huttonmanor

Thoughts to Stories

PAIN by JEREMY CHUNN

Pain            by     Jeremy Chunn

I read The Economist from the back, so I start with its excellent obituaries which face the inside back cover. In its January 19 edition, the magazine’s eulogy for Aaron Swartz included this quote from a blog entry of his: “Lean into your pain.”

Those of us with a dark streak revelled in aphorisms like that when we were 26, the age at which Swartz hanged himself. Those of us bent on the bleak romance of nihilism rejoiced in lines like that.

And then we grew up.

Looking at Swartz’s photo above the obit — shaggy and smiling, self-conscious – I wondered if we should have grown up. Sitting on my happy pillows, alive in my adult world, I wandered back and slowly recognised the pain of youth and early adulthood as pseudo pain. It hits hard, yes, because we are learners.

And so, as adults, I wondered if we should listen to this poor, dead hacker.

But what does “lean into your pain” mean?

It means drawing a circle around your trouble, and staring at it. Making lists about it. Analysing it until it’s in a binary form. Then putting the flesh back on it. Looking in a mirror and seeing how you created at least a good half of it.

A few weeks ago I was emailing a woman I knew was still quaking from a break-up. In her last response she said: “I didn’t like that I couldn’t blame my ex-partner entirely; 50 per cent of it was my fault. Irritating to realise but true.”

From that remark, I knew we had hit the wall on the subject. I let out a sigh of exhaustion and I bet she did too.

I meet up with divorcees a fair bit and we lean into the pain over and over. We’re strangers when we start, but the common gluey ugliness of matrimonial catastrophe becomes our link. The hard stuff comes out easily and we walk away cleansed, and probably destined to never meet again.

But not everyone can return to their hard times and roll the reel over again for another look. It’s a horror show where the victim’s responses are too realistic. They shut it out, but they shouldn’t. There isn’t any point thinking you’ve locked a suitcase on your pain.

It’s almost a cliché to hear another start-up entrepreneur (the bloody word is as hard to type as it is to pronounce … can’t we come up with something shorter?) say the most important lessons along the way have been the mistakes they’ve made. But stuff the bottom line (it’s only angel investors’ capital, after all), the mistakes we make in our personal lives can be so much more damaging to the self-esteem. If you’ve put your foot in someone else’s marriage, turned cold on a lover without a decent explanation, ripped someone off outright or squandered their savings on gambling, drugs or booze, you’ve made some heavy mistakes. Those are roaring, ugly mistakes.

Let’s bypass the platitudes of the start-up guys. Getting back to the revelation from my grieving emailer (a friend’s wife’s sister, based overseas) that we contribute to our own pain, anyone who leans into his or her pain inevitably ends up looking into a mirror. Once you’ve silently demonised the hell out of whoever else was involved and analysed them into piles of powdery elements, it’s time to look hard at yourself. That’s something people Swartz’s age are not very good at. In your twenties, all you can do is rage like a baby or roll in self-pity while trying not to show a smile. Revelling in your indignation feels just mighty fine, in that decade.

I can’t comment on the thirties because for some reason those 10 years have been wiped from my memory.

But for the forties and beyond, Swartz is right. The middle-age is a glorious time to lean right in and put your arms deep into the emotional muck. And the more you do it, the faster you become at computing the tests others throw at you, and that you catch and make into monsters. This is no news, of course. Wisdom comes with age; youth is wasted on the young; blah blah blah. But Swartz’s reminder about the restorative powers of introspection and analysis are worth taking not of, because there is no use thinking you can deflect hurt. It flies like a virus. If it hits, it enters the body and wants to stay. It sets out to damage you. You cannot pull it out.

They say men don’t talk enough to each other. I don’t have that problem with my friends. If it’s a problem for you, you might get a lot done anyway by pulling out a pencil and paper and drawing a diagram of your pain. Slowly leaning into it.

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MEMORIES AND MILITARIA by JEREMY CHUNN

Memories and Militaria

by JEREMY CHUNN

An anonymous purist of rock and roll and a clean-shaven family man miss connections in Sydney’s best army surplus shop. By Jeremy Chunn.

I hadn’t seen him for more than 20 years, but it was definitely the guy. A little more hunchbacked, a lot more grey, but just as thin. He used to play a Strat with a length of electrical cord for a strap. He was a young man then, but he looked old and something serious and impervious and hard-to-wash-out and all too common in Sydney’s decaying core had been cut into his angled face.

If you know what I mean.

