AS he sits in the morning sunshine, Ray Baxter is a portrait of serenity. But as he talks, his memory is striding through one tumultuous night 40 years ago.
It was the night Ray Baxter turned up to a party and participated in a riot.
It was the night Baxter wanted to observe history. Instead, he became a part of Newcastle's history.
"It's still in my mind like it happened yesterday," Baxter says. "I can still recall it like it only happened yesterday."
Ray Baxter was a 20-year-old living in Cooks Hill. He had already made a name for himself as a champion canoeist and kayaker. He had won a national title and had represented Australia. On September 19, 1979, Baxter was not on the water but heading for an iconic Newcastle watering hole.
He wanted to be part of the crowd saying farewell to the iconic Star Hotel.
"The Star Hotel was a cesspit, it was a glorified toilet," Baxter says.
Yet this pub was a broad church. A historic pile that had been around in one form or another for more than a century, the Star had a front bar facing Hunter Street that was a haunt of visiting sailors. The middle bar was popular with the city's gay community. And the cramped back bar off King Street was a home for rock and roll. Some of the city's best bands, such as Benny and the Jets, Meccalissa and Heroes played on the tiny stage, while young women danced on the bar.
"Rock and roll and girls was a good mix," Baxter recalls, saying he was not going to miss the final night at the pub.
"I expected to have a really good night, which I'd had there many times, with the bands in the back bar."
For the Star's farewell party, a string of bands was playing. Among them was Meccalissa (later DV8), with its lead singer-guitarist Greg Bryce.
"I think there was a little tinge of sadness, because this hotel was the platform that got us known," Bryce says. "There was no way this wasn't going to be a great gig."
The final band on stage for the night was to be Heroes, four local musicians who had built a large following with their guitar pop-rock.
"It was probably the most exciting gig we've ever done, all of us, in our lives," says the band's guitarist Mark Tinson. "It was electric."
Yet Heroes were about to be synonymous with the Star for reasons beyond rhythm and melody. A crowd estimated between 3000 and 5000 had turned up for the farewell, so people spilled out of the back bar, along King Street, and even onto the road.
At 10pm, the time the pub was due to close, the band was ripping through a final song with the prescient title The Star and the Slaughter, when a couple of police officers made their way through the crush of the crowd towards the stage.
"I was inside the bar at the time, watching the band right to the end, when the two police officers walked in and grabbed the mic stand," recalls Ray Baxter. "That started things happening inside the bar."
Heroes' lead singer and guitarist Pete de Jong was hit in the mouth by the microphone, as a police officer shook the stand, telling the band to stop playing.
"My recollection is that it was pretty exciting, we were having fun," says de Jong. "'What the f#@k? You want us to stop? I don't think so'."
Ray Baxter believes the police's actions fuelled what was to come.
"I thought at the time that it was a stupid, stupid thing to do," Baxter says. "You've got a crowd of people who are revved up anyway, and then to move in and show some sort of authority over all these people? It would have been two minutes and it would have been all wrapped up, it would have been finished."
Heroes decided to play an encore, an abbreviated version of Sweet's hit, Action.
"In defiance of the police, we went back on," de Jong says.
"I would have said it was because we wanted to stop a riot, we went on to appease the crowd," offers Tinson.
"I would say our motivation wasn't that lofty, or our intention wasn't that lofty, that we wanted to prevent a riot," says de Jong.
Drummer Phil Screen noticed the unrest that had been rippling through the crowd outside was now making its way into the bar: "People were starting to crawl around the walls and rip stuff off the walls. The 'ugly' that was outside was starting to move inside the pub."
De Jong told the crowd the "pigs" had said "you gotta go".
The music stopped. The mayhem began.
Empty beer cans were flying from the back of the room, so Ray Baxter decided to leave the bar.
"When I moved outside, there were cops everywhere, and it was all starting to happen," he says. "And you just get caught up in the moment."
He finished the can of beer in his hand - then threw it.
"Personally, I didn't think I was doing anything wrong," Baxter says. "I thought, 'Okay, we'll throw a couple of cans at the police. Big deal. Go home and it will all be over'.
"You had an endless amount of ammunition, because you'd throw the cans forward and force the police back and pick up your ammunition and keep throwing it."
"The sky was full of cans," recalls Greg Bryce, who had gone outside after performing. He was in the midst of rising tension as police put people in the vans, only to retreat as the crowd pushed back and released those detained.
In Bryce's eyes, it was becoming "too much" when a group flipped over a police car. One of those involved was Ray Baxter.
"Again, emotion takes over, adrenaline kicks in," Baxter explains. "It looked like they were having trouble lifting the car, so I thought they needed my help. I ran in right at the death and helped them lift it."
