Ken James

So we said goodbye to Ken yesterday, out at his daughter’s place in Windsor. Faustine is married to Dan and they also hosted Ken’s 70th, just a few months ago. It was odd being out there again, with many of the same people, but without him there. Anyway Ken said he didn’t want a funeral, he wanted a party. We were asked to wear colourful clothes, not black. Not suits. It was a warm sunny early spring day and the wattles were flowering on the side of the road as I drove out, with our old friend Lexie, to Windsor. When her partner Lud was still alive we sometimes drove this way when going out to the house they had at Tinda Creek, on the Putty Road, many years ago.

Quite a few of the people at the barbie were Faustine’s and Benoit (Ken’s son)’s friends from their growing up on the Northern Beaches. A lot of Dan’s family were there, including his father, Barry and his grandmother, Margaret. They had become Ken’s other family, his Australian one. Faustine had decorated the back area where we were gathered with photographs of her Dad, from when he was a baby until just a few weeks ago. There must have been a couple of hundred of them and it was fascinating to see them all laid out like that, randomly but somehow orderly as well. Especially the ones from Auckland in the late 1960s and the 1970s, when I was part of Ken’s cohort without ever actually meeting him. The ones of his first wedding, for instance, with Bernadette, which I’d never seen. The ones of his family, his school, his growing up.

After we’d been sitting around drinking and talking for an hour or two (it started at 1 pm) the formal part of the proceedings began – not that it was ever really formal. There was a kind of stage at one end, where one of the guitars Ken made held pride of place and this was where Benoit – Benny – kicked things off, with a brief intro and then his own tribute to his Dad. After that Sylvian, Ken’s partner, the kids’ mother, gave a tender and emotional, also hilarious, account of their courtship, which began at the Blackball Hilton down the West Coast of the South Island and continued all the way up the east coast of Australia as far as the Daintree Forest, after which they lived on a beach for a month and Ken, who didn’t have a guitar with him, carved a flute out of a piece of wood so that he could play music.

Sylvian filled in some of the rest. Their travels in Thailand, their return to Australia, where Ken had a business selling NZ ice cream and then opened a café (‘Faustine’s’) at Dee Why Beach (where I used, on occasion, to work behind the counter). After they sold the café they went to France for a holiday, but ended up staying there for some years because Sylvian’s mother became ill. This is when Ken became a fluent speaker of French and also where he began his film studies, at Nantes. They were living nearby, in a small place call St Jean de Monts, on the Atlantic coast in Brittany. I think he did a bit of busking too. It must have been after they came back to Sydney that he started driving a cab and the rest of the time working in theatre, music and film. He was a DIY kind of guy who bought his own camera and did his own shooting and editing, in the same way he made himself a guitar and also one for his son.

After Sylvian spoke, Dan said a few words, reading from his phone, nearly choking up a couple of times; followed by Faustine who gave the most open and loving tribute any father could hope for from a daughter. I was amused by one of her stories, about how Ken would ring her up for a chat while taking his daily afternoon walk, because that’s when he used to ring me up too; and, it turned out, Lexie as well. And I don’t know who else. I always enjoyed those meandering conversations, which often included a commentary upon whatever he encountered along the way. I can still hear his voice, when I answered the phone, saying my name in his forthright and optimistic manner.

When it was my turn to talk I said how I’d heard of Ken long before I met him. In 1973 I was squatting in an old farm house in Puka Puka Road, near Puhoi in North Auckland with the painter, Dean Buchanan; and Dean used to get letters from Ken, which he’d sometimes read out loud. Ken was in jail at the time, in Rangipo Prison in the central North Island, near Turangi. He’d been imprisoned for drug offences, specifically for selling LSD to an undercover policeman. Although this is not quite right, because what Ken actually sold the cop was psilocybin; but there was no law against psilocybin then so they said it was LSD. If he’d had a better lawyer, he might have got off on that technicality alone. He’d been inveigled into the act by a mysterious character called The American, who was never charged, and who disappeared once Ken went down – for four years. We used to joke about publishing The Prison Letters of Ken James.

Then I read a piece Ken’s old mate Bruce Blackie wrote, reproduced (by permission) here:

He always an important person to me, after he opened the door to this desperate middle class suburban runaway all the way back in glorious 1970, into the future and on with the first decade to follow the Moon landing and always the music of course. I had called in to visit Dean Buchanan and we were returning from the shops with breakfast goodies and on the way visited a small pink house in Symonds Street. Ken answered the door. Joy of youthful adventure anticipated with stories of beat poetry and more and he generously suggested a small vacant room in the house could be mine for a modest enough amount of rent. That was my first real step in the big city away from what was for me a troubled and empty Auckland North Shore.

Not long after that Ken got trapped in a police sting and I went with many friends to his trial which, both then and looking back, was nothing but a travesty of justice. Ken later told me that his only regret was that he wore a suit and tie for the occasion instead of being himself. I agreed but silently thought that he looked good that way attired. Later he was pleased when I told him that remembering that trial played a major part in my determination to study law. Dressing up or down no longer mattered. We have always been in touch. Ken told me of Graham Brazier’s passing in 2015. I had played with Graham in the Greasy Handful jug-band before he went on to fame and Hello Sailor.