His old neighbourhood is supremely gentrified now. His old venues are all closed. They can remodel the hole in the middle of an always-chipped, always-fantastic city, but I bet they never managed to fix up his teeth.

There he was. I thought about saying hello. He’d have forgotten me for sure.

He wanted to put down $50 bucks on a samurai sword. I watched from the other side of the glass display case at Lawrance Ordnance. He was leaning over the table with the swords and knives under glass, his back bent and his leather waistcoat showing good, honest wear. He still had that cowboy style. He’s still the real deal.

My daughter, 11, nudged me to ask the guy at the counter if they stocked bazookas. Not legal in NSW, he told us, disappointed. My son, 7, reached to touch the folded metal of a sword before the shop dude sheathed it. It was worth about $1700. It was beautiful. Just as mysterious as the ancient Japanese swords in the Art Gallery of NSW, thousands of years old.

What would the grey guitarist do with his samurai blade, when he paid it off, from whatever income he pulls down, doing whatever work he does now…

I tried on a Propper ACU jacket in a pixellated camouflage with velcro panels and pockets on the sleeves and chest. It would be perfect for night-time winter commuting on an old bicycle through a changing city. And perfect for a middle-aged man with a withering commando fantasy.

I wanted flight jackets for the kids but they were all too big. I bought them dogtags and ammunition bags for Kalashnikov magazines. It felt good to be spending some money at last in a militaria shop I had so often visited, and one day I would be back to drop $230 on a 7 3/4-inch Ka-Bar D2 Extreme knife. For the kitchen drawer.

The guitarist was gone.

I told my son to put the bayonet back in the box and we hit the road.

The sun was cutting shadows onto George Street and it was getting towards lunchtime.

I remember his band, so lost in time now. I interviewed them at his place on Bourke Street once, about their new 7-inch single. His slightly dangerous girlfriend played rhythm guitar, a Longhorn Danelectro.

It was a great age and we took what we wanted but the city moves on.

He wouldn’t have remembered me anyway.

Memories and Militaria written by JEREMY CHUNN

Memories and Militaria

An anonymous purist of rock and roll and a clean-shaven family man miss connections in Sydney’s best army surplus shop. By Jeremy Chunn.

I hadn’t seen him for more than 20 years, but it was definitely the guy. A little more hunchbacked, a lot more grey, but just as thin. He used to play a Strat with a length of electrical cord for a strap. He was a young man then, but he looked old and something serious and impervious and hard-to-wash-out and all too common in Sydney’s decaying core had been cut into his angled face.

If you know what I mean.

His old neighbourhood is supremely gentrified now. His old venues are all closed. They can remodel the hole in the middle of an always-chipped, always-fantastic city, but I bet they never managed to fix up his teeth.

There he was. I thought about saying hello. He’d have forgotten me for sure.

He wanted to put down $50 bucks on a samurai sword. I watched from the other side of the glass display case at Lawrance Ordnance. He was leaning over the table with the swords and knives under glass, his back bent and his leather waistcoat showing good, honest wear. He still had that cowboy style. He’s still the real deal.

My daughter, 11, nudged me to ask the guy at the counter if they stocked bazookas. Not legal in NSW, he told us, disappointed. My son, 7, reached to touch the folded metal of a sword before the shop dude sheathed it. It was worth about $1700. It was beautiful. Just as mysterious as the ancient Japanese swords in the Art Gallery of NSW, thousands of years old.

What would the grey guitarist do with his samurai blade, when he paid it off, from whatever income he pulls down, doing whatever work he does now…

I tried on a Propper ACU jacket in a pixellated camouflage with velcro panels and pockets on the sleeves and chest. It would be perfect for night-time winter commuting on an old bicycle through a changing city. And perfect for a middle-aged man with a withering commando fantasy.

I wanted flight jackets for the kids but they were all too big. I bought them dogtags and ammunition bags for Kalashnikov magazines. It felt good to be spending some money at last in a militaria shop I had so often visited, and one day I would be back to drop $230 on a 7 3/4-inch Ka-Bar D2 Extreme knife. For the kitchen drawer.

The guitarist was gone.

I told my son to put the bayonet back in the box and we hit the road.

The sun was cutting shadows onto George Street and it was getting towards lunchtime.

I remember his band, so lost in time now. I interviewed them at his place on Bourke Street once, about their new 7-inch single. His slightly dangerous girlfriend played rhythm guitar, a Longhorn Danelectro.

It was a great age and we took what we wanted but the city moves on.

He wouldn’t have remembered me anyway.

