Category Archives: Music

A Night at the Opera

Tonight I am going to the opera. It will be my fourth.

The first was 25 years ago in Christchurch. Tosca at the Theatre Royal, the wonderful venue where I saw Basil Brush, Sonic Youth, Rowan Atkinson, The Jesus and Mary Chain, Del La Sol, Hot Gossip and the Violent Femmes. As that list might suggest, I don’t attend many operas.

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My first was Tosca with my mother, a fan of light opera. She wasn’t that keen, but I was balls deep in theatre in those days, seeing every kind of performance I could. Mum adored Gilbert and Sullivan and saw The Phantom of the Opera several times. Sang Yum Yum in the Mikado at the Theatre Royal.

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When the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company came to Chch when she was young, Mum camped outside the Theatre Royal to get tickets. No one did G&S better than D’Oyly Carte. In fact, at the time, they had an exclusive contract. When they went bust after the copyright lapsed we were plagued by endless touring Australian versions. I worked on their Pirates of Penzance with John English when I lived in Auckland. I was a wee bit star struck.

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The second opera I saw was Boris Godunov at the Aotea Centre. Not a popular opera, but my brilliant flatmate, Simon, still knew it was Mussorgsky, so happily came along. I loved the story. Medieval Russian history sung in something other than Italian. While I couldn’t whistle a single note of Puccini’s Tosca, I often sing ‘Slava, slava, slava’ in that stunning sequence when the slaves sing of glory.

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My third opera was ten years ago in Wellington, at the St James. Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin, a story I knew well. I love the film by Ralph Fiennes, adore Pushkin’s original poetic novel, and often find it resonating in my life. Not that I have ever fought a duel, or been a Francophile aristocrat, but these themes are a constant in our home now that the musical genius of Hamilton has infected my family. Honour, snobbery, the danger of wasted opportunity. All find purchase in Titahi Bay as easily as Broadway and Tsarist Russia.

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Tonight I am going to La bohème, and the wife is quite excited. She never thought she would get to see it; operas are rare and hard to put on. Which is why I always try to catch them when I can. The productions are huge; so much theatre, so many players. I can’t say that I know anything about this show, so it will be a bit of a surprise. The sur-titles will help (I must remember to take my glasses). Needless to say, I know Puccini is one of the most popular composers. When I stayed in Lucca, the small Italian town where he was born, I tried to visit his house but it was closed for renovations.

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Tonight’s performance is at the Opera House in Wellington. The St James, where I saw the Tchaikovsky, is closed for earthquake strengthening. The Opera House is okay. It’s where I saw Courtney Barnett and Grease. Adam and the Ants and A Dead Dog in a Suitcase; a modern version of the first real musical from 1728, The Beggars Opera, itself a satire of Italian Opera . It was a brilliant show, more engaging than any opera. I wanted to see it again and again.

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Which is the sign of a good show, for me.

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But why compare? Is it the music or the theatre, the performance or the spectacle that draws you to a show? Do you just need something to hum, as the brilliant Sondheim likes to poke at? It’s an ever-changing mix, surely. And not knowing can be the best part.

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Opera thrives on tragedy, there is something about the nature of music that allows the emotion to reach out and touch the heart. I once lived next door, unknowingly, to a house where a Chinese Opera was set. It was about a famous poet who had to flee after the Tiananmen Square massacre. When I found out about the tragic incident next door, I was glad that I knew so little. Some things just don’t need to be spelled out. Let the music do the work.

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And so, on a spring day in Wellington, as the city is battered by hail, I await my fourth opera, and wonder about my fifth. I have done two Russian, two Italian; it is time for a change. Will it be German, French or English? Chinese?

 

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We shall see, we shall see.

Fair Vanity

I’m obsessed with words. Big, small. Odd. Not.

How they look, how they sound. Music and meaning.

 

The other night, while waiting in A & E, I picked up a magazine. It was full of articles I found hard to read (they weren’t on a screen, they wouldn’t scroll), but there was a column that showed how the pronunciation of the same word can change if used as a noun or a verb. The same word. What’s more, the change is consistent. Noun, first syllable emphasized. Verb, the second.

 

The symmetry was bewitching, like maths or music. Diverting enough to stick long after I had turned the page.

