Category Archives: Music

Coasting by Numbers

6 years since my last trip to the West Coast with the lads.

33 years since I first went to the bach.

0 amount of power or phone reception at the old fisherman’s bach.

4 expressions of interest in stopping at the notorious ‘F**k Off Café’ in Springfield in order to livestream it’s newsworthy rudeness.

0 visits to ‘F**k Off Café’ after reading that the infamous owners had gone into hiding.

5 Number of times we pulled over and raised the hood of the overheating Terrano.

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9 different parts of the engine we inexpertly poked looking for the cause of the gurgling.

11 bottles of water received from friendly Australian tourists at the top of a bitterly cold Otira Gorge in order to fill the radiator.

2 snowballs thrown by tourists in Porter’s Pass (probably not thirsty Australians).

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3 mutterings of discontent regarding the American Brownies purchased at Arthur’s Pass.

66% of mutterings due to lack of sharing of said brownies.

33% of mutterings directly attributable to the unexpected presence of walnuts.

6 pies eaten, at altitude, while resting at Arthur’s Pass.

99.9% ethnic homogeneity observed at the Greymouth New World supermarket (many shades of grey).

8 times we ‘feel the pain of everyone’, thanks to the Dinosaur Jr. (and a poorly performing shuffle algorithm).

7 times someone asks ‘who’s this?’ when a song by Deerhunter is playing.

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100% sunny days enjoyed while the rest of the country is pelted with grey winter rain.

100% of the time 3 middle-aged men drink like 20 year-olds while eating like middle-aged men.

2 Number of vegetarian sausages required to sate the hunger of a middle-aged man who’s been drinking in the sun. ‘I might save my other two for breakfast.’

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3 varieties of alcohol taken along to enjoy (red wine, vodka and craft beer).

3 guts suffering acid reflux after too much red wine, vodka and craft beer.

100% agreement that acid reflux due to the orange juice mixer rather than vodka etc.

50% of drunken toasts directed to the good ladies at home.

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900% Amount of unexpected gameplay found in the ‘alphabet game’ where you go through the alphabet by theme. Bands, girls, fake album titles, Australian(s). Novel names for parts of the anatomy. Marital acts.

Zero muscles pulled, knees scraped and bones fractured while scrabbling over wet boulders in the dark after consuming beer, wine and vodka drink.

1 sighting of another human on the massive West Coast beach over the three days.

100% disappointment due to lack of sightings of seals, whales and dolphins.

9 spectacular, and challenging, golf holes created on the deserted beach.

3 pars made.

2 birdies!

1 ricochet fired directly back at a cowering golfer from a treacherous rock.

1 golf ball lost due to the club finally connecting with full force.

66% of middle-aged men actually wore shorts in the middle of winter… because it was so darn sunny!

33% of middle-aged men tough enough to climb the rocks in bare feet.

33% of middle-aged men assured enough to wear their comfy slippers on the rocks.

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19 bright red sand-fly bites discovered on my left foot.

1 bright red sand-fly bite detected on my right foot.

7 theories developed to explain this asymmetry 1. I wash the left side of my body more thoroughly than the right 2. Marmite accumulates on the side of the body you prefer to sleep on 3. The insect-repelling nature of the Vitamin B in Marmite is a bit of a myth, but only half of the time 4. Marmite churned counter-clockwise takes a left-handed bias 5. I forgot to wash my left foot. 6. Sand-flies prefer to dine in well-frequented establishments. 7. I jiggle my right foot more than my left while listening to Deerhunter.

19+ rat droppings discovered in bed after sleeping in it for two nights.

4+ Number of days it takes me to recover from 3 nights in the South Island.

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Get On Up, Y’all!

As the first to rise in the house I’ve taken to blasting big bad tunes to rouse the house while we establish the unfamiliar routines of new schools and new house.

The wife, never an early riser, tends to resist alarms and gentle entreaties. Which is only fair, as she makes all the school lunches and sorts out her work clothes the night before.

So when I get up at 06:15, I use the quiet to placate the squawking cat and get the porridge on the stove. Then I walk in circles, tidying dishes and mess, prepping my gears for work or school. I sometimes take the wife a cuppa, but that almost never gets drunk.

By 6:45 it’s time for all to get up. In the past, to avoid shouting like a fishwife or knocking on doors, I used to blast their favourite grooves to entice them to the table. But this week, the first one back at school, I have decided to play brash old music to stir them to action.

Big, bad 1970s Glam rock, to be precise.

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The whole week has all been about The Sweet. Ballroom Blitz and Hellraiser. Poppa Joe and Little Willy. But it has got a bit much, even for me.

Today, I switched in Queen. Bohemian Rhapsody followed by Under Pressure (technically not Glam, but both songs are full of diva dramatics and sequined strutting).

And I can push my voice loud and raunchy on both songs.

Likewise, Sugar Baby Love by The Rubettes. I can rise from the low-pitched verses to the trilling falsetto while inexpertly pumping out the Bump-sha-waddy, Bump sha-waddy-waddy backing vocals, kicking it along like the power house drums.

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No one came up to complain.

It was time for Elvis If I Can Dream. Not Glam but big and bold, dramatic; just as out-of-reach as Freddie Mercury or The Rubettes. But oh, how I tried.

Still no go.

So I paused the music and shouted at the top of the stairs, Time to arise and dress for school, sweet sleepers! I will keep singing awful songs until you stop me!

On went Gary Glitter. Hello, Hello… The wife popped her lovely head into the kitchen, mid make-up, and said that song feels different these days. Yes, I said, making a joke I can’t repeat regarding the erstwhile Mr Bucket’s early placing in the pantheon of fallen idols.

By now it was after 7:00AM.

I slammed on Rocks by Primal Scream. A song I can strut, and gravel, and holler to. Big, leery, retro-rock boogie; a nice bridge between all the styles. An ever-popular (with me) go-to number on SingStar.

That’s when the wife appeared, hair perfectly tousled, looking glamorous and understated as always. These aren’t awful songs, she said, smiling.

Ok.

I shall have to try harder tomorrow.

 

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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!

No more getting in the way now
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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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Love Is

What is love? It is an English word. A very old, Old English word. So how is French the language of love? These are things I have thinking about lately thanks to some of my favourite podcasts and a bit of reality TV.

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The TV show I’ve become addicted to is First Dates, where people with similar interests meet for the first time on a discretely filmed dinner-date. It makes me smile and feel good about life. These people often have very certain ideas about what love is. They just haven’t found it yet.

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So what is love? That is a question that can be answered in any number of ways, in film, story, song or life. But what it wasn’t when love (lufu) was used in Old English was romantic. It was a feeling of wanting, lusting for food or hunting. It wasn’t applied to romance in English until Eleanor of Aquitaine married the English king Henry II in the 1100s, bringing her favoured troubadours over to entertain her court with songs of devotion and unrequited love (themes that define our idea of love to this day).

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But where did Eleanor’s entertainers get this new-fangled idea of love? From her grandfather, William IX of Aquitaine, who loved to pursue women, married or not, and wrote verse about it (his most famous love was Dangereuse… pronounced “Danger-Rosa”!)Dangerosa

Aquitaine, being in the warm south of France, was free of constant fighting so they had time to contemplate love while the cold war-like north (like England) favoured heroic tales of battle and sacrifice.

Romantic literature was around before this, of course, just not in Western Europe. The Ancient Greeks wrote extensively about erotic love, as did the Roman poet Ovid (Shakespeare’s favourite), but it was banned by the time of Caesar c.60BC as people feared it promoted adultery and loose morals. So for 1000 years it was absent from Western culture.

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The south of France was also close to Muslim Andalusia where the great princess and poet, Wallada, held poetry salons in the early 11th century. gran_wallada2ce3She had a long, famously tortured romance with Spanish poet-philosopher Ibn Zaydun. After they met she wrote, “Wait for darkness, then visit me, for I believe that night is the best keeper of secrets”. From rival families, the Muslim Romeo and Juliet exchanged long love letters written in verse, where the gallant suitor humbled himself before his superior lover. Their poems were loved in Aquitaine influencing the idea of ‘courtly love’.

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This is the concept of love we inherited from Eleanor. An instant attraction. The fear of rejection. Longing. Unrequited lust. Devotion.

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These ideas permeate pop songs, rock songs, country music, opera, movies, television, books, blogs, our minds and hearts to this day. It’s certainly what the would-be suitors talk of in First Dates. How they decide if they want to see each other again. But what are they looking for? Big shoulders, nice teeth, blonde hair, a bald head? These are merely initial visual preferences based on what they have liked before. But what drives what they are feeling?

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We are visual creatures with huge visual cortices. When you see someone and go “wow, who’s that?” your brain has a massive hit of oxytocin, the drug of attraction. If you then talk to them you are rewarded with a blast of dopamine, which makes you feel pretty darn good. If you kiss technique is involved, but you are also tasting their MHC (major histocompatibility complex) which indicates if their genetic make-up is the same, or different, to yours. The more different the genes, the better they taste, indicating any ensuing offspring will be stronger with better immunity than if your genes are similar.

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But oxytocin degrades fast and those first hours/days/months of “wow!” do not last. At its max you have 18 months, probably less, to step up to beta endorphins, the natural opiates that take over in long-term relationships where you miss each other when apart and feel better in one another’s company.

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So which of these things is love? The wow of lust or comfort of companionship? The blind-daters, young and old, gay and straight, all seem to be looking for the later while gauging it by the former. They seem beholden to ideas of love born 1,000 years ago that make wonderful entertainment but often lead to poor choices.

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I’m no expert. But watching First Dates (while listening to podcasts about attraction and the history of love) has made me suspect that I have employed medieval ideas of love while holding tight to the original Old English idea of love as lust/desire, loving the thrill and excitement of a successful hunt.

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Once, in my 20s and working in television, a well-known TV presenter asked me if I was in love. We were alone in a rose garden, shooting a segment for Valentine’s Day. It was a sharp question. I had been in a relationship for 6 months but that thought had never occurred to me. I realised the answer was no. She then told me that her friends talked about “boing” (that moment of wow), and how it is not really love. It’s taken me decades to understand what that meant, to realise that entertainment may reflect life but it should not lead it.

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Finally I can recognise, and find, true love.

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So, what is love?

It is for you to decide.

Enamorados

 

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3 Days in Auckland (part 1)

In the air

I first visited Auckland nearly 30 years ago. It was a different city, I was a different person. A fresh-faced 20-year old on the road (in a plane) with the band I had played bass with since I was 16. I wasn’t a great bass player, we weren’t a great band, but we had something; energy, attitude, good tunes and a freshly-pressed EP to promote and sell.

Like a lot of people who had grown up in Christchurch, I was pretty dubious about Auckland, the brash, domineering big brother in the national media and consciousness. The largest city in the North Island, it was a natural rival for the biggest city in the South Island.

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But that wasn’t on my mind so much when I flew in with my four bandmates, it was the gigs and interviews we had lined-up. The boxes of records we hoped to sell, and the crucial uncertainty of whether or not Radio With Pictures would play our video before we left town.

