I must have already met Jan Preston. I came home one day and there she was in the hallway, sitting opposite Gordon Campbell, talking non-stop; as she was wont to do. Mary was moving out; Jan had come about the room. Gordon and I said yes, something he, at least, would come to regret—piercingly and quite soon. Jan was enrolled at Teacher’s Training College in Karori. She’d come down from Auckland after completing a music degree the previous year. And she wasn’t well. She was recovering from the Hepatitis B infection she’d contracted from her last boyfriend, a Maori guy called Arthur Mita. I knew Arthur and, frankly, have never been able to imagine he and Jan together. But there you are. They were.
Mita wasn’t his surname, it was an alternate Christian name. His Maori name. I can’t remember his actual surname, although I think I saw it written down once. Everyone called him Arthur and then (if he wasn’t there) they’d say, Arthur Mita, as if there might be another Arthur around who wasn’t him. He was a tall slender handsome man who was always laughing, showing a wide mouth lacking a few white teeth. I used to play chess with him. I’d go round to his big old three storey house at 14 McDonald Crescent, between Willis Street and The Terrace, and we’d convene to an upstairs sitting room and play a game or two. Arthur was another in the long line of great Maori chess players. He was a superb tactician and he invariably won; I felt good if I came even close to troubling him. He played as much above the board as on it: the mind games were incessant and, despite his unfailing good humour, deadly serious too. Especially after I got together with Jan. What you doing with her, man? he would say. What indeed.
McDonald Crescent was a squat. It was alleged to have been the Firetrap Castle of the James K Baxter poem; though some say that was further up the road at number 26. There may have been some kind of urban commune at #14 for a while but now it was just lived in by people like Arthur, an unapologetic hedonist with no ideology, except perhaps an objection towards the paying of rent. Arthur was the cook at Macavity’s, a hip restaurant off Plimmer Steps in the city. He might have been a partner there too. Other partners included Rachel Stace and Peter Fantl. The food was magnificent, especially the salads, full of exotica, including nuts, like pecans, we’d barely heard of before. The servings were huge. Usually, around 10.30, they’d close the door and the partying would begin in earnest and go on until after midnight. Or later. The restaurant guests, mostly friends anyway, would stay on to drink and smoke and carouse. There was always music playing. Steely Dan. The Rolling Stones. Link Wray. Roxy Music.
Peter too was a tall handsome slender man with a wide white smile which did not lack any teeth. He was the son of an architect, a man who escaped Prague, aged 15, on a kinder transport, a train, on the eve of World War Two. Bob Fantl had come to New Zealand in time to enlist in the Air Force and fight in the war in the Pacific. He married a German woman called Clair Woolf and they built a simple and elegant house in Wilton. Bob was a colleague of Ernst Plischke. A pioneer environmentalist. Pete sometimes lived at home but usually had a place in town. 67 Fairlie Terrace, for instance, just around the corner from 96 Kelburn Parade, a house his parents were said to own. His only sibling, a sister, Judy, died in 1971; he told me about this after my own sister Rachel died in 1975.
Pete was a good cook too; and a dealer; someone you could go to to purchase any kind of drug. Remarkably, in Wellington in the mid 1970s, you could find just about anything—with the exception of those things, like Ecstasy, that hadn’t been invented yet. And maybe not opium, which had been obtainable in Auckland earlier in the decade but was now quite rare. Heroin, certainly. Buddha sticks were starting to arrive, very strong marijuana heads that came threaded around small skewers of bamboo; hence the name. Speed, of course. Pills of all descriptions, generally divided into just two categories, uppers and downers. Acid. Traffic lights were ubiquitous, small cylindrical tablets in three colours, red, orange and green. Cocaine was available too, if you had the money. Everything else was cheap as. Halcyon days.
Jan’s background was different from mine. She was the talented daughter of working class parents, born in Greymouth on the West Coast of the South Island; her family, like many Coasters, migrated north to sunny Hawkes Bay, where her father, Ed, was a milkman in Napier. Her mother, Tui, had the drive and ambition which impels children towards achievements of the academic and / or the artistic kind. Or into addiction. Jan’s brother Edward was a primary school teacher; her sister Gaylene, still at that stage in England, an art therapist who became a film maker. Jan was the youngest of the three, a classical pianist. She played the works of Scarlatti, Scriabin, Schubert, de Falla, Stravinsky, amongst many others, and had in Auckland been recruited into the avant-garde performances which composer Jack Body, principally, staged during those late sixties and early seventies years.
