White City

empty of future, renew the sign: lucent paradox, ineluctable trace ...


El Camino Real


This is my summons of a dream, my dream of a summons. To the other side of the mountains you must go. There, Joseph Conrad waits. The town is flat, dusty, brown. A dusty inland town in the wastes of Gondwanaland. The address is wrong. One hundred and ten El Camino Real . . . there’s no such place. I walk down the street parallel. Dark pigment stains the adobe red, green, black. Murals on the walls of all the houses. Through a door I see in the ochre light these paintings the colours of earth. A woman turns, smiling. Her body is a deer pierced by arrows. Through the arcade and back to El Camino. A friend joins me, together we search. A woman approaches, the same one older or another, I do not know. She takes my friend’s hand and draws her into the cool dark. Joseph Conrad lies back on the big bed, his head monumental, his expression grave. He tells my friend: I have met the Irish every place I’ve been. Welcome, I am glad you came. She sits on a wooden chest against the wall. The woman stands on the other side of the bed, before a draped window; perhaps she is two women. In the swell of whitish light it is hard to tell. Joseph Conrad is lighting a cigar. I look at my feet. Cracked shoes, yellow painted boards. Why have I come? I belong to another century, a later one. Now I am here there is nothing to say. He lies back on the pillows smoking his cigar. The head, monumental, the expression, grave. Perhaps it was not Joseph Conrad but someone else? No, this man was neither blind nor a librarian. He was a retired sea captain.


There was something I was trying to recall. A newspaper article about a hulk in Tasmania, once under the command of Joseph Conrad. Money was being sought to restore it. The Otago . . . I began. He shook his head. No questions, he said. The details of my life are gathered like the shards of a great mirror in which destiny will be revealed. It is not so. Nothing is revealed. The cigar fumes were making my friend uncomfortable. She said to the woman: Could I have a glass of water please? The women took a hand each. Come with us, they said. I was alone with Joseph Conrad. He drew on his cigar. Blue smoke layered the air, drifting toward the white window. The translucent drapes belled. Oceans of paper, he said. Voyaging on. I lived at a time when kings were dying. We saw the ends of the earth. Contracted to a sphere. It was necessary to reinvent infinity. I had not thought him contemporary with Einstein, Apollinaire. C’est vrai. He wrote letters in French, books in English. In what language did he think? The man with the piano, I said. On the dock at Circular Quay. An Englishman. You spoke together for an hour. You were a young officer on a darkened deck. You never saw his face. His name was Senior. The great head inclined forward once, acknowledging—what? That he had heard? Remembered? We return to every place we ever were, he said. Oceans of paper, voyaging on. It is necessary to invoke eternity.


The globe is small. It stands on three plastic legs, on the dresser before the dusty window. Outside, paint peels from a yellow wall. The sky is radiant, blue as ink. This is where we wake up. Sometimes it is dark, sometimes there are small brown stars we cannot name. Bats screeching in the avocado tree. Cats squalling in the laneway. Here blood threads our flesh with longing. Here is where we leave from on our inland journeys. We go together, or alone. It has happened that we set out for different places, only to find each other there. Other times we go nowhere. Comatose. Sunk in our bodies as into dank earth. Choking on flints, mumbling over bones, thirsting. Then water rises and we overflow, running into each other like underground rivers, sourceless springs. How do I know this is you beside me? How do I know it is me? There is no chest here, only the dresser, the mirror, the racks of clothes. The bed where we lie dreaming or awake, mingled or apart. The globe. I ask that the two women come forward as witnesses. In the works of Joseph Conrad you will not find them written, nor any mention of my friend, myself. Only Mr Senior is real. Leaning on a crate in the half-dark at semi-circular quay he smokes a cigar and converses with a man he cannot see. Wide-ranging, far-reaching, their words drift out towards the stars. We turn and turn. Sometimes we are one, sometimes two, sometimes many. Each night is an ocean. Waking, we find a shore, ochre and blue. We set out, maps in the palms of our hands.

from : Waimarino County (& other excursions) (AUP, 2007)


The Supply Party


It was Tom Carment first mentioned Ludwig Becker to me. He’d just come back from Melbourne where he’d seen the works held in the Manuscript Room at the State Library of Victoria—the so-called Becker Sketchbook. Tom’s eyes behind his glasses were blue and wide with enthusiasm and emotion. He described exquisite, jewel-like water colours, vivid, radiant, even after all this time. He liked the scale of the works too, their ability to evoke a grandeur of space within a tiny compass. In that sense they mirrored his own paintings, which are small in size but large in other respects: ambition, scope, sensitivity, drama, intensity. Beauty. I was intrigued: I’m an admirer of Tom’s work and I trust his judgment where the work of others is concerned. Who was this Ludwig Becker? Where was he from? How could I see some paintings? Tom told me a few things about him. He was German. He was dead. There was a book. One thing did lodge in my mind: a connection with Burke and Wills, the famously doomed 19th century outback explorers. I didn’t know anything much about them either and, to tell the truth, wasn’t particularly interested. Another time, perhaps. This was years ago, in the early 1990s, when I rented a writing room under Tom’s kitchen in Womerah Lane, Darlinghurst. I lived a few doors up the laneway and, in the mornings, would walk down there, unlock my room and type away while a fine dust fell on the keyboard from above as Tom or his flatmate Shelley K walked back and forth across the floor above making their morning tea or coffee or breakfast. This was before Tom got together with Jan Idle, before their three children were born in that same house where they still live. The room was small, painted yellow inside, and perfectly suited my needs at the time. A Thai Buddhist had lived in it before me. He’d been a kitchen hand in a local restaurant but had no visa and one day got deported. His Australian friend, Robert Brain, had left behind a pair of louche white leather shoes that fitted me, that I wore, absurdly, when walking back and forth from writing room to flat to writing room. It was cool and dark, there was a dusty window onto a disused laundry area, a door I could close behind me, no telephone, no internet or email, almost no chance of being disturbed, with the prospect of casual conversation and company if I wanted them. I can’t now recall what rent I paid but it wasn’t much and I always felt generously treated there where I wrote my first two books.

I didn’t follow up the Becker lead and in time even forgot his name. And then, in a curious piece of serendipity, late in 2006 I came across it again. Browsing in the Ashfield library one day I picked up a newly-published book called The True Face of William Shakespeare. By Hildegard Hammerschimidt-Hummel, a professor of English Literature and Culture at the Universities of Marburg and Mainz. The book has a subtitle: The Poet’s Death Mask and Likenesses from Three Periods of His Life. It’s an exhaustive, even forensic, study of the half dozen supposed likenesses of William Shakespeare that have come down to us, seeking to determine if they are indeed portraits of the same man and if that man is the Shakespeare of the plays and poems. I was familiar with all of the portraits, and the funerary bust in the church at Stratford, but hadn’t heard before of the existence of a death mask. Anything of a biographical nature about Shakespeare interests me so I borrowed the book and brought it home to read. It was a bit of a slog actually, the meticulous, indeed stolid, argument the book constructs was hard to fix in the mind. I didn’t really engage with it until I came to the bit about the death mask, and the alleged portrait of the poet on his deathbed with which it is associated. To my astonishment I found that the man who’d rescued both portrait and death mask from the oblivion into which they had fallen was Ludwig Becker—the same man Tom had told me about, the one who had gone with Burke and Wills. Whose sketchbook was in a library in Melbourne. As I read this part of Ms Hammerschimidt-Hummel’s book I began to wonder: if Ludwig Becker was a connection between Shakespeare’s death mask and the Burke and Wills Expedition, what else might he not be? What was his story? The biographical details, such as they are, I found in a 1979 book that also reproduces, entire, the contents of the Becker Sketchbook. That too I borrowed, via interloan, from the Ashfield library. Later I bought a copy. It’s by Marjorie Tipping and is called Ludwig Becker: Artist & Naturalist with the Burke & Wills Expedition. The life story told in the introduction is quite detailed but raises more questions than it answers; and there are earlier and later versions of it by the same author that vary significantly in some of the detail; that was troubling. As for the images, they are fascinating and beautiful in the way Tom described and the book is scholarly and precise and includes a great deal of valuable documentation: Becker’s letters and reports from the Burke and Wills Expedition are all there, as well as other material written by him at the time. And all of Becker’s notes, which he was in the habit of writing in a tiny, elegant hand on the bottom of his equally tiny pictures, are transcribed. There is a great deal of ancillary information about the pictures too: where they were made, their media, what their subject matter consists of. It’s as complete an account as you could want of the part Becker played in the famous expedition. And yet …

Two things bothered me. One was that I couldn’t get a sense of the inwardness of the man. His life seemed to be made up entirely of external detail, in the same way that his paintings and drawings are firmly posited as objective descriptions of aspects of the real world. They too claim to be without inwardness. But are they? On closer examination, I thought I could detect a fantastical quality in some of them, a subtle and sparsely articulated tendency towards the gothic and the estranged. No-one is without preconceptions; no-one, no matter how hard they try, is capable of a purely objective account of the world, in words or paint or any other medium; just as no-one is without an interior life, howsoever private, reticent or hidden they may be. Which is not to say that that inwardness is accessible to another. The other thing I couldn’t get a handle on was the Burke and Wills imbroglio itself. There are many accounts and I set out to read those I could find. Some, like Alan Moorehead’s Coopers Creek (1963), are models of concision with a clearly articulated, though not indisputable, position on what happened and why. Others, like Tim Bonyhady’s Burke & Wills: From Melbourne to Myth (1991), by including everything run the risk of saying nothing. Which may be unfair: Bonyhady’s is a thorough account of extremely complex events and he has sought to tell the tale without inflecting it, the way Moorehead did, towards any particular position or point of view on the events. It’s more useful to me now as a reference book than it is as a narrative, though it does touch all points in the story. It soon became apparent that there was a third problem, the solving of which looked like it might be a key to the other two: I hadn’t been further west than Dubbo in twenty years; my one other big overland trip, Sydney to Adelaide driving a van for a rock ‘n’ roll band, even longer ago, had completely faded from memory. Too much speed, probably. It didn’t seem possible to understand either Becker or the Burke and Wills story without traversing the actual country in which it unfolded. I thought it over, and over. And over.

