HOISt the jolly rogers

It's a Pressure Drop. One moment Tim Rogers is talking about the Toots and the Maytals' reggae classic, the next he's living it. "I said when it drops/You're gonna feel it," goes the song. Right now, he can definitely feel it.

Ensconced at a corner table in a West Melbourne pub, You Am I's iconic frontman straightens his back and sharpens his gaze. Somewhere over my right shoulder, five metres away, a couple at the bar has caught his attention. Rogers has spotted some surreptitious glances, divined a series of hushed comments and then heard a snatch of one of his own songs, Heavy Heart, being sung.

Blessed or cursed, depending on the circumstances, with hair-trigger instincts, Rogers decides they're mocking him. His eyes cloud over, you can sense him deciding what to do: ignore it or start swinging. There will be no half-measures.


" I can't live my life through ..." he says, trying to answer a question that suddenly seems irrelevant. He grits his teeth. "Some guy is ... Well, this story could have an interesting end to it."

Every Tim Rogers story does.

At the age of 34, Timothy Adrian Rogers is the embodiment of rock'n'roll glory for several generations of music fans. At a time when new artists treat ordinariness as some kind of proud badge of authenticity, Rogers is the last guitar gunslinger in town. He's a magnet for mythology, the bastard child of Pete Townshend and Paul Westerberg, a musician who's never seen a stage he didn't believe he could own by virtue of his considerable ability.

Rogers writes, sings, plays and carouses with considerable swagger. He could easily have adopted the boast of Paul Newman's "Fast" Eddie Felson in The Hustler as his credo: "I'm the best there is. Even if you beat me, I'm still the best."

Like the rarefied few he should be compared with, Tim Rogers can't be pinned down. He can be unfailingly polite and circumspect or uproariously loud and entertaining. Most days he's a fount of conversation, but catch him at an off moment or rile him and the shutters go up. He can exude an air of exclusion bordering on the hostile. There are, in short, many versions of Tim Rogers. You can add them all together, but it's always a different total.

"Frank Sinatra had this thing about not wearing rings, because 'I know who I am'," relates Rogers. "I admire that, but I need a reminder." Inked on his slender chest is the reminder: an image of two hands entwined, locked in prayer, that comes from a Mexican painting. "I love the image," he explains. "To me, it has both desperation and confidence, although I generally see it as desperation. I'm often trying to contain myself, ground myself, and that picture sums it up for me."

On the heel of six You Am I studio albums, Spit Polish is Rogers' second solo set. Credited to Tim Rogers and the Temperance Union - Melbourne musicians Shane O'Mara, who co-produced with Rogers at his Yikesville studio in Yarraville, Stuart Speed and Ian Kitney - it arrives at a time when You Am I are without a label, but it's unconcerned with the machinations of business. The foe on Spit Polish is Rogers' own songwriting, a source of both pleasure and discord. As he gently sings on the opening Some Fellas Heartbreaker: "Don't you go thinking that a song can get him through/I know what those things can do."

" It's the torment of not being able to express it any other way," he says. "I've been told, by family and others, 'If you can put it in a song, why can't you talk about in a conversation?'. Not being able to is a real pain in the arse. It leaves you with a lot of hurt. You've been given this incredible opportunity to put words and music together - and I'm very fortunate to be able to do that - but it leaves you with a lot of difficulty in your dealings with people."

On Damn Songs, a country-flecked lament that is one of the album's defining cuts, Rogers and Lisa Miller trade observations about the vagaries of putting your life into three chords and three minutes. "Wrap up guilt inside rhymes," she offers, in a tone that suggests it's not enough to populate your life with tunes, no matter how good or successful they are.

" It's not," he says. "Unfortunately for me it is, but it's really not. For some horrible reason, writing makes you feel better, but it's really selfish. You love those songs 95 per cent of the time, but the other 5 per cent you hate the fact that you can't do it face to face."

Damn Songs came to Rogers one night in the suburbs of Madrid, as he was taking out the garbage in the apartment building where he and his family - his wife of five years, Rocio, and their young daughter, Ruby - spend several months of each year. They also visit Rocio's parents in a small village 160 kilometres north of Madrid, and both environments afforded Rogers the time and distance to pen Spit Polish.
" There's a lot of space to think; you don't have to fight for it like in Melbourne," explains Rogers. "I get up, have a brandy and coffee at the local and get short shrift from the local old guys - although I think they're warming to me. I'm the only six-foot-three loon you'll find until the centre of Madrid. But I'm from Kalgoorlie and now I live in Spain for four months a year. That's big."

Rogers met his wife when You Am I played a Spanish festival as part of a European tour. The day after, driving through France, he sat in the van smoking hashish, trying to calm himself as he marvelled at her beauty. His "gals", as he describes them with palpable affection, are the cornerstone of his life, but co-existing with them is an itinerant lifestyle and a long history of living out the rock'n'roll dream that so fascinated him as a child. The hints of grey in Rogers's unkempt mane have been well earned.

" Being in a rock band can be really difficult. For them, first," he says. "When you're doing the thing you love, you're away from the ones you love. When you're with them, they're shitty at you because you're itchin' to play guitar. There are days when I'm completely blasted by two o'clock and I keep it going for the next three days. There are others when a good day involves having a great show and just hanging out with the girls. There's no perfect day."

Recently, Rogers watched a video of the 1996 ARIA Awards, where You Am I's third album, Hourly Daily, swept the night and the band closed proceedings with a prime rendition of the Easybeats' I'll Make You Happy. Looking distinctly unhappy, however, was a young Tim Rogers.
" Russ and Andy made very nice speeches, but I was this scowling, pretentious meerkat at the back," he recalls. "I should have just said, 'You made the right decision'. Why would you walk on and not shake anyone's hand?"

