Again. At least this time I kind of know what a eulogy is. But for Jeff? He was way too young for this. And too weird, too unconventional. Anti-conventional. But here goes.
Jeff was a gentle, patient man, easy to get along with and generous. He would share his last dollar with you …
Yeah, no one’s gonna buy it. But Jeff really was generous. He really would share his last dollar with you. It’s just that his circumstances usually meant that it was your last dollar rather than his that was up for discussion.
The beginning. Jeff was born in 1954, in Los Angeles. He never talked much about the very early, pre-me days, but everything indicates that he was the happy child of a loving but troubled marriage. Even early on, however, he was a dreamer, and an explorer. A story he told me several times, and again just a few weeks ago, was of when he was six or seven, and he wandered off in suburban Berkeley, just to see what he could see. He happened across a shop and bought some flowers for Mommy, returning triumphantly an hour or two after beginning his venture. Mommy apparently didn’t see it the same way. Jeff, in turn, struggled to understand why Mommy was so upset. He told me the story I think partly to laugh at himself, but only partly. He still didn’t really understand. Jeff’s thoughts, right or wrong, were always so clear and strong in his head he struggled to understand why they weren’t also clear to everybody else.
My earliest memory of Jeff, and pretty much at all, is of a couple years later when I was maybe 3. We had moved to Australia, our parents had promptly separated, and Mommy and Jeff and I were living in a hovel-bungalow in Macleod. Each early morning I’d wake up, I would see the ghosts against the wall, and I would have to summon the courage to run to Mommy’s bed. Jeff came up with a plan, for me to wake him so we could beat up the ghosts with our plastic baseball bats. I can’t remember whether the plan was enacted, or whether it succeeded.
In childhood, Jeff was the leader of course. He had the model cars and the car books, the Mad Magazines, and all the ideas. There was Pirate and Traveler and Bop the Beetle, and other now extinct games. And cats. Always cats. On occasion Jeff told me bedtime stories. He would ask if I wanted him to read me a story or for him to make one up. I was a kid of common tastes and liked the books, but Jeff preferred to make up the stories, and so that is usually what we did. Admittedly, Jeff’s stories had the attraction of containing lots of monsters and gruesome happenings.
Then, our five years gap became a lot and as Jeff entered his teens I saw him less and knew him less. Peter Craig, his oldest and closest friend, knew him more. With his first, treasured guitar in hand, Jeff was a young, wide-eyed revolutionary in Melbourne’s revolutionary times. He lived on occasion with Daddy, and on occasion God knows where. His home was now in the new Bohemian Wonderland of Carlton.
Unsurprisingly, Jeff’s schoolwork didn’t go all that well, an endless source of family friction. Macleod High was never going to be a good fit. But then there was a new opportunity. Macleod’s schoolmaster wrote a recommendation for Jeff to transfer to University High for Form 5, a surprising and notable honour. It was many years later that Jeff told me the recommendation only came after Jeff had been sprung making out with the school’s librarian.
Once at Uni High, however, and however Jeff got there, it was smooth sailing. Joke. In hunting for old photos of Jeff, I stumbled upon his school reports. These are the mid-year comments from his HSC teachers:
English Expression: Level of performance would rise with more consistent effort.
English Literature: Poor attitude. Improvement required in work and study.
18th Century History: Jeff had difficulties settling in, now working to catch up.
Social Studies: Written work good but more activity in oral classwork need.
General Maths: Good attitude but work and study methods need review.
Study methods and review weren’t Jeff’s strong suits. But somehow Jeff scraped through HSC and then attended a very new La Trobe University. There he really did find his scholarly feet. Music was always Jeff’s passion, but he also loved language and he was a master at it. Jeff found a natural home in linguistics and the philosophy of language, and he found a mentor, his eventual Masters supervisor and continual bailer outerer, the wonderful John Bigelow. Although that is disrespectful. John, I don’t know why, but you were always simply “Bigelow” to Jeff and I can’t think of you otherwise. Jeff always said your one name with deep affection and profound gratitude.
It was during Jeff’s La Trobe years that Jeff lived again at times with me and Mommy, and we rediscovered each other. I was a painfully self-conscious teenager, distant from our father, and Jeff was Jeff, from Another World. He was my teacher, although admittedly his lessons were highly unorthodox and I was a poor student. Once, Jeff read a school essay of mine, on Alice in Wonderland and on the significance or otherwise of Dodgson’s photographs of scantily clad girls. I can’t remember what pompous nonsense I wrote, but I remember exactly Jeff’s one-sentence reaction: “That’s pretty conclusive coming from a sixteen year old virgin”. Tough but fair.