Then, while all of this was fresh in my mind, I had word from the publishers of my 2006 book Luca Antara, asking if I had any ideas for a non-fiction book? As it happened I thought I did. I wrote a two page proposal for a book about Ludwig Becker that would on the one hand retrace his steps and on the other seek to evoke passages from his earlier life in Europe and the Antipodes. In time, the proposal was accepted and with the advance so provided I was able to plan a trip from Melbourne along the route that Burke and Wills took, and in particular to follow the track of The Supply Party, which was to bring up to the depot at Coopers Creek food and equipment that Burke, in his haste, decided not to take with him. Ludwig Becker, the educated and highly skilled artist and naturalist, had died a fearful death on that doomed mission. His last days were spent in almost insensible invalidism while the men he was with were under siege from Aboriginal tribes trying to drive them away from a planned ceremonial gathering. I was hoping to find his grave on what is now a lonely stock route in south western Queensland. What follows, then, is an account of, and some digressions from, that trip into the heart of a country that still appears delusive, if not actually dangerous.


Cut Price Mirror Sale

Mark Young's extraordinary Otoliths imprint is this month publishing a collection of shorter prose pieces of mine, most of which have appeared here or at one or other of my two other weblogs over the last year or so. The collection is available at a reduced price until the book goes officially live at Otoliths - if you want to get in early, go here:


The Road to Rock ‘n’ Roll

Ask the music what it means
Joe Strummer

how do you do it?
Moments of awakening can be sudden, absolute, irrevocable. There is no going back because there is no way back. The new has cancelled the old. It was a Sunday night above the chemist shop at 201 Main Street, Greytown. About six o’clock in the evening. Maybe autumn. I was on the upstairs landing, a wide and generous space off which opened all four family bedrooms as well as the bathroom that, right now, was billowing steam as someone—probably one my older sisters—ran a bath. The radio was playing, a small dark brown bakelite mantle receiver, and out of that heavy cloudy fragrant wetness I heard, crystal clear, as if he was singing solely for me, the nasal, slightly whiney voice of Gerry Marsden: How do you do what you do to me / I wish I knew / If I knew how you do it to me / I’d do it to you … and my world changed. Of course I’d heard music on the radio before. And on record. Our parents had at least two long playing records that I knew more or less by heart: My Fair Lady with Rex Harrison and Julie Andrews and one of Scandinavian comedian / singer William Clauson. My eldest sister had a few singles—Adam Faith, Cliff Richard, Pat Boone doing Speedy Gonzales—and my second oldest sister was a bona fide Beatles fan. She’d been, or would go, to their concert in Wellington and afterwards, when I asked her if she’d screamed, to my perplexity and amazement, said yes, she had. This was different. I didn’t just hear the song on the radio, it spoke to me. Or perhaps I should say it reached out and took me physically to itself. I think now what happened was that my own inchoate emotions were broadcast back to me in a way that I understood, instantly and perfectly, as never before. Whoever was singing knew exactly how it felt when I looked longingly across the classroom at Ngaire Woolcott and she, sensible and solid as she was, completely ignored me. Knew what it felt like to be in love with Michele Hayes, a dark-haired girl with Bambi eyes who wore sophisticated checked slacks to school when all the other girls wore only dresses. Or Diane Gates, her improbably yellow blonde hair cut in a bob and her cornflower blue eyes wide and innocent seeming as Marilyn Monroe’s. None of these three—and there were many more, before and since—ever once, not even for a moment, considered me a possibility. They were queens, or at least princesses, of the unrequited. They couldn’t have cared less. I knew this to be true and yet I continued to adore and, hopelessly, to hope. What the song told me was that this was a feeling others had and, more important, you could do something with it. For instance, sing a song about it. Or sing along to a song about it. You could dissolve, or indulge, or console the feeling in a song. If you knew how, you could even write a song about it. And after the song, whatever you did or however you did it, you’d feel better. Better than better: you’d feel great. And then you’d want to hear the song again: You give me a feeling in my heart / Like an arrow, passin’ through it / Suppose that you think you’re very smart / But won’t you tell me how do you do it …

love potion number nine
After How Do You Do It? had been turned down by Adam Faith and The Beatles—who recorded Please Please Me instead—Gerry and the Pacemakers had a number one hit with their George Martin-produced version in 1963. My revelation in the flat above the chemist shop might have been that year, but was probably the next; I was most likely twelve years old. That was my last year at primary school, in a composite class of other eleven and twelve year olds. I don’t recall any discussions with friends about pop music at that stage, beyond a certain disposition we had to disparage the excesses of Beatles fans, who were our older siblings, mostly our sisters. I think I probably kept my awakening to myself. There was no need to do so the following year. At Kuranui College there was an annual end-of-summer Gala Day and an institution at this event was the dance—actually a disco—in the student cafeteria. Although it was daylight, and a Saturday, and hot, all the windows were blacked out, there were coloured lights beating or revolving in the darkness, perhaps a mirror ball, maybe even a strobe, and a set of songs that came round again and again. The one I remember dancing to in the equivocal dark-and-light, not once but many times, was Love Potion Number 9. Written by Leiber and Stoller, this was, I’m almost sure, the version by The Searchers, who took it to number one in 1964, as The Clovers had done before in 1959. A song of ecstasy and derangement, of folly and enlightenment, of sex and drugs and mystery: I took my troubles down to Madame Rue / You know that gypsy with the gold-capped tooth … which I always heard, and hear still, as gypsy with the gold tattoo. All my siblings were sisters and I never did, like so many boys, go through a period of girl-hating in my youth. There were always girls among my friends and I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t in love with someone or other, often distant, beautiful and unattainable like Michele Hayes, but not always. That year, 1965, it was a healthy, happy girl from Martinborough called Gail Sanders whose mother, remarkably, had only one leg and who would, in time, break my heart by going off with someone else; but this day in the cafeteria-cum-disco was not for puppy love, it was a rite of passage in which all of us, indiscriminately, boys and girls together, participated. We became, in that dim and rapturous space, wholly caught up, lost and found, made and unmade, in the music. It was the crucial, the indispensable, other half of that first awakening: to listening was added dancing.


When my eldest sister went away to University I had a room of my own for the very first time. It was small and narrow and looked out over the corrugated iron roof of the downstairs at the back of the chemist shop to the lawn and the asparagus patch and the huge old walnut tree that grew in the carpark behind our place. It was here, acting on the advice of David Cameron, who would later be the bass player in a band called the Kal-Q-Lated Risk, that I first attempted masturbation—with disappointing results. It was here too that I kept my imperfectly preserved beetle collection, which decayed and filled the air with a stale dry rotten smell like the stinky black insects we called Maori Bugs. I didn’t yet have a radio.
For that, I had to wait until we moved to Huntly in the May holidays of 1966. Here I didn’t just have a room of my own, I had a whole building. It was a one room module that the Education Department sent around on the back of a truck, painted the same shade of blue as the main house and set down next to the patio at 5 Dudley Avenue above the long sloping lawn and the gorse and the Rugby League ground where test matches were sometimes played. It had wooden steps leading up to the door and a rough and ugly carpet square on the floor; a divan bed with drawers underneath for clothes; the kitset pine desk where I did my homework … and a radio. It was another old mantle receiver, bigger than the bakelite one and in a varnished wooden case with strange cloth that had a metallic thread running through it over the speakers at the front. Winding the dial, watching the vertical line move in the soft amber light among the arcane letters and numbers written on the discoloured plastic, you’d pick up weird blips and beeps, static, subterranean noises, snatches of faraway music and voices speaking unknown languages on the shortwave band; and if you looked round the back you’d see the dim yellow and red glow of valves mysteriously amping up the volume of those signals transmitted through the ether. Every Thursday night at 7.30 I’d listen to the Hit Parade broadcast by 1ZB from Auckland and write down the songs, in order, from 1 to 20, on a sheet of lined paper, to send to my penfriend, a Hermann’s Hermits fan from Cleethorpes, England, a girl whose name I have forgotten. Most often lying prone on the rough carpet with the pad in front of me. This was the era when everyone had to decide whether they liked the Beatles or the Rolling Stones best and the choice said who you were in a way that was definitive, unarguable and deeply satisfying. In 1967 the Rolling Stones put out Ruby Tuesday b/w Let’s Spend the Night Together, the NZBC banned it, and I was hooked. But there were so many other wonderful bands, and songs, that it hardly mattered where your primary allegiance lay. Everything from the Yardbirds to Eric Burdon and the Animals to Jimi Hendrix. The Move. The Hollies. The Troggs. Brian Poole and the Tremeloes. The Kinks. The Beach Boys. Dusty Springfield. Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazelwood. Roy Orbison. The Doors. P P Arnold singing The First Cut is the Deepest. Traffic. The Small Faces. Cream. And literally hundreds of others. The first single I bought was Procul Harem’s A Whiter Shade of Pale, which I never actually played because I left it on the back seat of my mother’s Hillman Imp and it buckled in the sun. My first album was The Moody Blues’ Days of Future Passed, followed closely by the same band’s In Search of the Lost Chord. Solemn, symphonic, overblown art rock but I loved it, especially the two singles Nights in White Satin and Tuesday Afternoon. As a counter balance, perhaps, there were Marvin Gaye, Aretha Franklin, Gladys Knight and the Pips, Martha and the Vandellas, The Supremes, The Four Tops … The list seems, and perhaps is, endless and includes (not that we cared) songs from groups that were local—The Avengers, The La De Das, Ray Columbus and the Invaders—as well as many from people you never otherwise heard from or never heard of again; and also songs that turned up later in other versions: The Left Banke’s Walk Away Renee reprised by The Four Tops left me breathless, both at their temerity in covering a much loved favourite and the panache with which they did it. Manfred Mann’s version of Just Like a Woman may have been my first conscious intimation of the universe that is Bob Dylan, or it may have been Jimi Hendrix’s version of All Along the Watchtower. Dusty Springfield singing Goin’ Back can still make me weep for that time as, at the time, I wept in anticipation of the now in which, looking back, I would weep.

