Nick Cave, Andy Griffiths and the $10,000 suit: how Melbourne's Crystal Ballroom launched a scene

Kirsten Krauth

It arrives in a cardboard box, postmarked Brighton, UK. Black, with maroon pinstripes, the dry-cleaning tag still pinned to the lapel. It’s beautiful material, handmade and still smells good, the traces of smoke and sweat and stage. The pants have no bum, none whatsoever, but the jacket fits surprisingly well on my small frame, slim-fitted. It’s the closest I’ll get to Nick Cave, that’s how I figure it, after imagining him as a character for so many years in my novel Almost a Mirror. I find a black wiry hair trapped in a seam and hide it for safekeeping. When I tell my male friends about the suit, they vie for my attention, insisting they are the perfect fit. I imagine them lined up in a St Kilda alley, thin and lanky, smoking – like Cinderella hoping to be invited to the ball(room).

Related: Nick Cave's inspiration: pictures and notes from his archive

The suit hangs and swings as I drive, and I realise it’s worth more than my car. I’m heading to the home of Andy Griffiths, the world-renowned author of the Storey Treehouse series, where he lives with his partner and co-author Jill. A Nick Cave fanatic, Andy has just purchased the suit for $10,000 in an auction bid for the #AuthorsForFireys appeal – a donation that I, another Nick Cave fanatic, had facilitated.

When I arrive, Andy tries the jacket on too. It fits – but the suit isn’t for him. He bought it for the skeleton in the studio out the back where he works.

I ask why he put in a bid. “First and foremost, I was really affected by the fires and also the bravery of the firefighters,” he says. “We take creative risks as artists but not life-threatening risks. I was so angry at the … state of play for the last decade. [Scott Morrison] is just so obstinate on this issue. I was filled with rage at this fucking awful government.”

Like Nick Cave, Andy — known then by his stage name Griff Griffiths — was attracted to the post-punk Melbourne music scene in the late 70s and early 80s, and hovered around the Crystal Ballroom: an elegantly wasted venue in St Kilda that hosted bands including the Birthday Party, the Cure, New Order and Go-Betweens.

I wasn’t old enough to be part of the Ballroom scene and so in my book I inhabit a performative space, exploring the mythology that surrounds Nick Cave and his fellow musicians. Andy was part of it though. He saw his first gig there: Midnight Oil in November, 1979. He remembers because it was the last day of Year 12. “We sat outside the station just drinking, getting as drunk as we could, so we didn’t have to pay money inside,” he says. At that point the band was “the best kept secret in the world … Pure energy coming from the stage. Mind blowing, really exciting.”

Andy is good with dates and has a uniquely detailed memory. Partly this is because he’s kept everything from childhood onwards: early stories, song lyrics, band memorabilia and photos, cassettes taped from the radio carefully labelled in a drawer. He is an archivist’s dream. Over lunch with Jill, he lovingly shows me set lists from bands like Snakefinger and Dead Kennedys grabbed at the end of gigs, reads me lyrics from his high school days in first band Unborn Babies, and shows photos and hand-drawn flyers from when he rocked up to the Ballroom with a later band, Gothic Farmyard.

On stage he was the lead singer; he couldn’t play an instrument, but was renowned for his manic energy and beating himself up, colliding, bashing his head blood-raw. “We were committed to making every show an event,” he says. “The end goal was to get a gig at the Ballroom. That was you already successful beyond your wildest dreams.”

He loved the venue because it welcomed all comers. “And the beauty of it for someone like me ... was that any band that got on stage at the Ballroom would have an audience prepared to take us seriously and try to figure us out,” he says. “There wasn’t heckling or anything.”

Andy was always drawn to Nick Cave and Rowland S Howard while hanging around the Ballroom; he talks passionately about the Birthday Party gigs, especially one at the Astor. “If anyone asked me what’s the best gig you’ve ever been to? I’ll just go straight back to 1982,” he says. “Nick, Tracey Pew in the background with his 10-gallon hat and stomping around, and Rowland’s cigarette hanging out his mouth, making music.” Returning from London, they “had kind of transformed from this Melbourne band to a world band and they were full of dark energy and anger,” he says. “They were just at the height of their powers … full throttle. Opened the gates of hell, and primal energy came out.”

It’s clear the influence of the place has been profound, the sensibility of the time – the chaos, and wild energy – infusing all of Andy’s writing. Nick Cave was a particular inspiration. “He’s been lucky to do his own thing. And that’s probably what I value the most about him as an artist,” he says. “Because I realised when I started writing ‘seriously’ that I wasn’t like other writers … I just couldn’t write a sensible novel. In the end, everything I did was derailed by the anarchic Devo punk rock energy.”

While Andy Griffiths is now a global phenomenon for the wildly popular and hilarious books he writes with illustrator Terry Denton, it took years before his work reached an audience. He has never seen himself as a children’s writer, either: his early Bad Book series caught many (including A Current Affair), off guard with its gut-churningly funny depictions of children in peril, including a mother who encourages her child to run across a busy road (so many of the punchlines end in gratuitously ridiculous deaths).

Early on, he made a conscious decision to stick with his own offbeat style – “really funny, off the wall, strange stuff” – even if it meant not having a recognisable career. Artists like Nick Cave “don’t bend over backwards to get to their audience,” he says. “They go, ‘This is what I do, and this is what I have to do,’ — and then they do it. And I loved the courage of that. So, I thought, ‘Well, maybe I’m an outsider artist in my heart.’ I probably am, dammit.”

In retrospect, embracing the anarchic and punk spirit was the perfect decision. “[Kids] are a very critical audience, they can spot a try-hard from a million miles away,” he says. “They realised I wasn’t trying to be funny; I just was doing what I do, and they could come to me. And so, I think they just heard the voice, the pure energy at that point, because I wasn’t trying to make them like me.”

Related: Andy Griffiths and Terry Denton: 'We had to draw the entire world back into existence'

After lunch, Andy leads me to his studio where he takes time to dress the skeleton, carefully adjusting the arms, while pointing out Ballroom-era memorabilia and music that lines the walls. Eyeballs pop out of the skeleton’s head and roll along the floor. He shows me the many tattoos on his arms including one of the Saints’ record I’m Stranded.

Later, walking me in the direction of the train station, we chat about the next Storey Treehouse and both come to the idea at the same time. Andy promises that in the upcoming book there will be a room for the skeleton wearing Nick’s suit.

Kirsten Krauth’s Almost A Mirror – a novel set around the Crystal Ballroom in the 1980s – is out now through Transit Lounge