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But the Words I cannot shake is a song. Sharon O’Neill in my head. The earworm has infected my consciousness. The video is a solid gold dose of 1979. Kiwi pub-rock nostalgia played out in a TV studio. Shaggy perm and shark tooth earing, tight white jeans. Youngies shuffling side-to-side with huge grins. Par-cans glowing overhead red, orange, blue. Moustachioed backing singers, layering their sweet topping over Shazza’s ballsy swagger.

Sharon O’Neill Words

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I know every word. Every line. Every melody. Every hook.

Let me out. Like the new blood at the slaughter.

Who starts a pop song like that? A brutal simile for the kids. Freedom splattered on the abattoir floor.

Words just a breath away from my hand. Breaking into tiny pieces.

When I sing along my voice drops an octave, settling into a country-Elvis croon no one needs to hear.

The day after my visit to A&E I flew to Nelson to work on a rugby game where the result was never in question. Only one team could win. The winningest team. Sport without competition.

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On the way I listened to Words three times in a row, and then tried to kill it with a podcast about a crisis in women’s sport. When does natural advantage make competition unfair? Unusually high levels of testosterone gives some female athletes the advantage usually reserved for males. Larger heart, lungs and muscles. Elite sport is all about a battle of the exceptional, but our society strives to be fair. We want things to be fair. Complain if they’re not. The sexes compete separately to prevent unfair competition.

But how to resolve this need for equity, when a woman with the strength of a man competes against women?

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Fairness is a word that can never be resolved. Is it fair to expect more of some, less of others? To be paid the same for doing less work? To be paid less for doing the same work? To claim success while competing at a lower level?

In Nelson, everyone knew the All Blacks would beat the Pumas. Where is the sport in such a pre-determined outcome?

 

As I flew back from Nelson, still wrapped in Words and fairness, a bigger discussion erupted in women’s sport. The most exceptional tennis player of our time publicly berated an official, claiming it wasn’t fair. She was being paid millions, he was getting $700. Vanity reigned from court and chair. Enough to write a novel.

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This morning, staring at my phone in the midst of insomnia, I saw a new word I had only just learned disappear. Mardy. I knew the Artic Monkeys song Mardy Bum, and thought it was a regional version of Marty. But someone used it on the telly two days ago and the wife told me it meant sulky or moody.

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The Guardian had headlined an interview with Graham Coxon from Blur with ‘I was a mardy brat in my 20s…I’m quite mellow now’. But two hours later it changed. On the front page he was now a ‘moody brat’, and a ‘mardy brat’ in the headline once you clicked on it. A sub-editor had changed the words in his mouth, but only in part, possibly afraid the unfamiliar word would stop people clicking.

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You’re argumentative, and you’ve got the face on

Words should have been a world-wide hit in 1979, but no one outside NZ knows it. Maybe the big record companies didn’t think Sharon O’Neill could compete with the Eagles and Fleetwood Mac, that no one would understand her. Back then, New Zealand music wasn’t considered good enough to play on the world stage.

It’s a touch, it’s a touch of class. It might not even last.

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Today, anyone can sing a song and show it to the world. You can sell it to anyone. In this way, the music world is fairer than it ever was. But with something like 200,000 songs hitting the internet every day, the chances of your words being heard may be less than ever. It’s much the same with blogging.

When I sing this song, I feel inside of me.

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The thing is, while I remember every lyric of Words, I can’t seem to recall a single example of the pretty words I read in the magazine. I wish I had taken a photo on my phone. Shared them to the digital memory. They were common words. Like re-port and re-port. Noun, verb. Name, action. This is my report. I will report you.

I cannot express how frustrated I am with my memory, and that I can’t access the article online. My brain has been rewired. It’s not fair.

But I have found the chords to Words online, and I can play it. Badly.

And I can write this; a blog of too many words, sent out into the clutter.

Vanity: excessive pride in one’s character or ability e.g. the belief that one can find words to connect an old song, Serena Williams, something you saw on the internet, William Makepeace Thackeray, Sharon O’Neill, a game of rugby, The Arctic Monkeys, that guy from Blur with the glasses, and something you read at the doctor’s but can’t quite remember.

 

 

Museum Piece

Swayed into… town.

It was windy. Dark. Not a night to be out. I leaned into the gusts to make headway through the blasts screaming around the waterfront.

