl or some stash.
Five reasons Andy Warhol is so popular right now
The art school scene
According to Bronwyn, a “near-mystical synchronicity” led to the core posse of the Melbourne art-music underworld finding each other in the pre-Ballroom St Kilda days circa 1978.
Bronwyn attended alternative Swinburne Community School, which brought her into contact with Peter Milne, soon-to-be scene photographer and visual artist, and others who would become key players. For reasons that aren’t entirely clear, Anita had moved to Era, a “progressive” co-ed secondary school.
From there, she enrolled to study at Prahran art school (later amalgamated with the Victorian College of the Arts) where she befriended fellow student Rowland S. Howard. Rowland had declared himself the future of rock and roll aged 15; he went on to become a guitarist in The Boys Next Door and The Birthday Party – and later, a solo artist.
By all accounts, though Anita was outstanding as a visual artist, she lacked ambition and focus. As Cave detailed on his blog, perhaps stretching the point, having secured a place at the “most prestigious art college in Australia”, Anita purchased an easel and some materials and “never went back in”. As Bronwyn says, “Her art was like drawing a perfect circle in the sand, and then the sea coming in and washing it away, and that was what she liked.”
Bronwyn recalls visiting Peter’s house, where Rowland was working on a logo for a xeroxed fanzine, Pulp, with his art-school friend in tow. “I’d heard about Anita and her best friend, Lisa Creswell, and how great they were,” says Bronwyn. “She hadn’t dyed her hair red yet. I think it was dark blonde. She had big eyes. A perfect, small nose and very full lips. She had these slender, Florentine hands. She had pale skin, very light, but with a gold tinge. Long legs, coltish.”
Anita wasn’t driven by trends, but she had a look: miniskirts, boots, and baby doll dresses. “She’d wear hot pants with a bib and sew a big heart on the front. She had her own aesthetic and philosophy,” but at a certain point, “she lost interest in being a clothes horse.”
Anita’s avant-garde edge and flair for creative expressions were evident. “She was an amazing fashion designer, but she didn’t do anything with it; she just did drawings of dresses. She wrote poetry, but she was more focused on visual art. She could have sculpted. She could have done anything.”
Anita was the kind of person who obsessed people. Many, including an adolescent and delicate Rowland S. Howard, were unrequitedly in love with her before Nick Cave entranced her into her first serious (albeit rocky and fitful) relationship and a lasting artistic camaraderie. They reportedly got together at a party in 1977, a few months after that nucleus formed. Cave took her to the Hilton for breakfast the following day, which was about as posh and passionate as a suburban boy could get.
Anita was 17, Nick was 19, and overnight, despite their youth, they became a power couple, emitting an instantly unified force-field of cool – though Anita was never self-consciously cool, as so many underground luminaries were. The Boys Next Door gigged around Melbourne furiously, and by 1979 the original cluster of 25 or so had boomed exponentially and congregated at the Crystal Ballroom.
From there, Nick and Anita were launched onto their shared (if disparate) paths of prominence. He courted and fashioned global reputation with a product-centric, indefatigable work ethic. She made her mark with collaborative and sporadic solo musical offerings.
Bronwyn states that “she was more advanced than him, in terms of her personal vision”. Though encouragement flowed mutually, Anita influenced Nick critically from the start, sometimes styling him and making his clothes. Bronwyn gestures toward the piano key shirt featured in early promo shots of The Boys Next Door, which Cave sports with spiky hair and black eyeliner.
Anita was also an unacknowledged giver to Cave’s taker; he’s implied as much on the public record, bringing to mind John Lennon’s admirable admission that ego prevented him from attributing Yoko Ono’s influence on Imagine when it was released.
Couplings of creatives are often confounded by complications: creative conflicts, competitiveness, jostling for attention, pique at slights, failed reassurances. Not to mention tempestuous weather patterns involving feelings and sex. Loving a fêted frontman can lead to lashings of pain. While the menfolk of Indietown were generally more restrained than your Led Zeppelins or Mötley Crües, the titillation, temptations and touring inflamed wounds.
Biographical accounts of Cave’s early career during the years they were an intermittent couple make clear that he had affairs. While that worked both ways – and Anita was reportedly friendly towards his other women – there were signs she suffered more than she might have let on.