yummy yummy yummy
There was a disco in Huntly where we used to go to listen to music and dance on Wednesday nights but, run by a church group, it was predictably anodyne. However, elsewhere, in or out of town, you’d sometimes get acts from Auckland coming to perform. When I saw The Chicks live in Huntly, two muscular, yellow-bikin-ed, go-go dancers in cages were part of the act. It seemed intoxicatingly sinful, deliciously wicked. I heard Larry’s Rebels play at a dance in a country hall out the back of Morrinsville one Saturday night, but hardly noticed the band because I was so intent on attracting, unsuccessfully, the attention of a girl in a tartan frock. A Maori band, whose name I can’t remember and perhaps never knew, did their version of Hendrix’s Purple Haze out of the depths of a profound magenta wash and acres of dry ice, and it was like stepping through into another, hitherto unimaginable, dimension of spacetime.
There were also dances at the Rugby League Club hall next to the football ground at which local bands would play. Favourite sons in Huntly were The Sapphires and included in their line up was Shane Smith, from our school, whose sexy younger sister, Cherie, I lusted ineffectually after. Later they turned into The Surfires, for reasons that are obvious, and later still Shane became a successful DJ on an Auckland radio station, maybe even on 1ZB. Or was it Radio Hauraki? This was the era when the pirate radio station transmitter on a leaky old ship called the Tiri moored out in the gulf broadcast illegally into every teenager’s bedroom. We wore reefer jackets, shirts with button-down collars, ties cut off square at the bottom, checked cotton Carnaby Street trousers with a slight flare, chisel-toed shoes. The dances were decorous and well-behaved, there was no alcohol or drunkenness that I recall, no necking or smoking, as we attempted to waltz or foxtrot to the slower numbers, or to twist and shout on the more up beat ones. I used to go with a sweet and lovely girl called Julie Till, whose father would always pick her up straight after the dance was over so that nothing untoward could happen between us, unlikely as that anyway was. My feeling, looking back on that time now, is one of nostalgia: not so much for the music, which is if anything more available now than it was then, as for the unitary nature of the experience. We were as one, we listened to the same songs, watched the same TV shows, went to the same dances, shared the same mode of thought, perhaps the very same thoughts. I remember a school sports trip to Tauranga, the rugby and the netball teams travelling together, Peter Toka sitting up the back with the guitar playing that dumb song by Ohio Express: Yummy yummy yummy / I’ve got love in my tummy … while the whole busload of us, boys and girls, sang along. We knew all the words. We all knew the tune. It was bubblegum music, but who cared? For the moment, it was ours. And we were everyone.

who do you love?

My cohort changed, several times, yet remained unitary. In Auckland in the early 1970s, we swirled at the edge of university circles, crossing and recrossing the invisible boundary between town and gown randomly or at will, it wasn’t clear which. We were joined one day by a quiet, fair young man who wore a soft hat with feathers in it: we called him Robin Hood. There was another, dark and handsome, with the moody good looks of a hero in a 1950s Italian movie. He was usually known as Brezhnev, after the then Russian leader. The first was Dave McCartney, still sometimes addressed as Hood, the second, Graham Brazier.
To our table in the Kiwi, where we would sometimes drink all afternoon and into the night, Dave would bring his guitar, Graham his harmonica and they’d improvise around a few much-loved standards: The Who’s Magic Bus in the version from the legendary Who Live at Leeds; the Bo Diddley classic Who Do You Love?; Robert Johnson’s Come On in My Kitchen; a few others. These sessions could get raucous, with the rest of us round the table beating on our beer glasses, on the tabletop, stamping our feet, singing along: I got a tombstone head and a graveyard mind / I’m just twenty two and I don't mind dyin' / Now come on baby take a walk with me / And tell me who do you love? I didn’t know it then, but these were the beginnings of the band Hello Sailor; by the time they were playing regular gigs in the other, the front bar of the Kiwi, I was down in Wellington, living with a classically trained pianist who, in the spring of 1974, was invited to compose music for the first ever Red Mole show, Whimsy and the Seven Spectacles. Jan Preston was her name and over the next four years she would transform herself from a specialist interpreter of the works of dead composers, with a particular affinity for Franz Schubert and Igor Stravinsky, into a fine blues / rock ‘n’ roll piano player and avant-garde composer of evocative and atmospheric theatre music. It would be a mistake to assume this transition was easy or uncomplicated. Or that it can be described in any straightforward manner—if at all. There is too much complexity involved and, anyway, it’s not really my story. I was an observer-participant, as they used to call those who outline events they also took part in. If I came from anywhere authentic, it was from rock ‘n’ roll but, although I loved music and knew it to be an intrinsic part of my life, I wasn’t and didn’t want to be, a musician. On the other hand, I was impressed, perhaps too impressed, by those who were. And especially, at that stage in my life, by classical musicians. One of the first things I did upon arriving at university in Auckland in 1970 was join the World Record Club, who used to send along through the post the LPs I haphazardly ordered. These records by Bach, Mozart, Brahms, Dvorak, Sibelius, Bartok, took their place alongside the three staple albums we played and replayed in that house: Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks; The Songs of Leonard Cohen; and the second, the black album by The Band. I had an urgent desire to understand classical music, a desire whose origin wasn’t far away from the sense of inferiority I felt with respect to its particular mysterium. And its adepts. My girlfriend in those years was a viola player; she kept a beautiful kauri cello on a stand in the corner of her bedroom. There was something indescribable about the way she looked when she played, lips parted, eyes both there and not there, tranced and yet fully aware. It was also how she looked when we made love. Jan wore the same expression when she played piano. It was the look of an human instrument through which the music flows on its way from the mechanical instrument into the air. But this wasn’t simple either. Jan would usually be in a state of high nervous tension in the lead-up to a recital and was inclined to fly off the handle at the slightest provocation. I was usually the unwitting target of these attacks, for which she might later apologise. The world of classical music turned out to be an uneasy mix of the cosseted and the intensely neurotic, in which gifted people were protected and indulged because of their (allegedly) superior gifts. On closer contact, while I still admired and was impressed by it, I also found it slightly repellent. Jan was in demand for her ability to provide music for all kinds of other activities and, as well as working with Red Mole, she wrote and/or played music for Downstage or other theatre productions, for the touring Opera Quartet, for dances classes and performances, for documentary films made out of the National Film Unit by directors Barry Barclay and Sam Neill, for Jack Body’s experiments in the Sonic Circuses and elsewhere, and much else besides. But it was only with Red Mole that she was pushed beyond what was comfortable for her to do. Only there was she persuaded to compose in ways that were truly innovative. Only there was she stretched. She made some wonderful music, most of it, alas, never recorded.

sailin’ shoes

During those mid-1970s years, Red Mole started using rock bands as a part of some shows. Often what would happen is that Alan Brunton would offer a song off one of the LPs in his own collection as a possible cover version. A lot of his music was country rock and there were two excellent country rock bands already gigging in Wellington: The Country Flyers and Rocking Horse. Both played the kind of music Red Mole liked to use in their shows. Songs by Link Wray, perhaps, or J J Cale, or Ry Cooder. Little Feat. The Grateful Dead. Jimmy Buffet. Leon Russell. Midge Marsden, who formed and led The Country Flyers, himself had an enormous repertoire of songs that he could bring to the table, with a particular affinity for the tunes of Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen.
While both bands worked with Red Mole, the relationship with the Country Flyers proved more enduring. This may have been because they didn’t have a keyboard player, while Rocking Horse, in the person of Wayne Mason, did. And a fine one at that. Jan learned to play rock ‘n’ roll as a fifth member of the Flyers, though only when they worked with the Moles. This made sense, because she was also composing and performing the music that accompanied the other parts of the shows, where a full rock band wasn’t required. In the same way, individual members of The Country Flyers—Richard Kennedy on guitar, Neil Hannan on bass, Bud Hooper on drums, Midge himself—might chip in with incidental music of their own. Or even make appearances on the stage. We put a lot of pressure on ourselves in those years to ‘write originals’. Nobody wanted to be in a cover band forever, nobody wanted just to do covers; but nobody knew quite how to write songs either. Red Mole, as a poet’s theatre, was full of people—Arthur Baysting, Alan Brunton, myself—who fancied themselves as lyricists and, on the other hand, there were all these musicians with their licks and their riffs, their guitars and pianos. Sometimes what we did was take the tune of an already extant, usually popular, song, and write alternative lyrics for it; Liberty Bus, the finale of Red Mole’s 1978 extravaganza, Ghost Rite, was Bob Marley’s Exodus re-written with lyrics by Alan Brunton. Other times, someone would come up with original lyrics and someone else would try to put them to music and make a brand new song. This happened less often than anyone wanted but, when it did, they were the best tunes. Like The Country Flyers’ reggae charmer O Rangitoto, words by Arthur Baysting, music by Neil Hannan, that was included in the 1977 Red Mole show Slaughter on Cockroach Avenue. Jan was still a volatile person and there were usually sparks flying, or about to fly, when she was around. Perhaps because of her training as a solo performer, she was never really comfortable anywhere but centre stage; and this isn’t possible when you’re part of an ensemble working in the theatre. She often seemed to feel herself to be in competition with ‘the action’, as it was known; meanwhile, she faced the exigencies of fitting in with a rock band that was all male and remote from the hothouse world of the classical musician. Somewhere along the way she’d conceived the ambition of becoming a singer. And, like everyone else, she was learning how to write original songs. By the time we—Red Mole, Country Flyers, Beaver, assorted others—had moved to Auckland late in 1977, Jan had decided to form her own band. The core of it was made up of The Methylated Spirits, musicians she’d enlisted to play the score she wrote for Ghost Rite, which toured the North Island early in 1978. In the middle of that year, Red Mole left for the Americas, and these musicians—Jan, vocalist Jean McAlister, ex-Country Flyers guitarist Richard Kennedy, bassist Tony McMaster and drummer Stanley John Mitchell—became Red Alert, aka The Red Mole Orchestra.

california dreamin’

