HE calls himself the master
of unrequited love and says he sacrificed his relationship with Meg Ryan
for life Down Under. NUI TE KOHA spends a day on the road with actor and
musician Russell Crowe.
LIFE is sometimes easily boxed. Or so Russell Crowe
discovered when his film career began fast-tracking six years ago and the
accumulated spoils and accolades of the job had to be shipped from
Hollywood to home -- a farm in northern New South Wales.
"When I first bought that property, I lived in a
caravan for three years," Crowe says.
"I let my parents move into the little house and
eventually I built some stuff . . . and there's an office there for me now.
And six years of stuff came out of boxes and bags, and got stuck on
shelves and put on walls.
"I sat in a chair and looked at this wall and it
was covered in all these things. Very tastefully, mind you," he
"And I had this perspective. I wasn't chasing
anything. I was in the middle of it: the thing I had been looking for in
terms of getting myself to a platform of being able to do work of the
highest calibre in a medium I had chosen to work in. "Here I am,"
Crowe says without a hint of pretence or ego.
"I can take a little bit more time. I can take a
deeper breath because it's not the pursuit any more, it's the journey.
"To sit back and look at that wall -- and this
happened only recently -- it was like, 'OK, I can relax a little bit. I
still have to work as hard, but I don't have to work on getting the
Crowe, 36 -- actor, musician and, more recently, a man
oddly famous for being in love with Meg Ryan -- is at one of life's
There's no crisis, retirement plan or pangs of regret.
He simply wants to make more time for himself after throwing much heart
and soul into the "day job", Crowe's own downbeat term for his
incredibly successful acting career.
"It's not about being selfish," he says.
"You have to be prepared to do something for yourself. Now and then
you have to let yourself off the hook in terms of responsibility."
And, in a nice twist to the Crowe enigma, lately it's
been the musician inside the talented actor who's bared his soul most on
the tricky subject of life's checks and balances.
Bastard Life or Clarity, the latest album from Crowe's
band, Thirty Odd Foot of Grunts, is about choices, good and bad.
In a revealing journey of broken relationships, haunted
pasts, sacrifices, real-life people and tragedies, Crowe's characters
shift between hope and hopelessness.
Personally, Crowe, an Oscar-nominated actor and one of
this country's most critically acclaimed thespians, says he chose clarity
over a bastard life a long time ago.
"I don't think I could do the job I do and include
all the things I do in my life without a certain degree of clarity.
"However, volume of work will always block out
certain views. I do get fairly busy." He smiles at the obvious
If the Russell Crowe success story could be described in
one sentence it might go something like this: unwavering self-belief,
perseverance and a willingness to start from the bottom.
"I was petrified as a young fella because I didn't
have a certificate from NIDA," Crowe recalls. "I didn't have
something official that said I studied this art form, I studied this craft.
"I thought the only way to combat this is you just
do as much as you can, you do work in as many mediums as you can, you do
everything until you've learned from that.
"So I did what I could for it, whether it was a
training film for the Seventh Day Adventist Church, a television
commercial or just stuff to get in front of the camera.
"You don't get there unless you go back to square
one and say: 'This is what I want to do, and I am a student of whatever
He was six years old when the music bug hit as hard as
the acting one.
He got a guitar in 1970. His parents bought it,
"one of those mid-size, teeny-weeny ones, but it was still gigantic
"I found out immediately it was a way to express
myself, even without guitar lessons."
Crowe juggled with several musical identities amid a
receptive and supportive new wave scene in Auckland, New Zealand, in the
In 1984 he met guitarist Dean Cochran and formed the
band Roman Antics. It was the start of an ever-changing musical trip that
eventually led the partnership to Thirty Odd Foot of Grunts.
We are in a recording studio in South Yarra for a
day-night session of rehearsal and jamming. The band, who haven't played
together since last August, power through tracks from the new album, a set
list for a gig and new songs.
Cochran extracts eerie guitar feels on an old song, The
River, while the band -- Dave Wilkins (guitar), Garth Adam (bass), Dave
Kelly (drums), Stewart Kirwan (trumpet) and Crowe -- reduced to a hush,
"There's a power that happens when we walk into
that room," Crowe says later. "It's so cool.
"We walk back in and it feels like it's better than
the last time. That's been happening consistently for seven years."
Crowe is serious about this music thing. Always has been.
But outside, perceptions of who he is in relation to the band still hound
"It's about other people seeing a commercial
advantage from that," he says.
"There's also the politics, strangely, that you are
not supposed to be creative in two different media for whatever reason.
"I think that's a strange thought process because
it stands to reason that anybody who is creative per se is going to be
creative in different media."
Crowe says he was especially bemused when broadcaster
Andrew Denton recently asked why the actor wanted "two bites of the
"How is it that you see it that way?" Crowe
asked. "How is it that's the perspective you have? If that's what it
comes down to, it's sad . . . because it's about the songs.