Not your usual Friday night, I was meeting an old bandmate to go to a museum. At the counter of the gift-shop I pulled out my phone, ready to swipe/show/swipe the Q-Code emailed to me when I booked the tickets, but the flummoxed person in the black Wellington Museums polo shirt just asked my name, crossing it off the list with ruler and pen. Just like the old days, name on the door, 21st century technology not required.

The Bond Store building is one of New Zealand’s most architecturally significant buildings, according to the website, full of Wellington Harbour history and artefacts. I had been there once, many years ago, before I picked up sticks and shifted here.

Swayed into town
Feet can glide along
Don’t know my way round
Sideways, forwards, backwards, uphill, all the way down
Standing… still

Me and my old gat-man mate had each paid $15 to see some relics of NZ’s post-punk history playing the old songs, once more, for old folk. We walked past the bottles, jars and ropes hidden behind glass, down towards the music.

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Peter Jefferies was playing piano, singing, engaging the audience with his easy humour, getting everyone to clap along. It felt like we were in a bunker where the past never passed. Solid beams of giant native timber felled in the 1800s still stood, the valuable imported goods they protected long gone.

This is like being in the Cavern, my mate said. Yip, I agreed, but with green lasers drawing patterns on the backs and faces of the dark, intense figures.

And this could be anywhere
And this could be anyone else

It was jammed. The floor covered in people sitting, immobile. The edges crammed with those standing, trying to find a spot to see the music. No one could dance. Still, some bobbed their heads, others dared to sway.

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We found a place at the back by a display case of old guitars and pedals from the 1960s. An exhibition of Kiwi music had been pushed aside to accommodate the punters. Weta guitars. 1964 Burns Marvin, played on stage by the Avengers. Mustang Fuzz Box. Gunn Octivider. Plug in and go!

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There were songs I knew, Caroline’s Dream, Chris Matthews growling and slashing, a treat to hear live. Immigration Song, with one of the best openings in a rock song ever. The noise and demand matching anything from 1950s Sun Studios or 60s proto-punk for sheer surprise and energy.

Swayed into town…

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We heard about the gig from NZ’s top spy boss (name withheld). He had got the Intel on the gig the old way. Saw a poster in the street. Let us know by email. He shook my hand and said me and my mate should play some songs from our old noisy band. We were, after-all, 2/3s present.

Yes, the bits of This Kind of Punishment, Children’s Hour and Nocturnal Projections on stage were proportionally lesser fractions, but they added up to way more. Why else would a couple of hundred old codgers go into town on a Friday night to stick cigarette filters in their ears and guzzle from white cans marked ‘Beer’?

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By 10pm they had finished. A Blues band prepared to take the stage. I had no interest. I could no longer stand around inside in my head, sifting through the past. My legs hurt. I wanted to go home, to sleep.

Left outside their houses while sitting inside of themselves
Harmony’s disorder
Ritual’s in sleep
Making endless promises you somehow believe you will keep
Any day now…
Sometime next week

Immigration Song – This Kind of Punishment

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I’ve always loved musical jokes.

Q. How do you know if a drummer’s knocking your door.

A. The knocking keeps speeding up and slowing down.

Q. What do you call someone who hangs out with a group of musicians?

A. A drummer.

They never get old. And like most things musical, there’s always a fair bit of snobbery involved. Music is tribal, it affirms identity. “I like this.” “But not if those dicks do.”

This was underlined when I was tracked down by a Canadian gent who is writing a history of one corner of NZ music. It wasn’t an interview, he was just buying me coffee and a muffin while I showed him photos of the mid-‘80s alt. music scene in Christchurch. We bonded over our love of history and DIY culture. But when he asked me what defined ‘real’ Flying Nun music my answer made him whip out his phone and start recording.

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I said music is like religion. It fires up firm beliefs and conflicting passions. Arguments are inevitable and unending, vicious and unbending. Like religion, bands were sneered at for not being ‘real’ Flying Nun while others were allowed into the canon.

In the same way, drummers are the whipping boys (and girls) of rock ‘n’ roll; they will always take a beating. Actually, no one makes jokes about female drummers. They are too cool for words, sexy beyond comprehension. Even the thought has me diverted.