Five young Kiwi musos cry out in unison and alarm as a bronze 1972 Buick Estate wagon with Hebrew bumper stickers and a knock in the differential turns the wrong way into a one way street. I’m sweating. I try to ignore the cries of fright, the thump in the diff, the outraged horns of other drivers, as I reverse back around the corner before the three lanes of traffic bearing down upon us arrive. I make it without mishap and we carry on down the wide boulevard to wherever it is we are going.
We’d arrived in Los Angeles a few weeks before and booked into the Howard’s Weekly Apartments just off Hollywood Boulevard. It was a place of amazements. You drove through a wasteland of oil wells on the way in from the airport, where great rocking derricks like primeval birds disinterred from the La Brea tarpits bent and fed on the earth. Hollywood was not the luxe and glam we’d imagined, but grubby, desperate, sad. We were about midway along, where the classy restaurants and the show biz hangouts gave way to porno bars, head shops and liquor stores and there were drug dealers and prostitutes on every corner. The relentless American search for celebrity was disquieting: Jan, with her short hennaed hair and tight silver trousers was asked in the street if she was David Bowie’s sister. When we tried to buy some marijuana in the carpark behind a fast food outlet, the guy in the passenger seat took the cash then the car accelerated away, leaving us bereft of both money and drugs. The supermarkets stayed open all night and you could walk over there in the fragrant midnight air to buy cantaloupes for 29c each. Stan and Tony, the rhythm section of the band, jazz freaks both, were astonished to find that artists they had idolised for years could be found playing at little clubs nearby, where you could hear them for the price of a drink. In the daytime, if you looked out the window, past the labouring, ineffectual, ice-covered air conditioner, everything shimmered in a yellow-brown gasoline haze and there was always that strange, petro-chemical smell in the air. Big cars like sharks cruised the wide streets day and night; they all seemed to travel at the same pace, accentuating their resemblance to schools of predatory fish. We bought the Buick over in Brentwood for a price I no longer recall, because it was large enough for all six of us to sit in with room at the back for our gear. We didn’t find out about the noise in the diff until afterwards and we never worked out what it was. When we went out in it to see Commander Cody at the Palomino, he stood at the door of the club afterwards and shook the hand of every person who’d taken the trouble to come and hear him play. Before we left LA we drove up into the Hollywood Hills to visit Hello Sailor. Tony had been their bass player in an earlier incarnation of the band. There were five large saloon cars parked on the road outside and, up some steps and around the pool, five proto-rock stars were lounging, some with, some without, girlfriends. In the gloom of the house, David Gapes, their manager, and an ex-Radio Hauraki DJ, was on the phone. He looked frantic but the boys seemed pretty relaxed. We discussed the rumour that Ray Manzarek of The Doors wanted to reform the band with Graham as their new lead singer. Graham wasn’t into that. I’m my own man, he said. We left feeling faintly abashed, like poor copies of the real thing; yet Hello Sailor were already in disarray and would soon retreat back to Auckland.

nowhere to run

We drove north up Highway 1 to San Francisco because we knew someone there: Rachel Stace, from Wellington, was a friend of Jean’s. After dropping her off in the midst of Rachel’s complicated, Haight-Ashbury ménage, we went down to the Tenderloin, thinking to book ourselves into a cheap hotel: the room up the rickety stairs had a lime green candlewick bedspread spread over a thin mattress on the double bed and smelt so strongly of piss that we didn’t even go in; they were asking $24 dollars a day. I can’t remember where we did stay that night but, soon enough, we moved into a flat above a Chinese laundry near the corner of Greenwich and Gough just a couple of blocks from Highway 101, where Van Ness Avenue turns into Lombard Street on the approaches to the Golden Gate bridge. The flat belonged to a girl named Tina, an anthropology student from Connecticut who thought Maori in New Zealand still wore grass skirts and even, sometimes, ate each other.
Richard and Tony and Stan found a place of their own in the basement of a grand old house on Steiner Street in the Fillmore that was a Therapy Centre where Rolfing, among other bizarre things, went on. It doubled as a rehearsal room and there was a hot tub next door that kept them warm in the damp winter climate the way the drying machines underneath in Roosevelt Chung’s laundry did us. Jan bought some pieces of taffeta and sewed patchwork curtains for our room; always when I think of that time I remember the grey milky light falling through those pale pinks and soft ambers and transparent blues and greens while foghorns sounded at the Gate and mists rolled in past the Presidio from the Pacific. One of the first gigs we went to was Pearl Harbor and the Explosions at The Palms in Polk Street, an elegant venue at which we immediately wanted to play. Our inquiries about how to do that led us to a couple of booking agents called Stephen and Michelle and they agreed to take us on. Pretty soon the band had their gear together, Tony had bought a small white van to drive it around in, and we started to do supports, and even the odd headline gig, around the Bay Area. The music scene was confusing to us and that confusion was mirrored in the band itself. We did not expect to support sixties bands like Country Joe and Fish, still gigging around as if the last ten years hadn’t happened. We didn’t anticipate the ubiquity of guitar hero bands. We didn’t know how to relate to the black clad, chalk-white, super cool punks and new wavers we sometimes met at rehearsal studios. Nor to wild acts like the Dead Kennedys whose singer, Jello Biafra, when we supported them in an old hall out at Santa Rosa, sprayed the audience with beer from a shook-up can while screaming out Kill the Poor. (Stephen had refused point blank to represent them, because of their name, but he didn’t seem to mind booking us onto the same gig.) Most of all, we didn’t know who we were as a band. Stan and Tony could play anything but their first love was jazz; Richard, a southpaw who held his guitar, like Hendrix did, upside down and back to front, was a virtuoso with his roots in country rock and the New Orleans sound. Jean was a beautiful singer but, at this point in her life, only wanted to do back-up vocals. And Jan was … Jan. An electrifying piano player, a developing singer, a big stage personality who nevertheless caused some people to feel a strange disquiet. Red Alert was all over the place. It had no one style, no one sound; no idea. Half the set was covers and the other half originals, but the originals were as heterogenous as the covers and, together or apart, they did not add up to a whole. Stephen, who had been around San Francisco for yonks and knew everybody, set himself to shape the band into a marketable entity. He offered a couple of cover songs, one of which, Martha and the Vandella’s Nowhere to Run, became a staple. He suggested dropping some of the more bizarre among the covers, and re-writing the more eclectic of the originals; he provided plenty of advice and guidance. And lots of drugs. As the only non-playing member of the band (I did lights when required, shifted boxes, drove, and talked to whoever needed to be talked to at venues and elsewhere), I spent a lot of time with Stephen. We’d meet up mid-morning in his office or in a café at North Beach, and Stephen would invariably have with him a bag of dope which he’d ‘clean’ by tipping a portion out onto an album cover and angling it this way and that until the seeds rolled free. Then he’d make a joint and we’d smoke. There was something old and corrupt and venal about Stephen that made him difficult to like. In his world, everything was for sale; there was no respect beyond that engendered by money and power; you let yourself be fucked over by those more powerful than you, you fucked those less powerful … that was how things worked. This aspect to his personality was expressed for me by his mouth, a gaping black, red rimmed hole in which teeth were set. I’d look at that wet orifice, talking, and shudder. It seemed like a maw out of which the stench of the world arose. And yet he was not a bad-looking man, quite handsome really. And his wife, full name Michele Marie Bourgeois, was attractive. But, together or apart, they gave me the creeps. Besides, they couldn’t seem to get us into The Palms.

dancing with mister d
The whiff of corruption that hung around Stephen was present in the city itself. San Francisco seemed death-obsessed. In the peculiar constellation of American cities, Frisco is in fact the last chance saloon. Here people who have tried and failed elsewhere end up. Here, if they fail again, they can always go out to the Golden Gate and jump off, as hundreds have, and continue to do. This gives the city its eclectic, alternative, free-spirited ambience; but it also gives it that doomed edge.
We, innocents abroad, were alienated, homesick and suffering. It was all too much. Stan, the drummer, decided he wanted to go back to Palmerston North and it was only with great difficulty that we managed to talk him out of it. Then news started filtering back from the jungles of Guyana of a bizarre mass suicide of members of a San Francisco-based cult. The Peoples Temple was on the bus route we travelled each day to the rehearsal room in the Steiner Centre in the Fillmore. The metal containers stacked up there contained the possessions of those deluded pilgrims who’d died after drinking grape Kool Aid laced with cyanide and Valium. Day after day, black banner headlines in the San Francisco Chronicle ramped up the number of the dead at Jonestown through the sevens, into the eights, then the nine hundreds. It was while this was going on that I answered a knock on the door one morning to find Richard, the guitarist, standing there. The Mayor’s been shot, he said, and I’m going home. Mayor George Moscone and the recently elected, first ever openly gay member of the Board of Supervisors, Harvey Milk, were both gunned down at City Hall by another Supervisor, an ex-cop by the name of Dan White who owned a fast food stall down on Fisherman’s Wharf. Or was it just that he had eaten there before the deed? Fast food somehow figured in his defence, which was more or less successful: he only got seven years. A right-winger, he had resigned from the Board apparently without realising this would hand the balance of power to the liberal faction. When he did, he tried to rescind his resignation, demanding Moscone re-appoint him; the Mayor refused, so he shot him dead then walked down the hall and shot Harvey Milk too. It was chillingly like something out of the Wild West, where justice spoke from the barrel of a gun. Not like—it was the Wild West.