So with my own dallying in music at that time I was delighted to hear that Ken had joined a famous Verandah Band and toured New Zealand not long after coming out from his time not so well spent in the justice system. I felt it was fitting that something good was happening for him finally. But of course life has ups and downs and not the straight forwards and I was often aware that Ken had more and less than his far share. But here is the essence of what I feel now that he has passed and that is that he always maintained a positive outlook and wonder for life and I am very grateful that he shared that with me.

Recently we had plans of catching up but the covid and my bad health got in the way. Ken was there, in 2020, supporting my partner Liz with many phone calls during the time I spent in ICU in Melbourne recovering from a lung transplant. It also makes me sad that we didn’t share much of each other’s lives at times but I am glad that he was a good father to two wonderful children and to them and their mother I send my deepest sympathy at this time of his passing.

At some point the Sam Ford Verandah Band morphed into The Neighbours and they performed with theatre troupe Red Mole, after I’d left the ensemble, early in 1980, to do other things. Some of the band, Ken included, went on tour as the musical accompaniment to the show I’ll Never Dance Down Bugis Street Again, an irreverent and satirical re-telling of the Mr Asia story. I never saw that show so missed meeting Ken in person again. That had to wait until Sydney, where I moved in 1981, and took place after he and Sylvian came back from Thailand. The forty year conversation between us, which I alluded to the other day, began then and will I hope in some way continue – if it’s true that it’s possible to keep on talking to the dead.

What Bruce said about Ken’s positive outlook is right. That bad card he was dealt, with the drug bust, could easily have turned him towards bitterness and self-pity; but it never did. Nor did any of the other afflictions he suffered. He did however try to understand, and therefore transform, what had happened to him. In the mid-1990s, he wrote a film treatment Calling the Tune which involves a couple of desperados, musicians, recently released from jail, and an inadvertently purloined packet of heroin. Although it’s set in Sydney, some of the Red Mole people appear, in other guises, in it, and also some of Ken’s experiences while he was with them are rehearsed.

He followed that up with a feature film script called Jimmy’s Voice, focussed upon bands and music rather than on theatre, though it too has a plot that involves the shenanigans that can occur around the use, and the sale, of illicit drugs. However its main concern is with the protagonist’s loss of voice and the means by which he recovers it again. Both these films are black comedies and both anticipate musical scores which would result in an album of songs. Of course making a feature film, or an album, these days is both easier and harder than it used to be and I don’t think Ken ever quite figured out how, using only his own resources, he was going to make Jimmy’s Voice. Not so very long ago, he said to me that he was pulling the screenplay out to do some more work on it; and then decided, upon re-reading, that it’s good the way it is.

I mentioned both these film projects in my tribute, but didn’t go into the detail I have here. Afterwards, I read a poem of Ken’s which turned up, fortuitously, among my things just last week. It was written in 2011, I believe, after Ken’s father Vic died. Vic James was a train driver who started out in the days of steam and Ken’s elegy imagines him going to work for the last time, taking the midnight express down the Main Trunk Line to his foreordained end. It begins with a wishbone and later on, when it’s pulled, someone gets the short end; but the poem is in fact a testament to the values of hard work, honesty, looking after your kids and becoming a decent human being. All of which were just as characteristic of Ken as they were of his father.

After reading the poem I sat down, and then Benny read another tribute from another absent friend, Alistair, who’d known Ken since Selwyn College days. Now I wish I’d said a bit more. For instance, I could have told about the way, when we were both out driving taxis (me for Combined Services, he for Manly) we would text each other with gossip, anecdotes, progress reports and so forth. Even though we never actually met on the job (I think I once saw him pass me by on Bridge Street), we used accompany each other, as it were, through our respective shifts. We’d also quite often debrief on the phone next day, an essential thing to do as a cab driver if you want to remain sane.

I might have recalled how he was one of those lucky men who remain on terms with all of their ex-wives and girlfriends; and I should have said something about how much he liked to cook and what a good cook he was; and how, when he became sick and had to live on a restricted diet, he lamented most of all the loss of salt in his food and how he worked out various ways of getting around the prohibition, including buying raw oysters and rinsing them of their brine before eating them. Also what he said about palliative care: it’s not about helping me to die well, it’s helping me to live well.

I’d like to have repeated the nickname he was known by in the band, Dirty Pierre, and might have mentioned, through his mother, his Portuguese ancestry; and a story he told me once about a Portuguese sea captain who came ashore in Tasmania and whose descendants ended up in Taumarunui. Or another story about some family land in Te Tai Rawhiti which passed into the hands of Rastafarians and how that happened. Ken had a lot of stories, which ranged from the improbable to the absurd to the hair-raising and back again, especially about his experiences in jail and afterwards.

Most of all I would have wanted to recall his laugh which, when he got going, was deep and guttural and came from a place of true happiness.

images : Ken w/grandparents, early 1950s; Ken c. 1970, with Bernadette

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