Remembering Graham Cathcart

by John Stanwell

Graeme Dunstan suggested that I should write something about Graham Cathcart and his "alma mater" HARPO.

Graham was one of the team that delivered the Nimbin Festival, but who is only with us in spirit these days .......


HARPO was formed in Brisbane in late 1971 as a counter-culture organization promoting alternative lifestyles, with an emphasis on writing and publishing, music and theatre, politics and healthy living.

The driving influence behind HARPO was the desire by printers Graham Cathcart and Bomber Perrier to produce their own street paper, called Harpo, but the group that they inspired grew quickly, and drew on a range of influences and interests such as the former performance group Romp Street Theatre, and the legendary Foco.

In the end, only two editions of Harpo were produced. Print magazines were the most traditional form of communication, and the skills required to produce them were readily available amongst political and cultural activists. However full-scale publications were costly and labour intensive, and were diabolically difficult to distribute effectively, and Harpo was no exception.

The name Harpo was originally chosen simply because it was an interesting-sounding name. Then somebody joked that H.A.R.P.O. stood for "How About Resisting Powerful Organizations", and the acronym stuck.

Brisbane in the 1960’s was arguably Australia’s most conservative state capital, but this produced a large and unified political opposition and a well-organised alternative culture. The most unique and influential by-product was Foco, a multi-media phenomenon that occurred on Sunday nights in Trades Hall in late 1968 and early 1969. Foco combined a band room, offering the best local and interstate rock bands, with films, folk, poetry, a resident theatre troupe and lightshow, plus a radical bookshop and discussion room.

Needless to say, the good burghers of Brisbane were outraged by Foco’s overnight success and popularity with “normal” young people, and it wasn’t long before Foco was smashed into oblivion. Though Foco lasted for less than a year, the ripple effect of its achievements inspired activists like those in HARPO for years to come.

Given the history of Foco, and the fact that most in HARPO (including Bomber and Graham) were performers of some sort, it was inevitable that HARPO would turn its hand to performance events.

The first of the famed Harpo's Nite Out concert events, featuring a combination of political theatre and live music, was held in the University of Queensland refectory building in March 1972. The theatre was performed by the Laurence Brown Theatrical Troupe (another HARPO invention) and the music was performed by Brisbane band Shepherd, and headline-band Mackenzie’s Theory from Melbourne. Mother's Lightworks (Phil Hutson) did the psychedelic light show, and Electronic Excursions (Peter Gray) added a quadraphonic sound system. Mackenzie’s Theory provided an atmospheric soundtrack to our theatre piece, and then took over for their set; Graham was always a key member of the troupe.

A second Harpo's Nite Out later the same year was the start of a Mackenzie’s Theory/ HARPO road tour sponsored by the Australian Union of Students. The tour helped to spawn a solid working relationship with Johnny Allen (and later Graeme Dunstan) from the AUS cultural arm, Aquarius.

HARPO worked in a loose organizational structure, with the attitude that "we can do anything” – and we did. In June 1972, HARPO (mainly Graham and I) took over the running of Wholefoods Organic Food Co-op in Auchenflower, and for a time the running of Mr Natural's Food Kitchen, a vegetarian restaurant near the university.

Bomber managed to convince the iconic American beat poet, Allen Ginsberg, to do a concert of readings in Brisbane before returning to the US after the Adelaide Festival, and Ginsberg appeared for HARPO with visiting Russian poet, Andrei Voznesensky. Another concert event followed featuring Phil Ochs (singer) and Ron Cobb (cartoonist), both visiting from the US, organized in conjunction with Aquarius (and hence Johnny).

In 1973, HARPO was asked to formalize its relationship with the UQ University Union. Bomber became Theatre Director, I became Activities Director, and Johnny and Graeme employed Graham Cathcart to assist AUS with the planning and construction phases for the Aquarius Festival, to be held at Nimbin in May. Piled into the back of the Yellow Truck (bought by Aquarius) Graham regularly took a small army of HARPO members, Architecture students and other Brisbane volunteers to undertake reconnaissance and work trips to the area. Shortly before the Festival, Graham and HARPO members assisted Johnny and Graeme in putting on a "happening" in the Nimbin town hall to introduce the upcoming festival to the local residents.

While most of the rest of us from HARPO enjoyed the Festival as participants, Graham, like Johnny and Graeme, kept working right through the highly successful event, including with the Food Co-op. Just like HARPO and the alternative cultural scene in Brisbane in the early 1970’s, the Nimbin Aquarius festival owes a big debt of gratitude to the boundless energy, enthusiasm and creativity of Graham Cathcart.

The wanderlust got to Graham after Nimbin, and he went off on a big adventure through SE Asia. The last correspondence I had from Graham was in fact two photos from Indonesia, where he had ended up as a guest performer at a wedding of some people he had met. Graham never missed the opportunity to pop up on a stage.

Tragically, Graham died of typhoid fever at the Holy Spirit Hospital in New Delhi, on 10 August 1974. He was just 23.

Graham’s official story ended some weeks later, on a cold day in Stanthorpe, as we farewelled his ashes in the cemetary in his home town.

Of course, the spirit of Graham Cathcart was never extinguished, and it lives on in our memories and our aspirations. And one of the places where those memories are particularly appropriate are the celebrations for the 40th anniversary of the 1973 Nimbin Aquarius Festival.

Rock on, Graham Cathcart !!