"If you don't roll your eyes and just listen to the
songs, you will hear there is a reason that we do this, and that's within
To Crowe's chagrin, some have looked to the latest batch
of lyrics for an open door to his private life and his highly publicised
romance with Meg Ryan.
"Contextually, I don't care if it's scrutinised.
Already in America they have started taking one song off
the album (Wendy) and saying: 'This must be about Meg because the
character in the song has a boy.' "
(The song is actually about a woman Crowe quietly
observed while he worked at a beach resort 16 years ago).
"People can scrutinise, whatever. Whatever the
assumption is. It's silly to me that in the magazines you are put into
that small, emotional box: 'You must be this insensitive man thing!'
"But in reality, how the f... could I do my job if
I was that bloke, if I was that fella? It's not possible."
Crowe does explain, sheepishly, the context of two
"relationship" songs, Hold You and Swept Away Bayou (Facing the
Headlights Alone): thematic opposites, of love not returned, and love
"I'm an expert at unrequited love," Crowe says.
"I have, however, over a while, worked that out.
"It's about seeing this ideal that's unattainable,
and you don't want to just throw those thoughts away. "To see
somebody that you are immediately attracted to on a number of different
levels . . . you should enjoy that.
"You don't have to discuss it with anybody or bring
it to anybody's attention, but why not just allow yourself the experience,
even if the situation is incorrect?"
In real life Crowe doesn't play the victim. He enjoys
his lot in life and knows full well the flipside of celebrity.
"There are no complaints. I'm pursuing the things
I've always wanted to pursue. But a separation began a while ago between
me consciously in the public eye and this other thing that became this 'Russell
"I look at it from this perspective and think, well,
how did that happen? How did this sudden desire, this thirst for absolute
"You become this product.
"You have to have a sense of humor about it, man.
The only way you combat that is through the strength of your work."
Misconceptions -- there have been a few. But he doesn't
"I have a lot of routines about this s. . ., man. I
got married three times this year, I had half a dozen babies, every woman
I talked to I impregnated, so I've got the most fertile breath on Earth.
"I don't care what the misconceptions are. I'm a
bad boy. I'm Lothario. Whatever, mate.
"At the same time all that stuff was being written,
I was ear-tagging calves, so, whatever . . ."
Crowe reveals a nifty shirt trick he brought into action
at the height of the frenzy.
"It got to the point that wherever we went, people
would be sneaking up on us with cameras -- and that's me and whoever,"
Crowe says, then giggling: "I initially blamed Jodie Foster.
"So I just started wearing this shirt, which isn't
popular with anyone, but I really like it. If I got to a place and hadn't
really scoped it out, I just put on this shirt."
When photographers pounce, "it doesn't matter what
the headline says you are doing, or where they say you are doing it, if
you are wearing the same clothes, the possibility of (misconceptions) is
lessened in some people's minds.
"If you keep wearing the same shirt, a certain
number of people will say (of the reports): 'Oh, bulls. . .'." This
much is true: Crowe romanced Ryan during, and after, they worked together
on the film Proof of Life. Asked what Ryan brought to his life, Crowe
replies, in an instant: "A lot of light, mate.
"Meg is a beautiful and courageous woman. I grieve
the loss of her companionship, but I haven't lost her friendship.
"All these things that you read about us, the
arguments here and there, and slamming this and that -- that's just all
absolute rubbish. It's complete garbage.
"The bottom line is, I have a big life here. I have
got to be here. When I'm off the hook with the schedules, I have to come
home. I can't sustain myself through the course of the year without
filling up on home.
"And she has the same needs. We both have huge
schedules, so who knows about that sort of thing. "She's a searcher.
She's got an incredibly inquisitive mind, so it was very easy for us to be
in the same room together for hours and hours and hours, just talking.
That was very special."
In the studio the band, tight and firing a few hours
into the session, have crossed on to wonderfully melodic ground.
The song, Sail the Same Oceans, dedicated to actor Jack
Thompson, is lyrically about Crowe removing himself from Australia and
home-grown relationships in order to have a serious stab at the day job.
These days, home equals balance.
"Home is my space," he says. "I get to
wake up in the sun, I get to walk around under the trees, I get to hang
around with people who understand things without me having to re-explain
"It's really simple things. It's rough being away
from your dog for six months. That's rough stuff, man." FROM Oceans
the band moves to The Night Davey Hit the Train, a darker narrative based
on real-life conversations with guitarist Cochran and actors Daniel
Pollock and Ben Mendelsohn about suicide.
The track is dedicated to Pollock, Crowe's co-star in
Romper Stomper. Pollock was hit by a train.
Crowe recalls an 18-year-old Cochran saying that jumping
off a famous suicide bridge in Auckland would at least be something he'd
have control over.
"You jump off," Crowe replied, "but not
with the point of death, with the point of life. Whatever the thing is
that's going to fulfil you, you have got to go for it. It's so easy to
settle for something else -- even death."
