BOOK OF LIFE  by Deborah Conway

Allen & Unwin 2023

ISBN: 9781761069383

RRP: $34.99 (pb)

Reviewed by Anne Henderson




Some way into Deborah Conway’s memoir Book of Life, she writes of her “meandering patchwork quilt career”. And what a patchwork of brilliant colour it is. Dark and light, shade and illumination. All written with the imaginative hand of a song writer and performer – candid, confessional, celebratory and challenging. It is a life of experiment and experience, of trial and error and considerable achievement. There are moments of sudden conviction mixed with moments of directionless dead ends. For all that, Conway’s instinct is to press on and take her chances.

It starts as it means to continue. A moment in Conway’s emerging adult years is the realisation she wanted music as her career. She knew she could sing and chanced her luck with an ad for a band. Two options came forward and the choice was not easy. Then, as with so much of what is to come in Conway’s life, she makes the choice on instinct and the personality of a “stick-twirling drummer, a redhead called Dorland Bray” who sat on her bed and made her laugh. Dorland would be her guiding star as Conway established a foothold as a singer with the Benders and in time a solo artist.

In Conway’s weaving of her memoir, her professional steps as a musician are the spine of the tale. Here and there, she reflects back on her growing up, her parents, her sister and her Jewishness. The effect is to gradually expose a whole picture of Conway’s personality, work ethic and sense of what is most important to her. At school in Melbourne’s private girls college Lauriston, there is nothing to suggest the musician she would become. The school did not stage musicals. Only as she contemplated auditioning for the National Institute of Dramatic Arts (NIDA) at the end of her final year did Conway’s performance for a group of fellow students convince her of her talent. “You can sing!” they exclaimed. “Wow, I never knew!” Conway replies.

But there is much more as Conway seeks a career. Failing to score at NIDA, she took subjects for an Arts degree at Melbourne University which came to nothing: “In the middle of sitting the philosophy exam I had an overwhelming urge to wash my car.” In spite of passing with honours in philosophy, Conway abandoned her Arts studies and took up modelling at 18 for the money, at the same time taking any chance to perform with the Benders. Her accounts of modelling are satirical and, while pushing back on a lot of the exploitative culture it entailed, Deborah Conway the model scored some hits, chief among which was her “anonymous derriere” (nude buttocks) on billboards across town. The experience of being a romantic lead in a rev head movie called Running on Empty, a part she describes as being cast as a clothes horse, saw her give modelling away. At a viewing of the movie, she noted that “the audience made not a peep during the shower scene, but wolf whistled every time another hotted-up vehicle zoomed across the screen”.

Something of a tearaway in her younger years, Conway confesses to occasional shoplifting, on one occasion being arrested for theft of Cornishwear blue teacups in Grace Brothers department store in Sydney’s CBD, and a good deal of experimental drug taking and a lot of getting drunk from the age of 14. “I used drugs in part to explore facets of consciousness that were otherwise hard to attain,” Conway writes. “But I was not successful in incorporating the resultant mind ramblings into cogent work.” These were years of part drift and part development with a new band named Do Re Mi which became one of the first acquisitions of the new Virgin Records in Australia. For Conway, all this was accompanied by the rigours of driving hundreds of miles on the road with the band. In time, there needed to be a trajectory to something better.

Virgin Records saw the Do Re Mi band off on what Conway describes as a “big adventure”. Touring and “being recognised”, Conway and Do Re Mi joined the music trail. Along the way there was heaps of learning. Conway added new partners to her casual affairs. Cities were ticked off – Amsterdam, Manchester, Glascow, Hamburg, Frankfurt, Cologne. They barely survived the music journalists as part of their new experiences in testing their talent. Crossing East Germany to get to West Berlin at the time of the Berlin Wall left Conway shaken but still locked into her leftist mindset:

I would like to say that 1986 was the beginning of the end of my unquestioning (if less than full throated) allegiance to the ideology I’d signed onto … We were deeply invested in our worldview, in which the far Right produced egregious evil – and fair enough it did. But why did we stop there? Why didn’t we interrogate the far Left’s responsibility for unimaginable horrors. I’d heard of the Khmer Rouge and Pol Pot’s Killing Fields, about the Great Leap Forward, about the Gulags and the Stasi, but still I clung to misplaced trust in the “goodness” of the Left versus the problematic Right. It took me way too long to work out that that the apparent polar opposites are close cousins.