30 years in a long time in the life of any city. It’s the life of a human generation (although desperate marketeers and journalists have been shortening that natural span in the last few decades). Pressed-vinyl EPs are no longer the best way to get music to punters and music videos are available at the swipe of a device (as opposed to being confined to a single showing in a dedicated TV show once or twice a week. Miss the show or fail to programme your VCR correctly and you would have to imagine it from the descriptions of your friends).

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Our first gig was a daytime performance on a stage set up in the grassy quad at Auckland University. We banged and strummed away. The students ate their lunch. Maybe we drank beer. Afterwards we did an interview on BFM, the student radio station, promoting the EP and the pub gigs we were doing with The Letter 5 (was it? was it?! Or the Battling Strings?)

Then it was off to walk into the record shops dotted along Queen Street, trying to sell our wares at $6.99, sale or return. I think we got rid of a pitiful 1 or 2 in a couple of shops.

Queen Street was long, wide and steep to me. Chch is a flat city. I headed off up to explore the famous/infamous K’ Road at the top of Queen Street by myself, fuelled by one or two beers (and the Valium one of the singers had scored from a friendly doctor to calm our nerves).

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Why am I reminiscing about my first visit to Auckland? Because I am flying there now. At the moment we are passing over Kapiti Island, having taken off from Wellington into 120km winds. The take-off was as bumpy as it was sitting on the tarmac, buffeted and battered , waiting to taxi. But I’m a pretty solid traveller, I never feel queasy. Plus I was distracted by being allowed to write this while we were taking off…a first for me as I have been used to the ‘switch off all electronic devices’ rule that has only just been relaxed.

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It’s 3 years since I was last in Auckland. That time I spent little time in the city, heading straight to the ferry and 2 nights on Waiheke, my island home in the Hauraki Gulf I left 8 years ago. I spent that visit swimming at Palm Beach, my favourite bit of paradise. I had hoped to squeak in a visit this time, but I am only in Auckland for a little over 48 hours so it looks a bit tight. Plus I have been alerted by a friend to the fact that Waiheke is experiencing an outbreak of sea lice due to the exceptional, record-breaking summer. I ache to re-visit paradise and swim in the eternity of summers past. But sea lice?! Hmm.

The volcanic rump of Mt. Ruapehu has disappeared from my window and the plane has started to descend. I’m being offered sweets (hooray for the traditions of Air New Zealand which also gave me a snack and a drink without asking for payment).

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What will these (nearly) 3 days in Auckland hold? Memories and observations by the bucket load, I imagine. I lived there for 13 years. Flew into the watery isthmus countless times. As I am travelling alone my only plan is to write and reflect. Walk the old paths. Seek the old favourite eats. I may try and meet friends, I may not. I would be nice but time is short. We are all older with commitments of time and responsibility of all sorts.

The excuse for this trip (taken on a whim and Airpoints) is an old TV colleague’s 50th. I’ve never been to a 50th. It makes me feel old. A bit excited. Curious. Nervous. I hope I don’t bottle out. I’m terrible for that sort of thing.

There will be people there from all those years I worked in telly, including a few who I trained with at the NZ Broadcasting School in Chch 22 years ago. A small reunion of sorts. How did we get this old? What is everyone doing now? Why did we create a dormant group on Facebook?

Questions never end. Nor should they.

How have 30 years passed since I first flew into Auckland?

We are landing. Auckland is here.

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4 Days in Christchurch (part 5)

A Run, Sunday Grey

Sunday morning emerged cool, grey. Quiet. The ceaseless sounds of re-build were taking a rest. Up early, as I always am after a drink or two, I headed out for a run. When I was here a year ago I ran around Hagley Park. This time I was at the southern boundary of the Four Aves (Moorhouse, Bealy, Fitzgerald, Deans) that form a square box around the CBD, so I decided to head south along Colombo Street, to Sydenham. It was eerily silent, a misty rain falling. As I ran over the overbridge that seemed so high when I lived in this flat city I looked to the gap where the railway station used to be. Its absence was disconcerting. It’s no exaggeration to say my stomach lurched.

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At first, Sydenham seemed like a gem. The old artisanal village on the southside of Christchurch was covered in wonderful street art. But as I passed empty shop after empty shop I realised that the Colombo, the box mall further down Colombo Street, has sucked all the life out of the area. IMG_9857

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Even the relocated Honey Pot café, one of my old favs from the CBD, had gone bust. I ran towards Beckenham, swimming in memories from my childhood and youth (fairs at the school my mother attended as a child in the 1930s; the band practice room I shot a video for a ‘90s grunge band; the pet shop where I got Alf and Sid, my pet mice; the Hot Bread Shop I had my first job, earning $$ for my music gear and cameras; the snooker hall where I played on full-size tables with comical ineptitude; the church I watched my girlfriend dance covered in oil with $$ stuck to her by parishioners, and so on and so on). All gone.

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By the time I reached Sydenham Park I felt so good I wanted to run all the way to the hills but as soon as that thought hit the calf of the leg where I had my Achilles’ operation two years ago suddenly constricted in pain and I was forced to start walking: 10 minutes into a gentle run. Grrr. Two years to being 100%? Seems it’s going to be more than that. I stretched and tried not to limp all the way back into the CBD.

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After showering (and stretching, and stretching some more), I checked out of my hotel, took my bag to the lockers at the bus station and returned to wandering the CBD, taking photos and writing down my thoughts. Which can get you enquiring looks when you’re travelling by yourself. People can regard you with suspicion, or that’s the way it sometimes seems from the way they look at lone males. Maybe the locals are sick of disaster tourists taking snaps of the corpse. Fair enough. More than once I would stop and point my camera at some piece of rebuild or tumbled pile only to find other wandering tourists suddenly stop and photograph the same thing, as if by obligation. I began to feel I should be leaving a tip for the locals.

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Not fancying the overwhelmingly fried food at the pop-up mall I headed across the Square to the other anchor of normality, New Regent Street. Like last night, it was full of people hanging out and walking by. I overheard some locals complain about the fabulous piece of giant art at the end of the street “How many millions has that cost us?” stopping myself from saying it looks even better when lit up at night. I cruised the overflowing cafes trying to decide where I would have my lunch/breakfast, saw two wizards having coffee (that felt reassuring), then stumped for the only café with no one in it: often a bad sign.

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How many millions?

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Selfie with the Wizard of Chch (& apprentice)

‘Shop Eight’ looked pretty. Stylish, recycled, handcrafted furniture. The menu: sparse. Just half a dozen items for lunch. Handpicked, biodynamic. Served cold. Hmm. I went in. The waitress looked tired, spoke too quietly, saying both my choices (the chicken, and asparagus & egg) were off the menu. Undeterred, I chose the wild pork and rabbit terrine. I sat on the street watching the trams slide by, eerily within reach, listening to the jazz guitarist across the way noodle out gorgeous tunes, and the old ladies at the overflowing muffin shop next door remark “Look, you could imagine you’re in a different country!” while wondering what a terrine was.

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When the waitress brought me my lunch she forcefully pointed to a corner of the plate and said “that’s the chutney!” My $18 open sandwich was fantastic. Tasty, filling, a joy to eat.

 

Sun Comes Out, Head Inside

In the afternoon I did something I have never done in NZ: I rented a holiday car. I have rented heaps for work or when overseas, but there has always been a car available when I had family or friends to visit in Christchurch. I could have caught a bus to visit my friends in New Brighton, but I had an urge to tiki around bits I hadn’t seen in a while. And at $58 for a 24hr cheapie it was a perfect way to experience the pot-holed, dug up, resurfaced, re-dug up and resurfaced (and repeat) again and again, ever-changing roads of Christchurch.

 

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Heading East

I could write heaps about New Brighton, the sea-side suburb on the east of Christchurch. The ‘70s heyday as one of only two place in NZ where you could shop on a Saturday. The excitement and bustle, the treat of going there. The big long beach at the edge of the Pacific. Getting smashed by the surf. Nothing between the horizon and Chile. The whale park. The pier(s). The Shoreline Cabaret where a crooning Val Lamond (who I had only seen on the telly) sang to my father on his 50th. The decline and neglect (post and pre-quake).

 

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Dad’s 50th Shoreline Cabaret 1975

I saw out the day in a garden shed in the company of two good, old friends listening to music, drinking snake-bites mixed from a chilly bin. We have known each other since school, shared a lifetime of experiences. Become parents. Had many holidays at Jonathan’s family bach perched on rocks on a rugged West Coast beach. Made a lot of music and art amongst us. It was reading Blair’s music blog that inspired me to start my blog. He writes a music memoir and posts his art at blairparkes.wordpress.com We were in bands in the ‘80s and ‘90s. Jonathan made the giant kaleidoscope that stands at the top of New Regent Street (and many other pieces around the city). He organises Greening the Rubble, volunteers installing public spaces on rubble that won’t be rebuilt for some time (they have a Facebook page if you’re interested). We played in a disco covers band in the ‘80s that never made it out of the practice room, even though we had a great name, ‘The Hot’.

 

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Nightshift studio, Beckenham 1985

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The Kaleidoscope, New Regent Street

We talked and talked. Laughed and laughed. There’s nothing like old friends. Time collapses. The past becomes present and the world seems less harsh. I wish we lived closer.

Rage Against the Light

I’m thinking of going to see the Buzzcocks. I love their songs. Perfect tunes that sound as fresh as they did in the 1970s. I want to sing along with these legends of the punk/pop pantheon. But it’s a work night. And I’m getting old. No longer able to shake off a late night.

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I used to see everything that came to town. Loved it. Loved the music, the lights, the noise, the people. Two years ago I went see Garbage. It was my first proper concert in many years. I didn’t known they were in town. Saw an ad on telly offering cheap tickets. Went along. Loved it to bits. I was never a fan but the sound was great, the band full of energy and the joy of performance.

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Good Garbage Wellington

Buoyed along by the experience I went to see Neil Young and Crazy Horse a month later. I love his music. He is a major player in the rock pantheon. But the whole thing paled next to Garbage, the rock tiddlers. Neil was good but the band felt tired. Fair enough. They are getting on. Shuffling around like shadows of the past.

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Neil Young & Crazy Horse Wellington

That’s why when an old friend/bandmate asked if wanted to go see The Fall recently I had to yes… but no. Back in the day Mark E. Smith could trot out compellingly crap/good performances. Now he is known to wander around the stage like a grumpy pensioner who can’t find the toilet.

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Angry young man

The first proper concert I saw was Glen Campbell when I was eight. My mother took me to see him at the Christchurch Town Hall.

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Bill & Boyd

Which is wonderfully young for your first proper concert. Yay for Mum. I loved it. We sat upstairs in the front row with my cousin Linda. Bill and Boyd opened the show. I knew them from telly. They were funny. Long hair and droopy moustaches. They sang ‘Put Another Log On the Fire’, which we sang at school. Women’s libbers and male chauvinist pigs. Hee hee. It was 1975.

