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by mcgrath -       Jun 17, 2014

I had a desk and when I was sitting at it I could look out at the dry dock and the tank farm and the water and quail Island and at night the harbour lights would bounce and refract through the window and build themselves up again and again somewhere in the cortex that controlled the romantic image centres of my brain. It was too much, I had to move the desk.
Hours wasted, minutes traded, work undone. The desk had to be moved into the vacated room at the back of the house. Back to business.
Well maybe not business as such, business tends to deal in the quantifiable; goods, time, labour traded, money in, money burnt etc.. The stuff that happens at the desk is not business, too many unknowns, minimal returns, unsustainable economic juggling. It’s work, but it’s not business. It’s prestidigitation, an often bungled attempt at alchemy, it’s Fred Dobbs on some Sierra Madre lottery shit, it’s a failed prospecter sluicing at a dry river, its moonbase alpha adrift in space looking for a signal…it’s hope piled on top of hope installing an antenna made of rusty coathangers trying to find some intangible sense that the reason you’ve been sitting at this desk all fucking day strumming the only 3 ½ chords you know is because there is a song on the air, in the wind, hiding in a gaseous nebula and your voice is the one its been looking to be sung through. Jesus! What a conceit! What hubris! What a wank…
But there I was, at the desk looking for songs, hoping always hoping and (please forgive the tired dashiell hammet nature of the end of this sentence!) the phone rang. Well rang isn’t exactly right, it played ‘The Boys are Back in Town’ which was my ringtone at the time. I believe that anytime Phil Lynott is in the air the world immediately seems better and when a phone is fucking up your flow if you pretend its Phil calling it’s hard to get to mad. Unsurprisingly it wasn’t Phil Lynott but one of my other favourite songwriters Lindon Puffin. When puffin phones I get two feelings welling up inside me . First, ‘Fuck how lucky am I to live in a world where someone who’s songs have kept me company and helped me figure out the world actually calls me!’ puffin is a friend and a brother but at heart I’m still a fan. Second is the fact that whatever I’m doing I now have to drop it for the next hour because when Puffin is on the line its less of a conversation about a certain subject than more of a stream of consciousness quiz show/rugby commentary/poetry reading/stand up comedy/aa meeting piece of performance art written down by Samuel beckett, and that’s just the first five minutes. We do not shoot the shit, we blast it.
Anyways Puffin forgoes all that and for once sadly gets to the point.
The past year we’d been involved in the ‘Harbour Union’ project, a collective that a bunch of us song chancers and chanters from lyttelton formed in a fashion to raise money for post quake matters but also as Puffin once sagely suggested to promote and project the idea of solidarity and how that simple idea can build resillinace. Smart cookie that Puffin. The Harbour Union was at times what happens when you put too many chiefs in a kitchen make them all chefs and hope for the best. It was that, but it was also pretty wonderful and it kept us busy and we made a few worthwhile contributions to the small world we oscillate in. It was then and is now something to cherish.
Anyway Puffin calls me up and says that Radio New Zealand (essentially the 91ZM for folk singers and adults of a mature outlook) want The Harbour Union to write and record a Christmas song for well, Christmas. He had come to the right place, I love Christmas music, I do not give a shit if its fairytale of new york or last Christmas or Bing Crosby or out of tune primary school carollers I love it all.
At my worst moments I revel in solipsism and unhealthy cynicism sprinkled with a garnish of despair, however In my best moments my ideal self is all about that brotherhood/sisterhood of humanity type shit. I know we get better when we work together, when we shuffle the cards life throws up and lay them on the table and get our friends to help us figure out what it means.
When I was a kid I was obsessed with this bad action film called ‘Band of the Hand’, whereupon a Vietnam veteran recruits a gang of troubled teenagers to fight a Miami drug cartel. He gives them uzi’s and hand to hand combat training in a swamp or something. It’s ridiculous. However during one of the films ‘emotional’ counterpoints the group of teenagers, in danger of being subsumed by infighting and tension are brought together by the Vietnam vet’s analogy of the hand. He suggests in a gravelled voice while wearing a khaki headband that a hand with the fingers separate is weaker than a hand brought together in a fist keeping the fingers together and strong. In terms of metaphors it’s as clumsy as a three stooges sketch but in my young ten year old mind I was touched by this idea, this conception that maybe we do do better when we work together. Now I’m a grown up, I’ve never raised an uzi in anger against a drug baron, nor have any of The Eastern been trained by a Vietnam vet, however time and time again against my default settings of mistrust and cynicism I have had it proved to me over and over again that we are stronger when we have each others back.
