If you’re Australian, chances are you’ve heard the song Breakfast At Sweethearts by legendary Aussie band, Cold Chisel. Written by Don Walker, sung by Jimmy Barnes, and backed by the rest of his Cold Chisel bandmates, Breakfast At Sweethearts was the title track of their 1979 album that epitomized life at the time in the inner Sydney suburb of Kings Cross. Infamous for being Sydney’s red light district, a walk down the main street of Kings Cross today still takes you past countless adult shops, strip clubs, bars and nightclubs, albeit a much more tourist-influenced scene today that what it would have been back in its heyday.
I have always been fascinated by Kings Cross. As a matter of fact, my all time favourite book, Sex ‘n’ Thugs ‘n’ Rock ‘n’ Roll by musician Billy Thorpe, was set in the Cross, which details a year of his life living in the area from 1963-64. I felt so captured by the vibe of Billy’s and Don Walker’s narratives, that for one of my English assignments in year 12, I wrote a spin-off story called “Escape from Sweethearts,” where I tried to put myself in the shoes of Anne-Maria, the Sweethearts waitress mentioned in the song. I would like to share this story with you, but before I do that I must go on a pilgrimage.
Incidentally, I am writing this from a hostel in Orwell Street, just a couple of blocks away from the main drag of Kings Cross. I’ve been based here for the past ten days since my return from the UK, and I’ve often wondered to myself whilst meandering through the streets, where did Billy Thorpe live? Where did Don Walker live? Where was Surf City, the venue where Billy played his legendary first gigs with his band the Aztecs? What kind of antics did the Cold Chisel boys get up to in the early hours of their Saturday nights, “walking into Sunday?” What was Kings Cross really like back in those days? Where exactly was the Sweethearts Cafe?!?
I jumped on the internet earlier this morning to see if I could find it. Firstly I searched for Campbell Lane, as mentioned in the song, where “through the window, curtain rain…” It seemed there was no Campbell Lane in Kings Cross, the nearest being in the inner western suburb of Glebe, about 5km away. Where to look next…? A quick internet search told me that there definitely weren’t any cafes in Sydney any more called Sweethearts, so that was no use to me. Searching for the name of the song didn’t bring up much except for the lyrics, however eventually after a bit more sleuthing I stumbled across an interview that the Sydney Morning Herald had with Don Walker:
“Khe Sanh was written on some scraps of paper at the old Sweethearts” he recalls.
Wow! The most renowned and celebrated of all Australian rock songs, Khe Sanh, was written within the walls of the Sweethearts cafe! I really needed to find this place, wherever it was, and whatever building it is today, just so I could sit there in the same spot and bask in this incredible piece of Australian music history. Then I read on:
“The original Sweethearts Cafe is where McDonald’s is now.”
You have got to be fucking kidding me.
I nearly cried.
I ordered a chocolate sundae just a few hours ago. It wasn’t the first time I’d eaten at this particular outlet either. I sat at a table, wondering how on earth such an historical cafe could have been allowed to turn into the walls of a junk-promoting, monopolising, profiteering, greedy multinational corporation such as McDonalds. Do the kids of today who sit at these tables, guzzling down their Big Macs and extra large Coke’s realise that some of Australia’s most prized lyrics and melodies stemmed from this exact spot?
I think not.
Here is my story – my year 12 English assignment written in 2001, as spun off from that famous song Breakfast At Sweethearts, and dedicated to all who knew the ups and downs of life in Kings Cross in the 70s:
Escape From Sweethearts
Hampton Court Hotel
Kings Cross, NSW 2011
Kings Cross, NSW 2011
I am writing you this letter to advise you of my resignation as waitress at Sweethearts Café. As of the 15th of August 1984, I will no longer be available for work as I am permanently moving away…
It was never supposed to be like this.
I first came to Sweethearts four years ago as a naïve, innocent and excited young girl that had just moved away from home. Working here as a waitress was to be the starting point to the fulfilment of my childhood dream: I wanted to be well known. I wanted to stand out and be recognised by the community. Unfortunately though, I was too inexperienced and ignorant of what I would be in for. Although I enjoyed it to start off with, waitressing did not turn out to be the opportunistic and prosperous career that I thought it was – and I never imagined I would ever have anything to do with a murder.
Sweethearts is a popular, yet notorious coffee shop situated in the heart of Kings Cross, a suburb of Sydney reputed for its often unpleasant street-lore. Set amidst brothels, strip clubs and sex shops, Sweethearts attracts the majority of its customers during the long, drunken hours of the late night and early morning. Many people come in purely for a coffee and a chat with friends. Others see Sweethearts as a refuge to the busy Kings Cross lifestyle – as if it were somewhere to sit, sober up and think about life for a while.
