Half a life time ago I came in to the great sea port of Poihakena; in the fabled land of Ulimaroa. It was May 18, 1981, a date you can write as a palindrome. Bob Marley had died the week before, on May 11, at the Cedars of Lebanon Hospital in Miami, of complications attendant upon a rare skin cancer—acral lentiginous melanoma—and we were mourning him still. Jah would never give the power to a baldhead, he sang all the way across the Tasman. Run come crucify the Dread / Time alone, oh time will tell / Think you in heaven but you living in hell. I was with my then partner, Jan Preston. Coup d’Etat, the pop reggae band she’d formed, with Neil Hannan and Harry Lyon, in 1980, had disintegrated. Jan left because she didn’t like the drummer and also because she disapproved of the record company’s choice of the next single from their debut album. She intended putting a new band together in Sydney.
I’d crewed over the summer in the art department on an American film being shot in Auckland—Shadowlands, released as Dead Kids—and conceived the idea of studying screen-writing; there was a course for writers experienced in other genres to learn how to do that on offer at the AFTRS—the Australian Film, Television and Radio School in North Ryde, which Gough Whitlam had set up in 1972. We’d both been brutally arrested during a confrontation with police following a Crocodiles gig at the Windsor Castle in Parnell in August, 1980 and that was factor too; along with the knowledge that New Zealand was about to descend into the chaos occasioned by the Springbok rugby tour of 1981. We decided to join the exodus of musicians and hangers-on in search of better times.
I was one of the hangers-on, a lighting guy; but, apart from my desire to learn screen-writing—temporarily thwarted when AFTRS declined my application—I also had literary ambitions. My current obsession was with Pacific history: for me an amalgam of half-fictional personal experience, atavistic yearnings for a primitivist past and a genuine interest in what has happened in our part of the world since—well, since humans came here. This obsession arrived unexpectedly and had something (but what?) to do with my recent return to the country of my birth after a period spent overseas, booking music gigs and lighting theatre shows in Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York, London and many other places in between.
It was raining as the taxi drove in from Kingsford Smith airport, through the dreary unrenovated suburbs of Mascot and Alexandria and Redfern, to the Springfield Lodge in Kings Cross; and it kept on raining for the next two weeks. Our room had paper thin walls through which we heard, each morning, the next door residents TV set cough into life; and a view of the CBD. By day it showed a grey, monochrome city, veiled by drifting clouds; by night, buildings crowned by fugitive neons advertising commercial entities. It looked like something out of Bladerunner (1982). The Manzil Room was just down from the Springfield Lodge so we went there most nights. Jan became infatuated with an all girl band called Garbo: a reference to Greta, but also to what the men who collect the rubbish were called; though I didn’t know that then.
We became friends, briefly, with Garbo’s rhythm section; I can’t now remember their names. Two big blond lesbian girls who laughed a lot; one, the bass player, bigger than the other. The room was long and narrow, with small tables along the south wall where people sat playing interminable games of backgammon; they were sallow and thin and seemed contemptuous though were perhaps just stoned. Further along that same wall was the bar; beyond that the toilets famous for seductions, amorous trysts or just sex; the girls a kind of sanctum sanctorum where young men underwent lubricious initiation. The carpet squelched, the food (required for licensing purposes) was uneatable, clouds of yellow cigarette smoke hung in the air . . . the music was good.
I don’t recall wondering what the name might have meant nor anyone else speculating upon it either: not even a mystery. Manzil is in fact the word for any of the seven parts into which the Koran is divided for the purpose of recitation of the entire text in a week. Also for the set of verses (prescribed, chanted out loud) which prevent Sihr, black magic, from having its malign effect. Years later I found out the reason it was called that was mundane: the owner, Joe someone or other, came from the north of England and in those parts there was a chain of curry houses called Manzil. The room was originally a restaurant; it morphed it over the years into the nightclub / venue but kept its curry house name.
I had hardly any money but, as luck would have it, at a party I met a sailor from the Merchant Marine who lived, as so many New Zealanders in those days did, out at Bondi; and in his time ashore drove a cab to earn a bit of pocket money. Graeme, the brother of Roger, of Flying Nun fame, suggested that I might do the same. I took his advice, enrolled at the taxi school in Glenmore Road, Paddington and was, within a matter of weeks, driving myself. I was only ever part time—three or four shifts a week. Also I worked nights, which meant I didn’t have to turn up at Whale Carwash in Bondi Junction until mid-afternoon. On weekends we would go out to hear bands. In the mornings, and on days off, I trawled bookshops and haunted libraries. It was a good life, in a town that was, in those days, louche and wild and free.