And that’s why I dig the Christmas music because for some weird reason Christmas music makes the good and hopeful parts of my insides swell, it makes me want to hug people and hi five and buy them drinks. It’s makes me want to love my family and be there for my friends. Dismantle my despair and build good shit. I am well aware that the purpose of Christmas music is to be pumped through shopping malls like weed smoke through a spot bottle, to manipulate our minds and make us spend money on things we don’t need to give people things they don’t want. I DO get that. However for me the by-product is the deeper stuff, somehow all of this nonsense about being together and sharing actually really makes me want to do that. When I think about this I feel good, I raise a finger to the till receipts, call my mum or shanks or the random stranger at the bar and tell them I love them. It’s a good kick. I believe in it.
So with all that in mind when Puffin calls me, tells me we need a Christmas song and did I have anything?, I jumped out of my chair with excitement. I of course didn’t really have anything, but now my brain started humming looking for those signals I was telling you about earlier.
I’m one of those weirdos who doesn’t believe I have too much authorship over the songs that come out of me. I see myself as being some sort of weird cosmic roadhouse where the songs stop for a while figure themselves out and go into the ether doing whatever job it is they’re meant to do, make you dance, drink, bawl, agitate, offer consolation whatever…I help them get into shape, give them a little context, feed and fuel ‘em up and let ‘em go. That’s my job. Now don’t get me wrong, I’ll take the royalties when the records sell, or the publishing cheque when it arrives. But that covers the rent, the strings and all the other stuff that helps the little buggers get out there. If anyone really owns the songs then it’s the people who’s hearts swallow ‘em up. If any songs I find get to do that then I am happy and forever grateful.
So anyway puffin starts this boat rocking in my head, and the signal generator starts humming and hoping and things start taking shape. I had this weird chorus on my desk already sort of like a conversation with myself,
“The times they are changing”
he said “that’s allright,
They ain’t ever changing back,
well at least not tonight”
“I’ve never been sadder”
he said “your liar
Put yourself back together
With hope and wire”
The first part of that is a conversation that rattles in my head almost minute to minute, between the back of my mind and the body that contains it and has to do most of the work, it’s always a variation on the theme…
“I’m not doing so good”
followed by
“don’t you fucking quit on us now”…
anyways I’m still here so obviously the body has a lil’ authority over the mind.
The final line contains the one thing that I firmly believe has kept the wolves from chewing through my front door and that’s ‘hope’. For some reason its always there right at the bottom of everything…I cannot shake this feeling even at my worst…quite often I believe that Yeats was right
“Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.”
Like believe in it with most every fibre and sinew of my rapidly aging frame, I hear those lines being sung every day, in the newspaper, on the street, behind closed doors, in the pub, swinging with the back of a hand against a cheek, in the whiz of drone rockets, in the exchange of money for ideals, in the free trade agreements with countries who gun down their citizens and then try to make the world forget, in the scrabble for position and power, in the removal and crumble of architectures of ideas and dreams, in the forgetting of all of those living breathing humans its easy to ignore or marginalize, and in all the mistakes I make and will ever make. Things of course fall apart.
And as I said I hear that sung within me, without me and all about me. But always, without fail I feel this fucking annoying peck at my ankle, in my marrow, at the rear of my heart and the base of my lungs saying…maybe it’ll be ok, just keep going, do not let go…as woody Guthrie said ‘Keep the hope machine running’…so I shut up and I be still and I let the hope machine run, and it does run always without fail, it generates warmth which makes energy which keeps me going outside and talking to people I’m scared of and fighting people who I ain’t scared of, and singing songs and writing them and it keeps my hand on the wheel, the plow, my heart whatever… no matter what a scrabble board will tell you four letter words are the toughest and because of everything I just wrote down there I am firmly flying my flag from the toughest, meanest four letter word of them all…HOPE…
And that’s how I got the hope part of that chorus…
The wire part? Well it rhymed with liar…
Us folk singers take pride in a good rhyme, and besides this homeless guy I met while I was playing on the street in the states about 150 years ago (it seems) told me after I gave him a harmonica (which he said he would trade for writing me a number 1 single, still waiting joeseph!)…that I should always make rhymes in my chorus’ (to think people pay hundreds for songwriting workshops just to learn that, it cost me a ten dollar silver star G harp)…
Alright I’m a Liar, I’m bullshitting…the wire part meant something also, more than just a rhyme. I saw this picture my friend Micheal Edge Perkins took, a simple picture of some fence wire somewhere next to a paddock somewhere else and I was on the interislander ferry and It hit me real hard.