In several ways that night was to be a watershed for You Am I's fortunes. Despite stubborn resistance from commercial radio programmers, You Am I's critical acclaim had moved towards commercial success. Hourly Daily and its predecessor, 1995's Hi-Fi Way, one of the definitive Australian albums, had both debuted at No.1 on the charts. With a swag of unwieldy ARIA awards as the icing, You Am I's label, rooArt Records, was bought by BMG Records, with Tim Rogers as the No.1 asset.

You Am I were touted as the next big thing overseas. Rogers was photographed by Who magazine as one of the year's most beautiful people; he had a small role in Jane Campion's Holy Smoke; and the band recorded their fourth album in Los Angeles, with heavyweight American producer George Drakoulias (Black Crowes, Primal Scream). But the band's relationship with their international label, RCA Records, was to be a fractious one.

" It turns my stomach now, the way we were lied to," Rogers says evenly. "I was in the early stages of my marriage and it wreaked havoc with that, and that's why Dave Novik of RCA Records deserves to be publicly flogged. These people think they can f--- around with young bands and mould them, and they don't realise what they're doing. It destroys lives."

As the band's publicist, Novik would vet Rogers' songs, continually demanding more hooks and giving his charge's use of idiom and wayward charm short shrift. And while they focused on overseas success, You Am I's standing declined in Australia.

" I've said in the past that we missed out, but we didn't miss out at all," claims Rogers. "We had a chance and we took it. We've got people around the world - not many - who like us. You Am I was never meant to be a big band. We're great, but it's very rare that great things become successful."

Rogers was such a compelling rock-star-in-waiting that no one, including the vocalist himself, realised it might not be the best position for someone who, as he puts it, "overdoes it". As he openly admits, "there was potential for me to do a lot more stupid things and hurt a lot more people".

You Am I's decreasing sales locally also led to problems with BMG, which came to a head just under a year ago when Rogers asked Ed St John, the managing director of the multinational's Australian division, if he could release Spit Polish through Festival Mushroom Records. He felt the solo disc didn't have the commercial potential BMG needed. St John agreed, even though, as he now says, "I had an interesting legal issue with it, because Tim was contracted to us".

The pair, however, disagree about what then eventuated. Rogers feels that having acquiesced on that point, St John then chose to deny the band's request for $25,000 in tour support - which would have allowed them to tour the US, where a small indie label, spinART Records (no connection to rooArt), was releasing their most recent album, Deliverance - and then decided to drop the band altogether.

" They're not connected," says St John. "On every album they released, large amounts of money were lavished on recording budgets, marketing, tour support and videos, and in each case the sales were too low to justify these costs and we lost money. We had already funded one international tour, so when a second request came in, I declined. As cruel as it sounds, all business has to be based around the idea that you spend money to make it back, so at some point it becomes necessary to say no to a band that isn't making money."

While they also don't agree on why You Am I left BMG, they do agree it was for the best, albeit on different grounds. Rogers is happier dealing with independent labels, and St John no longer has the band's unrecouped debt to the company as a financial stress. BMG was probably never the right home for You Am I, as the company's strength is marketing and selling commercial pop acts. Unfortunately, they were finally able to do this with Australian talent, just as the split with You Am I became public knowledge. Tim Rogers out, Australian Idol's Guy Sebastian and Shannon Noll in, was an easy divide to draw.

But at the end of a long Australian tour, still upset about the loss of US tour support, Rogers saw one of the TV show's judges, Mark Holden, at Adelaide Airport. He made an ill-judged attempt to communicate his displeasure.

" I saw him walking around, and having been drinking for 48 hours, I thought I could say to him, 'We only needed $25,000 to tour America'. I idiotically thought I could explain this to Mark Holden, but because I'm an idiot I grabbed him and said, 'For the cost of putting you on TV for five minutes, my band could have toured America'. Because I put too many a 'f---s' in, he gave me this look, and if somebody gives me that look, I'll go off.

" It was just stupid," admits Rogers, who, along with Holden, was spoken to by airport security. He's somewhat embarrassed, but not about to repent. "I don't feel any remorse, because it was all lightweight. I'm glad I didn't knock his teeth out, because he's got a family. What would his kids have thought?"
It's a handful of steps to the exit, but it takes Tim Rogers right past his perceived foes. He strides towards them, a line of tension balanced across his shoulder blades. It's as if he's about to play a show, as if he's preparing himself to be Tim Rogers. After all these years, none of us know what it is to be Tim Rogers, just what it takes and what it gives back. Maybe Rogers himself doesn't know, but what he won't do is refuse to carry the burden.

Smiling, the man speaks just as Rogers draws level. "Excuse me, Tim, sorry to bother you, but I was just telling my friend," he says, nodding at the woman on the stool next to him, "about how I paid a fortune at Covent Garden once to get a Triple J Hottest 100 CD that had Heavy Heart on it so I could play it for my wife. You have to let me buy you a drink."

The pressure lifts. "Sure," replies Rogers, and within five minutes he's deep in conversation with Matt, who's celebrating his final week at a media company with Sue, one of his clients. "I first saw you in '91," she tells an increasingly humble Rogers, "at the Hopetoun Hotel in Sydney."

Within 10 minutes it's on to rounds of shots, and Rogers and Matt are talking over each other as they trade Kiss memories and debate whether it's right to attend the latest farewell tour (Rogers against, Matt for). More shots, then a ragged volley of Kiss's Shock Me by the two fans: "I'm feeling low so get me high/Shock me/Make me feel better."

And for a moment the record deals and the album sales don't matter, there are no songs to wrestle with and soon he'll be with his wife and daughter. Tim Rogers hoists his glass. "Salute," he declares as the glasses clink. Who could deny him at least that?

- Craig Mathieson