The party where I met Graeme Shepherd was at Lud and Lexie’s place in Thomas Street, just behind busy Cleveland Street in the lost suburb of Golden Grove. It was held, I think, to welcome us to town. I’d known Lud since student days in Auckland in the early 1970s; Lexie too, though I’m not sure if they were together then. They certainly were later in the decade in Wellington, during the early Red Mole years. Lud (Roland Girvan) was a white Polynesian; though born in Scotland, he had grown up in New Guinea and Samoa and Fiji, where his father worked for one of the island traders, either W H Carpenter or Morris Hedstrom. Despite his relaxed, slow manner, Lud owned a formidable intellect and, as a committed hedonist, a refined taste in food, drink and drugs of all descriptions.
Since I’d seen him last, a few years before, he had given up writing and become a painter of colourful abstracts; as his father, an amateur, had also been. Lud owned a beautiful constructivist work his Dad had done sometime before, distraught at the demise of his wife, he’d shut himself up in his bedroom and drunk himself to death. Whisky. Lud had been away at school in Auckland when his mother died; I’m unsure of the interval between his mother’s and his father’s deaths; I believe he was orphaned in his teens. He had a brother in Melbourne and that was it. He always seemed, if not remote, then somehow lordly and isolate in his splendour and his preternatural grace and calm.
Lexia Murrell is a vivid, tempestuous woman from a working class Irish family in Glen Innes, Auckland. She is an artist too; she has been drawing as long as I’ve known her; an accomplished draftswoman and a fine painter in a figurative style which I suppose would have to be called naïve; if it is admitted that the naïve may include the sophisticated. Neither Lud nor Lexie had any formal training but both possessed an innate sense of style; they made the unpromising rectangular yard out the back of the small terrace house in Golden Grove into a garden from a Rousseau painting. Lud was also growing an impressive marijuana crop in black sandy soil under green corrugated fibre-glass panels in an old clawfoot bath next to the outside dunny at the other end of section; where there was a rickety wooden gate leading to the laneway behind.
Jean and Arthur were also at that party in Thomas Street. Arthur Baysting, it was said, had to flee New Zealand after his avatar, Neville Purvis, said ‘fuck’ on TV: the first ever to do so. When I suggested to him he had thereby become an exile he said: Nah, that’s too romantic for me. Jean Clarkson, like Lexie, like Lud, made art. I’d known Jean and Arthur since Red Mole days in Wellington too; though, in fact, the first time I met Arthur was in Auckland at the end of 1972. My university lecturers, in despair of my determination not to sit my final exams, sent me round to his flat in Parnell because Arthur was preparing an anthology of writing about Auckland to which they thought I might be able to contribute. The flat, upstairs in Ayr Street, was full of stuffed birds on pedestals. Jean was drawing bird-headed humans at the time; she had borrowed them from the museum. I was too over-awed to offer Arthur anything for the anthology; which I don’t think eventuated.
Arthur always seemed to have projects in hand. He was a bona fide screen-writer, with credits (Sleeping Dogs, 1977) and he was writing more films, some of which got made; we attempted a collaboration but it went nowhere. He was equally involved in the music scene as a writer of lyrics; working with members of bands such as The Crocodiles, which included song-writers Tony Backhouse, Peter Dasent and Fane Flaws. But Arthur also acted as an impresario, organising and emceeing Kiwi Nights at the Astra Hotel in Bondi. They were like Red Mole shows, without the theatrics but with more music.
In those days Jean and Arthur were caretakers of a derelict mansion, called Canonbury, in Darling Point; at the northern tip of Yarranabbe Point. It had, most recently, operated as an annex to the Crown Street Women’s Hospital in Darlinghurst. A large, rambling, gothic-style brick and cement render place with a slate roof that had been built early in the twentieth century by Harry Rickards, a vaudeville actor and producer. After World War One it was bought by the Australian Jockey Club who used it as a convalescent hospital for returned men. I don’t know how Jean and Arthur got the gig but it was a good one. The most extravagant of the cocaine parties I went to in those years was there: mountains of powder on horizontal mirrors in the old hospital bathroom.
I wonder now if Diana was at that party in Golden Grove too? Perhaps not; but it was to her house in Gipps Street, Paddington, that we moved after we left the Springfield Lodge. Diana Cunninghayme was another I’d known for yonks; she used to live at #60 Grafton Road around the time, in 1973, I lived next door at #56. More recently she had been with my good friend Gerard Smithyman; and then with a future friend, Chris Moody, the famous Toy Love roadie. Diana was one of those intensely desirable women who suffer for their looks. I once asked Chris how long they were together. He replied, with the slight stammer he had in those days: Th-three months or t-two years, whichever you prefer. I think he meant they remained flat-mates after they stopped being lovers.