I mean he wasn’t looking to give me a lesson on anything, he was just taking photos with his good eye and making the photo sing in the way he does. But I got one anyway. You see I’m kind of contrary fella from time to time and Jerry Jeff Walker and The Clash aside it takes me a lot to give in to myth making on any real deep level, especially myths we tell ourselves about our identity. We as humans, New Zealanders whatever, we’re all plural and nuance, there’s so many of us and there’s more than enough difference to our shapes and our thinking and our interests that we could ever fit into any one box. To paraphrase Dan Bern “If you wanna put me in a box make it a big box, with windows and a hallway with lots of doors coming off it”…
To hear the collective myth machine us here in New Zealand are all a mixture of Colin Meads, Kate Shepard, Whina Cooper and Ed Hilary forged in the fire of Gallopilli. Those greats stand alone in my mind, we can draw courage and inspiration from them but I am unsure if their blood is mine, because if it is then so is John Banks and the cavaliers and all the other fuck ups this country has produced and if that is the case then I want to give up the passport now.
No. 8 wire, kiwi ingenuity, etc and on and on they’re convienant terms but break ‘em down it’s hard to give ‘em much weight. However around the time of getting to the wire part of the chorus, that was all I seemed to be seeing. People tieing shit together with no. 8 wire, both metaphorically and physically, people taking punch after kick after punch and then still keeping shit together and building new shit no matter how shonky or low budget to replace the other shit that had got gone. This was myth made real! The spirit made fleash!...this was happening and I wondered in all this seeing if maybe the thing that was keeping all this tied together stuff happening, be it an event or a place or and idea or a heart was in fact the same thing that keeps me from giving in or giving out, the peck in my chest, that hope bully kicking my ass when I was copping in to the bad stuff. All of that thinking got me wondering which led to contemplating and that ended up in writing down and once I’d written down that idea of both the hope and the wire and how they may infact be inexpicablly linked and how when I see these two mixed up brothers together I get inspired and I get warm and I get to feeling like whatever it is that’s tied like bricks to my feet can be shed and I can keep going up that allegorical road. That was true for me so I put in a song. Whether you would dig the song or not relies on the fact that either that was true for you also, or you could see my truth in it and back me up for expressing it. If you didn’t or don’t dig the song then those things didn’t happen or I was not good enough in my writing to make that happen, or maybe you just thought it sucked and all of those are fine by me. Because its important to acknowledge the things we think suck. Sometimes I’m a bit scared of the way people do that to each other on the internet, but overall it’s a good rule!, and I am well aware I suck as much as the best of ‘em (or the worst of ‘em as the case maybe!).
Now I was pretty glad I had figured out this chorus but I was still lacking a bunch of verses and not only did they not exist but how was I meant to turn that chorus into a xmas song?
So I thought about the fella I met in the linwood mall carpark, because when I though of Christmas that’s what popped up for me immediately and if something happens that fast you gotta at least give it a moment f reflection…so I wrote down what happened took out the extra words till looked like a verse on the page and I ended up with
‘Now here in Christchurch city its xmas time around the corner
There ain’t many lights a’shining there’s despair across the water
But then I crashed into this mongrel mob fella
Who was driving with his Daughter
But when he raised his hand
I had nothing to fear
As he wished
me merry xmas
and a happy new year bro’
So there was my xmas hook, now it was a Christmas song, probably a little more John Prine than Good king winsleseessssssese (or however you say it)…but I got the xmas in there so now it was a xmas song…
When we play it live I add in at the end “and that’s a true story” because it is and I don’t want there to be any doubt…as I said before I’m not one for myth making, but I can easily float a little bullshit now and again, especially if it sings well or gets a laugh, this though I wanted no doubt.
So here was this guy with a tattoo of a bulldog with a german helmet on his face showing me a little kindness and offering some empathy in a time of frayed nerves and sad heart stories, and I just reversed my car into his…strange times.
Anyways the other verses took shape, and I looked to people I had meet who had offered me solidarity, consolation or strength through their words or actions and I thought that was kind of keeping the Christmas spirit and the ideals/ideas of our little Harbour Union. The first verse was a mix of a couple of people, the second was my dad, who although wasn’t quite 13 when he left home for the sea he was still a teenager and he was still mean to those who deserved it and although he was lonesome when he died he went out with some guts, and the third verse was someone who spent an afternoon with me and told me his grand story and we left each other crying and hugging, him a Russian badass in his 70’s me a messed up try hard in my twenties. I carried these people and others and they become part of the hope machine keeping the fuel up and the bones moving and the muscle splitting and they carried me and that day when puffin rang they ended up carrying the song and from there the whole Idea of the album that became ‘Hope and Wire’ and now in the strangest of happenings a t.v. drama heading to the living rooms of anyone left with a t.v. who is curious. But I’ll get to that soon.
Anyway it turned out the brothers and sisters of the harbour union weren’t super psyched about ‘Hope and Wire’ being the xmas song du jour and that’s ok and probably for the best as it had other things to do.
Since we put it on our record and sent it out into the world I’ve been lucky enough to have people all around the country sing the words back to me, I never thought anything could make me feel like the way that feels. It’s not what you expect though I don’t feel bigger or prouder, I feel small, amost insignificant and that’s a weird feeling because usually that feels stink but in this case it makes me feel like a small part of something else, like a little turn in a big wheel just doing the one thing that’s my job in amongst everyone else doing the things that they do. I feel humble and if its ever possible happy.
