Hard News by Russell Brown

11

Music: Some deep belief

There's a strange thing about having songwriters as longtime friends. On the one hand there are years when you're mates getting in the same scrapes; they're smoking your weed and you're drinking their riders; you're all  fitfully growing up, not yet getting old.

On the other, if they're good, they're creating art that reaches you emotionally, pieces of music that create a meter for your own life. There's actually nothing commensurate you can give back.

I've been thinking about that in a week that has provided two powerful sets of stories: the local premiere of The Chills: The Triumph and Tragedy of Martin Phillipps and Shayne Carter's memoir Dead People I Have Known. I was there or thereabouts for events described in both and I've known some of these stories a long time. I also wasn't there for some dark times.

I went with friends to the special Hollywood Avondale screening of the Chills film this weekend. There was a sense of event as befits a such a remarkable film – and after it had played, a genuine warmth expressed by the crowd towards Martin Phillipps himself. Almost the first thing we see in the film is the passing of a death sentence, so it's natural that we'd be pleased to see Martin walking and talking. But it's more than that.

The film is an accounting with the past and a settling of debts and relationships, most notably for Martin himself. By the time it concludes, it feels like the accounting has been done and the debts have largely been settled – with the notable and literal exception of the $US400,000-odd that Slash Records will grimly recoup from the Chills' ledger until 70 years after his now-considerably-postponed death.

Because of the kind of film it is, it can't dwell too long on the songs themselves for clues as to why band members might have stuck around and committed when they felt sometimes like spare parts. As Shayne observed in a fencing match of an interview with Kim Hill on Saturday, the film could have told more of the joyousness of what Martin has made.

Martin turns up in Shayne's book on page 112, at a Sunday afternoon show in 1980, as "a stoned boy genius, out of it on comics, garage rock 'n' roll, moons over water," who "sounded like he'd been driven all around Otago Peninsula while recovering from dental drugs, and now he was overwhelmed by this experience and bursting to express it."

More than most songwriters, Martin produces songs that are not only sometimes profoundly original, but seem to have a life, or a potential, of their own. It's as if there's an imperative to seeing them through to that potential. I think Martin has always felt the weight of that imperative more heavily than anyone.

My favourite Chills song, 'Oncoming Day', which plays over the film's credits, is an example. They had five tries at recording it and it eventually wound up on Submarine Bells, feeling out of place and and a little thin. I was thinking about that song a little while ago and realised that my affection for it is wholly based on the feeling, the exultant experience, of hearing it played live.

The closest thing I can find to that is this 1988 performance at The Gluepot. "We've been talking about putting this out as a single for years, but it's like ... I think we've given up really," Martin sighs before they kick in.

If 'Oncoming Day' is one long, defiant exhalation, many other great Chills songs seem to breathe. The most obvious one is the yogic in and out of 'Night of Chill Blue' – which I think actually was recorded to its potential on Brave Words, the major Chills album you can't, for some reason, hear on Spotify or Apple Music. Like 'Oncoming Day', it's a song that makes reference to writing songs. There's quite a bit of that in Martin's work, to this day.

I spent a lot of time around the band in London in the late 80s, tagged along on two European tours and had a couple of the best, wildest days of my life on a holiday in North Wales with Martin, Kate Tattersfield and Simon Alexander. I can confirm that the other members were frustrated by the experience of being penniless and mostly homeless, especially with Martin refusing to share the publishing on his songs.

But there was also a sense of excitement. It's common enough now for New Zealand artists to play in Europe – Aldous Harding and Nadia Reid played in Europe more often than they played Auckland early on – but it was huge in the 1980s. As I related in a somewhat wayward 1987 tour diary for Rip It Up, it wasn't only The Chills hitting London in search of glory, but Flying Nun Records itself. Craig Taylor eased away from his music publishing job to manage The Chills and run the label.

I recall a number of times when it seemed the big break was imminent. Like when 'Heavenly Pop Hit' was Record of the Week on BBC Radio One's breakfast show and almost, but not quite, made Top of the Pops. I seem to recall the offer of an Andy Weatherall remix being declined by Martin and I sometimes wonder how that might have changed things.

That's a really difficult narrative for songwriters to carry forward while the rest of us are getting jobs and mortgages and ticking off socially-sanctioned  steps to adulthood. And it's something Shayne deals with in Dead People I Have Known, largely by being his own most attentive critic. He can't afford to assess his life on the basis that things didn't work out when his band was trying to crack the US market on the same label as Kenny G.