Conway’s memoir is full of reflection like this, amid her self-critical eye and sardonic take on her limitations. Her break with Do Re Mi came with the end of a brief affair with musician Paul Kelly and taking up with his brother Alex in a serious relationship. Conway’s description of the transition is captured in a single sentence of self deprecation: “[Alex] had front row seats to the disintegration of my band and my attempts to construct myself as a solo artist.” Signing on to write “dance” songs for Virgin was to be a new dead end.

Directionless in Los Angeles, Conway came to terms with her decision. Looking back on the singers contracted by Virgin she came to see herself as a “high class courtesan” – “I was living in an eternal waiting room. They pay, I wait. They pay, I remain ready to put out. They pay, I deliver.” In the format Conway has conceived for her book, using many of her songs to wrap up chapters, it is unsurprising that the song that concludes this section of her progress is “For All the Wrong Reasons” from her String of Pearls (1991) album. What follows for Conway back in Australia is rebirth as a soloist signed with Mushroom Records.

Conway’s hit song “It’s only the Beginning” was released in June 1991. Hearing it played on three different stations in one afternoon, Conway writes: “I turned up the volume and with the windows down and the breeze in my hair, like a Roger Voudouris film clip, flicked between stations on my push-button car stereo. A hit is fun.”

As in a watershed, the book now changes gears somewhat around the halfway mark as Conway’s era of extended childhood (as she calls it) relaxes into something of a steady professional rigour, pushed on by hit tune success and meeting and falling for musician, producer and composer Willy Zygier. For all that, the tension of the story continues its upbeat tempo – crazy affair, messy lives that distil into a partnership for life both personally and musically, success with most albums but not with all, babies born amidst the pace of travelling and composing and releasing albums. A Coogee flat as work studio Conway describes as a “fertile songwriting sweatshop”.

Mother love comes to Conway almost as a blow to the brain. She describes her months of pregnancy as bringing on a “curious detached awareness”. And yet, after a caesarean birth, Conway writes, “I was launched into the affair of a lifetime, mowed down by a freight train of love that remains for me unqualified in its speed, ferocity and unexpectedness. Maternal instinct? I had my first hit. I wanted six.”

This is a book that sweeps its reader with the personality of the writer. Conway has an extraordinary energy in her work and in her writing so much so you cannot help but go with the flow. As with so much of the entertainment industry, an individual’s worth is as good as the last hit. For Conway and Zygier there are good years and acclaimed albums but in between there are the troughs. Writing a new album for Mushroom in the mid-1990s in London there are false starts and rejections. Writes Conway: “I should have laughed but tears were my go-to response.” In time, as the inspiration lags and the album “My Third Husband” was criticised for being “too mature”, it’s a matter of facing a career change – “from being part of the machine to becoming independent; and most confronting for me, from being loved to being unloved”.

As with all dark clouds, reimagining and reinventing is an option. Conway and Zygier turned to performances for small private functions and personal space bringing them closer to audiences than they had ever been. “It was cathartic,” says Conway. The Conway/Zygier team could only develop, taking risks, at times going to the brink of financial ruin and being saved by unexpected responses, taking on regional and outback festivals. Setting off to plan another all-female BROAD festival with Erica Hart, Conway writes, “Erica and I were Thelma and Louise without the cliff”.

This is indeed a book of life and described just as it has been lived – gutsy, risky, talented, enduring, with not many dull moments. As lines from a track on Conway’s Bitch Epic album put it:

And from the bridge she’s seen

          Water pale and green

          She still prefers fire


Anne Henderson is Deputy Director of The Sydney Institute and author of Menzies at War, which was shortlisted for the 2015 Prime Minister’s Award for Australian History.