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  • Writer's pictureAndrew McIlroy

From Montparnasse to Glenhuntly: How Fat Bob’s Café on Melbourne's fringe became a haven for artists, musicians and other misfits


Once dotted with Victorian mansions, many demolished in the early twentieth century to make way for new housing and stores for Melbourne’s burgeoning middle classes, Glen Huntly Road, originally a dirt track to supply the quarantine station set up in 1840 at Port Ormond on the edge of Port Phillip Bay to deal with an outbreak of typhoid on board the recently arrived ship of the same name, stretches east to the stately Victorian railway station at Caulfield, first opened in 1879.

 

Like many bustling thoroughfares, Glen Huntly Road has suffered over time from the mechanisation of society, world wars, economic depression and urban decline, often reflected in the grandly adorned shopfronts, either full of goods for sale or shuttered as the suburb fell on hard times.

 

It is here where this story begins.


 Glenhuntly Road, 1913 (The road was renamed in 1907)


Acclaimed multi-instrumentalist and songwriter, Adrian Kosky is often asked, even today, how his 1980’s legendary live music venue got its name, ‘Fat Bob’s Café'.


Kosky a wiry, spirited bohemian tells of gathering his artistic friends in the empty, run down Glenhuntly Road shop beneath an apartment he rented with his then partner Mich on the upper floor. 

 

Here, long into the morning’s early hours, musicians, singers, songwriters, artists, poets, raconteurs, writers and their eclectic group of friends would play music, tell stories and share each other’s company without it seemed a care in the world, far from disapproving eyes on Melbourne's fringe. 

 

Before long, as the gatherings grew larger and the outdated coffee machine reached its full potential, Kosky realised it was time to invest in turning the vacant space into a revenue making ‘coffee shop’.  Kosky could foresee the importance of such a creative meeting place in nurturing the city’s musicians and artists often doing it tough with few venues to showcase and share their talents or get an inexpensive meal.

 

To do this, Kosky resigned to selling his cherished ‘Fat Bob’ Harley Davidson motorcycle.


Adrian Kosky today shares his time between Daylesford, Victoria and Clarkesdale, Mississippi


As a young aspiring musician, I stood in 'Fat Bob’s' doorway one Sunday evening, having visited earlier in the same week for reassurance, with my guitar case under one arm and holding the door ajar with the other.  It was ‘Open Talent Night' where coffee-sipping hopefuls waited soberly for their turn to be called up to the small makeshift stage. 

 

The night’s MC, Rick E Vengeance was every bit the showman and certainly even-handed, good naturedly working the crowded bench seats in his signature frenetic style while mercilessly chastising any performer seemingly ill prepared or worse, over-confident.  Being critiqued by Vengeance was every budding musician's worst fear, but forever gratefully remembered.

 

Vengeance, not missing a beat, chided me for ‘dilly-dallying’ and waved me in from the doorway, making my awkward entrance a comedic part of his performance.

 

A Canadian Polish émigré, Vengeance dressed in dandyish 1970’s outsized outfits and sporting heart-shaped rose tinted glasses was proudly a ‘folkie’ - and one of Australia's finest guitarists.


Rick E Vengeance (1950 - 2018) Photo: 3RRR

 

Having spent many hours learning my songs, I should have felt more confident but full of self-doubt and nerves in what was to be a life-long trait, I fumbled on stage when my turn came.

 

Evidently struggling to find my way through my very first live set, Kosky simultaneously working the impressive new coffee machine and joining in the revelry that was rarely hushed (unless the performer was breathtakingly good), picked up his harmonica and masterfully played along as I delightfully finished out my short set.  The whole smoke-filled room was alive with chatter, laughter and comradery, not unlike I imagined the raucously engaged crowd once-upon-a-time of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre.

 

This café bursting with life on a forgotten suburban edge of the city was sought out by and became a safe haven for artists from all walks of life.  Uncertain of their talent, questioning their place in a society that appeared more interested in wealth and personal gain that in no small way came to define the 1980’s, these artists (many from the nearby Melbourne School of Art) found solace and support from their contemporaries, an escape from hardships, and inspiration from the more experienced among them.  It also tested one's level of comfort, deterring any risk of complacency.

 

Fat Bob’s Café, as were a handful of other late-night entertainment cafes - the Troubadour, Green Man, Twilight Café and Green Lantern - was a vibrant social meeting place for the city’s famed and upcoming artists and performers such as Bob Sedergreen, Margaret Roadknight, Marvin Lorne, Pierre Jaquinot, Fiona Boyes, Tommy Emannuel, Ian Paulin, Janette Geri, Brent Parlane, Paul Wookey, Steve Wade, Jimi Hocking, and Eric Bogle, just to name a few, and notably continued a tradition that for so long had dominated Europe.


Melbourne's popular although regrettably short-lived Fat Bob's Cafe (1983 - 1987)

 

In the 1920’s Paris was a city full of energy and excitement, when Parisians were emerging from the horrors of war and the Spanish Flu to find that a new world greeted them, full of seismic change. 