On the other hand, there are the various assortments of hookers, pimps and drug dealers that come either to sort out a ‘deal’ with a potential customer or for a quiet drink during their late-night break. Many of these customers are actually sincere, caring people who work simply because they need money and cannot manage to find a more conventional form of employment. However, others are criminal and immoral scumbags who profit from ruining the lives of the innocent and uneducated by means of drug dealing and body selling.
One particular customer who I regularly served and got to know quite well was called ‘Mugger.’ Despite the unnerving name, Mugger was actually an outgoing and friendly guy who always gave me a compliment and a large tip whenever I served him. He was considerably older than me, maybe in his mid to late forties, and always looked a little scruffy with his tattooed arms and unshaven face. To the unfamiliar eye, he would have easily been seen as someone who you wouldn’t want on your bad side, but to me he was a good friend.
“Gidday, Anne darling, how’s it going?” he’d ask in his profound Australian accent. “Can you get us the usual please, love?”
The ‘usual’ was a ham sandwich, a strong, black espresso with three sugars and a large chocolate bar. After tipping me the change, he would sit at the bar and swiftly devour his meal.
“You’re gonna go far, love,” he’d tell me when he finished. “Just look at you – young and beautiful. Somebody like you shouldn’t be workin’ in a stingy old coffee shop like this.”
I liked the attention from Mugger. He was definitely a regular at Sweethearts; he usually visited after midnight around three or four times per week. I did notice that Mugger was not one who liked to talk about his personal life. He seemed to ignore questions about what he does for a living, instead changing the subject of conversation to myself. That didn’t worry me, though; whenever Mugger talked about me I actually felt as if I was being noticed. His caring and friendly attitude outweighed any bad qualities he may have had.
How little I knew.
It’s been about five months now since I last saw Mugger. I never want to see him again. Ironically enough, I never will…
My favourite shift at Sweethearts has always been the breakfast shift. It is around breakfast time that the nighttime community go home to recuperate and the daytime community get ready to go to work. The freshness of the morning air puts an end to the stale smell of alcohol that seems to emerge just after sundown. Most morning customers are drunks who stagger in to order a head-clearing coffee, but the general atmosphere is a lot more calm and laid-back than what it is during the night shift.
It was on one particular breakfast shift not long ago that I was settling into a quiet morning of work. I noticed a number of familiar faces eating breakfast after a long night, as well as a few businessmen having a meal before heading off to work. I had not seen Mugger for about two weeks, which was strange, so I was expecting to see him within the next few days.
I had just finished pouring a coffee when I heard a voice behind me. Turning around, I found two high-ranking police officers walking towards the side of the bar.
“Anne-Maria Smith, we believe you have information about the murder of Hank Powers,” one of the officers said. “You are required to come down to the station for questioning.”
I had overheard quite a few people talking about Hank before; apparently he was a notorious pimp who managed the careers of many young prostitutes. I didn’t know anything about a murder! I had tried to stay as far away as possible from sick, depraved people like Hank. Nevertheless, I couldn’t argue with the police.
When I got to the station, I was in shock. One of the officers told me that Hank Powers’ street name was ‘Mugger.’ He had been killed by a hitman who had been hired by one of the women that he managed. The hairs on the back of my neck stood stiff as I was advised of Mugger’s plan to manage and sell myself. I could not believe how such a man could gain my trust and friendship, only to be told the truth about his real life.
On my return to work, I felt sick. I could see the people around me living in their monochrome, fantasy world of drugs and alcohol. I then realised that people saw me as the typical female waitress: young, good looking and ready to be taken advantage of. That was not the situation I wanted to be in.
From that moment on, I lost all trust in the customers I served. Until now, I’ve only been working for the money. Next week I’m moving away – far away – and I’ll be starting a new life. I count myself lucky that I’ve managed to get a second chance, and this time I’m not going to waste it.
When I first applied to work at Sweethearts, I thought I would be making the first move to becoming a well-known, respectable member of the community. Working here has not only ruined my reputation, it has also made me feel as if I was being used for sexual exploitation.
Whilst I was fortunate enough to actually obtain the position, I do not want to be working under these uncomfortable situations any longer.
Breakfast At Sweethearts
– Don Walker
Campbell Lane, and through the window curtain rain
Long night gone, yellow day, the speed shivers melt away
Six o’clock, I’m going down
The coffee’s hot and the toast is brown
Hey, Streetsweeper, clear my way
Sweethearts breakfast the best in town
Oh, o-o-oh, breakfast at Sweethearts
Oh, o-o-oh, breakfast at Sweethearts
Hey, Anne Maria – it’s always good to see her
She don’t smile or flirt, she just wears that mini skirt
Drunks come in. Paper bag, brandivino
Dreams fly away as she pours another cappucino
Here today stands McDonalds, where once there was Sweethearts…
* if you love Aussie music and the way we tell stories about our landmarks, then check out Australia By Song for a massive list of songs written about locations all around this great country of ours.