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I first became aware of the ukulele renaissance when I worked on stories about the Play It Strange initiative founded by Mike Chunn in the early 2000s. I did lots of interviews with him as he went into schools helping kids engage with music by replacing the recorder with the ukulele. He was a nice guy, a bass player; the cleverest and sexiest type of musician, according to the ladies (and some gents). He wanted to show kids that writing songs was easy, and fun. The recorder was not easy, or fun. It was painful to play (and listen to), and it killed the love of music in generations of school children.

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The uke is a great starting point; a way into joining a band and developing the craft of composition and performance.

But some people never went beyond it. Soon, hobby groups appeared everywhere, murdering wonderful songs with ham-fisted irony. You and your unmusical mates could have a few drinks and be just like the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain. Except not as good. Or funny.

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And while I generally love music of all kinds, the ukulele renaissance died for me on the night I saw the Wellington International Ukulele Orchestra ‘warming up’ the crowd at a rugby test in Wellington. It was raining, bitterly cold, and while the crowd scoffed chips and drank flat beer, the ‘band’ tried to warm them up by droning their way through Talking Head’s ‘Road To Nowhere’. It was just awful. The sound, the performance, the choice of song: all were poor. It was like bad sex, but worse. Much, much worse.

The ukulele had officially become the 21st century recorder.

But here’s the thing. The other day I picked up a ukulele. Tuned it up and twisted my fingers into the unfamiliar chords. A good song-book had appeared in the house and the selection was appealing. I started on Hunters & Collector’s ‘Throw Your Arms Around Me’ and couldn’t stop. The beautiful, deep, simplicity of that classic tempered my resolute snobbery. I was soon banging my through AC/DC, Paul Kelly and Nancy Sinatra, switching to guitar when they chords were easier for my big, fat fingers.

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Three days later I’m happy to say I love it.

But don’t tell my muso friends.

Q. What’s the difference between a ukulele and an onion?

A. No one cries if you cut a ukulele in half.

Into the Night

Last night I went to a pub to see a band. It’s something I haven’t done in a long time. I used to be a regular in my teens and twenties in Christchurch. Thursday, Friday or Saturday. There was always something to see. Local or out of town.

Last night in Wellington was like a Christchurch gig of old. A dancefloor packed with people standing, staring at music, shuffling their feet on the sticky floor. But with no cigarette smoke in the air and a crowd like me; grey, middle-aged. Relaxed. Drinking craft beer. No aggro or thought of conquest.

It was my first time at Meow. It’s a nice venue. Quirky.

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As I walked in John, the old friend I had come to see, shook my hand and apologised as he had to ready his cello to guest with The Bats. I had forgotten the nervousness of pre-gig organising. When I played music I used to leave the venue and march the streets until the last moment. Or share a spliff.

I went to the gig with my old school friend, Damian. We played in a noisy band called Swim Everything in the ‘90s. It was good to catch up. Talk about kids and getting old. His knees recently stopped working after a ski trip with his daughter. He reckons the change in the body from 50 to 60 is the same as from 10 to 20, but in reverse.

The Bats were the same as ever. But older. They’re the nicest people and were very supportive of my first school band, All Fall Down. Flying Nun folk are generally pretty amiable. It’s nearly 30 years since I saw them live (except on the telly at that gig after the first Earthquake).

It wasn’t too loud, either, but I still stuffed in ear plugs half way through the first song. I have such bad tinnitus that I constantly feel like the side of my head has just received an unexpected whack. Rock n roll.

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It finished dead on 11pm (no sirens or flashing lights to shoo us out like the old days) and I caught up with Ruth who managed the student radio station I DJ-ed at in the ‘80s. She was featured in an exhibition at Canterbury Museum last year celebrating 40 years of RDU. Literally a museum piece (I didn’t point that out). I asked Hayden, a muso acquaintance, if he still played music. He laughed and said he just watches TV. I also said gidday to another old muso (name withheld) who runs New Zealand’s spy agency. Funny the connections that weave through a life. Five Eyes everywhere. Watching, accumulating. Leaking. I resisted giving a secret handshake.