Quite often, he measures himself against his heroes. It's part of the way he works: before writing his memoir, he prepared by reading all the best rock biographies to find out how they worked. He assesses 'Seed' like this:

'Seed' is a classic. Everyone likes 'Seed' ... 'Seed' has a train-like rhythm. Miles Davis liked train rhythms. He used them on his album Tribute to Jack Johnson, about the black American boxer. Miles Davis thought the movement of a boxer was a like train. One, two, three – pop; one, two three – pop. Boxing is another elemental rhythm, like breathing, walking or fucking.

I confess: for a long time I thought 'Seed' was about fucking.

"I Believe You Are a Star is my best record," he writes, in the course of describing the three challenging (and sometimes literally painful) years it took him to make the album.

I remember that. We'd started to joke about how perfectionist Shayne perhaps shouldn't have been let near ProTools and the endless scope for reworking and polishing that the software offered. He'd never leave the room, it seemed. But Shayne's account of what happened offers a map to it: one that began with him and Gary Sullivan setting themselves down some place away from years of rock band noise:

We swung all the way to the opposite end of the spectrum, and we'd play so quietly in our practuce room somerrimes that we could also hear each other breathing. It was a completely new dynamic for us ... We learned the true beauty of space, of silence, We learned there there can be an eloquence to shutting up. It was educational, refreshing, and against the code we were known for.

They also had a lot of fun with a fart they'd recorded.

As I was writing this, the sad news came through that Malcolm Black finally succumbed to his cancer this week. He was a thoroughly decent man and Shayne makes it amply clear that that Malcolm, in his A&R role at Sony Music, was a key reason that transformative record got made.

Malcolm became my main man, my ally, all through the making of Star. He was warming, encouraging and patient, which was just as well because if he hadn't been I would've thought he was just another record company wanker ... He never questioned my direction, which was important to me, because Arista and Mushroom always had.

Songwriters need people who believe in them. Because even at their most methodical, they're still trying to pluck something out of the ether, and they're often not quite sure what it is until it arrives. It's a strange gig, and not always in a good way.

Both the film and the book are unflinching about their respective subjects' dark times. Alcohol has not been Shayne's friend, a fact he had to confirm to himself several times over. Some of the best writing in his book – and this is a very well-written book – sees him exploring that fact via his parents' complicated stories.

The book is also often very funny. I wondered before picking it up whether he'd venture to tell that story about the b-Net awards. He does, on the first page. I won't spoil it for you, but it involves Helen Clark and it is tragically funny.

Both works end with their own forms of redemption and resolution. In the film, Martin's life is saved just in time by the modern miracle of direct-acting antiviral drugs for hepatitis C, and he can enjoy the fact that people all over the world still value his music, still want to hear it, still want to see him. He, too, has people who believe in him. Co-director Julia Parnell acknowledged in the Q&A after Saturday's screening that they'd been obliged to plan for the contingency of their subject dying before they finished. That's how close that was.

Shayne finds his path too. He's made peace with his background, his art, his Māori identity, with a lot of ghosts (the book's title isn't entirely a joke – its pages contain quite a body count). He has found new ways to stretch and apply himself, particularly in the arts world. He also reckons he's a writer now. On the strength of his first book, he has every right to.

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I've been thinking more about songs and their deeper purpose since this year's Taite Prize ceremony. This year's Classic Record, Moana and the Moahunters' Tahi, and the 2019 Taite Prize winner, Avantdale Bowling Club, both have a cultural resonance that goes well beyond music.

And when the Prime Minister spoke, something she said really got into my head. When the memorial for the victims of the Christchurch mosque attacks was being planned, she said, her first thought was about what music would be right. And I thought, you're one of us.

Anyone who watched the memorial service will know how pivotal the music was. And something similar was true of the subsequent benefit concert, the first time in a long time that so many New Zealand songs have been played live on prime-time TV. I thought, aren't we lucky to have a modern canon, to have the shared understanding of songs we can convene over. To have the cultural tools when we need them. To have waiata.

Julia Parnell, the co-director of the Chills films and really the reason it got made, has also been doing her part there too with the Anthems series currently screening on Prime. The creators of the songs we all sing have turned out to be quite insightful on the works they've created: they've been closer to them than any of us. I know that catch-up viewing for Prime is a pain, but if you haven't caught any of the episodes, it really is worth the effort. I would like to hear more of ourselves on air.

Songwriters need people who believe in them. And that belief is its own reward.

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