Other interpersonal intricacies could also play havoc. For instance, a man might find himself dealing (or rather not dealing) with a mentally ill girlfriend. Anita spoke about the depression that dogged her during an interview for Bad Seed: The Biography of Nick Cave in the 1990s. She seemed more outward-looking and available at that time – a period that correlates with the “recovery” revolution in the alternative music community. (Thirlwell asserts Anita led the “clean and sober” charge of the Melbourne crew.)
She told Ian Johnston she was “grieving all the time and pining for something” and carried a burden of sadness “like it was raining in my chest”. But that insight came later, after Cave had achieved fame beyond Australia.
‘A singular vision’: new film tells the touching story of musician and Triffids founder David McComb
Rising stars and ‘epic psychodrama’
During the 70s, first-generation Australian TV kids found a welcome window to the alluring lives of expats who managed to escape the shores of the sleepy Antipodes. There were two standard routes out: Australia to India, for those of a hippyish persuasion, and Australia to London, the heart of the colonial motherland – the major artery for those with more worldly ambitions.
In 1980, having achieved eminence in Australia, The Boys Next Door undertook the Australian bands’ rite of passage. They had renamed the band The Birthday Party by the time the plane touched down at Heathrow, and Anita traded her comfortable family home for dingy squat living in Thatcher’s blighted Britain.
As Cave’s star rose, Anita’s status as a muse snowballed. Though she was creatively active musically, working closely with Cave et al, Anita was, at that point, still viewed by music fans more as the Queen of King Nick’s burgeoning fringe court than an artist in her own name. While he had the confidence of a hundred suns and grew infamously intolerant of the media from a position of cocky resistance, Anita vacillated between being pleased with the jewels in her crown (she once told a friend she considered herself one of the most natural singers she’d ever heard) and nervy uncertainty.
That instability fed a distrust of the gaze of others that saw her recoil from the attention she so effortlessly attracted. “She was leery of putting herself out there because she’d get performance anxiety,” Bronwyn explains. And she had cause to be concerned. “Because people loved her, there was a lot of bitchy gossip. Jealousy. Worship. A poison and treacle mixture.”
Trying to keep up with Anita and the on-again, off-again nature of her relationship with Cave is a dizzying exercise; Anita was transnational, traversing borders and men as fluidly as art forms.
By all accounts, Anita and Nick also had trouble keeping track of each other. “Nick would disappear, and then Nick wouldn’t know where Anita was for days on end,” says Thirlwell of the mad London days. At some point, she left Cave for a turbulent stretch in New York with Australian journalist Nicolas Rothwell, who Bronwyn describes as “Oxbridgey”.
It gets harder to follow her movements after that. But though there were comings and goings across continents, and she and Nick had other lovers of varying significance, their standing in each other’s lives seems to have been unshakeable.
During one of their extended breaks in the mid-80s, Anita moved to Sydney and the Paddington flat, where I met her. After I went to rehab I never saw Anita again. At some point during the mayhem of my “early recovery”, I heard she’d gone to Berlin, where Cave was based. He was struggling to hold it together, and Anita was summoned attend to him. But when she arrived, they spun into a complicated spiral of reciprocal turmoil.
Bronwyn was brought in as an editor on Cave’s novel And the Ass Saw the Angel, which he was then working on. She tells of their decamping to Hamburg to escape the sycophants that bothered him like flies on a hot day. The three took up residence near the river in a “spooky, warehouse apartment full of dying tropical fish”; the mood was one of “epic psychodrama”. It wasn’t long before they separated again, but Anita stayed on in the northern hemisphere.
Nick moved on to São Paulo and Viviane Carneiro. Anita married German Johannes Beck and her first child, Rafael (known as Raffie) was born. When she left Beck, she moved to Morocco, where she met Andrea Libonati, a Sicilian man who fathered her younger sons, Luciano and Carlito. She purchased an old frescoed apartment in Palermo, where the family lived.
Anita fell back into addiction and after seven years, she and Libonati migrated to Australia, settling in beachy Byron Bay in Northern New South Wales. It’s hard to think of a less likely place for the nocturnal Anita Lane I recall, but those who knew her better than I did say she loved the wilds. In her later years, she took trips to Harvey Bay in Queensland where her parents owned a holiday house.
While it’s tempting to assume Byron promised a child-friendly location, with weather more suited to a Mediterranean partner than Melbourne, someone close to Anita suggests it was a “geographical” – a term for re-locations staged in an attempt to escape addiction.