washington bullets

Somehow we persuaded Richard to stay as well; oddly enough, like Stan, he never did return to New Zealand to live. But things didn’t get any less fraught. There was, for instance, Andreas. Andreas and his girlfriend Marcia had moved in with us at Greenwich and Gough. He was Chilean, a small red-haired man with pale skin and an unquenchable anger at what had been done to his country. That he had ended up living in the nation whose government had destroyed his was an irony which would not let him rest. The assassination of his former commanding officer during the time of his military service, Orlando Letelier, blown apart in Washington DC in 1976 by agents of Pinochet's junta with the collusion of the US authorities, was a constant goad to him.
But he had more pressing problems of his own. He was a fugitive from justice. Andreas and Marcia, a very beautiful young woman whose father was the Guatemalan ambassador to the United States, had been hanging out one day in the house they lived in over in the Avenues, when a drunken sailor stopped at their window. This guy lingered, wanting a smoke, offering them speed, trying to join them. He wasn't welcome, especially when he started hitting on Marcia. Andreas warned him but he took no notice. He was given a second warning, also unheeded. Andreas went to the kitchen and came back with a knife, which he used to widen the smile of the sailor. Widening the smile, Andreas explained, is a ritual punishment in his culture for the type of harassment the guy was guilty of. It involves cutting the skin at either corner of the mouth, just where top and bottom lip meet. Grotesque as that sounds. After that they had to leave their place in the Avenues in a hurry, going to live with an Israeli couple in another part of town. That was another story: when I met the Israelis I asked the boy, Uli, who I knew worked for El Al, what he actually did? He replied, grimly, theatrically: My job is to die. He was trained as an anti-terrorism operative and flew incognito, as a civilian, on commercial flights. If there was an attempt to hijack the plane, he was to thwart it, even if it meant dying in the attempt. The rest of the time Uli and his girlfriend, Rebecca, lived the life of the idle rich. Andreas worked as a cook at a restaurant round the corner from Greenwich and Gough in Union Street. It specialised in omelettes and he was assiduous, even passionate, in his desire to master the technique of making them. He didn't let on right away the trouble he was in, waiting, I suppose, until he knew us better. The sailor had an influential family, including an older brother in the military, and they were determined to hunt Andreas down and get their revenge. There was a warrant out for his arrest, the charge was mayhem. He'd been eluding capture, as he saw it, for about nine months. His political anger had somehow fused with his personal predicament and he clearly felt no guilt about the 'crime' he'd committed, not so much because the guy was connected to the US military as because he got what he deserved. One place we played regularly was the Miramar Beach Inn, south of the city on the coast, a lovely room looking out over the ocean where both management and punters liked us and we liked them. They always fed us, seafood chowder or a superb onion soup, and served a good house red; there was a wooden floor where graceful dancers turned as the band played a song called Dr. Sanctify. One night Andreas and Marcia came down there with us, as they sometimes did. It was a good gig and we were happy as we drove back to town in the wee small hours. Our habit was to go in convoy, the Buick and the van, to the Steiner Centre in the Fillmore to unload the gear before heading home. We were bumping the black boxes into the basement when some cops pulled up. This wasn't unusual, we were always having to deal with cops for some reason or other and usually managed to avoid trouble simply because a bunch of Kiwi musicians seemed so improbable, even exotic, even to cops. We had to be extra careful what we said though because, by now, we had overstayed our three month tourist visas and were technically illegal aliens. Andreas and Marcia were asleep in the back of the van. Maybe he'd had a bit to drink, maybe he was just tired, but when one of the cops shone a high-powered torch in Andreas' face and asked him who he was, he told them his real name. It was startling how quickly they came up with the information that he was a wanted man, distressing to see him manacled and hauled away, horrible to witness the cops' gleeful brutality ... He got two years. I visited him in the city jail, where he was awaiting trial, just before we left San Francisco. We talked on telephones through a smeared plastic screen. A year or so later, when we were back in LA and about to return to New Zealand, I called him up and learned that he'd been released after serving just nine months of the sentence. It was a strange conversation; there was no ease or lightness in it as there had always been between us before. Andreas seemed dulled, perhaps diminished, by his experience in jail, which he did not want to talk about at all. It might be too much to say that his spirit was broken, it might just have been the exigencies of a long distance call between two people who, after all, did not know each other all that well ... I don't know. I never heard of, or from, him again.


It may have been Andreas, or it may have been someone else, who murmured to me one day that California is a police state. After nine months there, I was sick of the place. What was the rest of America like? I wanted to go to New York, where the Moles, having arrived there recently via Mexico, were putting on their first American show. Being manager / road manager / lighting roadie or whatever I was didn’t have the same attraction that theatre did. I felt starved of images … and words. Besides, I felt an obligation to the Moles, since we’d more or less promised we’d join up with them eventually. When? they wanted to know. Could we make it in time for their next show, due to open in the East Village in April? I started putting pressure of my own on the band, who were by this time in a makeshift studio recording a single. We received the one hundred vinyl copies of Hysteria b/w Red Sky around about the same time Stephen and Michele finally got us a gig at The Palms. He, Stephen, went pale when I told him we were off to New York the day after the gig. You’re going to have to stop somewhere, Morton, Michele said, bitterly. It was only then, too late, that I realised they’d invested far more in us than we’d thought. More, in fact, than we believed in ourselves. They even threatened legal action and we were sufficiently intimidated to slip an envelope of cash under their door before leaving town in another Buick, the property of a Jewish podiatrist from Staten Island. We’d already sold the first Buick as a bad job; Tony and Richard were going to travel across with the gear in the white van, while Jan and Jean and Stan and me would take turns, and lots of speed, driving this Buick back to its owner. The vehicle was said to be haunted. Its last drivers, spooked, had abandoned it in Fresno; the driveaway car company flew me down to pick it up. Driving back, thinking to test it out, I opened up on a long stretch of deserted highway and, at the top of the rise, was pulled over for speeding by the Highway Patrol. When the cop asked to see my license, and I reached into the breast pocket of my jacket for my wallet, he stiffened and his hand went to his gun; I had to talk very slowly and calmly as I explained what I was doing. Then, as so often before, the very improbability of a Kiwi on the high road from Fresno persuaded him to let me off with a warning. Once the car was loaded up and we set off, we found out what had spooked the other drivers. Fully-loaded, as you approached sixty miles per hour, the shell of the vehicle would begin to vibrate; a high-pitched whine began, increasing in volume to a banshee wail that was distressing and even, to the musicians with their sensitive ears, painful. However, after a while we discovered that you could, as it were, break this sound barrier: if you kept accelerating, at around seventy mph the sound started to die away again. So we carried on, either below, or above, this peculiar frequency, rolling down the wide and beautiful highways of America. In the badlands of Utah we drove through an improbable landscape of red and white snow-capped and snow-banded mesas, like a set made in the far past expressly for the cowboy movies that would one day be shot in it. We climbed the Rockies in darkness and a snowstorm out of which, during the descent to Denver, we heard another banshee wail, this time the klaxon of a runaway semi-trailer coming fast up behind. We wrestled the car off the road just before this behemoth howled past and disappeared forever into the white out. Next morning, out on the great plains, we came across numerous other wrecked trucks like dinosaurs stranded on the shoulders of the blacktop. Somewhere in the phantasmagoria, I found I’d mislaid my wallet and, thinking back, realised I’d last used it buying cigarettes from a machine at the back of a café in a little place called Green River, Utah. In Kansas City, Missouri, I got on the phone to try to see if I could track down that café. An operator in Atlanta, Georgia, a woman, decided to help me. She consulted her directory, said there eleven possible venues in Green River, and set out to call them one by one. At the second, the man said he’d go and have a look. Incredibly, my wallet was still sitting where I’d left it on top of the cigarette machine. I gave the man the address of the NZ Consulate in New York, and told him to take some money for the postage and his trouble, but he said he wouldn’t do that. It was there when we arrived, addressed to Sweet, not Suite, 6 Hysteria increased exponentially when we started hearing on the car radio about a place called Three Mile Island, where a nuclear reactor seemed to be melting down to the core. It wasn’t far north from our planned route, so we bent a little to the south to avoid it, crossing northern Kentucky on our way to Washington DC and a kind of sanctuary at the home of ex-Red Molers Jim and Jenny Stevenson, who were there as part of the New Zealand Trade Mission. They gave us a five kilogram block of Mainland cheese that kept us going for weeks afterwards. We reached a still panic-stricken New York on April Fools Day and drove through the slushy streets straight to The Theatre for the New City, where the Moles were rehearsing the show that would open in five days time. The Last Days of Mankind seemed as apt a title as Hysteria. They found us rooms in the hotel where they were already staying, the Consulate on 49th Street and Broadway. More hysteria: when I came to take the Buick back to Staten Island, I arrived at the toll booth with only a one hundred dollar note to tender in payment. This made me an object of suspicion; they pulled me over and gave me the third degree. The fact that it wasn’t my car only made matters worse. It was extraordinary how volatile everybody in a uniform seemed to be. I couldn’t believe that possession of a large denomination note was enough to get you detained; nor how the mere suspicion of criminal intent could so easily translate into actual crime, actual punishment. I was sweating when they finally gave me change and let me go. There were problems with the foot doctor too. When I’d picked the car up in Fresno, it had two snow tyres lashed to the roof. Now, three or four days later and on the other side of the continent, they were still there. We hadn’t touched them. But the doctor was annoyed: there had originally been four of them. I couldn’t help him, beyond suggesting that the previous drivers, the ones who had abandoned the so-called haunted car, might have either jettisoned or stolen them. It took a while but, like the Port Authority men at the toll gate, in the end he believed me. I rode the ferry back to Battery Park in Manhattan looking quizzically at the Statue of Liberty, the Mother of Exiles, standing out there in the water.