 

9064625But Glen was the star. Top of his game. Hit after hit with jokes and stories. He played along to a comical silent film of him as a cowboy. Did a great imitation of Vegas dinner-show Elvis.

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The Rhinestone Cowboy

I couldn’t help singing along and was stopped many times by my mother. No photos allowed. No recordings of any kind. How things have changed.

I saw him again in 1991 as an adult at the same venue. This time sitting downstairs with rock band friends, Blair and John. It was good but I remember little. No doubt we pre-loaded in rock ‘n roll fashion. Maybe Glen had, too. He had a dark booze and cocaine period.

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Last week I watched I’ll Be Me, the documentary about Glen Campbell’s final tour and descent into Alzheimer’s. I felt ambivalent about watching it. It’s a pig of a way to go. It took my father. I recognized the same coping methods my father used to deflect the condition. Jokes. Side-steps. Anger. Distress. But what raised the doco above horrorshow was watching the tour. The danger the band felt (which included three of his children) not knowing if Glen could keep it together through the song, through the set. He did. It was astounding. A full-blown Alzheimer’s causality coming alive with lights, music and applause.

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Yes, he was reading the lyrics from an auto-cue, but so did Brian Wilson when I saw him 10 years ago. And Glen could shred up wonderful guitar solos when required. Didn’t need anyone to guide him through every move.

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Tonight Elton John is playing here in Wellington. We’re told it’s our last time to see him. Only $99. I will be a great show. He’s a consummate performer, but doesn’t pique my interest. ilxe9exYesterday I watched a video posted on Facebook of Fleetwood Mac playing in Dunedin two nights ago. They are more to my ‘see-the-gods-of-yore!’ liking. Christine McVie is with them for the first time in years.

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Fleetwood Dunners

In a couple of weeks AC/DC are here at the stadium. The Aussie pub band that done good. But so many of the members have shuffled from the stage (booze/speed/Alzheimer’s) there’s only AC (or DC?) left.

 

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Fun for the whole family

The say all political careers end in failure. It seems to be the same with music. Hits disappear, crowds vanish. Those with commercial success are bitter the critics don’t rate them. Those with acclaim resent the lack of money. So old bands/acts are now coming to your town. It’s how they make money with record sales dead.

Last month I picked up a bass for the first time in over a decade (back when I had randomly jammed with Voom).

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Buzz from Voom!

I was at my friend Mark’s 50th and we were jamming in celebration. A friend has a great band set-up, can play solid drums and snarly blues guitar. We played Sympathy for the Devil for ages and it sounded pretty darn good. Better than the Stones. Of now, not yore. It was energetic, sharp, on the edge of danger. It made me think for the first time in years that I would love to play bass again.

I haven’t played live since the late ‘90s. At the King’s Arms in Auckland. It was awful. A lounge bar on a Sunday afternoon. Two guys with guitars and a drum machine as The Letter 5. No stage to lift you above the indifferent clinking of glass.

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But last month I was astonished by how good it felt playing bass with a punchy rock drummers and guitarists (there was four of us). Maybe it was the snakebites in the sun, or the cookie to top it off, but I felt like I was in my early twenties again.

Playing Shirley Boys'& Marion High School Dance 21 June 1986 (photo by Damian Zelas)

Teenage bass

Somehow I can’t imagine Pete Shelley reading his lyrics from an auto-cue. But if he needs to, that’s what comes with age, I guess. Like a big belly and thinning hair.

 You tried it just the once, found it alright for kicks

But now you found out, that it’s a habit that sticks

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The second time I saw Glen Campbell

Re-collection

I started collecting music in 1979 when I paid $1.99 for ‘Lucky Number’ by Lene Lovich. I had seen her on Ready to Roll and the quirky energy of her ‘New Wave’ sound (and look) appealed to my 12 year old mind. At the time, the song wasn’t played on the radio so buying a personal copy was the only way to hear the hooks and melody stuck in my head. Within a year I was spending a lot of my free time in record stores meticulously flicking through LPs, agonizing over whether I should spend $7.99 on a whole album of songs when I only ever wanted to listen to the single over and over again.

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What’s not to love about Lene Lovich?

Over the next 10 years I amassed a collection of several hundred records, spending several thousand dollars constructing a personal narrative of music history. Of course, there was no need to buy everything as likeminded friends could tape their albums for you, but if you truly loved something, you wanted it on vinyl.

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Doing radio on the telly c.1986

Once at university I became a student radio DJ getting access to their massive collection of the best music, enthusiastically sharing my taste many times a week, most happily on the weekend all-nighters where from 11pm to 7am there were no programmed playlists just 8 hours of me (and a friend or girlfriend, and a sly bottle of nasty) broadcasting the music I loved to the world (at least, to the greater Christchurch area).

Like a lot of people I no longer have a turntable so my vinyl collection, now worth much more than I ever spent, sits in dusty crates under my house. When CDs came out there was a media blitz telling everyone to discard their records as CDs were perfect and lasted forever. It was a good sales pitch. My CD collection now sits beside the records, un-played, with little resale value.

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Like most people my phone has swallowed my music collection. All my CDs are digitized and the vinyl replaced by digital copies. I have 6,358 songs constantly in my pocket, more than I would ever want to listen to. At a guess, 90% have never been played (in this format, at least). Which says something about the nature of collecting; it is as much about the act as the result. Maybe that is why I have resisted the move towards streaming services like Spotify which by their nature seem to deny the joy of collecting.records

A few weeks ago I stepped into a record store for the first time in decades. The place was full of people actively searching through vinyl as I once did. The vinyl revival is real. Sales are growing faster than any digital format and specific vinyl charts have returned because 1. They just sound better 2. Collecting is about searching for, and acquiring, something you can hold (even something as ephemeral as thoughts are nothing until collected and turned into a form someone else can grasp, like a book).

Last week I experienced a cute moment of near symmetry when I bought a digital copy of ‘Lucky Number’ for $1.79 so I could play it to my daughter. While the price is satisfyingly similar to my first outlay, the equivalence feels hollow as the digital copy lacks the urgent energy of the 45 (it is heavily compressed for tiny speakers, devoid of the original piezoelectric spark of crystal in groove). But, most of all, it cannot sit in a box like a piece of treasure from the past, slowly acquiring value, waiting to be re-discovered and admired.

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Profits of the Future

I’ve just finished reading the most wonderful book. It is gripping, funny and thought provoking with a command of narrative and metaphor that has me shaking my head in wonder. It’s a popular history book, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari, and while this is not a review, I urge any thinking person to read it (Sapiens, as in Homo sapiens, means ‘wise’ human).

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Harari says fiction makes us human

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1970’s view of the future

Like all history it addresses the present (we can only understand today by looking at the past). However, in the final chapter it looks ahead making the point that visions of the future are often hopelessly rooted in the past, blind to imagination. He makes this point by saying that in 1948 the future was full of an apocalyptic nuclear WWIII, while visions from the 1960s were all about rockets and colonising space.

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Slow Boat Records

All this was made clear to me the other day when I revisited my past in the most peculiar way. I was in a record shop flicking through LPs, something I had not done in decades. As I was doing it I couldn’t help reflect on how much time I spent in my teens scouring album racks, searching for music I might want to buy. I did it several times a week. What was it all for? With no record player all those albums I bought now sit un-played in crates under the house and all the ones I hunger to hear have been replaced by digital copies I can scroll through on my phone.

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Vinyl Heaven

As I watched the surprising amount of people, young and old, looking through the music I got several messages from the stranger I was waiting to meet. He was delayed, so I started to look for specific albums, ones that I owned, and I was shocked to find that all were worth a lot more than I had imagined. Not just the rare or obscure ones, but the mass-produced commercial ones that I would get from my mother for Christmas were at least three times the original price.

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$10 when I got it for Xmas 1981 …$30 now!

Yes, there has been inflation, so a $10 LP from 1980 may well be worth $30 in 2015… except that is not how it was meant to play out. From the mid ‘80s on we were told by a chorus of media experts and retailers that LPs were worthless relics which needed to be replaced with everlasting CDs. People dumped LPs en masse. A lover of old things, I would often pick them up for a buck or two at charity stores, adding to my neglected, unplayable collection.

So what’s happening? I got a bit of an insight when the person I was meeting turned up, sweating heavily in the mild late summer 22 degrees of Wellington having recently left the -20 degrees of snowbound Toronto.

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Playing a lunchtime school gig Sept ’84

Matt had made contact with me the week before after reading my post from last year, It Was 30 Years Ago, where I reminisced about my final September at school in 1984.

I wasn’t quite sure how to take his interest, but he seemed genuine and I was happy to scour my photo collection for pictures he might use for the book he is writing.

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Midnight Espresso. Nice muffins. Perfect atmosphere

Initially, I assumed he was a New Zealander living in Canada, who else would bother to write a book about the early years of obscure NZ record label Flying Nun? But as we crossed the road to Midnight Espresso I found out he was a historian with an interest in DIY pop culture. He had come across the label while living in London after doing his doctorate, falling in love with the music (and the story). Then, once he began working in publishing, he tried to find a book that charted the history of Flying Nun, finding nothing. Eventually, after talking to NZers at the Frankfurt Book Fair, he decided he had to do it himself.

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Before Garageband, it helped to know someone who could build a mixer from scratch

The historian (and writer) in me was fascinated by this tale. So much so that it was a while before I stopped ‘interviewing’ him and he pulled out his phone and started asking me questions.

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The Flying Nun Xmas Party ’86. There was bath tub full of beer

It was a strange experience. Being bought food and a drink. Talking about the past. That’s the thing, some things are so familiar you take them for granted and have little idea how they appear to others. Yeah, stuff happened. I played in bands in the FN scene. We weren’t famous, successful or noted. So what?

I had been aware that the EP the schoolboy band I played in (which included a girl, and I once found filed under Women’s Music) has fetched ridiculous prices on the internet ($500 in one auction) but I assumed that was an aberration, fuelled by vinyl geeks completing a collection, rather than out of enthusiasm for the obscure 30 year old music of All Fall Down.

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A quick Google finds the EP retailing for $225 today

But Matt’s eyes lit up when he talked about it, how everyone knew about all the big FN bands and how good the music was, how the vinyl was worth big $$ around the world, but AFD was a mysterious lacuna. With only 200 pressed it was hard to get a copy of the EP so the only way to hear the music was to pay way too much money, or watch two videos on YouTube (which he loved).

AFD Supporting Great Unwashed, Clyde Quay Tavern (The Pulse) 14 Dec 1984 (photo Clifton Fuller)

Supporting The Great Unwashed in Wellington 1984. All well under-age

The past and the future collapsed for me in that moment.

When I was collecting vinyl in the ‘80s, so much was unavailable. I read Rip It Up, NME et al cover to cover, reading more words than ever listening to the songs. There were only a couple of music video shows a week showing a handful of new stuff. And student radio only broadcast for a few hours a day, a few months a year. Scarcity drove deep interest and if you wanted to hear something obscure or beyond the ken of the corporate masters that ran commercial radio and the pressing plants, you had to read about it, then import it from overseas, hoping like hell you liked it (or found it in a second-hand bin somewhere).

