It was summer, 1974. Aussie rocker Billy Thorpe was belting out a brilliant rendition of Over The Rainbow but the punters who turned out to see him were belting each other.

“There was this most beautiful song sung in the most incredible way and there was everybody fighting at the Showgrounds,” remembers playwright Neil Cole.

“They were punching each other up, and the bouncers were coming in.

“It was just this surreal feeling of the beauty of his song against this thuggery and men showing how good and tough they are.”

Cole recalls the Melbourne show well. The funny thing was his friend of 41 years, Leigh Farnell had the very same experience when he saw Thorpe play around the same period in Bendigo.

It was an odd situation, but the pair weren’t strangers to a working class life, where beautiful music existed alongside a backdrop of thuggery. “That was the way we were brought up,” Cole explains.

In fact, the experience led Cole and Farnell to write a play showcasing the late rock icon’s life and music, Billy Thorpe and Leigh.

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The moving true story is told through the eyes of an adolescent Farnell, a diehard Thorpe fan.

It details how working class hero Thorpe’s music changed Farnell’s life in the face of a personal crisis and his struggle to find his place in the world becomes intertwined with the star’s success and music.

“When Leigh’s going through hard times, a fictional Billy comes on and is optimistic about what he can do,” Cole explains.

“It’s a way of telling Billy Thorpe’s life and involvement without being a testimonial.”

Cole has written more than 25 plays and has worked as a lawyer and Victorian MP. He was the first Australian politician to publicly admit having a mental illness.

He first heard Thorpe sing when he was aged eight and he’s been listening to him ever since.

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“I just love his earlier stuff and the song Most People I Know Think That I’m Crazy, particularly as I’ve got a mental illness myself,” he says.

“It’s just wonderful to see that what is crazy isn’t such a bad thing in his case.

“That doesn’t mean he’s got a mental illness, it means that he’s so optimistic and exuberant all the time, that’s why they think it.”

Cole, a Griffin Theatre Award winner, says what made Thorpe so exceptional was that his singing was beyond compare.

“His voice was so good he could carry off anything and that’s basically what he did,” he says.

“I personally at the age of 58 could not think of anybody who is remotely as good as him. But we are biased.”

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* Billy Thorpe and Leigh plays at the Alex Theatre, St Kilda, VIC from May 18-29.


Source: AAP, Image: Getty