Saint Mary’s by JEREMY CHUNN

Saint Mary’s          by          Jeremy Chunn

 

A Test of Faith

Sunday morning was productively spent in bed clearing 50 pages of Alexandre Kuprin’s Yama, The Hell-Hole, described inside the jacket of my paperback from 1956 as “probably the world’s most acclaimed novel on prostitution”. As mauve dawn gave way to a hot white day the brown pages revealed squalor and mirth in equal measure. Men and women with pimples, yellow skin, triangular faces, misshapen noses. Any apparent glamour is artifice. Every transaction a rip off. The Russians always detail decrepitude with such warmth, however, that I could tell Kuprin was going to rate above Graham Greene and William Vollmann, two great writers on the sex trade, in assuring these damaged, clawing, hopeless women at least a touch of humility.

But I’d dallied. It was time to balance this fiction about sex and beatings with a different type of ritual, and so I pedalled to Saint Mary’s cathedral for Solemn Mass. And a whore was the first thing I saw there.

She came around the front of the cathedral from St Marys Road, with her long brown curly hair swinging around a face which looked lop-sided and monochrome. She was working her legs as though they were icepicks, stabbing them into place to keep from slipping on a world that was warping around her. On her feet wine-coloured suede high heels, very high. Cut off denim shorts, very short. A grey singlet, very loose. No other clothing to speak of. Definitely no underwear.

Instantly I thought of Mary Magdelene, of course. Here is our modern sinner. Here she is, straight from Kings Cross to the side entrance of the Catholic cathedral. Here she is on our doorstep. Stoned and bent and ravaged and freaked out. Itching at her scalp at insects that may or may not be there. Possibly experiencing amphetamine psychosis with all its revolting possibilities. Maybe awake for 48 hours straight. Or more. Used and wasted. Riven and sick. Turned over half a dozen times while I’d slept in my clean bed.

A tall security guard in a white shirt and black pressed trousers was not far behind. On his face plastic sunglasses. In his ear a white radio receiver on a coiled lead which disappeared into his collar.

When my kids ask me if God is real, I say I don’t know. But I tell them it’s true that Jesus lived. No doubt. When they ask again if God’s real, I say, “I think so.”

I locked my bike to a post not far from where the prostitute was standing, staggering, writhing in front of a statue of Mary MacKillop, beatified to much national pride in 2010. Inside the congregation was settled, with only a couple of minutes to go before the ritual of Solemn Mass began. The guard had placed himself in the doorway, at the top of the stairs. It was a message understood by all drinkers and especially by all sex workers. To me, as a drinker, it means: Try somewhere else. To a whore, I knew from Kuprin’s account of the trade it could mean a lot worse than that: authority, violence, slavery.

When my son says to me, “I don’t think God is real,” I say, “Well, Jesus was real, and he showed people how to be good to each other. All you have to do is think about what’s right and what’s wrong. You just stop and ask yourself: What would Jesus do? It’s pretty simple.”

I walked into the cathedral, past the woman and past the guard. I’d failed.

People love to rip into the Catholic Church. They say it’s corrupt; a law unto itself. It has overlooked gross negligence too many times. It has blood on its hands. It is opaque and powerful and dangerous. They may be right, I don’t know. In reply I can only offer that the Catholic Church is a human organisation, representing something mysterious. The church is run by men and women who are born and who die. Some of them wipe noses in African slum schools, some of them drive Audis, some of them sit and talk to ancient mothers and fathers whose own children won’t come to see them any more. Some of them are hypocrites. Some of them are not.

As the procession rounded the congregation and began towards the altar, with a full choir and a great cloud of frankincense smoke from a thurible swung almost to shoulder height by an acolyte, I wondered about the whore outside, with her grey skin and acne and half-hidden tattoos. Maybe the guard had called upon one of the ladies in the gift shop to see to this woman, to try to sit her down for five minutes. As much as anyone can help out someone who is creeping with spiders under the hot sun on a Sunday morning. Or maybe he’d stood there, and from behind his plastic sunglasses communicated to the woman twitching in front of the bronze statue of the nun and two school kids a clear message which said: Get Lost.

The sermon, irony or ironies, was about the Good Samaritan. I tried to recall another mass from another year, when a much shorter priest with an East European accent had said: “God does not see who you are, but who you are trying to be.” (As usual with any aphorism associated with the church it can be neatly inverted and thrown back at you as evidence of a corrupt institution.) His sermons always contained veiled references to the tyranny of communism. They always resonated with me. As I stood for the final blessing could I hope it was enough to have even noticed my fizzing sister outside? (Is it enough, perhaps, to feel her presence these days later?)