A few years later, in 1981, we lived together. I can’t describe how much he taught me, before and especially then, how much music and literature he introduced me to, and the random, wild, open-eyed world that it was. I’ll just tell two quick stories, maybe not the most significant but ones that now resonate.
In that year, Jeff and I religiously watched old movies into the very late nights on Channel 9, timing our reading and study and whatever around each night’s offerings. That was how we first saw The Beast with a Million Eyes, which, because of the Meccano triviality of its monster, was known forevermore as The Beast With Three Wires. A month ago, Jeff recalled the movie and I found it for him, to watch on his tablet. He delighted in reminding me how awful it was. It was the last movie he watched.
The other story is of Austrian National Day. Yes, Austrian. One day, Jeff and I decided we should pick whatever date that was as our own day to celebrate each year, and it turned to be Austrian National Day. The next year I forgot; Jeff remembered. I can’t recall that we ever talked about Austrian National Day again, but I’ve also never forgotten about it. Funnily enough, and I don’t know why, I’ve always had in my mind that Austrian National Day is August 17th, but I was wrong. I checked, and it’s actually October 26th. As it happens, August 17th is National Black Cat Appreciation Day. God works in wondrous ways.
Jeff was my teacher at a time when I needed one. Jeff taught me about the world, and he also taught be about people, to not take them so seriously. The latter is a tricky lesson. Too often, as many know well, Jeff cared too little about what other people thought. But the powerful, hugely important flip side of that, and what Jeff taught me, was to not be scared of what people thought. Jeff was fearless.
After that year, we went our separate academic ways, Jeff to Wellington to do a PhD with Hughes and Cresswell. His thesis became his book, The Semantics of Media, now being rediscovered as original and important. And, in 1988 there came Gina, his daughter.
Gina, I don’t doubt that Jeff made many mistakes as a father, since he made many mistakes with pretty much everything he did. But he really loved you and really cared about you, more than anyone else. Ever. He so wanted to resolve things with you, to be close to you. It was hugely meaningful and comforting for him that there was some resolution in his final time.
In the 90s, Jeff and I were both back in Melbourne, along with Ed and Dan and Ben. New adult brothers, or at least half-baked alternatives, on the scene. That scene was often set at dinners with Sue and Daddy, at the Casino and at Sue’s house, in Daddy’s final years. I have very fond memories of those dinners, but often enough the scene involved arguments, about anything and everything, big and small, real and contrived. It was a blood sport, and plenty of times it was more bloody than sporting. On occasion, one required a scoresheet to keep track of who was angry with whom.
A lot at that time, and later, was ridiculous and unnecessary. Jeff was not alone in this, but he caused plenty of difficulty, mostly for himself but also for those around him. But it was also real. Jeff was real. Brotherhood mattered to Jeff, even half-baked brotherhood.
Family mattered to Jeff. Eva and Lillian, you didn’t see enough of Jeff, but he felt really close to you, cared deeply about you both. He was always pondering what to give you, to read or to listen to. He wanted to be your teacher, as he was mine. Lillian, Jeff was delighted by your love of playing music, he saw the video of your drumming in the brass band and was enchanted by it. And Eva, Jeff loved your inventiveness, your zany pictures and wordplay. It is very, very Jeff. There is a lot of Jeff in both of you, and Jeff saw it in both of you.
Finally, new family. In 2008, there came Jackie. God. Jackie, I have no idea what Jeff did to deserve someone as lovely and as caring, and as ridiculously patient and understanding as you. Jeff, Dr. Melody, was so, so, so lucky to have you as his loving companion for the final years of his life. You always saw the best in him, the great in him. Words can’t describe it. I won’t try.
There’s so much more I could say, so many more stories to tell, good and bad, that only Jeff also knew of and perhaps only Jeff could understand. Venezuelan bee fly. Arunta the Hunter. The Can Man. Yangtze With The Laughing Face. The Bollini. Ten Feet Tommy. My head is full of Jeff and Jeffisms.
I’ll close with a poem. When Mommy died, Jeff found the beautiful, perfect Rossetti verses for her. I have nothing so good. But I have a ditty, by Jeff, that I think is somehow fitting. And anyway, it’s been in my head for fifty years and I want it in someone else’s head. In his poem, Jeff is working to find rhymes for “prosody” and for “poem”. Here it is:
Poesy and prosody,
Prose and poem.
Stick it up your nosody,
I’m going hoem.
It was way too early for Jeff to go hoem. There was no one else like him. He is irreplaceable and unforgettable.