heart of glass

Red Alert played rather more spasmodically round Manhattan than we did in San Francisco, partly because of the exigencies of fitting gigs in around theatre performances—the old rivalry between the music and action came back to trouble us—and partly because the band’s identity crisis was ongoing, exacerbated by the vacant certainties of the prevailing ethos. The scene in New York was different; though far larger and more diverse it seemed, paradoxically, more unitary than that in San Francisco. You didn’t stumble across those dinosaur bands, nor relics from the sixties either; here everything was new and real: Punk, New Wave, No Wave. Nervus Rex, Suicide and Richard Hell and Voidoids didn’t seem to carry any baggage from the past, nor to have much of a future either.
We did play a couple of times at the legendary CBGBs in the Bowery. It was a long, narrow room with PA and lights already extant, sensibly, so you could turn up just with instruments and amplifiers. The band’s set was received with a mixture of mild interest and polite indifference, which was better than the raging contempt often given acts there. We also scored a gig, how I don’t remember, perhaps through a guy from Tennessee called Moonshine who was sweet on Jan, with the Yippies (Youth International Party) at their clubhouse at 9 Bleecker Street in the East Village. These beautifully appointed rooms were still under construction when we arrived to set up and, not long after, the local branch of the New York Fire Department came round and closed them down: no permit. The Yippies took it on the chin, cheerfully abusing the firemen and telling us we could play instead at their old club rooms across the street. In the sitting room of a small, poky terrace house we set up on a mezzanine so close to the ceiling that taller band members would have to bow their heads to play. Then a battered saloon car drew up outside and five young black men got out and said they were playing this gig. These were the Bad Brains and they had just arrived in New York, having driven up that very day from Washington DC. We worked something out between ourselves and shared the bill; their bass player was so tall that he had to bend almost double to play. The Bad Brains were a jazz band that re-invented themselves as black punks; in amongst a fast and furious set they played one startling beautiful reggae tune that has remained in my head ever since: Oh the man there / He was a lawyer / But he couldn’t get across … The other super hip venue we longed to get into was Max’s Kansas City, where Blondie used to play. Here the thin, tired, terminally cool booker, a man dressed in entirely in black, solved the problem of the band’s identity once and for all. He listened to Hysteria, a frantic twelve-bar with proto-punk lyrics—Civilization is a strange disease / You have to empty your pockets / And go down on your knees / In a three-piece suit god sits on this throne / He’ll answer your prayers / When he gets off the phone …—shook his head sadly and pronounced. You are, he said, almost as if it was an affliction, a rock ‘n’ roll band. It was such a relief that Red Alert broke up soon afterwards. Jean, Tony and Stan, as Stanley Slumber and the Rude Awakenings, remained busking the theatre district in New York while the rest of us hopped across with the Moles to London; when Richard rejoined the others upon our return to New York some months later, they became The Flying Sheep.

spanish stroll

Walter Benjamin once speculated upon the (revolutionary?) nature of a reality determined by the popular song last on everyone’s lips. That April in New York, it was Anita Ward’s Ring My Bell. It seemed to come out of every doorway, every car stereo, every boombox in Times Square … You can ring my be-e-ell, ring my bell, ring my bell … There was a warp in the song, Ma Bell was the common name for the Bell Telephone Company that carried so many calls and perhaps, as ITT certainly did in Chile, oppressed as many as it helped to communicate; it seemed that Anita Ward was not just longing for her boyfriend but also telling us all to get on the phone at once. To whom? To—anyone.
A few weeks later, the song was Miss You by The Rolling Stones: I’ve been walking in Central Park / Singing after dark / People think I’m crazy / I’ve been stumbling on my feet / Shuffling through the street … It was that unitary thing again, perhaps because Manhattan is, after all, an island. It could be unexpectedly kindly too: at the Consulate Hotel, they refunded our sales tax because, Alex the big black sad-faced night clerk explained, after three months you were considered a resident and residents didn’t pay tax. It amounted to a week’s free rent and was a nice counter-point to our continuing status as illegals. New York could be startling in other ways. After we’d decided to accompany the Moles across to London for the summer, Jan and I tried to regularise our immigration status. We stood in line for half a day at the office in downtown Manhattan, in amongst a shuffling crowd of your tired, your poor / Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free … from all parts of the world. At the head of the queue we explained our predicament to the clerk, a tired black man with more than a passing resemblance to Alex the night clerk. He looked disbelieving at us through his thick spectacles. We have people here with real problems, he said. You two go along now. We went along. But it could be sinister too. A power blackout in Manhattan, which happened one night, was a true intimation of apocalypse. Another night, after a big sports event (baseball? football?) in Queens, as rogue and drunken males poured into Hell’s Kitchen, and the air filled up with a golden brown haze made of pheromones and cordite as much as it was of exhaust fumes, it seemed there was an unspeakable atrocity waiting to happen around every street corner. The progress of King Tut—an exhibition of the Treasures of Tutankhamen—suggested not just one city but an entire country that was death-obsessed. In Times Square, at any hour of the day or night, the dealers sidled up to you in the ceaseless masses of people passing in the street and whispered in your ear: Coke, smoke, Bo, Bo, wanna buy some Bo? ‘Bo’ was short for Columbian but if you did buy a joint off one of these guys, you might find it artfully concocted out of five single rice grains laid end to end. One night some of the musos went two blocks east of the Theatre for the New City at Second and Tenth to buy some dope and found a pool of blood on the stoop where their Puerto Rican contact usually was. He’d been stabbed to death in a turf war with dealers further down the block. After that we didn’t shop there any more. Yet I was happier in New York, not just because I was back at the (presumed) centre but also because the Moles asked me to light their shows. Lighting was something I’d done in an erratic, ad hoc way with Red Alert and I knew I had one essential for the job, good timing. That timing could be explored much more evocatively in theatre than it could with music and I grew to love the way I could add to, or accentuate, a theatrical moment by throwing light upon it. I lit shows in New York, in London, on a small tour of the eastern seaboard we did—Baltimore, Washington, Philadelphia—on our much bigger cross country tour, which included an interlude of six weeks or so on the high plains of New Mexico, mostly in Taos. And, finally, on a return tour of New Zealand in 1980.

stand down margaret

In London we gigged around even more spasmodically than in New York. This was not just because of the fabulous snootiness of the English; it was because we didn’t have a drummer. Drummers, in my limited experience, were always the most precarious of band members, liable to defect, sulk, disappear, go mad, lose time for the most unpredictable of reasons. Yet you had to humour them, because without a drummer, you didn’t have a band. Bud Hooper, from The Country Flyers, was in London, but although we went down to Clapham where he lived in a dim-lit flat with his wife Gabe and their kids, and spent an entire evening trying to persuade him, he didn’t want to do it. The drummer with The Methylated Spirits, Spencer Probet, was also in town, but he didn’t have a kit. Eventually, bass player Neil Hannan, who’d joined us in New York about the time Red Alert split, found Chris Whitten, a nineteen year old tyro from Leeds and he took the seat in a band now known, provisionally but more or less accurately, as The Shakey Islanders.
Chris was intensely rhythmic, with a beautiful, high action, a powerful sound, and was full of the grit and mustard of talented youth. His passion was for jazz-rock and he responded with incredulity to some of the things he was asked to do, especially in the theatre. A stand-out, though, was the solo percussion accompaniment he devised for a rap that Alan Brunton did as Denis Thatcher, whose Maggie had just been elected PM: I’m the man … I’m the man … I’m the man / Who gives the Iron Lady / Her monthly oil and grease. Chris didn’t like the notion of importing politically correct or socially aware sentiments into song writing. I still remember the beam of withering contempt he directed at my attempt to construct a lyric out of a piece of graffiti: Justice for Jo-Jo Smith. Smith, it turned out, was a bovver boy who’d beaten someone else’s head in; but his friends thought there was just cause for what he’d done. An aura of violence hung over south London then, and it wasn’t necessarily politically inspired. When my largely luckless search for work for both band and theatre group encountered a rare opportunity, I went down one morning to a pub in New Cross to meet some people. They were two large bodied, pale-faced Cockneys, brothers, who were promoting a band called The Craze. The Craze (I didn’t realize at first that they were also, and deliberately, The Krays), were a mod band who performed in front of a huge Union Jack. In the hierarchy of the times, that didn’t make them punks but did affiliate them with the skinheads and boot boys who were part of the rapidly decaying punk scene. What we were being offered, behind the drawn curtains of the closed for lunchtime pub, was a support of The Craze at the Albany Empire. A big, old, elegant room in Deptford, the Albany Empire was famous as the venue where Dire Straits established their following. It was packed when we came out to play: a deep floor of massed, shoulder to shoulder punters standing, crowded galleries around the walls, hundreds of people. The Shakey Islanders went down pretty well considering their diverse origins and eclectic material. They got an encore and there was one particular voice in the crowd, belonging to a tall, long-haired, vociferous hippie, that was especially enthusiastic. Unfortunately this fellow did not know when to stop and continued to heckle through The Craze’ set, which was primitive, intense, short on musician-ship but long on energy and commitment. Their singer somehow managed to climb up onto the speakers where he rode the precariously swaying stack while continuing to belt out the vocals. Rolling Stones … our hippie friend called in the break between each song. Rolling Stones … it was hot and sweaty and loud and there was an alarming sense of events tipping out of control. The bruvvers from New Cross didn’t like this guy’s chant. They were becoming irate. They told him to stop but, whatever he was on (he was probably just drunk), it made no difference. I was in one of the galleries at the side; I didn’t see exactly what happened, only the swirl in the heart of the crowd as the man was dealt to. It turned out they’d taken a fire extinguisher and beaten his head in. People were shocked, someone called an ambulance but, when it arrived, the medicos weren’t allowed inside. Nor were the cops, and they didn’t insist; it wasn’t their turf. Instead, the broken hippie was carried out and dumped. I don’t know what happened to him, whether he died or if anyone was charged; all I remember is the bruvvers, with specks of blood on their cream silk shirts, their chests puffed out, their eyes still shining with lust for violence, strutting around the Empire afterwards as if daring someone else to have a go. No-one insulted their Craze. Our other London gigs, none of which I now recall, paled into insignificance beside this disquieting event. We silently gathered up our gear afterwards, accepted the money the bruvvers gave us, but declined their offer of further supports of The Craze and trundled off into the night in the antique green van we’d borrowed off a fellow from Intergalactic Art in Elephant and Castle who specialized in undersea photography. Soon, fatigued by the difficulty of London we, music and action both, packed up and returned to New York. Chris hitched a ride with us then left the group; later, he became the drummer for (who else?) Dire Straits and now lives, improbably, in New South Wales.

