AN off-beat annual surf tradition has begun on the Illawarra’s northern beaches in memory of Australian indie rock legend James Cruickshank.
The Cruel Sea keyboard player and guitarist moved to Stanwell Park as a young teenager and discovered his life-long love of surfing.
He died in Bangalow near Byron Bay on October 8, a year after he was diagnosed with bowel cancer. He was 53.
Best known for his musical gifts, he led an interesting, bohemian life off the stage and cultivated a wide network of friends and creative collaborators, many of them in the Illawarra.
On Saturday his brother John Watson contributed a prize to the annual DP Battle Royale, the James Cruickshank Memorial trophy.
A nod to Cruickshank’s dry sense of humour and knack for escaping sticky situations, the trophy will be awarded to the surfer that makes the most stylish recovery on a wave.
“James had nine lives,” Mr Watson said.
“He would always say he relied on his cat-like reflexes … but it was luck.”
Cruickshank was born James Watson in Melbourne in 1962.
Both boys were given early music lessons, but James’ natural talent shone brightest.
“I pretty much stayed on chopsticks and he just went straight into classical music,” Mr Watson said.
“By the middle of primary school he could do big concert pieces.”
The family moved to Stanwell Park in the early-1970s and the boys took up with a group of neighbourhood kids that lived for the surf.
At 19, he moved to the Gold Coast in search of a good time.
He was labouring on a building site when a stack of bricks fell from a great height above.
“All the long-term workers took shelter under scaffolding,” Mr Watson said.
“But James ran around in erratic circles while bricks were exploding on the ground.
“If one had of hit you it would have killed you instantly. How he escaped that one, no one knew.”
As he became more serious about his musical ambitions, he took the surname of his mother, television actress Margaret Cruickshank, because he liked the sound of it.
His joined The Cruel Sea in 1989, aged 27, beginning a fruitful career that would span three decades and net the band five ARIA awards.
He wasn’t wearing a seatbelt when he drifted away at the wheel and drove into the path of an oncoming truck at Bondi early one morning in 1994, at the height of the band’s success.
The dubious move proved his saving grace, allowing him to fly free into the back seat as the front of the car was pulverised.
He crawled from the steaming wreck, having brought peak-hour Sydney traffic to a standstill. He was badly injured and would need pins and plates inserted in his broken body, but he was alive.
He bought his own house in Stanwell Park, but soon sold it to another musician when he “realised he needed to pay the bills”. In later life, he moved to the Northern Rivers and took up residence in a converted Catholic church at Bangalow. Locals delighted in having a rock star play their pipe organ at Sunday Mass.
Although not a Catholic, he sat through the service and told the local paper he often found answers to questions in parish priest Fr Anthony Lemon's sermons.
"You can bring something that is troubling you and you might hear that the answer is forgiveness," he said.
He based himself in Berlin, Germany for most of the three years, loving the unbridled artistic culture.
Determined to tour despite his diagnosis, he played five dates in Portugal and Poland with Mick Harvey in a Serge Gainsbourg tribute show in July before returning to Australia to the care of his sister, Kirsty.
With the memorial prize, Mr Watson hopes a small part of his brother will survive – maybe even take off.
“Who’s to know: maybe ‘to Cruikshank’ will become part of the surfing lexicon in time to come.”