Friday essay: punk’s legacy, 40 years on
Dirty Sings and swan songs
Like many outside the inner sanctum, I had no idea how gifted Anita was in her own right until her 1988 solo debut, Dirty Sings, announced her.
The Anita of that period is captured in my favourite photo of her, taken by Peter Milne and featured in his Juvenilia project, an archival retrospective of his work as a young photographer, when he snapped friends who went on to become cultural heavyweights.
It is an image that speaks volumes. Translucent skin. Flaming red hair echoing a velvet orange chair. The trademark Melbourne red lip. The deep periwinkle blue of the dress and the white Peter Pan collar. The rose gold hue of the anonymous space and the superimposed shadow in the form of a disjointed cross, hands resting in her lap and at her throat as if in supplication. And above all, the eyes like the two sides of a quarter moon: one gleaming in a shaft of light, the other waning into darkness like a perfect visual metaphor.
Anita told Johnson the Dirty Sings EP was a suicide note and an assertion of the validity of the disparaged and feminised experiences of self-doubt and vulnerability. But it was her 1993 album, Dirty Pearl, that resounded in the ears of reviewers. These were productive years – or rather, they were the years when her creativity was most captured and manufactured as product.
Boy Next Door/Bad Seed Mick Harvey, acclaimed for keeping Cave’s bands on the road during their most unmanageable stints, was Anita’s most continuous musical partner. She made guest appearances on Harvey’s albums of Serge Gainsbourg covers released in the mid-90s, singing the parts originally performed by the women hailed as Gainsbourg’s muses: Jane Birkin, Brigitte Bardot and Charlotte Gainsbourg (daughter of Serge and Jane). Anita even played some live shows with Harvey, promoting the albums.
Anita also branched out from her longstanding co-writing and guest vocal performances with Cave, Harvey and Co., to work with Barry Adamson (ex-Magazine and Bad Seeds), Blixa Bargeld, a founding Bad Seed and lead singer of Einstürzende Neubauten, Die Haut and musician and DJ Gudrun Gut, churning out a wealth of original songs and covers.
Cave has nominated “Stranger Than Kindness” released on the 1986 Bad Seeds album Your Funeral … My Trial (Cave later co-opted the song title for his 2020 book) as his favourite among the songs he’s performed. He notes Anita’s lyrics as a deciding factor, and he’s right to honour her striking poetics.
Cave might view “Stranger Than Kindness” as her signature song, but Anita had another in mind: “The Petrol Wife”, the penultimate song on her last album, Sex O’Clock (released in 2001). Anita had every reason to be proud. Of all her songs, “The Petrol Wife” seems the one she most shaped.
It stands out on an album that is more smooth dance-electro than balladeer. A few bars into tender acoustic strumming, her voice kicks in, double-tracked in out-of-time harmonies conveying the subjective fracturing at the heart of a damaging sexual relationship. The lyrics in the fervid verses and chorus hint at danger – and, alludes a close friend, intimate partner violence. It was, in effect, along with the final track “Bella Ciao”, a cover of an Italian folk-protest anthem, her swan song.
Anita left behind a stellar recording oeuvre. Though her reluctance to publicise narrowed its reach, the music press did her no favours in perpetuating the “muse” label after she surfaced as a solo artist. Even if, as Thirlwell states, “she would cringe at the thought of ‘career’”, she was serious about her art. “Anita never wanted to be a public figure, and at the same time, she’d be upset that her stuff didn’t get recognition,” says Bronwyn, noting her internal conflict.
The muse – maligned and revered
There have always been artist-muses. But before the modern technologies that enabled the twinned rise of youth and popular culture in the 1950s, they either dwelled in total obscurity or were actively maligned by society at large (even if they later came to be revered).
Women like Marianne Faithful and Joni Mitchell were also renowned muses. Faithfull’s prodigious output, staying power, and willingness to play live eventually pushed her to the fore of public consciousness as a singer-songwriter and outstripped her association with Mick Jagger and The Rolling Stones.
Mitchell was famously partnered with Graham Nash, Leonard Cohen, James Taylor, Jackson Browne, Sam Shepard and others during the 60s and 70s – but her genius as a songwriter and singer and crossover from folkie to the big time soon overwhelmed her muse status.