Gipps Street was narrow and higgledy-piggledy and ran up the hill from near the beginning of the Oxford Street end of Glenmore Road. The house, like those around it, was a small, one storey terrace which appeared to have been made out of a combination of sandstone and cardboard, with a tiny concreted back yard where palms and frangi-pani trees grew in pots. I cannot now remember how we came to be living there nor who else was in the house. I think it must have been by invitation, in the casual way that pertained among my cohort in those days: we’ve got a spare bed you can sleep in, come round . . . that sort of thing. From memory the bed wasn’t even in a room but in a hallway of some sort.
Beside that bed, on a blue plastic milk crate, lay a book with a white and green cover showing a boneyard moon shining over impossibly jagged mountains: the peaks of the Cerro Torre in Parque Nacional Los Glaciares in Argentina, which also feature in the 1991 Werner Herzog film Scream of Stone. It was the 1979 Picador edition of Bruce Chatwin’s first book, In Patagonia, cover art by David Bergen aka Hawkwood, and I read it all the way through to the end. Chatwin became an enthusiasm amongst us; we who took ourselves seriously as writers immediately set about imitating his sparse prose style and his attenuated, even fey, narrative gestures.
This might have been before Diana got together with Ken, whom we used to call Ken the Cocaine King, though I still associate him with that house; perhaps, like Moody, I first met him there. Ken was a tall, rangy, bullet-headed fellow with piercing blue eyes beneath his buzz-cut blond hair; a lawyer by training, he was a former swimming champ. Now he was end man for a syndicate bringing quantities of cocaine from Colombia via Tahiti to Queensland and thence south onto the streets of our town. Ken was enigmatic, charismatic, always carried a black briefcase, never said much, was generous with his drugs; there were nights, as at Canonbury, when it seemed we consumed mountains of powder almost as high as the Cerro Torre.
How he spent the money he made was unclear but he did announce one day that he wanted to start a record label. It was to be called Vinyl Voice and I still remember the hurt look on his face when I quipped: So long as it doesn’t become Final Voice. He booked a studio, and some time and, one day after we’d moved into Lud and Lexie’s old house in Golden Grove, turned up with a putative producer: a tall, mane-haired Texan in cowboy boots called W G ‘Snuffy’ Walden, once of Stray Dog, the Eric Burdon Band, Free; later the composer of scores for movies and TV shows, including that for The West Wing. Snuffy stretched out his considerable length along the floor of the tiny front room at Thomas Street and spoke of people he had played with as a session man in LA: Stevie Wonder, Donna Summer, Chaka Khan.
I don’t now recall why the recordings never went ahead; it could have been because, around this time, Ken began to look like a worried man. There was something wrong further up the line, he said, but we never knew what it was. In retrospect, it seems the problem may have been Ken’s generosity to his friends, allied with his own inordinate drug use, which left him in debt to the syndicate and also rendered him incapable of pursuing proper business strategies. I met him one day up the Cross when he was in the full flower of cocaine psychosis: a wreck of a man, shaking, muttering, twitching . . . while we were talking he accidently triggered the catches on his black briefcase—which I had never before seen the inside of—it fell open and there before my eyes were a half full bottle of Johnny Walker Red and a crumpled carton of Gauloise Bleu cigarettes. Nothing else. Ken left town not long afterwards and returned to Auckland, where he put his money into real estate and, I hear, did quite well.
I don’t remember now why Lud and Lexie moved out of 9 Thomas Street and invited us to go and live there instead: an act of simple generosity perhaps. Or were they sick of paying rent? They split up temporarily, strategically, as they used sometimes to do; I don’t know where Lexie went but Lud moved into a tin shed around the road that was probably cheaper but certainly less convenient. There was no bathroom, for instance, so he used to have to go up to the Aquatic Centre at Sydney University to shower and use the toilet; he must have been extremely disciplined. He was a keen swimmer and I owe to him my return to that salutary form of exercise. Somehow I got a gig as a stagehand at the Seymour Centre in Cleveland Street; as a casual employee of the university, that entitled me to the badge you needed to swim at the pool.
At Thomas Street, our lord and land lady were George and Mimi, a European couple, and when we went out to their house in Kogarah to sign the lease they sat us down opposite them at a tiny narrow table in a shadowy room and served coffee and cake which we ate and drank with our knees almost touching. George Berger, Viennese, Jewish, distinguished art historian, friend and colleague of the redoubtable Bernard Smith, was a comfortable bourgeois with a beard, a woollen suit and a confidential manner. Mimi Jaksic-Berger was a Serb, passionate, feral and strange; she hardly spoke. She was another painter and George had founded an art movement of which Mimi was the chief, perhaps the only, exponent. Abstract Impressionism, it was called. Every six months a typed letter from George would arrive in the letter box at Thomas Street notifying us of a rent rise to compensate for the loss of purchasing power of the Australian dollar. What about the purchasing power of my dollar? I would always think but never say; I never quite shook off a servile feeling I had when I dealt with George; as if I were only a pawn in his game.
image: Mimi Jaksic-Berger : Southern Cross; oil on linen; nd