on the road again

Neil Hannan, Jan Preston and I left New York on our cross country tour with the Moles in the autumn of 1979, driving a green 1972 Pontiac station wagon with false license plates. To avoid paying the several hundred dollars it cost to register a car in New York State—which we were leaving, for good or at least for now—we bought illegal plates for twelve dollars off some Nuyoricans in Alphabet City. We made the contact, I no longer recall how, parked outside an apartment building, were handed, by a shadowy figure, the plates wrapped in newspaper, gave over the money … and drove off into the American night.
We piled all the gear in the back, with the seat down, and the three of us sat side by side on the bench seat in the front, Jan in the middle because she was the smallest and Neil and I taking turns driving. (Sometimes, when we could only afford one motel room, we slept in the same arrangement in a double bed.) The car, unfortunately, proved to be as dodgy as the plates. Outside of Roanoke in Virginia, the bearings in the right back wheel went. Neil, who was handy, with the help of parts bought and tools borrowed from a local garage, managed to fix it himself. It was strange to stand amidst the green rolling hills thinking about Walter Raleigh while watching him dirty his musician’s hands on a task I could not help him with. I was a bystander to so much that happened in those days, condemned to idleness by my lack of skills, of talents, of anything much except a general, mostly inarticulate, will to contribute. Not that Neil complained, or was ever likely to. Taciturn by nature, steady, reliable but with deep wells of emotion, he was in many ways an ideal travelling companion, even if you didn’t always know what he was thinking or feeling. He was on the road without his beloved, customized bass guitar, which had been stolen in a coffee shop on 45th Street in Manhattan not long before we left. An audacious theft: Neil had put his case down next to him on the floor beside the booth where we were sitting, and someone just spirited it away. By that time we knew the score, and as soon as we discovered the loss, went straight around to the pawn shops in 46th Street to see if it was there yet. It was; but because of a bizarre city ordinance that said pawned goods had to be retained for two weeks in case they were stolen, Neil was prevented from recovering the guitar (he had to buy it back) until a fortnight had elapsed. He fixed the car and we carried on. A few days later, after we’d completed our performances in Knoxville, Tennessee, we were driving through Alabama listening on talkback radio to a caller shouting that the Iranians—who were holding 66 Americans hostage in Tehran—should be nuked back to the Stone Age. Outside of Birmingham, we were pulled over by some cops. They must have noticed the out-of-state plates and run a check on them. We turned, as directed, off the highway onto a side road and stopped. One of the cops, cautious, as always, in case we had guns, approached. This here car you’re driving is a 1972 Pontiac, he said. But these here plates belong to a 1970 Ford. Can you explain how that came to be? It was a reasonable question under the circumstances, to which we played dumb. Do they? we asked. We didn’t know. This was true as far as it went, since no-one had told us what car the plates actually belonged to; but it was a lie to say, as we did, that they were on the car when we bought it; yet how would these guys know that? Like many Americans, they had only the vaguest idea where New Zealand was—up by Norway, perhaps? They began a desultory search of the gear piled high in the back but gave up before they found the bag of marijuana in Jan’s suitcase, and let us go so long as we promised to regularise the car’s registration in the next place we stopped. We agreed, but never did. The car still had those plates on it when we plugged a hole in the petrol tank with chewing gum and sold it, for not very much, to a black man in Hollywood.

before the next teardrop falls

New Orleans was gracious and melancholy, with long, tree-lined avenues down which the street cars sedately clanged. On Bourbon Street it felt, as nowhere else I went in America, that the two or three hundred year old past of the city was still alive: gentlemen in stove-pipe hats, high-collared shirts, embroidered waistcoats and tooled leather cowboy boots drank bourbon in bars or roistered drunkenly in the street with their high-toned women; but when we went down to Tipitina’s hoping to hear (something like) Dr John or the Neville Brothers play, it was disappointing to find an undistinguished band covering the Talking Heads version of Al Green’s Take Me To The River. Houston, where we stopped next, was dark, gloomy and sinister; in a café under the freeway we met a Mexican with one arm in a sling who swore that he was Freddy Fender and sang a song to prove it: Si te quiere de verdad y te da felicidad / te deseo lo mas bueno para los dos / Pero si te hace llorar a mi me puedes hablar / Y estar contigo cuando triste esta … It was 4 am when we reached San Antonio. We parked the car next to The Alamo and tried to catch up on our sleep as dawn fingered those old adobe walls. Later that day, Neil took a flight to New York to collect his bass guitar, buying the beloved instrument its own ticket so he could have it on the seat next to him as he flew back to rejoin us. On the outskirts of El Paso, the bearings on the other back wheel went. Neil now knew exactly what to do; we unloaded the car so he could do it. It was in a poor part of town and a crowd of curious and apparently friendly Hispanics gathered to watch, to ask questions, to offer advice. In the middle of all this, the Moles arrived in their blue soft topped Buick; they pulled up, shook their heads at our predicament, smiled ruefully and carried on. When Neil completed the repairs and we started loading the gear back into the car, we found we’d been robbed: a suitcase in which Jan and I kept the precious things we were taking back to New Zealand with us, and Neil’s small amplifier that he used while busking, had been lifted from under our very noses. This was a low point; we had enough money to buy the gas we needed to get to Albuquerque but not for food as well. The strategy of eating in supermarkets, which we sometimes did, was too high risk now that our luck had evidently deserted us. Instead, we decided to try busking, even though Neil could no longer properly amplify his bass. When the good people of El Paso proved unmoved by our efforts, we crossed the Rio Grande into Juarez to see what might be happening there. The poor Mexican shop-keepers selling day-glo Christs, Elvises and skulls, the children wearing horror masks, the pimps with knives in their boots lounging outside the ubiquitous dental parlours, were more generous, even though it turned out the piles of heavy round coins they gave us were worth almost nothing in America. Still, we felt good as we gathered it up and headed, under a green evening sky, for El Paso. On the bridge back across the river, which was a different bridge to the one we had crossed earlier in the day, a member of the Border Patrol detained us, wanting to see our passports. Our passports, we explained, were in the car, over there in El Paso. We hadn’t thought to bring them with us. There were no problems going into Mexico. This man, fat, uniformed, wearing a belt hung with all kinds of lethal hardware, looked disparagingly at us and spoke a sentence I’ve never since been able to forget: We don’t care who leaves the United States, he said. But we sure as hell care who comes in here. In the end, incredulous, as so many others, at our naivety, he detained Jan and I as hostages and allowed Neil go back to the car for the passports; he scarcely glanced at the documents and we returned to the right side of the border with enough money, it turned out, to buy a single roast chicken. We carried on, north, through Truth or Consequences to Albuquerque and beyond to Santa Fe and then Taos, up on the high plains of New Mexico where the Rio Grande rises. I saw its thin silver in a deep narrow canyon one evening wandering out on the mesa, where I picked up the green and purple and black iridescent feathers of a crow lying dead in a deserted sauna; while overhead jet planes from the Kirtland Air Force Base left vapour trails on the deep blue sky and the last of the sun reddened the Sangre de Cristo mountains in the east. We were staying in a solar house on the mesa, with walls constructed out of adobe and old bottles laid side by side, through which the pale winter light filtered. It was here, on a Santa Fe station, that we heard Hysteria played for the very first time on radio. It sounded good; but by then the band that made it was just a memory.


I saw two unforgettable light shows on this jaunt through the west at the end of the seventies: The Ramones at the Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco used a classic set up of white, red, blue, green par cans, switched from hue to hue with the chord changes. I never saw a band with such precision as The Ramones, and their lights, falling from high above, and wonderfully intense, were as tightly synchronised with the music as it was possible to be. Those four lank black-clad figures, even the drummer, seemed almost immobile in the deep, saturated washes as that enormous sound roared from their Marshall stacks like something immemorial, antediluvian, mad and somehow very funny as well.
The other was in London, at the Hammersmith Odeon, an old cinema. Dire Straits were then on the cusp of world wide fame with their first album and the single with which they achieved it, The Sultans of Swing. Their light show was the antithesis of The Ramones, it was constructed of soft blues and pinks, with a lot of white, and the changes were painted through the transitions in the music, the washes altering as subtly as moods in an impressionist painting. It was very beautiful in an amorphous, almost nerveless way, the kind of lighting that surrounds and permeates rather than shows anything in hard or stark outline. In Los Angeles again, at the last gasp of the 1970s, thinking to try something new myself, I bought some rolls of lighting gel in a range of shades that I had not seen before—not the deep, saturated colours used by The Ramones nor the muted pastels of Dire Straits either; they were lighter, brighter, whiter. They reminded me of the colours of the squares of taffeta out of which Jan had made the patchwork curtains in San Francisco (lost with the rest of our stuff in El Paso) and I was keen to use them to design and light the gigs she was planning to do with the group she would start once we returned to Auckland and set out to make our own careers: a psychic necessity, we had realised, perhaps belatedly, after seven years with the Moles. That band was called Coup D’Etat and was formed by Jan, Neil and ex-Hello Sailor guitarist Harry Lyon. Coup D’Etat had various drummers without ever really finding the right one; in the time I worked with them, Steve Osborne had the seat. Some of those early gigs in Auckland were magic. Coup D’Etat had a light, poppy sound, reggae and ska influenced and, especially at first, they were wonderful. The new gels, those light pinks and greens and yellows, with their bright white look, were a perfect match for the sound. With a floor full of dancers, the music soaring and a shimmering cast of rainbow light playing across the bright metal of the instruments, the glam and spandex of their clothes, their shining hair—it could look like the aurora australis. I’m probably only talking about a handful of actual gigs—one at the Windsor Castle in Parnell, another at Kicks nightclub on the North Shore, at the Gluepot, at a venue on Ponsonby Road whose name I’ve forgotten, perhaps a few of others on the road, in Hamilton, in Wellington, a pub in Barbados Street in Christchurch. Coup D’Etat had a song of Harry’s that was sometimes used as an encore. Called Allende, it was about the Chilean leader’s murder and the destruction of the elected socialist government he led. Thanks very much I don’t like to cha cha / That old Latin beat you know it’s bad for my feet / I don’t like to tango / I don’t want to hang though … it began and then worked through, like a Roy Orbison composition, to an operatic crescendo with the band in full flight and the vocals keening one single word, his name, Allende … I would pour on all the wattage I had as the climax came, bathing the stage in an intense white glare that still had fugitive washes of other colours through it. Then, as that almost wordless, one word, skirling lament ended and with it the song, I’d cut everything. Blackness. I didn’t stay long with Coup D’Etat; instead, I switched to lighting another band that came out of the shipwreck of Hello Sailor, the Dave McCartney-led Pink Flamingos, with the legendary Dragon, Paul Hewson, on keyboards, Paul Woolwright, ex-Ticket, on bass, Jim Lawry, ex-Rocking Horse, on drums. I’m not sure now why this happened—perhaps Jan and I felt it would be better for our relationship if we didn’t work together? Couples were sometimes in bands together, woman singers often married their managers, but liaisons between musicians and roadies, which is what I was, were very uncommon. Almost a category mistake. The Pink Flamingos were a heavier band than Coup D’Etat, and, while I liked Dave and admired the set of songs he’d put together, I never felt the intrinsic connection to them that I had with acts I’d worked with previously. Towards the end of the year, I told Dave I was leaving in order to devote myself to writing.