Anita was, like them, slim, fair, finely featured, with a Monroesque appeal that combined innocence with sexiness. Beauty, it seems, is in the “muse” job description.
The gendered slant hails from ancient Greek mythology: the daughters of Mnemosyne, the goddess of memory, and Zeus, the king of the gods, served as guides for art or science. Chaucer popularised the term in the late 1300s, and the “muse” was linked to lyrical poetry in Europe.
The timing was no accident. It followed the advent of chivalry and romantic and courtly love during the Middle Ages, when knights took platonic succour from married noblewomen in return for undying loyalty. The “muse” as a noun grew more democratised over time (if still somewhat class-based), coming to signify the capacity of a human goddess to move a man to make art.
Critiquing the idea of the muse doesn’t mean rejecting the potential for creative inspiration across genders. It merely interrogates the notion of the fetishised flesh-and-blood muse who treads a one-way, gender-binaried, heteronormative street in the service of men.
There were outlier queer women artists who were considered galvanising for well-known men, such as Wendy and Lisa of Prince and the Revolution (who maintained a long-term lesbian relationship). But they weren’t fussed over as muses, the way straight women have been.
The dynamics in the indie music environment both mirrored and defied established gender politics. The guys, generally benign and progressive compared to most men of the day, were nevertheless heavily conditioned by the patriarchy that came before them. And, of course, some were more enlightened than others.
The men Anita worked with understood she was their equal and more. Anita was less accessible and public-facing than those men – and the women who made the top-40 charts. But the bottom line is: men can fly under the radar and be seen to matter to the ordinary eye, and women who break through to the mainstream gain visibility. But women like Anita, steadfastly subcultural artist-muses in the shadow of men who pull focus, slip down the cracks.
Anita garnered a devoted cult following and is not to be pitied. But injustice is done to women hampered by “muse” shackles when their under-appreciated creative pulses pump so ardently. In short, her associations and collaborations with more famous men robbed her of due recognition for being inspired as well as inspiring.
Masculinity remains the naturalised centre of talent and success in the industry, which labours the gender of women musicians. Donita Sparks, guitarist and vocalist of American grunge-metal band L7, disclosed the tiresome burden of being a “girl band” in a recent documentary. L7, mates of Cave’s from the 1994 Lollapalooza tour, have also been outspoken about the disproportional levels of abuse women experience.
A music industry review into “sexual harm, sexual harassment and systemic discrimination in the contemporary Australian music industry and recommendations for reform” was recently published. Most women I know in the industry could readily contribute. Sexual violence was then, as it is now, a perpetual threat.
As Bronwyn confirms, “We were focused on not getting raped and dealing with constantly being catcalled and followed and groped.” We were also, the odd exception aside, inflicted with learned self-loathing and irking insecurities. “We suffered from Girlitis,” says Bronwyn. “You catch it from society.”
That structural setup alone can cause psychic schisms that undermine women artists. And most families are a theatre of harm by degrees. No rattling skeletons jump out when digging into Anita’s history – but there are intimations of discord in the suburban pastoral family portrait.
With the strokes of a guitar solo, Joni Mitchell showed us how our female music elders are super punks
Anita was raised by middle-aged parents in Glen Iris, in southeast Melbourne. Divided by Gardiners Creek, it was quiet and hilly with a distant view of the Dandenong mountains – a dull place for a girl child of the 1960s and 70s. Anita reminisced affectionately about the leafy concrete streets populated with freestanding art-deco houses and red-brick postwar homes. Her own house was, says Bronwyn, “ramshackle”. Glen Iris had no pub and only the questionably named brutalist Harold Holt Memorial Swimming Centre on High Street for a landmark. Like many Australian burbs at that time, it had a Chinese restaurant for a spot of cuisine diversity.
Anita’s family weren’t bohemian or oddball, and there doesn’t seem to be obvious context for Anita’s eccentricity. She adored her father, who had been in the air force and had likely seen war (a touching image can be found on the internet of a young Anita with her aged dad). She had a fraught relationship with her mother, whom she thought a conformist and experienced as intrusive. And she had a considerably older brother.
Anita grew up a girly girl, loving pretty things: Bambi, swans, and other stereotypical embodiments of purity and goodness. This appreciation for cuteness stayed with her throughout her adulthood. By the time the Ballroom scene had sprung to life, and Anita was an arty teen writing poems and sketching, her folks were senior citizens.
