Hard News by Russell Brown

91

Deprived of speech, he sang without words

I still have the June 11 texts on my phone. The first was blunt and alarming: "Chris Knox has had a stroke," and then later, " … prognosis not good". What has happened since has been a story of trauma and love and friendship and, now, a remarkable recording project.

Amid the tremendous rallying of friends that followed Chris's stroke there quickly arose the idea of a tribute album of his songs, to the benefit of Chris and his family. What emerged is to the benefit of us all. Stroke, the album, is profoundly illuminating.

My friends and I knew Chris long before he knew us. He was the iconic, outrageous singer in Toy Love, and we were just old enough to sneak in and see them play three times in the brief spell in which they existed (was it really only 18 months?). Eventually, word went around school that Toy Love had broken up and Chris Knox and his girlfriend were in Auckland with a baby. It felt like something had ended.

In reality, something was beginning. Chris and Alec Bathgate formed the Tall Dwarfs as the opposite of all that had gone before; recording at home on a TEAC four-track. At a time when it was a good deal stranger thing to do than it is now, Chris invested in and shared technology for content creation. That TEAC four-track, which captured the Clean, the Verlaines, the Chills, Sneaky Feelings and the Stones, eventually gave way to (somewhat) more sophisticated recording systems, but it has as great a claim on the culture as Denis Glover's press did in an earlier era.

If for nothing else, for The Clean's Boodle Boodle Boodle. It's getting on for 30 years since those five songs were recorded in a hired hall on Bond Street, and they sound no less good now than they did then. Bands have to sound great to make great-sounding records in those circumstances, and Chris would tell you that it was Doug Hood's soundman's ear that captured it, but still. Still.

Since I actually met him, I've always known Chris in the context of his family; first at the house in Summer Street, which was his and Barbara and Leisha's family home (John didn't turn up until later). Doug Hood lived there too. They had a lot of visitors, and I cringe now at the feeling that we sometimes took it for granted.

Chris was wise and friendly -- and sometimes puritanical and infuriating. Once, I brought Jordan Luck around to the Summer Street house after a gig: Jordan was friendly as a Labrador, Chris was rude, and I was embarrassed.

But that was a long time ago. In 2009, not long after the stroke, Jordan and Bryan Bell landed back in town from a tour, determined that they must immediately see Chris. They called Barbara for directions to Rehab Plus, set out and then … disappeared. Eventually, some time later, Barbara got a call from Jordan. They were lost.

"Describe where you are," she said.

Trees, path, very high fences …

"You're at the Mason Clinic," she deduced. Oh.

Bryan and Jordan have since collaborated on a track for Stroke that demonstrates that not only do the versions on the record reveal another side to Chris's compositions, they sometimes discover another side to the performers themselves. On 'Becoming Something Other', Chris's song about visiting his father on his deathbed, Jordan sings these stark, autobiographical lines over Bryan's arrangement:

And the cat scan showed his brain was losing mass
And he didn't know each morning where he was
Or how he clung to this impasse

It's brilliant and affecting, and I don't think I've heard Jordan do anything like it before.

There's much more: Will Oldham's aching version of 'My Only Friend', The Checks gambolling through 'Rebel', Peter Gutteridge's Dunedin gothic reading of the Enemy's 'Don't Catch Fire', 'David Kilgour's instrumental re-reading of 'Nothing's Gonna Happen', Jay and Sam Clarkson's family hoedown on 'I've Left Memories Behind', Shayne Carter on 'The Slide', Graeme Downes' lovely string arrangement for the Verlaines' version of 'Driftwood', Boh Runga unexpectedly finding her inner-Lucinda-Williams in the middle of 'Not Given Lightly', the gravitas of Bill Callahan on 'Lapse' ... and it seems so obvious now that 'Bodies' was always a banjo tune.

Already, you should go here and buy it.

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Another story: In 1984, a friend and I were returning from an early show at the Windsor, gloriously tripping off our proverbial nanas, in my Morris 1800, but driven, sensibly, by a sober person, with Chris, equally sober, catching a lift home to Grey Lynn. It was absolutely hosing with rain.

We were heading up College Hill, when Chris suddenly declared we had to stop opposite the flats where Murray Cammick, Steve Roach and others lived. He leapt out and ran across the road to the flats in the torrential rain. We waited and continued to listen to bFM. Eventually, a song finished and the host came on.

"This is a message for those people on College Hill … sitting in a bubble in the rain. Yes, you …"

There followed various other personalised freaking-you-right-out-because-the-radio-is-talking-to-you murmurings.

And then Chris arrived back, grinning. That was a good stunt.

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In the piece I wrote for the NZ On Screen collection of Chris's video work curated by Roger Shepherd, I proposed that a keynote of Chris work is his "ability to marry virtuosity and naivety - with honesty, always, as the glue".

That honesty is why Chris means more to me than I have felt comfortable telling him in person. For a long time, and in some ways still, he was the person of one of my internal critics: What would Chris think of this? I would wonder. (And also Ha! Chris would HATE this!). I suspect I am not alone in this. Which is not to say that he has always been right, or that his advice has always been welcomed by those who receive it. But he has standards.

I've been writing this in my head since the night I heard that Chris had suffered a traumatic stroke -- but the ending was different then. It was such a relief to go into that ward and see Chris: looking like he'd had a 10-ton weight from a vintage Warner cartoon dropped on him, but still measurably, demonstrably and provably Chris. There was the Chris Knox Rueful Smile and the Chris Knox Withering Look.

It was a severe stroke, and much of its impact will be permanent. Chris is walking again, with leg braces, but it will be a while, if ever, before his strumming arm works well again. But he's drawing with his left hand and, remarkably, although he still can't speak much beyond "yeah" and "no", he has recorded two new songs for his own tribute album: 'Napping in Lapland' as The Nothing and 'Sunday Song' by Tall Dwarfs.

Chris's memory and cognition were bruised by the stroke, and the part of his brain that governs speech was badly damaged -- but music stayed with him. I'm told that when he was wheeled in to hospital on that day in June, he was humming a tune. Now, he and Roy Martyn are plotting full-length future recordings.

So know this about Chris Knox: deprived of speech, he sang without words.

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Now, go, click here and buy Stroke as either a double CD or MP3s from Amplifier. Let's get it in the charts.

Consider a babysitter for the launch party at The King's Arms on Friday night.

Visit the new Chris Knox website.

And luxuriate in low-tech video goodness at NZ On Screen.

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