As I dropped Damian home he said he’d send me a link to the loops he’s put up on Soundcloud. He is very pleased with them. I said sure, and awkwardly mentioned that his mother had a good raunchy poem in a collection of erotic writing I had failed to get a piece into. He laughed and said she had a play produced last week. She was stunned by the effort, tears and despair required. Surprised how it nevertheless came together on the night. I said there’s nothing harder, and more intimidating, than putting on a play. That a script isn’t like a song or a recipe. The same script never bakes the same cake.

By Night

 

As I write this a script has turned up for a play I’m going to audition for. The thought fills me with excitement. And dread.

“The night is dark and full of terrors, old man, but the fire burns them away.”

A polar front, full of snow, is approaching New Zealand from the Antarctic. I need to get in the ceiling and sort out the insulation I shifted to fix a leak last spring.

Writing, music, theatre. I do not know what draws me to them, when a fire offers such comfort. Too old to be young and stupid I stumble onwards into the night.

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2 Days in Christchurch (part 4)

2 Men in a Shed

No one knows what men get up to in their sheds. Books have been written, TV series made, but the mystery remains.

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When I think of a shed I think of (Great) Uncle Willie on the way out to New Brighton. Uncle Willie and (Great) Aunty Lizzie had no children of their own (and ate pan-fried chips every night). When Mum took us out to Breeze’s Road to visit he would usher me and my sisters out to the shed to show off his meticulously tidy tools while Mum talked to Aunt Lizzie in the formal sitting room surrounded by elephants and other nick knacks from their African travels. I was fascinated by the little shadows of each tool painted on the shed wall (so you knew where each tool went). I would lift up each one to look at their shadow. Better still, Uncle Willie had a dart board on the shed door where he taught us to play ‘round the world’. We were under 5 (or thereabouts), very wary of the sharp darts, thrilled to be allowed to chuck them at the numbers on the board while Uncle Willie made a steady stream of funny whistles and duck noises to amuse us while the women talked about who knows what.

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I spent Saturday afternoon and evening in Blair’s shed in New Brighton. We weren’t making wooden toys for the grandkids, fixing a car or boat, inventing the internet or escaping her indoors. We were talking, listening to music, drinking snakebites and eating unsalted peanuts. I’ve known Blair since I was 12. We met on my first day at high school at the dawn of the ‘80s. We were both from the wrong side of town, so to speak, and had to bike across Christchurch to get to the manicured fields of Boys’ High in Fendalton. We started playing music in our first band in the 6th form, practicing several nights a week in Jason’s garage in Ashgrove Terrace, playing our first songs in front of people in Damian’s carport at the end of the year.

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I got my first bass guitar from Blair for $100. A maroon Diplomat copy of a Gibson. I had no idea how to play it. I just hit the stings and hoped no one glared at me. Thud thud thud. Thuddy thud thud.

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A few months after that first party All Fall Down (as we now called ourselves) played our first professional gig at the Star and Garter overlooking the Avon River on a hot summer’s night. I was 16. We were awful. How do I know? Because I recently listened to a tape if it.

We must have had some charm because people kept booking us to support every Flying Nun band that came through town as we relentlessly practiced, practiced, practiced morphing from the (somehow) endearingly-naïve yelled kiwipunk that I played with Jason, Blair and Brett into the crafted ‘60s melodies and harmonies (with a shifty dollop of country twang) that I played with Blair, Esther, Stephen and Bert in the final AFD gigs four years later.

 

Like all bands, there were a lot of drummers, but only Blair and me played all 77 gigs (and countless rehearsals).

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So it was great to sit and reflect. The tapes of the early stuff I had digitized from Damian were as awful as we remembered. Unlistenable. Our on-stage chat failed to charm the audience and the endless tuning killed any flow to the set.

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It’s quite something to peak back at your youth and cringe. Our voices sound the same. But what was encouraging is how good we got. I had no idea. There are many good songs and performances in those final recordings.

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After heading inside for a cracker lasagne with Amanda and their son, Nico, we returned to the shed to listen to some Swim Everything jams (the band I played with Blair and Damian (and Brett) in the early ‘90s). It was a lot more rock than AFD. And so much better with Brett’s drumming, as opposed to the more ubiquitous (and awful) drum machine.

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Blair still plays and records music in his shed, and makes a lot of art. I’m lucky enough to decorate my home (and blog) with several pieces made there over the years. He has recently released a solo record which is bloody good.