After her relationship with Libonati ended, Anita returned with her growing boys to the Glen Iris family home to care for her mother, who had developed Alzheimer’s – having outlived her husband. Juggling rowdy youngsters and an aged parent with a progressive neurological disorder must have been a tough, tiring stint.
“Anita was running on lots of different platforms,” explains Emily Humphries, a fellow visual artist and Anita’s most stalwart, hands-on friend and staunchest art champion during the last ten years of her life. “Her door was open, and her house was filled with teenagers to 20-somethings she was taking care of. That was a big thing for her, the housing of humanity.”
Following the 2001 release of Sex O’Clock (re-released in 2021 on its 20th anniversary), Anita drifted away from songwriting. She made no statement about renouncing solo recording. Most likely, it wasn’t even a conscious decision. She refocused, like Joni Mitchell, on visual art.
The “Mary Rug”, which showed in a 2017 exhibition in St Kilda curated by Humphries, was the last major artwork Anita produced and made public. She painted her “infinite prayer”, as Emily calls it, on a massive cut of carpet in her garden in a zoned frenzy. Emily describes how Anita stained the rug to sully it, transforming it to create a portrait of a trio of women: shimmering, bloodied, and metaphorically walked upon. Sorrow meets the archetypal. Anita was an “ephemeral” artist, says Emily. “She danced her work through the kitsch and familiar scraps of objects.”
Anita was “a people person”, according to Thirlwell. Close friends say she gradually withdrew and became less socially active due to a combination of health issues (including diabetes) and her lifelong introversion. Emily describes the latter as a hypersensitivity which, coupled with Anita’s super-intelligence, made being out among it tremendously taxing.
When her mother died, having spent a couple of years in residential aged care, Anita sold the Glen Iris house. She missed Europe but struggled to get her health up to speed for travel, so she relocated to a house in hipster Collingwood. Her sons were living independently, returning for spells, and she passed her days pottering and making art.
Emily insists that despite her struggles, Anita “maintained an air of punk” and her artist’s eye was still sharp. She was “busy decorating the universe”. There she sits, insect-like, six pairs of glasses poised on her head. Next, she’s setting up tripods with light fittings fixed on them, dressing them up in tutus to create the illusion of tentacled jellyfish, and pondering opening a rehab for women.
She was also, according to Emily, an avid Googler. “If she loved you, she would research stuff for you.” If she was on your team, she was always on the case. And she retained her sense of humour: “She was probably the funniest person I’ve ever met.” That’s a remarkable statement, given that Emily is the daughter of comedian Barry Humphries and his second wife, dancer Rosalind Tong.
Male artists dominate galleries. Our research explored if it’s because ‘women don’t paint very well’ – or just discrimination
Seasoned women artists
The women artists of Anita’s generation are maturing in an environment hostile to ageing, and to artists of all persuasions who aren’t big names – in a culture that equates promise and productivity with youth. Many still working navigate economic hardship, thanks to decades of prioritising art over financial planning.
“Anita’s divine energy was for her art, but her pulse externally was low because she was drained by ill health and trying to support boys with barely any money,” says Emily, expressing anger at “the lack of understanding and economic support available to genuinely creative women”.
Some of us survived long and well enough to shake off Girlitis, awakening from its fevered dream to a formidable lucid power. No longer dependent on the affirmation of our worth, we know it – finally, fiercely (on a good day).
But that doesn’t fund our art. Neoliberal governments in countries like Australia and the UK have systematically cut arts funding to scraps. While Anita eventually had the benefit of an inheritance, many don’t.
For most of her last decade, Anita had a partner – a reserved IT type keeping nine-to-five hours, who assumed the role of stepfather to her children. The demise of that relationship, about a year before she died, left Anita unmoored, suggests Emily.
There’s a tendency to speak of compulsive self-harm in clichés: the Dimmed Bright Young Thing, the Rock n’ Roll Suicide, the Plath Melancholic. But moral platitudes elide the heartbreak in and for each afflicted life. Those forced to watch the narrative unfold find themselves in a dreadful dilemma. As Thirlwell puts it,
worrying about Anita was like worrying about the weather. There’s not much you could do about it.