When we filed out the whore was gone. I’d experienced Solemn Mass one more time but I’d missed my chance to be a Catholic. If I’d tried to dampen the haze and burning in her head, under the shade of some tree across in Hyde Park, it would have been hopeless. It would have possibly been dangerous. But she’d made her way this far, I told myself as I unlocked my bike, so maybe next time, when she’s not standing so close to the edge, she’ll come back. Sure, maybe.

But I should have done something, because that’s what Jesus would have done. Simple.

I, PIANO

I, PIANO

Mike Chunn

On narrow bridges and tree-lined ways my three fellow pianos and I rumbled towards the Hamburg port in the black interior of a cartage lorry. Our shining Zimmerman brass plates now affixed above the black and white keys. And we were proud of our purpose. And curious of the journey. Where to? Some distance from the Austrian border where we had been carefully assembled; surely. And so it came to be.

I was offloaded at the mouth of the Grey River in New Zealand in July 1920. The cold wind from the Tasman Sea swept the wharf labourers from side to side but I was safe. Slid onto a covered wagon drawn by two horses, I soon found myself positioned against the interior wall of Bunny and Babs Chunn’s house in Murray Street, Greymouth. I was marvelled at by Babs. She looked at me from the dining room table. Her soft hands rested on the polished oak in anticipation of touching me. She had been waiting for me, I suspect. Bunny took little notice. He was always going somewhere. I soon learned he was either picking up wads of currency from gambling drinkers in local taverns who had lost on the horses or running from the police. When he came up Chunn’s Hill (the townsfolk called Murray Street Chunn’s Hill) with pocketfuls of five-pound notes he pranced around in front of me. But his footsteps were the March of Halfpennies and Babs kept out of his way.

When he was gone from their home, Babs would sit on the spiralling piano stool that had been there when I arrived. And she would play me and absorb the sound and detail of my voice. She was tentative at first. It had been some time since she had played in the taverns of Cork. But when her lithe, slender fingers took control, it was magical. The Girl With the Flaxen Hair by Debussy was her favourite. Lyrical melodies falling and climbing. Notes that shower out like soft sparks from the early embers of a winter fire. But she never sang. In fact, in all those years – she not only never sang, she almost never spoke. When she finished her playing she would stand up and look at me. The room returned to its silent, mournful way. The recent footsteps of that room merged into footprints of time passing.

In 1930 their son, Jerry, took piano lessons. He sat in front of me with a beautiful look of concentration. The look a brilliant person has when they are concentrating on looking concentrated. As his dowdy, forlorn teacher mapped out a polonaise, Jerry would be rolling in his mind through recent favourite poems of his. Probably Keats. Maybe Hilaire Belloc. G. K. Chesterton certainly. At times Miss Swelter would regain his attention and forge a few lines on the piano from him. His face – so close to me – looked like it was slowly dying. But then Keats was always at hand.

An endless fountain of immortal drink,

Pouring unto us from the heaven’s brink.

Jerry was never taught songs like the ones Babs sang to herself over kettles and rolling pins. Jerry had never heard her play the piano. She sang sweetly of home. Far, far away in Ireland. Jerry was a man of letters as he knew how to read and find life beneath the words. His fertile imagination turned those words from his favourite English writers into worlds of perfect escape. It seemed to me he knew the Core Of Sadness in that room and he deftly swept it aside with poetry.

In time, I fell from grace. I gathered dust. It was WWII and Babs had stopped playing me altogether. Jerry was at boarding school. A huge repetition rolled into the house unless the phone rang and Babs cried out and wept and wept as another of her Greymouth friends learned of a lost son. If only I could play myself. I had many many songs of grief to pronounce.

It was in 1958 that I was moved. The wall, Chunn’s Hill and the West Coast drifted away from me. No-one played me for the last time. I had been there for 38 years. Where was I going?

Jerry, his wife Von and their two young sons Michael and Geoffrey were living in Otahuhu, South Auckland. I rolled down their gravel drive between lines of grapefruit trees. A glance to the left – an orchard! It was February and the fallen fruit perfumed the air.

I was placed against the wall in the playroom. In 1963 a black and white television turned up and was placed about 10 feet away. I won that stand-off. No-one seemed to want to watch the travails of Clutch Cargo or Diver Dan.

