‘Persecution Blues: The Battle For The Tote’ – a personal response

Synopsis:  Punk, passion, politics and public protest collide, in this documentary depicting the fight to save rock and roll in Melbourne. In 2010, the iconic Tote Hotel – last bastion of Melbourne’s vibrant music counterculture – was forced to close by unfair laws. Filmed over 7 years, Persecution Blues depicts the struggle of more than 20,000 fans – and the bands who inspire them – to preserve their history and protect their future, and puts the audience on the front line of an epic-scale culture war. Directed by Natalie van den Dungen Produced by Nicole Rogers & Natalie van den Dungen
Currently showing at Melbourne’s Cinema Nova.

by Lia McCrae-Moore

Last Saturday, a glorious winter day in Melbourne, I headed to the cinema somewhat reluctantly. The sun was shining and the temperature was hovering around twenty degrees. It was the perfect weather for picnicking in the park or sunbathing in the backyard – not sitting in a darkened room in front of a screen. Nevertheless, I pedalled off with friends to see the filmmaker Q&A preview screening of Persecution Blues: The Battle For The Tote.

Persecution Blues is Natalie van den Dungen’s work of passion. It is a sensitive and heartfelt documentary about Collingwood’s infamous live music venue and local pub, The Tote. The film was born out of Natalie’s deep desire to capture and record The Tote’s significance as a legendary local site for the fostering of burgeoning musical talent, but the project quickly transformed into something far more political. What began with The Tote’s 21st birthday bash unexpectedly changed direction when The Tote was forced to close up shop in 2010 due to the Brumby government’s fateful implementation of stringent liquor licensing laws. Suddenly, Persecution Blues became a pertinent and timely reminder about the need to protect these institutions from poorly implemented policy and rampant sensationalism. While the central focus of Natalie’s film is The Tote, it also follows the development of the protest group SLAM (Save Live Australian Music) and what amounted in ‘the largest cultural protest in Australian history.’

The Tote, not unlike many of Melbourne’s original bars and pubs, is a shabby old watering hole with a certain public mystique. Its clientele is a mix of regulars, punters, first-timers and seasoned Melbourne musos. The Tote has, over the years, been the home to many a well-known local band – The Drones, Spiderbait and The Meanies to name but a few. There are old, torn and dated posters lining the walls and the atmospheric lighting is dim but warm, no longer shrouded in haze of smoke. The communal energy is initially muted but intensifies as the night progresses.

Written on The Tote’s website is a beautiful ode to this rich publican and live music history.  It reads: Spend much time at the Tote and you’ll eventually encounter the ghost of the Tote. Not a scary ghost, nor a particularly friendly ghost, this fleeting apparition seems to inhabit the landing of the stairs (beneath our large ‘Cobra Woman’ banner) and always seems to be making their way upstairs. Perhaps it’s a lost punter looking for the toilets, or a faded rock god who’s demise no-one noticed, but we prefer the story that involves Squizzy Tailor, a rowdy new year’s eve and an uncooperative publican.’  This reference to the ghost of The Tote elegantly authenticates its longevity, its narrative and history, and why it plays such a central role in the hearts of so many. It simultaneously articulates and solidifies The Tote’s place in the cultural tapestry of the city by making it a unique part of the ‘Melbourne experience.’

SLAM, founded by Helen Marcou and Quincy McLean, was formed out of the spontaneous community protest to save The Tote that occurred two days prior to The Tote’s last gig. According to SLAM’s website S.L.A.M. is Save Live Australian Music, a non-politically aligned, independent entity made up of musicians and music-lovers.” The dynamic duo called on their extensive creative network, pooling skills and passion, to assemble and coordinate a cultural protest against Liquor Licensing Victoria (LLV). It was a bid to save the live music scene from the State Government’s newly implemented licensing laws that naively linked live music with high-risk conditions and anti-social behaviour. On the 23rd of February 2010, 20,000 people took to the streets to express their support for Australia’s live music, making the SLAM Rally the largest cultural protest in Australian history. In an eloquently pitched speech caught timelessly on Natalie’s camera, Paul Kelly iterates ‘I came to Melbourne in 1977 and started playing in small pubs in the inner city. Hearts, Martinis, the Kingston Hotel, out the back of Café Paradiso…You don’t learn how to write a song at school, you don’t do a TAFE course in how to play in front of an audience. These places were my universities.’ There is something about this moment that resonates strongly, like the protest’s success in renegotiating licensing policy, can be heard here in Kelly’s heartfelt words. It is as though SLAM knew what the general public wanted and tapped into this collective imagination by channeling its creative energy into a positive form of political protest.  

Before I conclude, I should probably confess that I am neither a regular patron of The Tote nor a live music devotee. Having said that, I have over the years seen my fair share of abysmally bad, mediocre and great local gigs at numerous live music venues across Melbourne. Granted, many of them at the request of a desperate friend. Despite this or perhaps in spite of this absence of a particular personal attachment to The Tote, I found Natalie’s documentary enthralling. It subtly evokes the energy and dynamism of these smelly old pubs with their sticky floors, peeling walls and dated furniture. She manages to allude to their wealth of history and spirit by seamlessly weaving her interviews with band members, publicans and staff with live music performances and sweeping handheld shots. I couldn’t help but smile as I was reminded of all those occasions where I too have quietly sipped on a pot of carefully chosen brew and watched my own sweaty friends/idols scream violently into their microphones. For me, a telltale marker of any authentic live music Melbourne experience is when exiting the pub my ears are still ringing in time to the pulsating beat of the bass.

Undoubtedly, it is easy to fall into the trap of glorifying these places when you are describing them through the lens of your own local nostalgia but that’s what this film has done for me. It has made me feel nostalgic, made me want to reach out and connect more with my community and to properly appreciate the places that foster our live music scene. Unlike the film’s direct political message, the essence of The Tote is not be immediately identifiable but it is nonetheless pervasive. On leaving the cinema, it seemed somewhat fitting to be celebrating Melbourne and its vibrant music scene on such a glorious day.