Anita was aware her friends and family were concerned. She told Emily that Cave had described witnessing her periodic returns to destructive patterns as beholding “a crime against God”. “She spoke a lot about Nick,” Emily confirms. “He was terribly important to her. It was a constant friendship.” Her mighty life-force pushed back again and again, but hope and confidence faded. She fell prey to the belief she could not be helped.
Yet Anita is not a wretched figure; Emily speaks for many when she says,
I want her brilliance known beyond a sense of tragedy. I want her properly placed in Australia’s creative heritage and the world sphere.
No cause of death was announced. Fans expressed disbelief, friends mourned, and her people closed ranks, tight-lipped ever since, apart from the occasional oblique lapse, like Cave’s blog reference to the “rampant, unstable, fatal energy” that made it “both easy and terrifying to love her”.
Anita, mysterious to the end, defied obvious conclusions in death as she had in life; it seems her last months and weeks involved a complex scenario, and there were multiple contributing factors to her untimely passing. As Thirlwell says emphatically, “Anita would have liked to have stayed around for her kids. She loved them very much.”
Perhaps it’s just as well she stepped away from the industry when she did, since the contemporary music landscape is relentlessly characterised by the kind of self-promotion and marketing she loathed. As Bronwyn lamented in an anguished public Facebook post paying tribute to Anita, “high functioning brand-driven professionalism is the go”.
I binge-watched YouTube videos the day I heard the news. In the clip for “The World’s a Girl”, co-written with Harvey, black-and-white and sepia shadows flicker beguilingly out of focus, and Anita dances around Morocco, hair wind-swept, like a dervish outlier Bardot. She frolics with sly, sultry humour amid religious iconography, Hollywood Golden Age glamour, and subversive symbolism in the monochrome video for the country-twanging “Jesus Almost Got Me”. And she bounces through the clip for her cover (with Barry Adamson) of “These Boots Are Made For Walking” holding her unfazed baby.
Anita rarely sang in public, afflicted with stage fright, so it was a treat to discover footage of a 1992 live performance of “Subterranean World (How Long Have We Known Each Other Now?)”. Anita, in duet with Blixa Bargeld, is playfully tender, and appears relaxed. She beams at the end of the ode to friendship, when Bargeld kisses her cheek as the last notes sound.
How, I wondered, did she feel about herself as an artist in those final years? Emily tells a illuminating secondhand story.
She describes meeting a younger woman at an event, who mentioned Anita. They chatted, and the woman said, “You know I saw her in a 7/11 late one night in St Kilda.” She recounted how she told Anita, awestruck, they had met years before. She didn’t expect Anita to remember a transitory moment with a “nonentity” and was stunned when Anita recalled the exact time and place. The younger woman gushed, and Anita looked to the ground and said, “I’m surprised you even know who I am.”
Anita’s wake was rescheduled several times during the COVID-19 pandemic, when Melbourne spent 262 days under restrictive public health orders – enduring lockdown after lockdown. It went ahead in March 2022 at Abbotsford Convent on the Yarra River, a grand medieval compound that was once a Catholic nunnery and is now a thriving multi-arts precinct.
The prevailing Ballroomers came out in force, gathering in a high-ceilinged room fragrant with flowers. One attendee declared the ambience “celestial”, while another suggests the vibe was less spiritually embracing for those outside the cloistered in-crowd.
The many guises of Anita were projected, and there was a shrine of her art and personal mementos. There was no live music, though there had previously been plans along those lines. Her son’s eulogies brought tears to eyes, and the youngest read a letter written by the Brussels-based artist Marcus Bergner. Bronwyn spoke, erudite and heartfelt. International friends like Thirlwell and Kid Congo Zoomed in, Nick streaming silently among them. There was a bar, and people sat around talking about Anita, who was long gone and more ethereal than ever.
In the early 2000s, she recorded vocals for the English version of “Blume”, an atmospheric track by Einstürzende Neubauten, which she co-wrote and performed in duet with Bargeld. Anita does not appear in the official video (though interestingly, PJ Harvey can be clocked miming into a bullhorn in a split-second cameo).
In a voice that contains multitudes, described as “haunting babygirl” by Joel Gausten, she sings of being a supernova before ascending to a gloriously eerie chorus and trailing off into a guttural spoken-word German whisper that seems to emanate from an arcane mist.
And I can’t think of a more fitting elegy.