Seminal Musical Experiences

September 15, 2015

Seminal Musical Experiences 1

It was about 1953-4. I was probably about five or six, in Primary School, and for some reason we had a relieving teacher for a few weeks. He was a big roly-poly Maori guy, Mr Pohutu, and we all came to love him. He was always laughing. But he came to mean something very special to me.

I don’t know why but on at least three occasions, maybe more, in the few weeks we had with him, he paid me a penny to sing a song for him and the rest of the class. Maybe I had a reputation for singing, or maybe he sensed something, I can’t say. He never asked anyone else to sing, and he didn’t seem to have favourites, though I think he tried to elicit everyone’s talents and others had their own special moments too, perhaps like the teacher in Dead Poets Society.

Anyway, I remember him, in a fairly relaxed moment when things were slow and loose, probably a hot day, asking me to stand up and sing a song, any song, and offering me a penny if I did so. I didn’t think he’d pay up but he did, I got a bright new penny, and then I had to sit down again and we all got on with our lessons. I don’t know what song I sang, probably Butterflies Red or something, or maybe Old Shep.

It happened several times. It couldn’t happen today; he’d be accused of grooming me or some such madness. But it was probably the first time I ever considered that I might aspire to music some day.

Mr Pohutu was the most wonderful person in the world!

Seminal Musical Experiences 2

Ours wasn’t really a happy home, and there was hardly ever any music there. Uncle Bill played guitar a little but he was a bit simple and he tended to play the same song over and over. We listened to popular music on the radio sometimes, mainly on Sundays, everything from Richard Tauber to Hank Williams, and I was interested in all that. If you’d asked me at about age eight what my favourite music was I would probably have said Tex Morton. Tex was a country music star, and like a lot of country music stars around that time he did a little pistol-shooting and whip-lashing and lassooing as well in his act; kind of Gene Autry meets Annie Oakley. Not that I ever saw him perform, but he had a wonderful talking song called The stockman’s prayer that seemed to me to express everything that was good and true.

Anyway, I was about eight and the big people had gone out for a while so I was alone. I don’t know where they’d gone to, but it wasn’t far. And I knew that there was a record in the phonogram that someone had left there, perhaps uncle Bill, and there was something different about this record. I, of course, was never allowed to touch the phonogram. It played 78s, and now here was this new record and somehow and for some reason I wanted to listen to it. I just knew it was different. So with one ear cocked for the return of the big people I put it on the turnstile and listened.

The song was Peggy Sue by Buddy Holly, and suddenly everything became magic. The whole world! The vibrating reverb, the quavering vocal, the tom-toms pulsing away, and those chord changes and melodic runs – this was something else utterly! I don’t think I paid much attention to the words; I certainly wouldn’t have understood them, but the rhythms and beats and melodic line just mesmerised me.

Of course, Peggy Sue is a pretty mesmerising song, so I played it again and again and again, as much as I dared. I couldn’t believe that anything could be that good. I must have played it about five or six times. Then I knew that the big people would return any second so I put it all away and closed up the phonograph.

I had my little secret now, well, quite a big one actually. I’d worked out how to play the phonogram, had done so and then managed to hide all the evidence, smoothing down the white linen covering over the lid, and heard that record that I knew there was something special about. What did it all add up to? I didn’t understand it all much, but I knew that I just had to listen to more of that amazing, forbidden, secret music which – I soon learned – was called rock ‘n roll.

Seminal Musical Experiences 3

This is going to sound as corny as hell, but it happened, and left a lasting impression on me.

I am 16. I get invited back to this lady’s apartment; she’s several years older than me. It’s late, there’s a little wine, the lights go down and we cuddle up on her settee. At a certain point she says “I’d like to play you a record.” Then she puts on something I’ve never heard of before. It’s classical. I only know popular music at that time but I’m already head-over-heels so I’m open to anything she says. We listen entwined.

At first there was a gentle rhythmic drum beat: dum, da da da dum, da da da dum… Then a flute came in with a soft, strange melody, which seemed to go on and on. When it reached the end of its verse, the drum kept on for a few bars, then the flute returned with a slightly different melody, very much in the same phrasing and sensibility as the first, yet somehow also a kind of counter-statement to it. Both melodies were utterly beautiful, but both seemed to be saying slightly different things, as if in a conversation. I was mesmerized. It lasted for about 20 minutes, and just before it got to the end she interrupted it because “I really hate the ending.” Then she started playing it over again. We listened to that first 95% of it about half-a-dozen times. It seemed to me then to be seductively erotic.

Of course nothing happened between her and me that night! That would have broken the spell. I came away at about midnight reeling from that tune in my head, over and over and over and over again. It opened up a whole new understanding of music for me.

It was Maurice Ravel’s Bolero.

I bought my own copy and finally got to listen to the ending, which is a kind of wild, orgiastic frenzy. Which sort-of relates in a way to why nothing happened that night between her and me; she knew what she wanted, only go so far, at least for now, and I was very pleased with what I got so I had no complaints. It was an entirely new kind of experience for me.

And I still think of that melody as an exemplar of all that melody can be.

And her and me? Another day!

Seminal Musical Experiences 4

I was 18 and working as an orderly at the Lower Hutt Hospital, New Zealand. It was my day off, a Sunday I think, so I was just lounging around in the staff quarters listening to the radio. They had a kind of Juke-box Jury program in which pop-music celebrities would pass comment on the latest releases.