Of course, this is not a dewy-eyed harking back for a past age. I love the 21st Century and the availability of music fuelled by the internet, YouTube, iTunes, Wikipedia, ebay/TradeMe etc. I love that I can edit some photos to a beautiful song by the forgotten band I once played in, purely as a tribute to a lost friend and band mate, and people I do not know can watch it anywhere in the world and find something worthwhile.

Yes, it was heartbreaking in 1987 to put so much time, effort and money into an EP and struggle to get retailers to take it for $6.99 (sale or return). And yes, it is kind of galling to see people paying hundreds of dollars for it now.

But it is also satisfying.

Great Unwashed + AFD 1984It was even more satisfying to see the look on Matt’s face when I gave him a copy of the EP he has only read about, to see him pull out the vinyl to check out the grooves like an enthusiast (like I used to), to have him ask about the engraved matrix which he and his friends have speculated about.

Ironically in this time of constant media and ever-present past, he’s having a tough time finding pictures from back then. People just didn’t take photos at gigs. It was either frowned on or illegal (oh, how times have changed. A friend recently posted a whole song on Facebook of Peter Hook playing a Joy Division song in Auckland… they used to call that bootlegging).

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A clipping from Auckland gig

And the newspaper archives are little use. Apparently the papers don’t think ‘entertainment’ stories were worth keeping so they got dumped at some point or other.

No one knows what the future holds.

But, as a historian, what I do know is that which we unthinkingly discard always accumulates value, and prophets of the future tend to be more concerned with their own profits than anything else.

I can’t wait to see the book Matt’s putting together. To see scant pictures of the past turned into history and story.

It makes this ‘wise’ hominid smile.

AFD (Esther, me Blair) playing the 21st party Feb 1986 Photo taken by Jonathan Hall

Rockin’ on & on in 1986

3 Songs I sing LOUD!!!

I love music. I love singing. I love hearing stories. I love telling stories. In my mind all these things are part of the same unique human urge. I have referred to this belief in various posts about music, earworms and songs: Needles and Plastic, Songs of September, Quiet Loud Listen Sing, It Was 30 Years Ago…, A Curious Thing, and Music Is A Story.

But this post isn’t about earworms, my crackpot theories or those songs. It’s about three songs I sang repeatedly (and loudly) as I drove the 20 kms into (or from) work in the lead up to Christmas. I loved singing them. They both expressed joy (and caused it), salved pain and cured tiredness. Each time that I sang them (at the top of my voice, with maximum passion), oblivious to any looks from fellow commuters I found something new in some part of the musical composition or production, in the lyrics or vocal expression.

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Not my car. Not my song. Probably not me.

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Exactly what I look like

What’s more, even though the three songs ended up quite randomly at the start of my ‘Singlesman’ playlist and came from three different decades and musical genres, they slowly revealed themselves to have very striking similarities.

Song #1 is from 1971, Aire of Good Feeling by Wellington band The Quincy Conserve.

quinI have loved this song since the first time I heard it on a vinyl disc of New Zealand ‘SuperHits’ purchased in the late ‘80s for $6.99. I snaffled this LP for the usual suspects of Ray Columbus and the Invaders, Craig Scott, Alison Durban, Blerta, Mark Williams, Shane, The La De Das, Shona Laing, Bunny Walters et al…. ‘60s-’70s TV light ent. music, if you will.

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Lazy cover. Great Compilation

It’s hard to remember but at the time (mid/late ‘80s) that style of music was deeply unfashionable, the ‘Classic Hits’ brand of radio was yet to be foisted on us, there was no internet to research or download music so relics like the Quincy Conserve were rare treats to be relished (pun intended). So, as a keen fan of music (and budding musician) I played it many times on the radio shows I DJ-ed on student radio station Radio U (later UFM). I loved the busyness of the drums, the horns, the barely repressed growl of the vocals, the happiness of the lyric and general feel… and the fact that I had only ever heard it on this strange, cheap compilation with an awful yellow cover.

Hip hooray, let’s smile for a day

Aire of Good Feeling, comin’ over me

quincyconserve3For me, it was a bit of a private treasure that I subsequently lost as music became digital and I was unable to enjoy my records (my vinyl collection sits in crates under the house awaiting the day a record player returns to my living room).

That was until just before Christmas when I saw this condiment on the shelf. quince conserveUnsure if the pun was intended, I had to buy it. Disclosure: I love Anathoth (jams, chutneys, relishes) and the quince conserve is typically outstanding (especially with blue cheese on a walnut oat cracker!) Of course, the one song I knew of the Quincy Conserve came back into my head along with a need to hear it. $100 would buy me an okay record player with a USB outlet but $1.97 got me the re-released track on i-Tunes. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, I LOVE the 21st century!

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Bruno!

quincey liveYes, the busy jazz/Keith Moon drums were there (was it super-cool actor/drummer/wild man Bruno Lawrence? I hoped so at the time but doubt it now), but that’s not what struck me as I re-engaged with the old track, thrashing it every time I jumped in the car (it is the meatiest/truest stereo I own). It was the way the bass is up front pumping a repetitive scale/run that drives the tune along on a ride that doesn’t stop. quincy cYes, the horns punch and lift, but it is the distinctive vocals of Malcolm Hayman (threatening to explode but somehow held back like a team of restless bullocks) that share front of stage with the bass. The 30 to 40 times I have sung along to this track have been spent trying to understand (and mimic) his wonderful voice.

Song #2 is a bit of a segue that feels as natural as breathing to me: Rocks by Primal ScreamPrimal-Scream-Rocks-CD-Single-165379930_ML I wasn’t familiar with this song until I trawled through Singstar playlists a couple of years ago trying to find something to sing with Singstar buddies who tend to favour Abba and ‘80s kitsch. The straight forward boom-smack Stones/Faces/Sly Stone swagger is fun to sing (especially with a few drinks under the belt), and the lyrics are ironically simple and playful (as good lyrics should be),

Dealers keep dealing, thieves keep a-thieving,

whores keep a-whoring, junkies keep scoring

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What I look like Rocking Singstar

The repetition of form fits the big fat cookie-cutter production (floor toms start smacking along with tambourine, then gat track, then 2nd gat, then bass, then vox… and away we go!!!)

Best of all it fits my rock voice wonderfully…. especially the refrain where the horns sneak in with a sly honky-tonk piano,

Ain’t no use in pray-in’, that’s the way it’s stay-in’, bay-by

Johnny ain’t so cray-zy, he’s always got a line for the lay-dies… yeah, yeah, yeah

I loved doing this song to bits but my singing friends were never so keen, always pushing to do something ‘deceptively complex’ like Fernando.

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Primals at Glastonbury 2013

Well, those drinking/singing buddies left town over a year ago so I stopped hearing that song until just before Christmas when I scored some cheap iTunes credit (vouchers 30% off makes singles cheaper that when I started buying them in 1979 at $1.99 each), and decided to add to my Singlesman playlist (I’ve always preferred singles to albums which are so often stuffed with fillers). Rocks had been in my head (ho ho) for some time (but not my ears) so I got a copy for $2.39 and, wow, does it sound good on my car stereo. Simone-Butler-enjoys-playing-bass-in-Primal-ScreamWhen those floor toms start as Good Feeling ends I feel like I’m right in the room with them, filled with a physical pleasure only certain sounds can bring. The production is astoundingly simple (and clever) slowly building to a stage full of big-band sound that never overwhelms the essential simplicity of the song.

So that’s how I came to belting out

Get your rocks off, get your rocks off honey!

at 7 am in the morning, on a busy motorway into Wellington, ignoring the strange looks, revealing in the harmonies of the beautiful black-girl BVs (who may in fact be white, but that’s the style) opening up the heavens.Primal-Scream-performing--006

Song #3 (and this is not a ranking just how they ended up on the playlist and, consequently, how the musical progression makes sense to me) is Ride Like the Wind by Christopher Cross, the only song of the three I was aware of when it was released. Christopher-Cross-Ride-Like-The-Win-176682It came out at the beginning of 1980, the start of a new decade, just before I became a teen, a few months after I started buying records. If Good Feeling is pure ‘70s and Rocks is solid ‘90s, this is that cold decade in between. Not that this song is cold, it is full of power and life (in a soft-rock kind of way) and is much more late ‘70s in feel than electro ‘80s.

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Best Solid Gold Hits LP from the year before Chris

I was no big fan when it came out, my 12-year old ears much preferred the power pop/new wave of the time (I loved Blondie’s Call Me which kept Ride from hitting #1). To me while the song was catchy, Christopher Cross was deeply unappealing so I never sought out the single. But I believe we used to play it at home courtesy of a Sold Gold Hits LP bought for me and my sisters by my parents (I loved those compilations and maybe they are part of why I remain a singles man to this day).

yacht_rock_press_photoHowever, I ended up buying a digital copy of the song two years ago after reading about the hilarious (fake) musical genre ‘Yacht Rock’, which is a grouping made up after the event to describe certain cheesy songs of the late ‘70s/early ‘80s (ultra-smooth California soft-rock like Toto, Stevie Nicks, Little River Band, Michael McDonald etc). I found the whole idea hilarious and bought several Yacht Rock tracks which I played for a bit before wearying of the jokey nostalgia.

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Nights Are Forever?! No, they just feel that way, boys

(The most enduring has been I’d Really Love to See You Tonight by England Dan & John Ford Coley… the song that comes after Ride on my playlist… pure A.M. cheese and fun to sing with tortured passion, especially the astoundingly bizarre

stay and home and watch TV,

it really doesn’t matter much to me-e-e

And the way they dress, and the hair…wow, I remember when every man looked like that…still waiting for that particular fashion to come back).

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Chris & Ron Burgundy. No joke

Anyway, a month or so before Christmas there was a random story on Huffington Post about Ride which said that Christopher Cross had written the song while on LSD in the desert. It seemed so improbable (given his image) that I had to listen to the song again. And through that re-engagement it ended up on my sing-every-day list. I started to see the drama of the narrative (a killer on the run fleeing for the border on a stolen horse), and how the tension was expressed in the clipped power of the vocal delivery, help back in the fear of flight. I loved trying to mimic it, and it even began to remind me of the way Malcolm Hayman approached Good Feeling, holding the voice in the gut, letting the repressed power speak for itself, hitting the final consonants hard (something singers usually resist/fudge, wanting the rounded smoothness of vowels).

It is the night, my body’s weak

I’m on the run, no time to speak

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Soft rock & acid. Don’t do it kids

And while Bobby Gillespie approaches Rocks in a quite a different manner (almost bored, joking) it too resists the urge to belt out and warble like a talent show Pop Idol or karaoke klutz. The power is held, hinted at, allowed to sneak out for a peak only when required.

Like the other two songs (Good Feeling and Rocks) it is a big production number requiring at least a dozen people on stage to perform. Ride is driven by congas and an unrelenting repetitive piano riff, but is essentially a trad. rock band set up beefed-up with the usual suspects of horn and string stabs, piano and backing vox (some courtesy of Mr Yacht Rock himself, Michael McDonald).