Alan Brunton, in July, 1968, had participated in one of these events: Jack Body produced a chance music composition that involved four people sitting at switches which they flicked when a light beside them lit up by some chance process. I was one of the switchers. In 1972 Jack’s multimedia production Sexus debuted at the Maori Community Centre Hall in Fanshawe Street in Freeman’s Bay. Body invited choreographer Jennifer Shennan to work with him to produce Sexus, an erotic and gritty stage-performance. This brought together six scantily clad dancers, a filmic projection and Body’s own sonic score. The dancers were paired to represent a spectrum of bodily encounters—male/male, male/female, female/female. Their movements were enacted in conjunction with the projected image of an ambiguously gendered man, who repeatedly performed a series of gestures and actions that confused the coded behaviour of conventional masculinity.
I remember the dancers moving before a large screen where the 16mm b&w film Jack made was projected. One of them was Deborah Hunt. The boy in the movie was young, androgynous, with long straight glossy hair, filmed with his locks cascading over his face and shoulders and his hands caressing his naked torso. Was his name Gerry? He was, briefly, a campus hero. I wonder what happened to him. Jennifer Shennan, though a little older, was Jan’s bosom friend in those days and the two women resembled each other so strongly they were often taken for sisters. The other half of the Sexus program was a performance of Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Kurzwellen, for six players with short wave radio receivers; Jan was one of these players.
I saw the show with a frisson of excitement but without understanding what was actually happening. I don’t remember Jan being one of the players. I never met her in Auckland, never even heard of her; though another of her boyfriends, the paradoxical and enigmatic Wilton Roger, was an acquaintance of sorts. I remember Wilton tacking up hand-written poems on the wall of Dean and Snail’s house at Leigh. Seven cauldrons for the Prince is a (Poundian?) line from one of those verses. Later he became an aficionado of the works of Wallace Stevens. He also played saxophone.
It turned out Jan had a ghostly encounter with me too. In 1972 I had been a member of the Scratch Orchestra; under the inspired direction of Phil Dadson, we performed Cornelius Cardew’s The Great Learning, a setting for percussion and voice of a Confucian text translated by Ezra Pound. Phil had studied with Cardew in London; then founded his own Scratch Orchestra in Auckland. You didn’t have to be able to play: a large number of enthusiasts pooling their resources (not primarily material resources) and assembling for action (music-making, performance, edification). As part of the lead up to The Great Learning, I cut a stencil and one night, with a couple of friends, took a spray can and inscribed the words The Streets Are Laughing across the veritable streets of Auckland. Jan had seen this inscrutable message on a path in Albert Park and wondered who its author might have been. It was me.
Either Sally or Alan—or both—knew of Jan’s work as a musician and a performer in Auckland. It may be that, the same night Alan asked me to contribute to the publication that became Spleen, he and Sally asked Jan to do the music for the upcoming, and inaugural, Red Mole show: Whimsy and the Seven Spectacles, staged in the Student Union building at Victoria University on November 30, 1974. I remember Jim Stevenson, the lawyer, and Alan’s friend since student days (and still), reciting; and his wife Jenny, whom everyone said looked like Mick Jagger, dancing. Jan played Igor Stravinsky’s Circus Polka for a Young Elephant on the piano. That was a riot.
Otherwise the show, as I recall, was wordy, static, frieze-like. Egyptian. There were three other performers apart from Jim & Jenny and Sally & Alan (couples in those days ((Jan & Martin)) came with an ampersand): Ann Hunt, now Robinson; Jim Spalding, a Canadian song and dance man; Erola Whitcombe. As with Sexus, I understood very little of what went on. Afterwards, perhaps in response to that perplexity, Alan told Jan there were seventy-seven levels of meaning to everything he wrote; it was up to others to work out what they were. This became, for years afterwards, a running joke between us. However, like Arthur Mita’s mind games, it was deadly serious as well. I have spent years trying to figure out what those seventy-seven levels of meaning might have been; in some ways I still am.
photo Sexus by John Miller