Now you have to appreciate that in New Zealand in 1967, and these “stars” weren’t really up to much (I won’t mention names). It was really just a chance to hear the latest records.

So they played a few songs and I forget the comments made because nothing much was memorable. Then they played this very strange song, quite unlike anything I’d ever heard before, that just mesmerized me. It began with a flute and then the singer came in with “Let me take you down…”

It was of course The Beatles’ Strawberry Field Forever. And when these ‘experts’ passed their opinions they utterly dissed it. I remember one fellow vehemently exclaiming “It’s just a mess!” They hated it. Poor production, tuneless, nonsense lyrics, and all the rest.

Even today I can’t listen to that song without recalling these show-biz types revealing their ignorance. The experience has stood me in good stead for getting rejected in song-writing contests and the like.

Seminal Musical Experiences 5

I was 20. I had a really cool job, servicing lighthouses for the New Zealand Marine Department. We’d load up the department’s Fairmile launch (could sleep about 12 from memory), sail off to some remote islands which had lighthouses, and clean the glass and replace the battery and paint the tower and so on. A few were still inhabited and were best reached by land in the department’s really awful and dusty old bus. That’s how I found myself at Cape Reinga in about May, 1969.

We had to service three lights; Reinga, North Cape and Maria van Dieman. After a few days we’d done North Cape and Maria and were back at the inhabited lighthouse at Reinga. There were three families living there. There was a rudimentary hostel with beds that we slept in, and one of the wives cooked meals. Then the rain set in.

Well, the only work left to do was the painting, and you can’t do that in the rain. So the whole lot of us were kind of marooned there for days waiting for the rain to cease. We soon got as bored as hell. And it’s like a whole day’s bus trip to get back to Auckland so no one suggested that, especially as the weather might change at any moment. So some of us began to feel a bit kind of pissed-off at the world; didn’t like our own company.

One of the keepers’ wives took her children and left for a few days (she may have done so on our behalf), so we got the run of that house for snacks and so on. It also had a television, although we were warned that reception was poor, and the broadcast dropped out frequently. In those days there was only one channel in New Zealand, and when we picked up last-week’s paper we saw that this afternoon’s television was two hour-long arts programs. Everyone else left, preferring to go for walks in the rain even, rather than watch an arts program. So I watched them alone.

The first program was utterly mind-blowing (to me). An ethno-art-historian was speaking about his study of carved Eskimo rock art-works. He was filmed at his ‘dig’ in northern Canada. He explained: “There is no other material here to make art with, so they developed this tradition of carving rocks just by banging them together, big on small, hard on soft, to express something of themselves. To us these rocks (here he pointed to a display of about ten that he had near his tent) are just that – rocks. But for these people, each of them tells a story.”

Then came the killer:

When I first came here, nothing in my past or my cultural background had prepared me to understand these pieces. For months they really meant little to me; I was just doing my work. But then I began to notice that I preferred some to others, and that some seemed happy and others sad. I was having an emotional reaction to them. I had entered their world. Now I think I’ve got some appreciation of what the person who carved this stone [here he pointed to a large asymmetrical piece nearby] was feeling at the time they did it.

This is still, for me, just about the most powerful piece of language I have ever heard. I felt it tore me right open, even starting me off on my first self-consciously ‘I am a songwriter’ period.

Then came the second arts program. It was of the first complete recording of Richard Wagner’s Ring Cycle that was undertaken by Georg Solti. As he recorded it a television crew recorded the process. This documentary was now broadcast. Now I found that I was having an experience just like the art scholar in the previous program. If this seems like a paraphrase, that’s because it is, so here goes:

Before that moment nothing in my past or my cultural background had prepared me to understand Wagner, or most classical music for that matter, which I knew almost nothing about. For a while the program meant little to me; I was just killing time. But then I began to notice that I preferred some bits of music to others, and that some parts were joyous and others sad, and others seemed to convey feelings that I felt I’d never had before, or just left me confused. I had an emotional reaction and entered that world. And now I think I’ve got some appreciation of what composers feel, and why they compose.

Those two documentaries started me down the path of classical music.

Seminal Musical Experiences 6

I was about 22 and was talking with a New Zealand artist, a painter, who had lived in France for many years. He was back in New Zealand to produce, of all things, a calendar, but we met at a mutual friend’s place and fell to discussing art over lunch. So I asked him, “What is the main difference between artists in New Zealand and artists in France?” He replied:

If you ask an artist in France what is his philosophy of life, he’ll write you a book with the history of Western thought appended to it. But if you ask the same question of an artist in New Zealand, he’s likely to say something like “Well, I don’t really know because I don’t think about that kind of thing much, what with shearing the sheep and herding the cows, and of course, doing my art.

Then he added the killer:

You have to appreciate that both of those answers are equally valid. Both artists are responding appropriately, legitimately and sincerely to their situation and history and context. Both answers are correct.

When someone says something like that I always feel deeply moved; like, someone else understands!

And that’s why I can list a song like The City of New Orleans by Steve Goodman alongside Erbarme dich mein Gott by J. S. Bach in my post The Best Songs Ever. Both are both perfect!

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