 

Here, a growing mix of exotic and aspirational of artists, couturiers and writers came to immerse themselves in the company, rivalry and inspiration of fellow artists, among other things, in order the find their success. 

 

One hundred years on, it is the stories of their seemingly endless battle against poverty and adversity for the most part that fuel our imaginations and romantic notions of being an artist - outliers, wide-eyed and free of societal constraints - in a chaotic world. 


A young Ernest Hemingway in 1920's Paris with his wife, Hadley and friends


It has long been the case that artists voluntarily or by necessity often place themselves on the outskirts of society, perhaps predestined by their temperament to suffer, daring themselves to transform the uncertainty they find there into something tangible and lasting, transforming the unknown into inventive images. 


Of the many things written about this ‘Lost Generation’ and those close, Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dali, Alberto Giacometti, Marcel Proust, Coco Chanel, Elsa Schiaparelli, James Joyce, Ernest Hemingway or Josephine Baker, this one common thread in my mind weaves through their lives, beginning on their arrival in the City of Light.

 

Artists, musicians and writers from afar and with little if any belongings in hand would arrive at the soaring iron and glass halls of Paris’ grand railway stations, savouring the romance and no doubt standing in awe at the spacious boulevards laid out by Baron Haussmann years before at the behest of Napoleon III. 


Towering rows of ornate apartments, all for the most part uniform in design stretching as far as the eye could see, connecting the main monuments and facilitating the flow of traffic as well as when necessary, the swift deployment of troops to keep the city’s unruly population in check.


The long, straight avenues that continue to dominate Paris (pictured here around 1870) were a key feature of Baron Haussmann’s rebuilding plans


Newly arrived artists would seek out the affordable hotels, cafes and jazz clubs of Montparnasse

Rue Campagne-Première and Boulevard du Montparnasse, Paris c1920

 

The heart of all this creativity and rattling activity was Montparnasse, where the impoverished artists found abundant cafes, affordable food and lodgings, brothels and opium dens and others more concerned with the carefree sexual and social behaviours of the time.

 

And while Montparnasse drew tourists in search of the city of their dreams, the decade also saw an undercurrent of despair as well as the rise of fascism and violent ultra-right groups, dedicated to annihilating whatever threatened tradition and order - a struggle that was destined to escalate in the years to come. (Mary McAuliffe, 'When Paris Sizzled', Roman and Little Publishers, New York 2017).


All ultimately combining to inform their art.


Montparnasse's famed Le Dome cafe

 

When painter Alberto Giacometti (only later dedicating himself to sculpture) arrived in Paris to study in 1922, the young artist meandered through the enticing dank side streets of the Left Bank, destined for Montparnasse where his already well-developed lust for the seedier side of life and the fleeting company of prostitutes would be well satisfied, despite the limits of the small stipend his father had hoped would settle the wayward instincts of the young man. 


For Giacometti, Montparnasse would provide him with true perspective (and an affordable studio), challenging his creativity, among the bountiful throng of painters and writers who flocked to the cafes and bars of this promised land.

 

Essential to Giacometti’s search for creativity, he would later write, was a determination to emotionally and physically starve a bit, sensing it otherwise virtually impossible to be successful as an artist, arguing that hunger is partly by its very nature a necessity for motivating artists.


In their poverty, he continued, artists will explore a city’s fringes to discover some place that perhaps has seen better days and in time inspire success. That edge, where artists are always transforming chaos into order, can be a very uncertain and even dangerous place.


Living there, an artist constantly risks falling fully into the chaos, instead of transforming it. But artists have always lived on the border of human understanding. (Michael Peppiatt, 'Giacometti in Paris', Bloomsbury Publishing 2023)


Alberto Giacometti leaving his atelier on rue Hippolyte-Maindron in Paris, 1958


Artists must be contending with something they do not understand, says Giacometti, or they are not artists. Instead, they are posers, or romantics (often romantic failures), or narcissists, or even fakes.


They are likely, when genuine, to be idiosyncratically and peculiarly obsessed by their intuition - possessed by it, willing to pursue it even in the face of opposition and the overwhelming likelihood of rejection, criticism, and practical and financial failure.


When they are successful, they make the world more understandable (sometimes replacing something more “understood,” but now anachronistic, with something new and better).


Art is exploration, Giacometti would boast. Artists teach people to see. It is very hard to perceive the world, to reconnect us with what we have lost, and to enlighten us to the world.

 

Artists across their disciplines are indeed the people who stand on the 'frontier of the transformation of the unknown into knowledge'. They make their voluntary foray out into the unknown, take a piece of it and transform it into an image for others to take in.


Fat Bob's Café too at the end of a once grand boulevard became my safe harbour, where I came of age as a performer and artist, came to better understand the world and my place in it, and contemplated what may just lay ahead, knowing that here and despite the many challenges I wasn't alone in my pursuits.


I miss it.



 


'Pig out at Fat Bob's' Artist: Steven Warburton



Fat Bob's Café was located at 741 Glenhuntly Road, South Caulfield in the State of Victoria in Australia.



Andrew McIlroy is an artist and writer, living and working in Melbourne, Australia


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