I doubt if anyone else on Earth has seen the connectedness of these three songs. Or sung them, one after the other, repeatedly. At volume.

Narrative is a strange beast. It comes both at the start, and at the end, while the tune is forming, and once the song is sung.

This post has been in my head since before Christmas, aching for some space to come out. It’s been a fiendishly busy time and I have only just (temporarily) stepped off the treadmill. But with these words excreted on to the page (or screen) every step becomes so much easier.

I no longer sing these songs every day; I sing three quite different songs.

But that, as they say, is another story.

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‘Nuff said

Needles and Plastic

For the last few weeks I’ve been suffering from a particularly persistent (and infectious) earworm. It’s Needles and Plastic by early ‘80s Flying Nun 3-piece DoubleHappys. It’s a song I’ve loved since the first time I heard it back in 1985 when I was a sneering (and insecure) 18 year-old bashing away in the Christchurch music scene.

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Instruments of joy and terror

The singer, Shayne Carter, was the king of sneer and, to be fair, there was plenty to sneer at in the world of 1985 which tends only to get appreciated in a jovially mocking manner, or as dewy-eyed nostalgia (big hair, lame rock, the ‘protection’ of the nuclear umbrella, Reagan selling drugs to fund terrorists while skipping merrily towards dementia, Thatcher tagging along in shoulder pads).

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High fashion c.1985 How high? Ask Ronnie Reagan

1985 was also a time when every mainstream radio programmer claimed all New Zealand music was ‘shit’, and much of the public agreed. But, like Reagan and his dodgy mates, they were wrong.

There was heaps of good music happening in NZ and the fact that those scraped-together recordings and ropey pressings continue to hold high value in the USA and Europe is testament to that (even 2nd hand copies of the insignificant FN E.P. I played on in ’87 have reached $400).

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Pure 1985

Why is it still valued? (beyond obvious nostalgia value). I believe it’s because it was fresh and real, with an energy akin to the first rock ‘n’roll that swept away the manufactured crooners in the ‘50s, or the British Invaders of the early ‘60s who made the processed US ‘rock’ acts irrelevant, or the US/UK punks of the early/mid ‘70s who popped the bloated balloon of Led Zep and pomp rock.

It spoke to me not just because of the subject matter but because the music sounded real. The drums, the guitars, the keyboards weren’t pumped full of processing in $200 an hour studios, they were noisy and nasty, grabbing your attention as if you were in the same room (or garage) as them.

And Shayne Carter wasn’t just a snotty young punk standing in the corner of the room; the lyrics also had a clever poetic quality. original_Double_Happys_Cut_It_Out_cover_image

It starts with a wonderfully blunt snark at a bogan:

Fat cunt in a studded belt, my god I think he thinks he’s something else
When he’s just another zombie probably made out of needles and plastic

And moves to a brilliantly economic couplet describing a pissed goth girl:

White, white girl in a black, black dress
She’s only pretty as in much of a mess
She’s just another zombie, probably made out of needles and plastic

Musically, it chugs along like you’re in the room watching it all

Everybody’s watching everybody else
But everybody’s watching out for themselves

It’s a shallow
Sickening sideshow
I don’t think I’m right, I don’t think I’m right, I
Know that I am!

It’s the nature of earworms (songs in your head you can’t get rid of) that they’re hard to escape. One method is to listen to the song repeatedly to kill it (I learned this from an article about earworms where, ironically, Shayne Carter said he had once been tortured for many weeks by Achey Breaky Heart). So, with this song continually on my mind I decided that I had to buy a copy from iTunes and thrash it to death. After all, even though I own Needles and Plastic on two original vinyl releases (the E.P. it first appeared on, Cut It Out, and the Flying Nun compilation, Tuatara) I haven’t owned a turntable in 15 years (I also have it on a mix-tape… but my last tape deck died 5 years ago and has not been replaced).

Never mind, I thought, I’m more than happy to pay $1.97 for a single (which, ironically, is the same price singles were when I started buying them in 1979).

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King of style, Steve Jobs 1985

The problem is Needles and Plastic is available on iTunes only in the form of two ‘album only’ album downloads. And I already own both of those pieces of plastic… I just don’t have the needle.

Which led to much frustration as the earworm continued to eat away at my brain.

But in the 21st century there is always more than one way skin a cat, so to speak (thank you interweb).

I ripped the song from YouTube and whacked it onto my iPhone and have been singing along again and again, chewing away at the tail of the earworm.

It’s every bit as good as I remember. So full of life and energy.

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Had this poster on my wall for years

It makes me wish I had seen the DoubleHappys live. I was still at school when the Looney Tour went through town in 1984, a 16 year-old in a time when you had to be 20 to enter a pub or risk the wrath of the police. Sure, I looked 20 but my school boy band All Fall Down had just started playing in pubs, and I knew that my gigging would be in jeopardy if I was nabbed.

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DoubleHappys hanging out in Dunedin: John, Shayne and Wayne

Aspiring to be on Flying Nun we recorded our best songs in a scraped-together studio for the always friendly and approachable Flying Nun supremo Roger Shepherd. We (unknowingly) took them to him the day after Carter’s DoubleHappy’s band mate (and childhood friend), Wayne Elsey, was killed after climbing on top of a train while on tour.

Back then, in 1985, 20 seemed so much more mature than me. Now it seems so young to die because of an ill-considered action born of youthful high spirits.

As L. P. Hartley wrote, the past is a foreign country, they do things differently there.

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Long-lamented (and banned) Double Happys

You couldn’t drink till you were 20 and they kicked you out of pubs at 10pm (or 11pm on Friday and Saturday). You had to get your money for the weekend from the bank by 4:30pm on a Friday. There was no internet or cellphones, bin Laden and Saddam were good mates of the CIA, and all NZ bands were shit. Double Happys and sky rockets were legal for Guy Fawkes, and they played music with needles and plastic.

Songs of September

Motivated by my 6 year-olds recent statement that she… hates spring… because I love winter so much… I’ve had September songs on my mind.

While most of the 4 songs in my pocket come from a hemisphere where that month falls in autumn, signalling the approach of winter, I live in New Zealand where it means warmth and light, daffodils and lambs.

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Waikiki

Waikiki

The September song foremost in my head is Here Comes September by Waikiki. I know it from the Triple J Hottest 100 collection my Australian sister sent me in 2003. Triple_J_Hottest_100_Volume_10They’re a great way to hear vaguely alt popular music that doesn’t necessarily get noticed in New Zealand. It was a great mix that year and I remember only ever needing to skip the odd track. While this wasn’t my initial fav I was soon skipping back to repeatedly sing along. Its hooky jangly pop seemed to exude the hope of September. Never having heard of them I assumed they were Australian (the singer tries to sing ‘American’ at times, as is the fashion/compunction for many vocalists, but broad Aussie vowels give her away).

The song is about an ended relationship, being positive and remembering the good stuff.

Though there were others, you never left me at all

Here comes September, and we both know what that means

Sometimes it’s out of our grasp, not everything is made to last

If that’s the way you wanna remember, then that’s the way you gotta remember

But I won’t cry now, here comes September

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A Fender Jazz Bass, much like the beauty I once played

And although I was seduced by the lack of bitterness in her delivery, I didn’t focus on that when I sang along in 2003, being more captivated by the harmonic vocal hooks, the ringing of the Rickenbacker and the rich low rumble of the Fender bass; instruments I grew up knowing intimately.

Of course, 2003 was a weird time. Across the world we were repeatedly told that the world had changed forever (as if it doesn’t every day). I was actively angry and resistant to the warmongering narrative of fear. Refusing to march to that duplicitous beat, I was living a life infused with hope.

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Paris 2000. The Japanese tourist said she couldn’t fit in the tip of the tower. Just relax tourist, san, and tilt up

In 2000 I had left my job in television to tour around Europe, embracing the roots of my immigrant parents before eventually realising that it was time to embrace my desire to write. So in 2001 I bit the bullet and attended a 6 month fiction writing course in Timaru. It was amazing, I literally felt like I was Harry Potter: that my life had gone from dark containment to light-filled expansion.

Of course, despite my first short story being accepted for publication within a week of sending it off, the world wasn’t waiting to be entertained by me and the pile of rejections I studiously kept (to remind me of my early struggle) got ever bigger. And bigger. And bigger.

So I headed back to Auckland to freelance in a TV industry pumped up with the phoney money of pre-Credit Crunch NZ. I didn’t need to find work, it found me. While I continued to compulsively write and submit fiction, certain in my abilities, I socialised in a heady media scene awash with the social lubricants of the day (booze, pot, P and E).

It was a fun time, but I wanted more out of life. Yes, I craved success as a writer but most of all I had begun to seriously yearn for a committed relationship. And to be a father.

My desire was so strong that on 3 of the 5 following Christmases (’03, ’05, ’07) I found myself ‘expecting’ with a different woman (which may indicate a very casual attitude, but I would say it illustrates a certain commitment).

Yes, I admit, my taste in women has been questioned by friends and family, but that’s only ever after things go pear-shaped (and isn’t everyone wise after the fact?)

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Blending into a tight spot, Paris 2005

In heart and head I’m never-endingly fascinated by women, considering myself more of a woman’s man than a man’s man. I will choose their company (platonic or not) over men any day. It’s been that way since I was a child growing up surrounded by sisters and female cousins, the only boy in girl town.

And who really fully understands the drivers of their own desires? I can’t say I’m attracted to the same thing: it’s usually a certain strength of character, and something indefinable in the eye and mind.

However, given what’s gone on in my life in the 11 years since 2003, I have lost a lot of confidence in my desires, leading to the celibate phase of the last couple of years. At the start of this phase, in a reflective moment, I said to a good friend that I always like strong women, to which he replied… you like bossy women…When I mentioned this to a sister she said… you like bitches!

I thought that was rather harsh. But very funny.

Which leads to another song from my September playlist: Miss September by Bulldogs Allstar Goodtime Band. Bulldoggin'

They were a family favourite on the NZBC TV talent show ‘New Faces’ in 1973. Their bouncy feel and eccentric look featured tea-chest bass, washboard and kazoo and their song about a pinup picture (naughty!) got them into the finals. Yes, they were hugely derivative (Sgt. Pepper’s, anyone?…Pictures of Lily by The Who?), but as a 6 year old I found them far more entertaining than the syrupy/sombre crooners and balladeers, and frowning girls with acoustic guitars the show was lumbered with.

Now the article that came with your picture, says you hail from Illinois

Now I know Illinois-a-noise an oyster, but an oyster will only bring me joy bulldog2

The lyrics were wonderfully silly (how is Illinois an oyster?) while still appealing to popular music’s reliable workhorse of unrequited romantic yearning.

Miss September, Miss September, I know I’m gonna meet you some day

Miss September, Miss September, though you’re 12,000 miles away-hay-hay-hay

The allusions to masturbation (of course) were lost on me.