In a world of manufactured pop, slick productions and
even the huge budgets Crowe must enjoy in his day job, Thirty Odd Foot of
Grunts is an interesting proposition.
They approach the music seriously, but thrive on the
unrefined, organic feel of the room, a sort of as-is ethic.
Crowe revels in his role as storyteller, chain-smoking
his way through vivid tales of loss and gain.
Kirwin's horn lines also lend the music a disarming edge:
sometimes solemn, sometimes sexy.
And for now, it feels like an animal that Crowe and the
rest of the band can control. Happily.
The Grunts are not signed to a record label, there are
no corporate obligations, and all creative decisions are channelled
through the band.
If Crowe puts the same level of commitment into the
Grunts as he does into his day job, does he want to achieve the same level
of success with the music?
"I would really rather not," he says.
"The point is not the good or bad stuff people are
saying about you. You don't drive yourself on praise, and you are not
slowed down by other people's criticism.
"The point is the artistic expression and whether
you will give yourself over to it. That's the point." * Bastard Life
or Clarity is released on February 26. The first single is Things Have Got
to Change. Band website: www.gruntland.com
A day in the life
HIS day job commands a $15 million-a-film salary, private jet travel and
an army of minders.
But Russell Crowe, musician, is a low-maintenance,
highly efficient operation.
"There's not much glamor involved in riding around
in a beat-up Tarago that smells of other blokes' feet," Crowe once
"I'm just one part of a band whose members all have
their own story to tell. It's a real, full, deep experience."
Here's an overview of his schedule last week while in
Saturday: Day and night rehearsal and jam session
with the band. Sunday morning: Rehearsal for a television
appearance. Noon: Arrive at television studio.
4pm: Takeaway souvlaki at a recording studio.
5pm: Rehearsal and jam session.
10pm: Takeaway Thai food at the studio.
1am: Rehearsal and jam session.
Monday morning: Rehearsal for performance at
Allan Border Medal ceremony.
4pm: Arrive at Crown for performance.
11pm: Road crews unload gear for unannounced show
at the Mercury Lounge.
1am: Mercury Lounge performance.
Tuesday: Crowe leaves Australia for the UK, via
Italy, in a private jet to promote the film Proof of Life.
By the time he returns to Australia on February 23, he
would have visited the UK, parts of Europe and the US -- all for the sake
of the day job.
What's on the new album
Bastard Life or Clarity is about choices.
The stories in the songs are based on real-life
experiences. Crowe's characters make decisions and shift between hope and
Things Have Got to Change is about relationships "that
aren't suitable". Crowe also views it as his theme of freedom and the
growing need to do things for himself.
Memorial Day: Crowe's grandfather was a World War II
veteran who refused to wear his bravery medals because the Fijian troops
he fought with were not given the same recognition.
"He was a reticent fella," Crowe says,
recalling a night at a Japanese restaurant when the former digger wouldn't
Hold You is from the self-confessed "expert at
unrequited love". It's iconographic, according to Crowe.
"It's about seeing this ideal that's unattainable.
To see somebody that you are immediately attracted to on a number of
different levels -- you should enjoy that."
Sail Those Same Oceans is dedicated to actor Jack
Thompson. It's about Crowe's need to take his skills offshore, but at a
"I was in a great relationship, and getting on
planes just destroyed it."
The Legend of Barry Kable: A homeless man guitarist Dean
Cochran met while rescuing alcohol and drug-affected people on the streets
Kable, it turns out, was a former Painters and Dockers
Union strong-arm man.
Somebody Else's Princess was the result of a jam session
in Los Angeles. The red-haired, blue-eyed character in the first verse is
a publicist who handled the Grunts' 1998-'99 tour, but elsewhere Crowe
says it's a "combination of different people".
Wendy is a woman Crowe observed while working on a
resort island in New Zealand. She would be "affectionate" with
guests for the stretch of her 10-day shift and, for her four days off, her
son would appear, turning Wendy into the "perfect mother".
The Night Davey Hit the Train is a series of
conversations with Cochran and actors Daniel Pollock and Ben Mendelsohn
about the same subject, suicide.
Heroin addict Pollock, Crowe's co-star in the neo-Nazi
film Romper Stomper, died when he was hit by a train in Sydney.
"There's that great arrogance in thinking: 'There
must have been something else I could have done, something else I could
have said'," Crowe says.
Swept Away Bayou (Facing the Headlights Alone) is a
relationship song about connection.
"It's about being completely taken over by somebody
in terms of that emotional connection that we call love."
Judas Cart: Crowe's niece, who had lived with his
parents and brother for seven years, was finally returning home to her
mother. It was Crowe's job to drive her back.
"I turned back to see the look on my brother's
face," Crowe says recalling the devastation.
The good news: his niece lives a great "balanced"
life with her mother and father and went to the Academy Awards with Crowe