Portrait of the artist as a middle-aged muso

What happens to a world-class caricaturist when he decides to pursue a career in music? Does he lose his 15 minutes of fame, if he’s not successful as a recording artist? And what happens when he becomes a music teacher to pay the rent and put food on the table?
Well, if you’re Ulf Kaiser, who came to Australia as a 15 year old from Austria, speaking little English and staying at the Villawood hostel in Sydney, you go back to your first love – drawing caricatures in the style of David Levine, the famous artist long associated with the prestigious New York Review of Books.
Ulf, now in his fifties, would love to return to caricatures, but hasn’t found a newspaper or magazine or online publication willing to hire him, even on a freelance basis. I worked with him on The Australian newspaper in the early 80s when I was the literary editor and TV critic. When you needed a quick professional caricature, getting to the essence of the subject, Ulf was your man. Anyone from American author Saul Bellow to former Prime Minister John Curtin, to blues/jazz singer Tom Waits, plus a self-portrait of the artist as a younger man, as you can see above.
David Levine has always been his hero, and it’s not going too far to say his work resembles the master caricaturist. The renowned American author, John Updike, said this of Levine, who had drawn him many times: “Besides offering us the delight of recognition, his drawings comfort us, in an exacerbated and potentially desperate age, with the sense of a watching presence, an eye informed by an intelligence that has not panicked, a comic art ready to encapsulate the latest apparitions of publicity as well as those historical devils who haunt our unease.” http://bit.ly/1h1Xr6y
Like Levine, Kaiser’s caricatures ranged from politicians to authors to artists and entertainers and writers – and like any newspaper artist, he drew portraits of journalists on their departures or their significant birthdays or events.
I hadn’t seen Ulf for at least 20 years, and this profile began when I had a query from the political editor for the Nine Network, Laurie Oakes, a friend and former colleague on the Sunday Program, asking if I knew who had drawn the caricature below of former Governor-General, Sir Zelman Cowen. The Parliamentary Secretary to the Prime Minister and Federal Member for Kooyong, Josh Frydenberg, had the caricature hanging in his office, and he wanted to make a plaque out of it. But he asked Laurie if he could confirm who the artist was, and when the caricature was drawn – probably for the Sunday Program. As soon as Laurie emailed me the drawing, I knew it was Ulf, and called him to check on the date.
ZelmanIMG-20140320-00516 (2)
I found his contact details on his website — http://ulfkaiser.com/ – and he was as surprised as I was. “I had been thinking of trying to resurrect my ‘caricature art stuff,’ and I’m going to see if I can knock on some doors, so it’s timely to hear from you.”
When he was working for The Australian in the 80s, Ulf also drew caricatures of politicians and prominent Australians like Sir Zelman for the Sunday Program. By the time I joined Sunday in 1986, he had a small spot in The Bulletin magazine, called “The Portrait.” Back in those days, two of his journalistic supporters at Consolidated Press, Trevor Sykes and Trevor Kennedy, reportedly kept urging Kerry Packer to sit for a portrait by Ulf. You can probably guess Packer’s reaction: “I don’t care if he’s fucking Rembrandt, I’m not sitting for a portrait.” Then Ulf managed to get a gig doing “Kaiser’s Komment” for The Australian IT section, which lasted for four years before the section crashed. (It has since resumed publication.)
Enter Ulf Kaiser, the artist, who began what he called a “wonderful project” painting historic sites for the Roads and Transport Authority (RTA), as part of their Heritage and Community Department. They commissioned him to paint Monet-esque landscapes, including famous Australian buildings, like the first concrete bridge in the Southern Hemisphere and governors’ residences. It lasted for four years until one of the managers of the project died unexpectedly.
Enter Ulf Kaiser, the musician. He’s always had a love for music, but the opportunity arose for him to record a few albums in Australia, and they went pretty well. He invested some money, hoping his songs would go just as well overseas. Where else would you go to record an album, but Abbey Road in London, where he met people like John Barry of James Bond film themes fame, and had to vacate studios for the likes of the Beatles, Annie Lennox, George Michael and Harry Connick Jnr, to name a few.
Then bad luck struck, a bit of an accountancy stuff-up, and the album didn’t sell as well as the ones in Australia. An honest and humble Ulf Kaiser explains: “When I got to Abbey Road, I just wasn’t good enough to take my music to the next level. Not rubbish – just not exciting enough to grab attention in the adult market which included Sting and Robbie Williams.”
Where to, from here? Ulf’s degree and experience in London enabled him to get a job teaching music in Australia on condition he go to Bourke High School. He loved teaching the kids, but Bourke was no picnic. From the outback to the western suburbs of Sydney Ulf wound up teaching music at Lurnea High School – a home of sorts. It’s not where he’d really like to be – at home or in an office, drawing caricatures of the rich and not so rich, and the famous and not so famous.
But he loves teaching students at Lurnea High, especially the Pacific Islanders, and his latest protégé, a girl named Ruthie. Ulf plays the piano and coaches her singing. He gives her a big rap: “I think she will end up in schools spectacular or on TV. She is the package. The musical rapport I have with this teenager is first class, and as good as music ever gets. I had this relationship with an Islander boy who played the piano while I strummed the guitar. It felt like Lennon and McCartney in the old days.”
Ulf is still performing his own songs. He’s just recorded his latest album, Lloyd Avenue, which he printed himself and put together manually. It’s like a cottage industry. He only ever assembles a few at a time, and leaves some at the local radio station at Hunters Hill in Sydney, where he used to live, at the RRRs end of the dial. His idea is to give them a test run, and if the demand is good, he will commercially produce a larger quantity. But he adds: “You’ve usually got to have a fairly big run to be cost effective. A lot of musos end up with a stack of CDs under their bed.” I’m no music critic, but I did like the album, with classics like Jimmy Webb’s “Wichita Lineman” and Crowded House’s “Don’t Dream It’s Over,” and Ulf’s compositions, including “Red Lounge,” “Sometimes When You’re Down” and “Windmills & Sails” (my favourite). He describes his music as full of “rich textures and arrangement in the Pop-Reggae-Jazz-Country-Folk sort of way … a kind of a male version of Joni Mitchell, who spans many musical genres.” He also likes his latest album, even after repeated listening: “Liking your own CDs is not always the case or guaranteed.”
Despite his gift for music, Ulf Kaiser would like to give caricatures one last shot. He occasionally does a bit of drawing at Lurnea, and the kids have a look and say: “Sir, you should be an artist.”
Ulf says if he were ever to write his memoirs, that would be the title: “It also serves as a metaphor of the people who end up in teaching, when they might have been, or ought to have been, somewhere else. Weaving teaching with art and music, prompting that old refrain from the sixties film: “To Sir with Love.”

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