top of page

Flame Trees

The lockdown in NSW during the first half of 2020 was a strange and unprecedented time for a lot of people. Many of us found ourselves doing things rather differently than we normally would – occasionally for the better it must be said. Personally, I felt the need to buy and read (the majority of) the newspaper most days; mainly trying to keep abreast of the latest developments with the pandemic, but also because the rest of the world, and the people in it, seemed so distant at that time.

Although it is not my regular practice to do so, I even found myself checking out the Death Notices on a number of occasions during that period. On one such occasion I came across a name that stirred significant memories for me – even though the deceased was a man I had not seen for the better part of 40 years.

So why did his passing touch me so deeply? In part because the death of anyone I have known, or known of, since I kissed Ben’s head for the final time in late January 2019 has struck a much deeper emotional chord within me, I am sure, than ever would have been the case in the past. But there was more to it than that.

Craig (not his real name) was a year behind me at primary school. Not being in the same cohort we were not particularly close, and nor did we attend the same high school. But our paths did cross occasionally during those formative years when we attended the same parties or events from time to time.

But more importantly than any of that, not long after he left school Craig was involved in an incident that would affect me profoundly; indeed its emotional impact remains with me to this very day.

Craig was a friend – not the boyfriend as such, but a close friend nevertheless – of a girl who had moved in the same circles as I did during our teenage years. Although I never went out with this particular young lady myself, we were on friendly terms from the age of about 15 onwards, and she accompanied my oldest mate, who I have known since we were nine years of age, to his Year 12 Formal. I will call her Sandra here, however that is also not her real name. (I hope, once you read this story in its entirety, you will understand why I have felt the need for discretion in terms of protecting the identity of its two main protagonists. And I stress that many of the key facts as I have laid them down here are simply my very best recollections based on information acquired by word of mouth from various sources more than 35 years ago).

Craig and Sandra were both devoted fans – who wasn’t in those days? ‑ of the legendary Aussie rock band, Cold Chisel. During the first half of 1983, unbeknownst to most of us, the band was experiencing very serious internal upheavals, culminating in the unexpected newsflash in August of that year that Chisel, as they were fondly known by many, would be breaking up altogether.

Soon after came the announcement of the band’s farewell tour ‑ The Last Stand ‑ which was scheduled to commence in New Zealand in September 1983, and ultimately concluded with a series of four epic ear-ringing concerts over successive nights at the Sydney Entertainment Centre from 12-15 December.

The first shows on the Australian section of The Last Stand tour were performed at the Newcastle Workers Club from 27-29 September 1983. Craig and Sandra didn’t want to have to wait until the end of the year to see their idols in action one last time, so they decided to travel together to Newcastle by car to attend one of those Workers Club concerts.

The show was no doubt a raging success, and during the course of it Sandra apparently won the heart of a young man (a local factory out-of-worker perhaps?) who was also in attendance. That was hardly surprising. I still clearly remember her now as a willowy and attractive girl, with an engagingly laidback personality, and a ready smile. Once the concert concluded there were the obligatory kick-ons, but a point was reached in the early hours when, with no pre-arranged accommodation available to her, Sandra had to decide whether to take her chances with her new-found Novocastrian friend, or accept Craig’s offer of a lift back to her family home on Sydney’s North Shore. The choice was quite possibly a difficult one ‑ but this was, after all, a weeknight.

And so, almost certainly believing she was taking the more prudent of the two options, Sandra elected to return to Sydney with Craig. It would be, quite literally, a fatal decision. Tragically the two would be involved in a motor vehicle accident on the return journey, likely resulting from Craig having fallen asleep at the wheel. Sandra would suffer serious injuries as a result of the accident that would claim her life within a matter of days. No doubt the grief experienced by her family, and her wide circle of friends, would have been matched, if not surpassed, by Craig’s sense of culpability and guilt – he having, against the odds, survived his own injuries sustained in the accident.

And so life would continue on for Craig for another 36 and a half years, right up until the first half of 2020 ‑ excruciatingly challenging though that must have been for him in so many ways – as it did for the rest of us baby boomers lucky enough to survive that long.

But back to Cold Chisel. Quite remarkably, for a band that had just “broken up”, Chisel would go on to release a fifth studio album in April 1984. The record, entitled Twentieth Century, would feature a number of hit singles ‑ including the soulful Saturday Night, and the hauntingly evocative Flame Trees. To this day, and for reasons that may become even more obvious below, the latter remains one of, if not my favourite Cold Chisel tune of all time. (If you don’t know the song, or if you haven’t listened to it in a while, I recommend you do so before reading on - ).

If you carry out an internet search regarding the origins of Flame Trees, as I did after seeing Craig’s obituary in May of this year, you will find it suggested that the song was inspired by keyboardist Don Walker’s memories of his youth in Grafton, and by his own “romantic dreams”. Significantly, it seems the music for the song had been written - by the band’s drummer, Steve Prestwich - some time before the exquisitely poignant lyrics were penned by Walker. Significantly also, another of the bandmembers, Ian Moss, has been quoted as saying that Don Walker wrote those lyrics in a very short amount of time, based on a story he was particularly keen to tell.

For me the narrative regarding the writing of Flame Trees throws up lots of questions, but provides very few answers. When I listen to the song, written and recorded at the end of 1983, all I can hear is the melancholy tale of Craig and Sandra, and their fateful trip to that Workers Club concert. In particular I hear a bittersweet tribute to Sandra, and her untimely death.

If Flame Trees is really just a story about the town of Grafton, or about one of Walker’s ex‑lovers, why make mention of “the weary driver” in the key line – ie the line which also mentions the flame trees that would ultimately form the title of, and thus the enduring image from the song?

Notwithstanding what has been published, and spoken publicly about Flame Trees, for me it indisputably tells much more than the story of a cherished hometown, or a love unfulfilled. It is the story of a girl who has died, and who won’t be around any longer as a result; not just for the songwriter, but for any of us. Which would explain why, to my mind, out of deference and respect to Craig ‑ who undoubtedly carried the scars of Sandra’s death for the rest of his life ‑ we must never say her name. Not in the song itself, and not in any discussions had about the song from the time of its writing to now.

When I searched Sandra’s real name earlier this year on the world wide web, following Craig’s death, I was grateful to track down an image of her gravestone, but saddened that this represented the full extent of what was to be found by way of evidence of her short but important life.

Flame Trees would have you believe that it takes more than just a memory to make me cry. Not so. And the absence of any permanent record of the impression left by a beautiful soul on a world crying out for such honest unaffected beauty makes me sadder still.

So if any of you reading this has had cause to wonder why I have chosen to write a Blog about my son Ben, perhaps this tale of Sandra might give you some insight. For me the only thing worse than a young life cut short by tragic events would be the realisation of a fear that that life, and its impact on the rest of us, had been forgotten.

Sandra’s story may not be mine to tell in full; but, rightly or wrongly, I feel like Ben’s story is. Hopefully I can do it justice.


bottom of page