In Maleny circles, Steve McLeish is known as a multi-skilled musician and event organiser extraordinaire, but there is a story behind the public mask.
by Gay Liddington
“We are an element of all our teachers from the past,” said Steve McLeish, as he shares the gifts his many teachers imparted to him amidst the complexities of his life’s journey.
Sydney born McLeish, entered the world with music and a fighting spirit in his blood. “My father was a singer, a drummer, and a boxer. He had a weekly spot on The Captain Fortune Show, which aired soon after television came to Australia.”
The middle child of three, Steve said, “When my older sister was born, Dad gave up music and took up house painting. Alcohol filled the void. My mum was a gentle, loving being, and a very good housekeeper, as was the way in those days.”
The family lived in Artarmon and Steve, a shy boy, learned the clarinet at eight. He reflects: “I think musicians become good musicians because they spend so much time by themselves. Many were socially inept kids, but later became socially positive because they have this skill they developed as a child.”
Steve struggled through those early years. “The same kid bullied me right the way through school. Then, after I left, there was a knock on the door one day and it was him!”
Steve’s nemesis had just returned from the Aquarius Festival, where he’d had an epiphany. He’d come to apologise.
After leaving high school, Steve gained employment at an advertising agency.
“I worked as a dispatch clerk in the mailroom and worked my way up to print production. Then, Reader’s Digest head-hunted me for their print production department at Surry Hills. Before long, I decided I didn’t want to do this nine-to-five thing.
“I’d wake up in the morning and think, the surf’s great today. Oh, no, I must walk past it, get on a bus from Narrabeen, a ferry to Circular Quay, then a train to Surry Hills, do a full day’s work, then do the same to get home. By the time I arrived home, the surf was done.”
After leaving city employment, Steve sought adventure, hitchhiking within Australia—shooting the breeze and catching the waves.
“It was the early ‘70s when I came to Amamoor and picked beans. I realised then that learning clarinet as a kid was a good thing, that playing guitar was a good thing. Being able to sit in circles of people and doodle on guitar gave me self-confidence.
“I zig-zagged up and down the coast following the surf and ended up at Snow Bunny, a ski lodge at the base of Perisher. It was there I learnt to cook.
“Then, I received a call from Dad. He’d bought a business at Bateau Bay and asked if I’d help them. It turned out to be an old fish and chip shop which we renovated and turned into a 60-seat steak and pancake restaurant. Seeing I’d just learnt how to make pancakes at the Snow Bunny, I became a cook in the family restaurant.”
Steve said that his father buying a restaurant was unusual behaviour, but what came next was even more out of character.
“One night in the early ‘80s, Dad announced he had decided to create a male strip show. He went to Kings Cross with a friend, where they auditioned transvestite dancers.
“I was the sound engineer at these sell-out events. It was quite an experience but working with my dad was difficult. Then he sold the restaurant and strip show business and I didn’t want to hang around.”
Back in Sydney, Steve moved in with a friend who had inherited a house with a 10-car garage. The ‘Nimbin Embassy’ as they called it, became Steve’s haven to make music.
“I had a fantastic life there—a little recording studio in a big garage. I lived there for a few years and was in my late 20s when I held my first event called The Image Co-op. There were 12 artists of different genres: fabric sculptor, painter, film man, musicians, dancers—together we created this show.
“It was wonderful, but after three months’ work, I walked away with about two dollars. However, I had a cupboard full of warm and fuzzies and a hell of a lot of experience.
“After that, I lived around Sydney for a while, playing in a few bands. My main instrument was the saxophone. Then, my brother called and said that Mum has an idea and it’s a pretty good one. It was a rubber mitten with a scourer attached, the first of its kind.
“We followed it through and ended up getting patents in 76 countries. Eventually, we signed a contract with an American company who guaranteed us nine million dollars in the first year, with a ten per cent increase for ten years. We thought we had made it and let go of the process.
“A year went by, then another. We tried to contact them and couldn’t. Then, a friend who was a distributor received an email from an American distribution network saying that they had this amazing product that was selling in America and wanted to get it into Australia. It was our product.
“Our lawyers contacted the company who told them that because we had signed the contract under Illinois law, we’d have to bring our barristers to Illinois to fight it. We couldn’t afford it. My brother and I had put about five years of work into the project, and they ripped us off. Our family crumbled. I rebelled at the world, got in a Kombi and drove to Maleny.”
February edition of HT: Steve McLeish settles in the recently established Crystal Waters Eco Village and spends the next decade building houses. McLeish conceives and facilitates Thinking Rhythm in Australia and overseas, and the Gandhi School comes to Maleny. The talented musician forges a life path paved with music, event management, and teaching.