By 1964 Michael was having piano lessons. Once again I sat in a bored patience as “Fur Elise” rolled along in its interminable way. Then one day Michael came in with Yvonne and ran to me. He sat down on the piano stool and took “Fur Elise” off the holder and replaced it with one titled “Love Me Do”. The look on his face! In deep concentrated advances – from note to note; chord to chord. Over and over. The song became reality. After twenty minutes he played it through to the end without a stop. He stopped and took the sheet music off the holder. He closed it and sat staring at the photo on the front cover. Yvonne moved close to him and peered over his shoulder. He hadn’t realised she was still there.

“The Beatles” he said. “I can play it all”.

“Yes. She said. “I’ve been hearing you work it out. Play it again”.

And he did. And as he finished he looked up at her.

In 1968 I was the life and soul of the playroom. Michael had a pile of Beatles’ sheet music. And then one day he and Geoffrey sat on the cane chairs and made the decision to record an album. Michael had been given an acoustic guitar for his birthday. Geoffrey had a drum. Jerry and Yvonne had seen the light and bought a reek-to-reel tape recorder. They borrowed another from family friends: the Zambuckas. The boys now had a recording studio. And I was in it. I was playing my part as winter nights rolled in from the Manukau Harbour and flocks of herons waved at us as they swept overhead, heading to the east as they did every winter from the edge of Mount Richmond.

These two boys cajoled and weaved naïve melodies and random chord structures. Lyrics about things they knew nothing about. A vivid collection as of a child’s first steps. And one day in late November they came running in with a shellac album that they had had pressed at Stebbing Studios. It went on the HMV gramophone and they played it: sitting in an intense silence. I had one solo performance. A track called Jazzy Chang. You want to hear it? Here you go. https://soundcloud.com/mike-chunn/jazzy-chang

From then I had decades of songs. Many players sat on that same old stool and weaved their magic on my keys. Eddie Rayner, Tim Finn, Graeme Gash, Stephen Bell-Booth, Phil Judd, Jordan Luck, Paul Scott, Neil Finn, Nikko Chunn, Dave Dobbyn, Barney Chunn, Jeffrey Grice, Johnny Chunn, Annah Mac, Georgia Chunn, Brigid Chunn and many more. From “Under The Wheel” to “Julia”. From “I’ll Say Goodbye” to “Land of Broken Dreams”. My Zimmerman brass plate quietly faded and waned but my strings sang like a flock of birds in a kaleidoscopic whirl. I went from Otahuhu to Parnell Road, Grafton to Ellerslie and back to Parnell Road. And then to Bethell’s Beach. Where I am right now.

I spend days and days here alone. Far below, beachcombers, stray dogs and penguins tilt and slope in the trade winds from the southwest. Dolphins surge from the dark green sea and find no-one to play with. It’s all a matter for someone else. I am up on the ridge in the shadow of the trees….Under the one hundred year old ceiling.

On my lid rest Cat Stevens, Kinks, Beatles, Kermit The Frog, America, Nature’s Best, Steely Dan and other songbooks. My strings are slowly rusting in the sea air that sneaks in through the many cracks in the floor and the time-honoured joinery. And I wait patiently.

In 2013 Michael came in with his bag of Play It Strange things-to-do. He walks softly around. Never speaks to himself. Doesn’t whistle or hum. Always makes a coffee. Immediately. He laid his homework out on the Burlington Bertie’s formica top table ready for his attention and conclusion. That’s okay. I am a patient piano. Piano’s are made to be patient.

He opened his bag, took out two pages of a musical score and placed them on my holder. As a class A German piano I know intuitively all European works composed before my manufacture. And these two pages were very familiar. Page 8 and 9 from the two-piano score of Rachmaninoff’s 2nd Piano Concerto in Cmin. I knew what this meant. I’d been waiting for it to happen. Though I didn’t think it would take so long.

In 1973 as I sat in Michael and Geoffrey’s bedroom at 469 Parnell Road I heard Tim and Michael put a recording of this concerto on the family stereo in the lounge. The pianist was by Sviatoslav Richter. It had been unearthed from a boxed set of classical works that Jerry had bought from Reader’s Digest. The whole concerto played out at a loud volume. They were the only ones in the house. Then Michael went to the turntable and played one section of it again. He played it four times. It starts 2’ and 30” in. They never spoke. They were ripped.

And there forty years later the very same section rested on my holder. Michael sat and stared at it.

He eased out the treble line. Climbing from the G. Note by note climbing. And then tumbling back down again with skips. He played it eight times. Then he played out the bass line. It climbed and rolled back down too. No skips. After about twenty minutes he had that in the can. Onto the next section. It was tricky. A furrowed brow emerged. The mistakes held him pinned to the spot. Holding. The notes hang in the air. Melodies so familiar to him.