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Some local young musos/fans have tracked him down and they’re learning the songs to play live next month.

Late in the evening as we sat in the shed, Blair suggested something I had never considered. That we played some of the old AFD songs. Live. Inconceivable. The logistics and effort. The lack of interest. The death of Stephen 4 years ago. But one of the musos Blair is playing with goes out with Stephen’s niece. So maybe, maybe.

Sheds are like garages. A place to escape. And dream.

Second-hand copies of the AFD EP are selling for $239 online. Next year it will be 30 years since we recorded and released it.

There’s a target to aim at.

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Blair’s album ‘Cardigan Bay’

All Fall Down ‘Eastern’

 

2 Days in Christchurch (part 1)

Christchurch is the town that made me. I was born here. Grew up here. Shambled into adulthood here. And while I have nearly spent more time living away from my home than in it, Otautahi contains my greatest trove of formative memories.

It is the place I look back to as I grope my way through Dante’s darkened forest of middle-age.

Why am I here?

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I am in Christchurch to revisit the past (something that gets ever harder each time). Yes, family and friends have moved on, but so have the physical surroundings.

I’m here as an old friend has just turned 50. We went to school together. Played in a couple of bands around Christchurch and New Zealand in the ’80s and ’90s. It’s a time that I’ve never really looked back on until the last few years. I had little desire to wallow in a past that was fun but never golden.

Six months ago I was sent a thumb drive with live recordings of two gigs from 1987. Rob, the sound engineer who mixed us, had recorded the performances. As an avid archivist I appreciated the gesture but the thought of listening to juvenilia held little appeal.

But after a few drinks I gave them a listen. To my surprise I really enjoyed them. Yes, the crowds were often indifferent to our efforts (and talent), but we were (often) tight and the songs were (sometimes) good. It was a revelation. For a couple of weeks it was my favourite music to listen to.

It made me seek out another friend and former school/bandmate who had mixed our gigs (and made home recordings) to see what he had stashed away.

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I sent Damian a text. He sent back a meticulous list of about a dozen gigs and home studio sessions he had on tape.

That was the easy part.

Like me, he no longer had a working cassette player (but many boxes of tapes).

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I got hold of a cassette digitiser from another friend (Fiona, who does transcription services), downloaded some ropey software, and stumbled my way through digitising the tapes. It was quite an effort. Most recordings were indexed on the case but a lot were punched into and recorded over with something different. It is nearly nine years since I worked as a sound man, even longer since I drove any audio software. A lot of trial. Many errors.

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All this faffing about turning arcane ‘80s into shiny 21st century 1010101010101100011s that can be trimmed, indexed, Dropboxed, iPoded and shared lead to the most interesting bit for me – digging out my diaries from their dusty banana box downstairs.

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It’s a funny thing looking back at your teenage self from the vantage point of 50 circles around the sun.

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My diaries are full of details that get more and more… detailed. I first played in a pub as a 16 year-old schoolboy and my ‘diary’ that year was just a few lines scrawled on a calendar. By the end of that year I was jamming about 100 tiny words into the box of each day. Three years later I was churning each day into 800 words of… stuff. Nuggets like 3 pieces of toast for breakfast. Watching the Adrian Mole TV series. Impressed. Waiting for my sisters to have showers. Going to psychology and philosophy lectures.  Getting drunk and talking to girls. Doing radio shows at UFM. Countless band rehearsals. Regular gigs. Occasional insights and surprising hopes for the future. Avoiding writing an essay on morals day after day after day after day. 

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Nearly all the venues All Fall Down played between ‘84-‘87 are gone. Gladstone, Star & Garter, Zetland. All the pubs, social halls, University Ballroom, party-houses, squats, warehouses, flats and garages flattened by earthquakes or history.

I’ve only listened to bits of the recordings, to check the files are okay, but in the spaces between the songs hide golden nuggets. Our teenage voices call out for more fold-back, try to jolly the murmuring crowd, shout-out to mates, complain about the hulking great par can lights burning our legs or hair.

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I can’t wait for to tomorrow. To drink beer with Blair and listen to the past. To look at press clippings and dorky publicity shots. To skim my diary entries, laugh at ourselves and celebrate the amazing feat of still standing in this town after 50 circuits around the sun.

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