Environmentalist Peter Garrett, Lead Singer for Midnight Oil, Looks Like Mr. Clean and Sounds Like Mr. Cleanup

updated 08/20/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/20/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

It's David and Goliath in midtown Manhattan. In one corner looms the Exxon building, sleek, sturdy and 54 stories tall. Across the sidewalk on a makeshift stage stands the slightly shorter challenger: Peter Garrett, 6'5½" to the top of his egg-bald head. Garrett, the lead singer of the Australian rock band Midnight Oil, takes the first jab. Shaking his list at the corporate headquarters, he rants about the company's culpability for the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill. Pow! No response from Exxon. So Garrett tries another punch. With his four bandmates, he starts to blast an antipollution paean, "River Runs Red." Faces begin to freckle the skyscraper's windows. Workers on lunch break gather around to dance. "You can't treat the Earth like a garbage dump!" yells Garrett as the crowd cheers. Winner of this round: Midnight Oil.

It's no surprise that Garrett handled the publicity stunt, part of Midnight Oil's U.S. tour, with the poise of a seasoned politician. He may hop around the stage like a spastic kangaroo, but Down Under, Garrett counts as a very influential citizen. Elected last year as president of the Australian Conservation Foundation, the country's largest environmental group, Garrett even came close to winning a Senate seat as an antinuclear candidate in 1984. "I don't need to wheel out a thousand scientists to sense what's happening on the planet," says Garrett, a lawyer by training. "I can taste the air. I can feel the wind. And I know I have to be part of the healing process."

Philosophically the Oils, who shun love songs and party tunes, cast themselves as the environmental movement's musical wing. Their breakthrough 1987 album, Diesel and Dust, included the hit "Beds Are Burning," probably the first song about aborigine rights to go Top 10 in the U.S. Their latest LP, Blue Sky Mining, went gold within weeks, helped along by a catchy title tune about the exploitation of Australian coal miners. "There are so many aimless, mindless, spineless songs," says Garrett, 37. "We want to make substantial records that people can listen to more than three times."

The Oils thrive on troubled waters. For years their office in Glebe, near Sydney, has served as a base for varied political causes. This winter the band helped organize protests against a proposed naval base at pristine Jervis Bay, 180 miles south of Sydney. Eventually the navy scrapped its plans. "The phone calls I got!" Garrett exclaims, smirking. "The government was furious!"

Even the routine of running Midnight Oil takes on a political tenor. Although Garrett serves as the band's spokesman, songwriting and decision making are group activities. "We have phenomenal meetings, eight hours," says bass player Bones Hillman, 32, a New Zealander who joined the band in 1987. "Everyone raises their hands and voices an opinion on what the record will be called or where we'll tour. It gets complicated but it works."

The breakfast table discussions at the Sydney home where Garrett grew up must have been similar. Garrett's father, a corporate business manager, and mother, a social worker, encouraged their three children "to express opinions and talk about things," says the singer. "We didn't spend our life in front of the television." Garrett, who grew his blond hair to his waist after boarding school, studied law at the University of New South Wales. The summer before he graduated, he answered an ad for a vocalist placed by guitarist-keyboardist Jim Moginie and drummer Rob Hirst, both now 33. With guitarist Martin Rotsey, 33, they formed Midnight Oil in 1977, the year Garrett passed the bar.

The biggest threat to the band came in 1984, when Garrett's Senate campaign drew 200,000 votes, a near victory. "The aim was to send a message against nuclear weapons, and we did," says Garreti. "I was elated to lose. Otherwise it would have been hard for us to keep playing."

During rare moments away from music and polities, Garrett likes to body surf—he believes that his "frictionless surfing haircut" is an asset—and hang out with his wife, a drama teacher, and their three young daughters. "We live very ordinarily in the suburbs of Sydney," says Garrett, who applies his environmental-ism at home. He takes his own bag to the grocery store, recycles, and rides the ferry instead of owning a second car. When his wife wanted to buy disposable diapers, he objected. "So she said, "Okay, then you're going to wash,' says Garrett. "And I became nappie man."

Although he won't rule out running for office again, Garrett says he's quite content being nappie man, environmentalist and rock star. "Perhaps I'm going to get used up and spat out like a rag," he muses. "In that case, let somebody else come along and do a bit as well. That's fine with me."

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