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Spot the Rickenbacker

Such things were more apparent in my (short) encounter with The Bangles’ cover of Big Star’s September Gurls in 1986. I never liked them as much as the Go-Gos (much more flaccid, musically). Maybe it’s unfair to compare them but both bands were sold directly to pubescent boys (for obvious reasons), and rock/pop is never shy of such subjects. I liked that Susanna Hoffs played a Rickenbacker (John Lennon played one!), and that the bass player sang this song (I was playing bass in a jangly-pop band by this stage).

By the 1990s I was much more familiar with the original version by Alex Chilton/Big Star. While his version has a lot more life to it (his delivery is heavily nuanced, maybe to counterpoint the bland lyrics: the Bangle delivers with dead-eyed ‘80’s coldness), the song is the least favourite of the September songs I know. I just don’t find much meaning in the lyrics. RVM-Big-Star_16x9_620x350(What’s a September Gurl? A Virgo? I dunno). But maybe you don’t have to. Lyrical clarity is an overrated part of music, especially when compared to the open and inclusive reading of poetic imagery.

September gurls do so much…

December boy’s got it bad…

That said, it’s clearly got something going for it in that a female vocalist can sing it without feeling the need to change the respective genders of the lyrics (something that always irritates me, especially when the P.O.V of any song is all over the place).

Which leaves the September song that had the biggest impact on me. Wake Me Up, When September Ends by Green Day. A song that became intimately associated with both my very personal experience of September 2005, and an awful ‘Act of God’ that affected countless lives. green_day_04_original

Catching up with a beloved ex-lover for coffee in 2003 had resulted in the first of the 3 Christmas pregnancies. That one ended on New Year’s Eve. I got the text while dancing with strangers, high on a mix of P and E. Although at the time I saw it as lucky escape, it was an incredibly lonely moment and I eventually came to grieve deeply for the unborn child and the unfulfilled relationship with his/her mother. But back then my heart was set on a come here/go away long term flame, and by 2004 I had moved in with her, happy in a relationship I imagined lasting forever.

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Waiting for my partner to finish work, the first thing I visited in Paris was Diana’s tunnel. People still left tributes 8 years later

Which is why, at the end of August 2005, I flew to Paris to accompany her on a work trip she had left for the week before.

When you fly to Europe from NZ you tend to fly through the night so I arrived in Paris on a hot, sunny autumn morning. As I checked into our hotel, the first English I heard being spoken was two clearly shocked Americans, reading a newspaper at the check-in desk… They’re shooting each other… looting the place… Animals… Once I got up to my partner’s room and turned on the telly (this was before the internet became something you carried in your pocket) I realised who they were and that a hurricane had devastated New Orleans.

Sept tumbler

When September Ends by Green Day wasn’t my favourite track on American Idiot, an album I loved thinking it both entertaining and brave (especially in a time when there was little push back in popular culture against the proponents for war), and I played it many times before I headed to Europe in 2005. Sept green Day

The song didn’t fit my particular concept of September, speaking of rain/winter/loss. I was embracing the future, heading for a hot month in Europe with the woman I wanted to spend my life with. And we had decided to make a baby.

I now know the song is about the vocalist losing his father at the age of 7, which explains much of the lyrical imagery.

Ring out the bells again, like we did when spring began

Wake me up, when September ends

It’s testament to the strength of the very personal lyrics that the single, released August 2005, became the unofficial anthem for Hurricane Katrina, which hit as I arrived in Paris.

It has the poetic/fluid nature of good lyrics in that the video for the song ignores Billy Joe Armstrong’s intimate meaning to take on the blustering pomposity of sacrifice and war that many American videos were plastered with at the time. Sept lyric

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A rainy night in Brussels and a very fine, boozy meal

But that song was not in my head as I flitted from Paris to Florence to Lucca to Pisa to Brussels to Maastricht to Amsterdam to London and back to Paris: exploring, being, loving.

And it wasn’t all fun and games. I was also doing some research for a historical novel I was writing about the founding of my hometown of Christchurch, which was set up after the formation of the Canterbury Association in London in 1848.

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Place of the first meeting to found Canterbury. Spot the three lambs in the shield

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Communards at the barricades

Due to the utopian ideals of a group of graduates of Christ Church College, Oxford (yip, Harry Potter’s school) who sent the ‘Canterbury Pilgrims’ to found Christchurch, I was making a study of the Paris Commune of 1871, established when the decadent, corrupt government of Napoleon III let the invading Prussian’s get within a humiliating cooee of Paris (WW1, 40 years later, was a replay of this schmozzle).

At the most famous bookstore in Paris, Shakespeare and Company, Shake I bought a history of that incredible event which, when the city was retaken by government forces, saw the slaughter of more Parisians than the Great Terror of the Revolution and The German Occupation of WWII combined.

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Dead Communards on the cover of the book I bought

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Tomb of Oscar Wilde

I read that book throughout our travels around Europe, finishing it at the end of the trip when we returned to Paris, making a special pilgrimage to the famous Père Lachaise cemetery, pushing past the tourists at Jim Morrison’s grave, stopping to take a photo of my partner kissing the toes of the lip-stick covered Jacob Epstein statue on Oscar Wilde’s grave, making a beeline for the wall at the back of the graveyard where a great many Communards were lined up and shot.

Returning to NZ at the end of the month, and still in travel mode, I flew down to a good friend’s 40th.

Towards the end of that early spring party, standing on the threshold of his back door, my friend, who I had known since my early 20s, tapped the neck of his beer bottle to mine and said… to the barren knights… It took me a second to realise that he wasn’t talking about humorous British pop group, the Barron Knights, Barron-Knights-Best-of-the-Barron-Knightsbut about us having avoided parenthood. He was clearly wistful, having married 5 years before, just before I headed to Europe for the first time.

But that poignancy became ironic when 6 weeks later I was back, escaping an awful argument that erupted after my partner found out she had got pregnant on that last weekend in Paris. She was not happy with the situation (but we planned it?), and in her bitter reasoning she was carrying the spirit of a Communard murdered at that wall. I felt betrayed and used.

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The photo we took at the wall in Pere Lachaise. 134 years later, people still leave flowers for the victims

A lot went on in the next few months; too much for here. Suffice to say that my partner eventually found her peace with the child growing inside her, and we announced it to her gathered family on Christmas Day 2005. Which underlined a greater and more painful irony when, late on Boxing Day, after a hurried and tortured helicopter flight off our island home she delivered a tiny, perfectly formed boy with eyelids closed. Fingernails, clearly forming on the hand resting across his chest.

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Paris, beneath the rewarewa we planted

In a strange way, the experience brought us closer, and we were happy for most of the next year. I listened to Green Day a lot as I worked in the wild, extensive garden, clearing and landscaping the area where we buried the boy we called Paris on New Year’s Eve. I loved the album; it was a journey, more than its constituent parts.

But When September Ends took on a new meaning for me, as did the month. It became a personal anthem of loss and each year I was anxious for the month to pass.

Which gets at the reason I have written this blog.

Because when my daughter said that she hated spring, my first thought wasn’t of Green Day, it was Waikiki.

Two months after I shifted out in Dec 2006, following my erstwhile partner announcing… actually, I do want a baby. But not with you… I met my daughter’s mother. Four months later she was (unexpectedly) pregnant.

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Exiting the apartment in Paris

My friend and his wife, who had provided refuge in that awful time in 2005, did so again (along with his baby boy, born earlier that year) in 2007 when we shifted down to his town just before Christmas.

I ended up buying the house next door and our children grew up as brother and sister. My friends moved far away just before last Christmas but I continue to live next door to that threshold where we toasted the barren knights. I have my daughter every other week as her mother and I are no longer together (having a child with someone is not the best way to establish a relationship).

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The dining hall at Christ Church, Oxford, where the founders of Christchurch (and Harry Potter) went to school.

There’s been a shit-load of loss in my life over the last few years (I have referred to aspects of it in past blogs). Paris, and the woman I was convinced I loved. My vibrant life in the media. My home town, smashed (and the novel I was writing with it). Both parents, straight afterwards. My sister, briefly here, now back to Australia. My other sister and family now following.

It seems like I’m on a beach watching an ever-receding tide, wondering if it will ever flow back.

But it is September, and I am full of hope. My girl is the greatest joy. I try not to cling but she is growing so fast. There is increasing warmth in the air, greater light in the days, the garden is growing and in 2 months it will be a year since the surgery on my ankle so I will be able to start running (gently) once more.

Like songs and seasons, we are filled with memories and meanings both personal and shared: as immutable as the ever-changing seasons, nothing is certain except for change.

I do not seek an encounter with any woman pinned above my bed. I do not hanker for the lost, or yearn for the future (well, not too much).

But I have a confession. There are boxes of baby toys and paraphernalia under the house I am struggling to let go of. It may seem a trifle sad but I would counter they are a guard against the unexpected.

I am no longer a young man, but if I pass these things on to charity do I not invite Murphy’s Law to inject a mischievous twinkle into my eye? To put a song in my heart, a spring in my step, to turn my mind to… ?

Well, it is September.

And we both know what that means…

waikiki_here_comes_september

Quiet Loud Listen Sing

You know, Dad… I really like songs that go quiet, then loud!

When my 6 year-old daughter said this to me the other week she said it with hand movements, pressing down on the quiet, then going up high for the loud!, just like a conductor. I resisted the immediate urge to say, well, then you need to hear the Pixies, Missy Moo, you’ll love This Monkey’s Gone to Heaven. Instead, I stayed quiet letting her finish the thought that had distracted her from her drawing.

I had put a video on the telly to learn a song I was unfamiliar with for an informal singing group I recently joined, and I took her dramatic statement as a critique of what I saw as quite a laid-back ditty.

I say my singing group is informal as it’s for people who enjoy singing and don’t seek the formal structure of church, choir or barber-shop. While we could be characterized as ‘enthusiastic amateurs’, we’re not as bad as that phrase implies. And while we often have the crazed energy of the Portsmouth Sinfonia (a wonderful orchestra of untrained musicians made famous by Brian Eno), we’re much more ‘on song’ than that deliberately experimental group (which disbanded once they became too competent). William Tell Overture – Portsmouth Sinfonia

The song I was trying to get familiar with was one I had never taken a shine to, I See Fire by Ed Sheeran; a # 1 hit in New Zealand (and Iceland, and Norway, and Sweden… countries that believe in hobbits, I guess). I See Fire

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Firey duet

In the few seconds it took me to suppress my urge to whip off the song and put on the Pixies, my daughter looked up from the picture she was working on for her classroom boy-crush, and continued her thought saying, like Roar, Wire, Recover… and this one.

I was a little taken aback; by both the thoughtful analysis of a 6 year-old, and that she placed this movie theme song in her pantheon of great tunes – the ones we regularly sing along to in the car.

When it finished she insisted I played the video again, accompanying my vocals while adding purple to the picture she was drawing for Austin (it’s his favourite colour!) Fascinated by the sheet music I was (patchily) reading (I sing by ear rather than eye), she insisted we went through the tune half a dozen times; slipping into some lovely harmonies (I have always found it hard to stay on my note).