under the house

That wasn’t quite the end of my life in rock ‘n’ roll. After Coup D’Etat split up, Jan and I moved to Sydney, Australia, where she put another band together, called The Tribe, signed a record contract with CBS Records, made an album, toured interstate, supported bands like INXS and The Eurogliders and almost … almost became the pop or rock star she wanted to be. The Tribe were on the brink of that longed-for commercial success, their second single, Dreams, climbing in the charts when, one night just before a gig, in cahoots with her drummer, Jan fired the bass player. It was heartbreaking to see, after all the work we’d put in, the fans drifting away, the other musicians losing faith, the publisher no longer returning phone calls, the record company resiling from their commitments. Especially since more or less the same thing had happened with Coup D’Etat, only in that case it was a dispute about what the next single would be that broke up the band.
For me, although this Australian experience was as long in years as the whole of my previous time working with bands, it was somehow also perfunctory, probably because I was reprising things I’d already seen and done elsewhere. There were differences of course: in Australia, you didn’t have to lug a PA system around with you as you did in New Zealand; you only did that if you were the headline act. If you were doing supports, you paid the main billing for your access to PA and lights and they only ever gave you the bare minimum: I never once had the opportunity to design my own light show. The Australian scene was tougher in many way than the American and certainly tougher than New Zealand had been. And that gracious, generous respect Americans extend to entertainers was lacking. Aussies tended to be more hard-bitten, more competitive, less forgiving. If you fucked up, as I sometimes, wilfully or not, did, you could easily find yourself getting a beating. A couple of anecdotes, out of many possible: On Christmas Eve, 1983, in need of a vehicle, Ricky, our roadie, and I wandered on a very hot morning up Parramatta Road with a thousand dollars to spend. At the back of a lot in Five Dock we saw a metallic blue Ford Falcon station wagon with $999 on its windscreen. I remember Ricky’s credulous Irish eyes shining at me. We took it for a test drive over to Burwood, it checked out, we offered fifty dollars less for it, laid the money down and went on our way in the car afterwards always called the Tribesmobile. Next day, I got a phone call from Ricky. He and his American partner, Vicky, also our roadie, had loaded the Tribesmobile up with all the gear and parked it in the laneway behind their flat off Chapel Lane above the Black Rose anarchist bookshop in Redfern, in readiness for an early start. We were supporting INXS over two nights in Newcastle. But when they went to go that morning, they found the car had no reverse gear. Shit. I got on my bike and rode over there. The car was parked headfirst, facing downhill, in the lane way. To get it out we’d have to unload and then push it uphill. It was a drag, but it was possible. I went inside. Vicky was sitting at the formica kitchen table with a black eye and a bandaged ankle resting on the chair next to her. She looked terrible. There was no sign of Ricky. I never found out exactly what happened, just that they’d had a blue the night before and Ricky had hurt her. Then he’d taken her down to A & E to have her ankle strapped. She was OK, rueful and sad, not angry. Where was he now? In the Redfern Leagues Club. I walked up the hill to the club opposite the station. In the dim, smoky light, among the popping and whizzing poker machines, Ricky, schooner at his elbow, smoking Black and White cigarettes, sat alone playing a one-armed bandit. He didn’t look at me but I knew he knew I was there. I sat down on the stool next to him and waited. It was about 10.30 am, maybe earlier. Christmas morning. Minutes passed. Ricky stopped playing, finished his beer. Shall we do it? he said. We went (with no reverse) to Newcastle then came back to Sydney; a few days later, on New Years Eve, we did another support at the Metro on George Street with John Lydon’s Public Image Limited. In the afternoon, I watched their prolonged, meticulous sound check. They played an extended version of Under the House: Solid the grave / Stone cold ambition / It came out of the wall / A single cadaver / It went under the house … During their set that night, I was perched in the lighting rig above the stage when I saw Johnny glance up and realise that the plush red velvet front-of-house curtain had not been fully raised. He reached out and grabbed at the hem, pulling the heavy scalloped curtain far enough down so that the punks dancing in front of the stage could get their hands on it. They dragged that beautiful curtain down, tore and trampled it to rags. While Johnny Rotten, anarchic master of this ceremony of destruction, danced with a mad glee in his eyes. Later, the bouncers took even greater pleasure in throwing the more obstreperous of the punters bloodily down the concrete stairs into the street. By then, it was 1984. I became weary of the life, weary of giving my time and energy to something that didn’t engage the deepest part of myself. Weary, too, of the quest for success in a world where that success seemed either to be arbitrary or to go to those who were the most single-minded, the most ferocious in its pursuit, and not necessarily the most talented or deserving. I often thought back to Stephen, whose lesson was that you must be prepared to do anything, say anything, suffer any humiliation, for the sake of success. I didn’t believe him then, and I don’t believe that now. Nor, in fact, do most of the musicians I’ve known: they are in it for the music. And so am I.


What was it all for? What was it about? The revelation I had, aged twelve, in Greytown, has never quite gone away. Music—fado, dubstep, house, techno, alternative country, new folk and all the million other categories we now have—can still read back to me wordless emotions, or emotions I haven’t yet found words for, expressing states of feeling in ways that language can’t seem to do. In the same way, dancing makes spoken or written (or even thought) language superfluous for as long as the experience lasts. It may be a question why someone dedicated to finding out what words can do should take such pleasure and satisfaction in wordless things; but I think the answer is obvious.
I recall a Sunday night at the Island of Real in Auckland, with a not very large crowd in, and Coup D’Etat playing Closer to You, a song Jan Preston wrote to lyrics by Alan Brunton. There were maybe twenty people on the dance floor when it happened: something almost indescribable that isn’t confined to small rooms or big bands, but can happen anywhere music is played. Spirits join, minds and bodies follow. A group entity forms that is larger than the sum of its parts yet doesn’t challenge the autonomy of those parts. You become one with the music but you stay yourself. There on the dance floor we began to describe graceful, complex arabesques that were a physical, or perhaps spatial, expression of the sound shapes the band were making. These days, in Sydney, I sometimes go round the corner to the Lewisham Hotel on Parramatta Road to hear the Soulmaker Sound System play reggae tunes through speakers bought from Jamaica to Australia forty years ago; the System has a big heavy mellow bass beat, and plays vintage tracks alongside the latest imports. Not exactly live music then, though the Selector and the Operator, the MC and the Arranger (usually only two people at a time) laying down power / from the control tower are certainly live: more like that long ago and faraway afternoon in the Kuranui College café, perhaps. People go there to dance and everyone does—the whole room. And in the dance we become, for the duration of the song, immortal, gods and goddesses. We become the best we ever can be and, what’s more, we know that’s who we are. We also know that it will have to end. But, and this is perhaps the point, while it lasts, it is forever.

Artists & Songs

The Road to Rock ‘n’ Roll

Joe Strummer & the Mescaleros, ‘Rock Art & the X Ray Style’, 1999; Joe wrote the song for Johnny Cash, who said he didn’t understand it; maybe that’s why the recorded version includes the line quoted as an epigraph.

How Do You Do It?

Gerry & the Pacemakers, 1963.

Love Potion #9

The Searchers, 1964.

The Members, 1981; I heard them play at the Hot Club in Philadelphia in 1979. Our Philadelphia gigs were at a bar where George Thorogood & the Destroyers—who had a hit in 1979 with ‘Who Do You Love?’—used to have the residency.

Yummy Yummy Yummy

Ohio Express, 1967.

Who Do You Love?

Bo Diddley, 1956; Andrew Davie and I had dinner with Bo at the Waterloo Hotel in Wellington in 1974, after Andrew won a radio competition and asked me to go along with him. Bo didn’t say much; I think he was disappointed that we weren’t girls.

Sailin’ Shoes

Little Feat, 1972; title track of the album of the same name.

California Dreamin’

The Mommas & the Poppas, 1965.

Nowhere To Run

Martha & the Vandellas, 1965.

Dancing With Mr. D

The Rolling Stones, ‘Goat’s Head Soup’, 1973.

Washington Bullets

The Clash, ‘Sandinista!’, 1981; the song includes the lines: ‘Please remember Victor Jara / In the Santiago Stadium / Es verdad – those Washington Bullets again.’


Red Alert, San Francisco, 1979. ‘Red Sky’, the flip side, is a further rewrite of ‘Liberty Bus’, op. cit.

Heart Of Glass

Blondie, ‘Parallel Lines’, 1978. Their disco hit, which caused many people to say they’d sold out.

Spanish Stroll

Mink DeVille, ‘Cabretta’, 1977. Mink DeVille, a band formed in San Francisco, played CBGBs the way early Blondie played Max’s Kansas City.

Stand Down Margaret

The Beat, ‘I Just Can’t Stop It’, 1980. The third component of that effervescent late-1970s scene, after disco and punk, was reggae/ska. The so-called English Beat were a ska band.

On The Road Again

Canned Heat, ‘Boogie With Canned Heat’, 1968.

Before The Next Teardrop Falls

Freddy Fender, 1965; his version includes the lines in Spanish quoted in the text.


Coup D’Etat, 1981. The flip side of the band’s third single, ‘Permanent Hire’.

Under The House

PiL, ‘Flowers of Romance’, 1981


J J Roberts; MCs with Soulmaker over the years have included luminaries such as the Great Danny Ranks, the Original Starman, Rasta, Young Jono and Driver Dom, to whom this essay is dedicated.