I know what your thinking ‘Oh jeez give the big guy a hug already and shut him up before he starts emoting everywhere…
But I needed to tell you these things because I wanted to tell you about how the song ended up being what it is before I ended up telling you about the t.v. show that it has now for better (or worse, but hopefully better) been linked up with.
A few months ago during the flooding of many of the sunken areas of chch a buddy of mine put up on the facebook something along the lines of “now all we need is a country band doing a soundtrack to a drama series about the floods”…
This of course got a few laughs and even some from me, because in amongst all the drama and bullshit and heartbreak you gotta find some light, and a laugh does that and I am happy to hear ‘em even at my own expense…
And I expect that people should always look at anything with as much cynicism as they do positivity. The idea that thinking critically about something means youre negative or a hater is just nonsense. Not every execution of every idea that anyone ever had is going to be good, the record stores and parliments of the world are flooded with terrible ideas. I’ve been guilty of more than my share of bad ideas I’m sure.
The idea that a film maker from wellington could make a 6 hour long fictional work based on a very real event in Christchurch and the stories of some of its people and how those stories could somehow shape a dialogue about how we are good and bad to each other and ourselves (or something) and then project this experience to the rest of the country seemed a shaky to say the least and maybe one to be a little cynical about. I was defiantly that when I met Gaylene Preston for the first time. I wasn’t cynical about Gaylene as a person, if you can tell anything about anyone through the work they do you’d be hard pressed to think anything other than highly of Gaylene. To find someone who has captured the empathy and understanding and the nuances of our NZ experiences in film, fiction and documentary over nearly 40 years of work in such a real and true way, well you’d have to look pretty hard. However this experience was real and raw for a lot of us and the idea that someone from out of town would show up and want to turn it into a narrative? Get the fuck out of here…
But I didn’t say that, I felt It, but I heard her out, I listened to her ideas, I thought about the work she had made in the past, her lack of sell out, her character and vision and then I watched her do the work in chch, talking to people, being present, listening and observing and then (and this is what her job is) translating.
I’m not sure the series is about the quakes so much as it’s about people, our humanity and our lack there of, our resilliance and neediness and how the events of then bring all this things to the top…I’ll try not to pull out the liquefaction metaphor but you get what I mean (shit I did it anyway sorry)…whether she has succeded or not you guys will be the judge and that is how it should be. I think this story is valid and I believe that work such as this can communicate far and wide, like good songs or books or in this case drama.
Gaylene has done this in the past (look at ‘Bread and Roses’ or ‘Home by Christmas’ or ‘War stories our mothers never told us’) and I took her by her word that she was gonna do her best to honor this story.
I think she has. I’m not here to convince you to like the show or give it a chance or anything, I just wanted you to know why we have added our voice to it.
We are grown by our stories, when we forget to share them we become diminished, on tour I want to tell you my stories and I want to hear yours. Gaylene believes in stories and I think in turn that means she believes in us as humans as do I, as do most people who make telling stories the thing that gives the day purpose.
The stories she has shared in ‘Hope and Wire’ resonate with me and the people that I know, and the ones that don’t help me see beyond my own thinking and that in turn helps me with the hard stuff like understanding and figuring all this life mess out.
We beleieved this was worth adding our voice to.
Hopefully in the way we’ve acted as a band over the years and the things we haven’t done as much as the things we have will suggest to you that we take our relationship with the people who give us the time of day seriously, we’re not interested in fucking with you, stealing your money, or sitting on the pedastal that means we get our picture taken more or any of that shit. We have tried to act with integrity, honesty and kindness as much as possible over the years in an industry that often doesn’t value those things that much. We value them in you and we seek to find those things in ourselves as well.
There’s a line between translation and exploitation, I believe the show does not cross it. I didn’t know whether this would be the case during its filming, I had to wait till it was finished. During the process we were living on trust, trust in Gaylene, the crew and everyone else who worked on it. I believe that that trust has been rewarded. The show works hard to talk both with and for us not just as people from chch but as people period and for that I am grateful that the trust we gave was not misused.
The show lands sometime soon…we’ll be out in the world doing what we always do. Who knows what the world will think, but I am glad to have been a part of it and I hope add to it.
It’s funny where songs can go and what they’re made of and the things they
carry…tonight I’m in Australia about to go sing for my supper as I do most nights…I have a broken heart (as we all do in a way) but I have hope and I have friends and faith and cold chisel on the car stereo and a pint of cider next to me as this gets done…
Thanks be to you, the hope machine, lindon puffin, the hope and wire crew, that mongrel mob guy, the haters, the lovers , the dreamers and oh wait hold on that’s another song…
Peace out