Roar

Katy and her little band do a wee Roar

Now, I need to make it clear that despite what I said above, we have never listened to Roar in the car. Nothing against Katy Perry; my daughter loves her. And while she as at the more acceptable end of the ‘stripper-pop’ spectrum, I just don’t need a copy of that song. Don’t get me wrong, I love pop and we listen to heaps of contemporary (and classic) commercial wonderful/awfulness, but I find that particular tune loses its vim fast, quickly becoming a flaccid grind. That said, I did happen to see the (former Mrs.) brand Perry perform the song ‘acoustically’ at the Grammy announcements and was impressed with the live energy (as opposed to the somehow soulless and cold single) so watched that video with my daughter many times.

But the Katy Perry that gets played and sung along to in the car (along with The Wire and Recover) is Dark Horse, as it stands above the rest to me. Dark Horse

  1. Her voice is pitched down in my range 2. I’m a sucker for the wonderfully low 808 drum sound, and in this track it has an addictive reggae-type feel that I just can’t get sick of. Yes, my girl is digging her idol but the lyrics she sings along to most, is Juicy J.’s rap, which kind of surprises me.
    Dark Horse 2

    Dark Horse? Garish filly

We also often dance to the lurid video, as she’s into things Egyptian at the moment. It’s a fun vid which courted controversy when a brain-dead stylist thought it would be cool to burn contemporary religious symbols. It’s not the only dull-skulled element, however, as the lyrics start with make me your Aphrodite… the Greek goddess of love… okay, so let’s make an Egyptian! video. Righto. Sure, Cleopatra, being a Ptolomy, was of Hellenistic stock… I can handle that, I’m not a total pedant (even though I seriously doubt that reference is going on). But what I find grates most of all is the need to put in some gratuitous pole dancing near the end… damn you to hell/Hades/Duat, stripper-pop, I hope Cerberus bites you on each cheek!

Cerberus_by_Mootdam

Good boy, Cerberus

Still, I can bite my tongue on those bits purely because 1. I enjoy other elements 2. My girl loves it 3. She hasn’t a clue what pole-dancing is 4. I love dancing with my girl.

I like to think I’m pretty liberal when it comes to lyrics, which by their very nature are hard to nail down. You may as well try to confine the wind in a box. But the Aphrodite/Egyptian thing pales when I think of another song I quite enjoyed until some particularly numb-nutted lyrics became apparent.

kanye

Awesome Black Skinhead stylings

It’s Kanye West’s Black Skinhead, which is a massively addictive production with some gorgeous sounds (and interestingly provocative lyrics). However, when I realised that in the chorus he was singing/rapping I keep it 300, like the Romans…300 bitches were the Trojans. You WHAT?! They’re Spartans in 300, you gimp… fighting Persians… Sheesh, was Kanye too busy discussing lip gloss with wifey in that bit of the film? I simply can’t find a way to see it as anything but arrogant and dull-headed so it has killed the song for me. Black Skinhead

chilton

Alex with the Box Tops

But it doesn’t always have to be the case. For instance, I love Alex Chilton but when in Bangkok he sings… Here’s a little song that’s gonna please ya, about a little town down in Indonesia…Bangkok!… Bangkok! I can’t help but wince. But it doesn’t kill the song for me. Would you honestly expect geographical knowledge from an American? (Especially one who became a star at 16 singing the #1 hit The Letter with the Box Tops. Early success always messes with your head). Bangkok – Alex Chilton  The Letter – The Box Tops

Getting too pedantic about lyrics is a no-win as, like poetry, it’s all about play. But we all have our limits. I love lots of I See Fire but hate the… if we should all die tonight, then we should all go down together… refrain as the glorification of martyrdom just sticks in my craw (especially in what is essentially a kids movie… albeit one for big kids).

And Sex Pistol Steve Jones always says how much he winced when Johnny Rotten forced the rhyme… I am the anti-Christ!, I am an anar-chist!… in their debut single. But it sure made a glorious announcement of intent. Anarchy In the U.K.

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Mark Ronson: Producer to the stars, DJ/Musician extraordinaire

Haim

Haim employ way better stylists than Katy Perry

But enough of what’s not to like, here’s why I love the other song my daughter mentioned, The Wire by Haim. I came across this by chance, found it didn’t catch me immediately but was soon listening out for little hooks secreted throughout… the organ line that fades up in the chorus, the distorted bass run, the unexpected guitar solo, the big glam drums, the lyrics I can’t quite get a handle on. After hearing it a dozen times I decided it must be a session singer with a DJ/producer mashing up the elements a la Mark Ronson (who I love). But I was wrong: it is 3 sisters from LA with a strong musical pedigree, hence the vocals which blend so you don’t know that the lead vocals have shifted. Having played in a covers band with their parents in L.A. the middle sister became a session guitarist, was picked to play live with Jenny Lewis, then Julian Casablancas, and Cee-Lo Green. The eldest went off and got a musicology degree and then, having learned all the tricks, they dragged in little sis’ to have a proper crack at the scene. The Wire – Haim

Haim Lorde

Haim helping out childe pop star Lorde

Clearly, I’m in love with the results. Whether this first album is all the best stuff of many years of work brushed up beautifully, is yet to be seen/heard. Although they’re nothing like Mark Ronson, they’re akin as he also had a (greater) musical pedigree (his mother married the guitarist in Foreigner and Sean Lennon was a childhood friend).

Somebody To Love Me – Mark Ronson (ft. Boy George)

In case you think I have a crush on Haim, it’s not just about the girls. The often un-featured drummer’s dad was in 3 Dog Night, and the subtle and seductive rhythm tracks are a big part of the overall appeal for me.

Chvrches

Chvrches

Which leaves the other song my girl loves, Recover by Chvrches. They are exactly what I mistook Haim for… a couple of knob twiddlers and a chick singer. They seem okay, but I don’t want to sing along as my daughter does. However, as she can sing pretty much all the words I’m more than happy to play it whenever she asks to hear it. Recover – Chvrches

That’s the thing about music, we all hear different things. The hooks either grab us or make us recoil in pain… or float right through us as if we were made of jelly.

As a child, before I started getting involved in music, I always used to wonder why songs needed verses. After all, I reasoned, the choruses were always the best bits. I was yet to learn the power of dynamic range; quiet and loud. But as I matured I started to find things to love in all parts of songs, even in ones that weren’t to my taste. Be it the sound of the drums, lyrical image or turn of phrase, bewitching melody or power of the bass.

I realise everyone doesn’t feel this way, preferring set styles and actively despising others.

icehouse

There’s a great Aussie movie called Mullet. It’s about the fish, not haircuts (no Icehouse, as I recall)

My daughter certainly doesn’t like everything I play and will always tell me if she doesn’t like a particular song (for instance, she loves The Flowers/Icehouse We Can Get Together but really dislikes Great Southern Land, no matter how I try).

We Can Get Together – Icehouse       Great Southern Land

Occasionally, when we drive in the garage and I am rushing to get upstairs to light the fire, do homework and make dinner, she will ask if we can hear the song we are listening to through to the end. As a musician, soundman and tireless lover of music, I’m always happy to let the music resolve. (The first time this happened was with John Stewart’s Gold… one of her old favourites… a song I have never tired of since I first heard it in the summer of 1979. The smooth Rhodes piano… Stevie Nick’s backing vocals… pure gold). john stewart Gold – John Stewart

I’m glad my girl has her own opinion and tastes. It’s as it should be.

Quiet, loud, alone, all together.

Wait for it, wait for it…

…And end.

 

Secret track: Stray Cat Strut – The group I sing with…

It Was 30 Years Ago Today… A Month In The Life, oh Boy!

I always say I was born in the Summer of Love; a deliberately wry comment as I was born in the middle of a Christchurch Autumn at the bottom of the South Pacific far from Haight Ashbury, of parents not just of a generation before the hippies, but even before Elvis et al influenced the infant Beatles.

That said, as Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was released a month after my birth giving me a(n admittedly) wishful spiritual connection to that album I’ve decided to look back at my life 30 years ago today.

Yes, I know Paul sings …it was 20 years ago today… but I’m choosing 30 years as that was when I started a (nearly) daily writing habit.

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Barrington Park Mall with Port Hills behind, where I biked with Sonya to buy vogarts, black felt and 50c mixtures

In August 1984 I was a 17, in my last months of school, living in south Christchurch at the bottom of the Port Hills with my parents, 2 younger sisters, dog and a pet mouse called Alf (named after Alison Moyet, who was still in Yazoo). As that last comment would indicate, music was a big part of my life: Rip It Up, NME, The Face were all regularly consumed and I spent a fair amount of time trawling through record bins and buying records (Planet Records, Radar Records, Record Factory). I had a part-time job at a bakery in Sydenham, Coupland’s Hot Bread Shop* (CHBS, not to be confused with my school, CBHS) where I worked in the early hours of Saturday morning earning $14 an hour (you got double time working weekends back then) to spend on ($10?) records or musical equipment (at the start of the year the school boy garage band I had joined/formed the year before had gone ‘professional’ playing in pubs).

Okay, to say we were professional is a stretch, we were endearingly enthusiastic amateurs, but we were getting paid as much as we were not…often the standard $50 fee given to support acts at the Star & Garter or Gladstone. Quite a cool feeling for a cocky/unconfident schoolboy aged 16 at his first gig. I never drank alcohol, hated the taste, plus I was also terrified of the intimidating police who marched into the pubs looking for people like me.

All this I can write off the top of my head without looking back into what I wrote at the time. I could write a heck of a lot more, after all I decided I was writer as a child in the 70s, but I want to keep this focussed: it’s about August 1984, for no other reason than it is August 2014.

Calender

What I did in August

At the start of that year I bought a calendar filled with cartoons by New Zealand cartoonists raising money for Amnesty International. For some reason (the inherent writer/historian/memoirist in me?) I started writing down odd things that happened each day. On Jan 1st I apparently got a postcard from my mother and read Animal Farm. That’s all I wrote, but why did I get a postcard? Reading ahead I see her and Dad were visting Perth whanau and me and my sisters were staying in Whitby with cuzzies, just up the road from where I now live…going to Porirua Mall and Petone to buy vogarts…crazy…but stick to THIS story, boy!)

Vogarts: ball-point tubes of fabric ink, $7 each. Tricky to draw with as material stretched (and no such thing as white-out). Detail of band t-shirt.

Like all writing, once you start, it’s hard to stop and the days quickly filled with as much as I could fit in. By August each wee square is chokka block with detail. Which isn’t to say that it is interesting detail; no secret crushes, pashes, binge-drinking or school boy hi-jinks, but what I’ve come to believe as a historian is that it is often the mundane that is most ignored and absent. I always wonder, but what did people do with all their time? And if we know, how did they do it? What’s missing? It tends to be the BIG things that get written down.

