RIP Doc Neeson — the gentle wild giant of Aussie rock

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Doc Neeson, frontman of the legendary Aussie hard rock group The Angels, has died of a brain tumour, aged 67.

The wild man of Aussie rock was born Bernard Patrick Neeson in Belfast, Northern Ireland, in 1947. One of six children, he emigrated to South Australia with his family in 1960 after attending boarding school in Dublin.

He was later drafted into the Australian Army, and served as an education corps sergeant in Papua New Guinea.

It was in the early 1970s, when he attended Flinders University and completed degrees in film and drama, that Neeson created his wild man alter ego "Doc" and began performing with an Adelaide band known as the Keystone Angels.

In 1975, on the recommendation of fellow Adelaide rockers Bon Scott and Malcolm Young of AC/DC, the band was offered a recording deal with the Albert label and changed their name to The Angels.

Their first single, Am I Ever Gonna See Your Face Again? took off slowly after its release in 1976, but later became an unofficial anthem for generations of Australian youths.

Part of its popularity arose when audiences – stirred by Doc's outrageous stage performances – invented their own X-rated response to the chorus and chanted it at gigs.

Doc told how he was delighted with the response:

"When the band had first started, we were trying to write strong songs for Australian audiences. They've made it their own in a way I never would have thought possible."

After the band relocated to Sydney and released their first, self-titled album, they had a string of hits and were, at one stage, the highest paid Aussie rock act of the 1970s.

Follow-ups included Shadow Boxer, No Secrets andTake A Long Line, which featured Doc's typically hard-driving lyrics:

He was selling postcards from a paper stand
a whiskey bottle in his withered hand
he put a finger on a photo from an old magazine
and saw himself in the shadow of his dream

They found him with his head inside a tin-pot crown
told him his feet stank and took him downtown
called him agitator, spy and thief
shut him up in solitary third degree

Fairfax music critic Bernard Zuel says Neeson's stage presence helped make the rock band successful for decades.

Said Zuel:

Doc Neeson will be remembered for making every live show a dramatic and fantastic experience.

He was a performer who threw his body into every show, who made drama out of small things, and theatre out of the bigger things.

[The Angels] were part of a period where it really mattered that you could put on a live show — that you could play five, six, seven times a week and put on a good show every time.

They were a band that could do the simple things right, and do it night after night with simple songs that cut through to people.

However, the road to the top was not easy.

Doc has admitted – on Australian Story and in other interviews – to battling personal demons including alcohol, painkillers, injury, divorce, financial hardship, bitter disputes with his bandmates and depression.

On New Year's Eve 1999, Neeson announced his departure from The Angels at the MGM Grand Darwin Millennium Concert after suffering a severe spinal injury in a car accident on Sydney's M4 motorway that year.

Always known for his very physical live performances, he was warned by a back specialist that he ran the risk of being in a wheelchair if he kept performing.

However, despite his physical injuries and personal difficulties, Doc continued performing up to his diagnosis with a brain tumour on 10 January 2013 — six days after his 66th birthday.

Rather than sticking to performances in well-known city venues, Doc travelled to unusual places such as a remote mining installation in WA and East Timor, where he entertained Australian troops in 1999.

Former bandmate Buzz Bitstrup was with Neeson in hospital shortly before the singer lost consciousness on Monday, 2 June, and says The Angels never would have made it without him.

Bidstrup said:

He was the arrowhead of The Angels who propelled us to where we got to, the reason why the band became such an iconic force in the 70s.

He came across as this menacing, dark character but, as we all know, he was a gentle giant, well-read and well-spoken with impeccable manners, everything that was diametrically opposed to his rock persona.

He would dress up in that morning suit in the late 1970s, looking like someone going to Ascot races and during the show, he would lose the jacket and the tie and end up this sweaty, gritty rock guy.

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