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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