Which isn’t to say nothing happened in August ’84; the month starts with the L.A. Olympics and there seems to be day after day of NZ winning gold or silver in something or other (it was our greatest haul, shitting-off the Aussies no-end, who got nowt causing them to pour hundreds of millions of dollars into sport to fix that politically/socially important situation). The All Blacks whopped the poor old Wallabies, too, thanks to Robbie Deans being at full back, I note (I recall a rivalry with the walrus-moustached, pantyhose-wearing Wellington full back Allan Hewson).

On the 28th Stan Ogden died (never a big Corrie fan, this was none-the-less worthy of note). On the 21st I ate my first piece of quiche (prompted by the popular book of the time about what real men did/didn’t do).

And, rather quietly, with nothing else said, on Tues 7th there was a 5.0 earthquake at 4am.

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Colour TVs were big$$. Phillips K9 rented for $7 a week for 8 years before this snap of RTR 11 Aug when Bob Marley was # 1

On the mundane level, I appeared to watch a lot of television (an indicator of my life working in TV, maybe?): MASH, I Dream of Jeannie, Hogan’s Heroes, Bewitched, Love Boat, Eight Is Enough, One Day At A Time, Fresh Fields, Little House On The Prairie, The Old Men At The Zoo, What Now?, Flipper, Capt. Scarlett, Return To Eden, Gliding On, The Smurfs, Me & My Girl, The Mainland Touch, Beauty and The Beast, It’s Academic, Shazam, Kids from O.W.L, Benson, Bad News Tour, Ready to Roll and Radio with Pictures all get a mention.

The last two were the most important by far, being the only place to see music videos in a pre-MTV, YouTube world. RTR was a countdown of the Top 20 which played at 6 pm on a Saturday night so was essential viewing before going out. RWP was more cutting edge; at 9:30 pm on Sunday night, giving a coda to the weekend, a peek at what is to come, something to be discussed on Monday morning. I watched it every Sunday. On the 5th they played The Verlaines and Joy Division (that morning: snow on the front lawn, listened to Children’s Requests on 3ZB 07:20 to 08:00 – not very good).

Of course, I aspired to be on RWP (and managed it 3 years later) which is why, in my memory, All Fall Down, practised incessantly (no girlfriend, eh?) throughout those years.

Great Unwashed + AFD 1984

Pretty poster, possibly by Hamish Kilgour?

But if I look at that August, there were only 7 practices, and, goodness, 5 gigs!!?! That’s a pretty good ratio, I doubt if it got any better. The first was on the 3rd at the Gladstone with The Great Unwashed. I was pretty over-awed, The Clean (their precursor) were heroes/gods of the Flying Nun scene who I had watched on RWP and Dropa Kulcha (and maybe Shazam) and when David Kilgour jumped off stage at the sound check to shake my hand, saying ‘Hi, I’m David’, I had to stop myself from saying ‘I n-n-know’. I remember none of the gig but we must have done okay as we were asked to support them in Wellington at the end of the year (on the road…with The Great Unwashed?! sort of…wow).

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My cool Maton semi-acoustic bass looked better than it sounded, but was only $250

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My effort, for the Senior Common Room, doodled in Applied Maths

Next was a lunchtime gig in my school hall at CBHS on the 14th where we had assemblies or were entertained by Hey, Wow! type Christian groups or blind organist Richard Hore and has Farfisa (why did he have to wear slippers?) It was quite a thing to organise as Blair was now working, Jason went to Cashmere, Esther to Linwood and there was some sort of rivalry between the principals to be negotiated in these pre-Rock Quest days when any music other than orchestra or jazz was seen as a rather sketchy activity, educationally. To top it off, drummer Brett was required to go AWOL from the army (we were a ‘dangerous’ band..ho ho). All I remember is that it was wonderfully loud and I took off my school tie to play (I went to a rather formal school). What I’ve noticed from my calendar is lots of mentions of Miss Heinz…Miss Heinz called re. gig…gave posters to Miss Heinz…borrowed PA from Miss Heinz’s boyfriend…returned mic stand we mistakenly took to Miss Heinz…got $31 from Miss Heinz from door (minus $11 Esther’s taxi = $20 profit). I cannot remember what she looked like or what she taught, but I was clearly in want of a girlfriend.

The next two gigs were at the Bill Direen’s Blue Ladder in Cashel Mall on the 23rd & 24th. There’s a lot I want to write about this place so I will keep this short (I wanted this blog to be 700 words, tops, and am already at 1,443…sigh). The Blue ladder was an informal ‘warehouse’ venue with plays, alt music performance and recording. On the 2nd night we ‘head-lined’ playing at midnight after Vague Secrets, A Fragile Line, a play, a film, and a duo.

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Bad puns do not suit a man of arts and letters like Bill Direen. But, hell, we got in the Press!

Then on the Sunday afternoon (3 gigs in a row, wow!) we played a Christchurch crusty hall gig (lots of such informal gigs in those days) at England Street Hall with lots of scary/friendly alt. types smoking and drinking. I remember cowering around the edges, not drinking alcohol. I went to the dairy and got a can of coke after the McGoohans played (apparently).

axemen england st poster

Wonderful England St poster

But apart from all the music guff (20th tried out Michael Dalzell on vox… rejected because of ‘musical differences’…no memory of that!… 12th student radio station, Radio U, finished transmission with The The’s ‘This Is The Day’, the same song they started with) what sticks out from all my tiny, scrawled words is all the food. In fact, I felt a bit sick reading it. Every Sunday I walked the dog, Angus, to Johnny Marten’s Food Mart (a charmer of the ladies, lots of young lads helping out…a police raid) with my sister Michelle to get the Sunday News and ‘skulls’ (white choc, er, skulls with red liquid inside; bite them right and blood squishes out their eyes). Many mentions of Mary Gray green apple lollies, Krispy Chips, chips & vinegar from Deb’s, Paddy’s Food Lane, banana milkshakes from Gloucester Food Bar, Beaver Bars (pineapple?!), KFC Video Box (no McD’s or BK in ’84 Chch), and Big Garry’s cheeseburgers from Selwyn Street on a Thursday night (best ever…the way he crisped the melted cheese..mmm, can still taste it).

But it wasn’t just the junk that got noted. On the 25th sister Sonya made her and me porterhouse steak as Mum and Dad had gone to Glen Poad’s wedding. 29 Aug we played French cricket on the front lawn when our good friends the Wagtevelds came to dinner where we had fried rice, wontons, garlic ginger chicken and sponge cake (all home-made). The meal was followed by ‘Benson’ then us kids (me, my sisters and Michael) played knucklebones and 4-handed patience (a family fav.) listening to Monty Python records from the library (the adults would have sat at the table with a little alcohol, many cigarettes and much talking). On the 31st Michael came round having got his driving licence the day before (funny he waited till he was 17 while his father taught me how to drive when I was 15) and we had chips and donuts from Milton Street. Later I made pork fried rice for Mt.Cook and helped Mum pack for the trip (it was the school holidays and we were about to head off on one of our excellent occasional holidays amongst the Southern Alps at Mt. Cook, this one where ‘Uncle’ John shouted us kids a flight up in a helicopter into the mountains which made him rather green).

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Uncle John looking forward to landing at Glentanner

Over all, a funny month; I appeared to sleep into near noon each day as we had time off to do test exams for the end of year exams…something I couldn’t get my head around so it was quite a waste of time. Of course, all the late night gigs plus working in the bakery in the wee smalls didn’t help (and I was 17). On the colder days when I biked to school for said test exams (a distance of about 6 kms) I wore gloves, scarf and oilskin. You don’t see many oilskins these days: must be something to do with peak oil. Then, later in the month it was the school holidays, hence the trip to Mt Cook.

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Lake Pukaki, heading to Mt Cook. Clearly, I’m struggling with the weird viewfinder. Knitted jerseys de rigueur for the mountains.

On the 11th, one of my other great passions was fed when Dad passed on to me the Zeiss Ikon camera he had used since the early 1950s. A good camera, but a bit of a beast, it was fully manual with a peep-hole viewfinder which explained why he often took badly-framed photos.

It also had an external light meter which I thought was pretty cool. I note that he showed me how to use it, but that on the 20th I went to Fox Talbot in town to get some pointers from a professional.

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The Mighty Zeiss Ikon

I was soon shooting a roll of 24 a month (kids take more selfies going to the dunny these days), and, unsatisfied with the patchy results, I soon made my first big-ticket non-musical instrument purchase buying a 2nd hand Nikon EM SLR from Fox Talbot under the Canterbury Centre for $499.

So, what became of all that, the hopes and dreams of a 17 year old?

On the 3rd Mr Fitzgerald gave me an application for Teachers’ College, but I never filled it in – I had had enough of school. But I hadn’t had enough of learning and on the 16th I went to an open day at the University of Canterbury and, liking what I saw, the following year I went to do Religious Studies, History and Classics (it’s all about story for me).

Big surprise, I didn’t become a rock star, even though I tried (to a certain degree). That said, when my daughter said to me last year, ‘Dad, the best thing in the world to be is a rock star’ I replied, gilding the lily a tad, ‘Daddy used to be a rock star’. She was so impressed she told everyone at school (so her teacher said). I’m not sure squealing school girls chasing you for autographs in Chancery Lane on the Friday night after we played at Hillmorton High counts, although I think it’s enough for me.

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Back of my Applied Maths book. Clearly more interested in writing and drawing, I got 16% on the mock test.

I continue to be an obsessive photographer…I have a collection of many cameras. It’s how I see the world, and the internet (and Facebook) have been wonderful for indulging that passion. However, I don’t draw anywhere near as much as I once did, which is a shame. I want to remedy that.

I’m not entirely lost to music but my last ‘rock’ gig was in Auckland in the late ‘90s. Being in a band was like being married to several people at once and I just don’t have the oats for that any more. However, I have a guitar I occasionally play, knocking out satirical ditties to salve perceived wrongs in the world, and, best of all, I have joined a local singing group which I thoroughly enjoy. Amongst others, we’re learning Bill Wither’s Lovely Day and I am astounded to be only one who can hit and hold the 7-bar ‘Daaaaaaaay’ in the chorus…it feels as transcendent as flying without wings.

But my main engagement with music is intellectual; I listen to it, think about it a lot and could write about it till a cow jumps over the moon.

But hell, this was meant to be 700 words and here are 2,500…far more than a blog should be. My next will be shorter, and about music, I promise.

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4 days in August ’85… getting wordier

I will finish on something mundane, yet important, I discovered reading my calendar. On the 29th I picked up sister Michelle from the bus station (where the Casino now is) from a holiday with whanau in Oamaru. She gave me a present of lollies and a diary. It was my first diary and my obsession with filling it with words grew ever bigger, as you can see.

The following diaries would have a page for each day, with at least 1,000 words (at a guess).

I’m a bit scared to look at them. Imagine what I could unpack from those mundane rambles?

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My first selfie

 

 

 

 

 

* A lot of the what happened at the Hot Bread Shop is in this short story The Baker’s Boy published in Takahe Magazine 69 (somewhat unsurprisingly, not my only story about food)