The night was suddenly illuminated by flames. A couple of police vehicles were set on fire. Many in the crowd realised the riot was hurtling into potentially lethal territory, and onto ground where they no longer wanted to be standing.
"Girlfriends were grabbing their boyfriends and saying, 'This is ridiculous, let's get out of here'," recalls Greg Bryce.
"Alcohol and high emotions caused things to go from a happy event, and the imposition of police stopping people from saying goodbye to the Star."
Ray Baxter wandered home. He thought he'd got away with it. About a week and a half later, he was arrested and faced three charges. He went to court and was fined $200 and, for a few years afterwards, says he occasionally copped the ire of police when his car was pulled over.
"I don't think I've ever been ashamed of it, I think that I'd have been disappointed if I'd missed it," he says. "I'd have been disappointed if I was at home and I woke up the next morning and this all had happened, and I didn't see it.
"But in saying that, I wish I was a bystander, not a participant."
Heroes' Peter de Jong was also among the dozens charged.
"They had a problem deciding what to charge me with. Initially, it was sedition. And the penalty was death by hanging," he says, quickly adding that punishment was not going to happen. "So instead, I've suffered death by hanging around!"
More than hang around, de Jong and his bandmates are Heroes just for one more day. They play their last ever concert on Thursday night, the 40th anniversary of the riot, at Lizotte's.
They will perform their hits, including The Star and the Slaughter, and they will think about how much they, and their hometown, have changed - and haven't changed - since that night in 1979.
"I think there's still an appreciation of the rebellious spirit," Heroes' bassist Jim Porteus says. "Even for the people who don't agree with what happened, that rebellious spirit is remembered and valued to a certain extent. So there's no doubt it's still in the culture."
Even those who weren't at the Star are reflecting on the riot's impact on Newcastle.
Rock musician and TV presenter Chit Chat von Loopin Stab grew up in Waratah as Glenn Dormand. He was 12 when the riot happened.
"My brother was at the Star," Chit Chat says.
"He's 10 years older than me. He was there. I talked to him the next day and I really felt like he was changed. He'd been to war, that's what it felt like. He was really freaked out."
About a decade ago, Chit Chat returned to live in his hometown.
Now, through an online documentary series titled "Stories of our Town" (storiesofourtown.com), he is returning to Newcastle's past.
The first documentary he and production partner Tony Whittaker have made is about the Star Hotel riot.
For the documentary, Chit Chat spoke with a range of participants, from police officers and photojournalists to musicians.
In the process, he has dispelled a couple of myths that have grown up around the riot.
No, Cold Chisel wasn't there, even if the band did later release a song titled Star Hotel.
But Australian Crawl was in town that night, playing nearby at the Ambassador nightclub.
"Didn't write a song about it, but we did see it," Australian Crawl's singer James Reyne says of the riot.
The documentary maker believes not one group is to blame for the riot beginning - "Everything was to blame!" - and he doubts whether Novocastrians would react like that today, especially over the closing of a pub.
"I think it couldn't happen now because it happened," Chit Chat says. "And that's a really important point. The police weren't prepared for what happened. There was no training at all for what happened.
"I think we have changed. We're definitely a more cosmopolitan city ... and with that comes a wimpiness.
"But it does speak to our rebel past, and it does speak to a time when we were passionate and loyal, out to protect things that mattered. Maybe it was misguided."
Like everyone and everything surrounding that night, the venue itself has changed.
The King Street section of the hotel is still a bar, but its interior has been revamped. Among the few reminders of its wild past are photos on the walls.
Even so, according to venue manager Ali Pultar, the pub, and its legend, is still a drawcard.
"People come in here saying, 'Is this THE Star Hotel?," Ms Pultar says. "I hear it every day."
The Star Hotel has planned three days of events to commemorate the riot, including a visit on Friday from the publican at the time, Don Graham, and a performance on Thursday night by Glenda Jackson, one of the renowned drag queens from the old middle bar.
What won't be happening is a riot.
"We want to remember the history here, but we definitely don't want to repeat it," Ms Pultar says.
On Thursday night, Ray Baxter will also remember what happened 40 years ago.
"I don't think it's that big a milestone in my life, but it is a milestone," he says.
"It's one of those things where you're caught in some sort of history and people don't let you forget."
Ray Baxter is sometimes asked, if he could, would he do it again.
"I don't think it's a matter of would I do it again," he replies. "I think the question is, 'Were you glad you were there?' And I think I wouldn't have missed it for the world. It probably wasn't good at the time, but in hindsight it was a fantastic night."
Read more: Heroes prepare for their final show
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