And then he pauses – starts again. Very very slowly. He listens intently to each note. He stares at the score. He has one last chord to play and he does it slowly and with a deep, peaceful resolution. And his hands fall from the keys as he weeps with the joy of it. Complete.

A few weeks ago Michael sat on the piano stool and gazed ahead. Some minutes went by. He hadn’t shaved for a few days. Unkempt. He wore a Yellow Submarine t-shirt in a dark blue worn and weathered cotton. Images of Blue Meanies on it. I knew about them. Then his hands on the keys. He mapped a chord sequence. He was getting it wrong. In the end he got it right. And then a melody. I knew it. He’s played the track many times on his stereo. “Where Fairburn Walked” by Ross Mullins. Sung by Caitlin Smith. Mesmerising. It has a vivid finale and I remember thinking once as he sat alone listening to the track; ‘Ah. He wants to go like that.’ And I thought – I should be there too.

‘When my journey’s over, I will ask you

to bury me.

On the slopes of that gentle, grassy mountain

That looks out to the sea.

Bury me in a black piano

Under a macrocarpa tree.

Just toss my music to the wind

And throw away the key.’

Blind Cat Bay

‘Lemon-lime ice-blocks and peppermint sweets,’ said Dick Meads to himself as he dropped them into the blender. ‘And now for the grand moment we have all been waiting for.

‘Oh ye people of Blind Cat Bay that walk on the hot sand and burn your feet. Eat your stupid chicken sandwiches. I’ll cut your throats.’

And he looked out the window at another car driving down to the sand. Beach towels were piled up against the rear window. He poured Chartreuse shots into the blender. ‘One for Mrs Butler and two for Mrs Butler. Another for Mrs Marg Butler. And a fourth for the long lost Mr Butler. Let’s give the poor sod another shot, shall we.’ He poured in a sixth shot and flicked the switch. It whined.

Coming out from behind the counter, Dick ambled over to the shopfront door and looked out the window. The children splashing in the sea and the glistening surface of the ocean beyond.

‘Any of you bastards want a lemon-lime ice-block?’ he muttered as he turned back into the dingy interior and made his way back behind the counter. As the door opened and the bell above it rang he turned quickly to face the first arrival of the day. A broad smile came over his face.

‘Good morning, Mrs Butler,’ he said. ‘The weather couldn’t be better now, could it?’

‘I’m your first customer today?’ asked Margaret Butler. And her brown brogue shoes. Always the same brown brogue shoes like some infernal echo of the war years; a monotonous and prudent statement. He liked that.

‘She’s always in a hurry. Rushing off to cook or clean” he thought. Her black hair falling around her shoulders always made her look kind of exotic. Dick liked that look. She reminded him of the Italian woman he’d paid good money to when he and John Butler wound their way up Italy during the war. Each town had a quota of grateful whores ready to grab a few lire or bars of chocolate and a thank you kiss for liberating them. I liberate you, you liberate me! What did the war matter then, yeah, dust in your face, through your hair and a woman under you and a long cool night ahead resting your head before trucking north. But Johnny Butler, he had a wife and kid at home; a kid he’d never seen and he was a self-righteous old prick, avoiding the women and sticking to the bottle, drinking and slurring and moaning in his self-pity. Dick couldn’t stand it in the end but it all changed once they passed Monte Casino. Shrapnel tore his legs

‘I’ll have a loaf of bread, please.’ As she opened a small purse, three coins fell to the floor. Dick rushed round the counter.

‘Let me pick those up.’

‘No, it’s okay I’ll get -‘

‘No, I’ll pick them up. C’mon Marg, you have to let me show you some good manners. Christ, no-one else round this place knows the meaning of the word.’ Dick scooped up the coins and handed them to her while placing his open hand on her shoulder. She frowned. He kept his hand there.

‘Hey, Marg, here look … have a taste. See if you can tell me what it is. I think it will catch on.’ He moved the tumbler across to Marg’s side of the counter and left it beside her clasped hands.

‘I don’t think so, Dick. If I can have the loaf.’

‘Ah come on, Marg. It’s – different. You’ll love it. Just one sip, hey, what’s a sip between friends.’ Dick moved out from behind the counter and moved to Marg’s side and held the glass up to her mouth.

‘Here we go.’

‘No thanks.’

‘Just one sip. That’s all. For old time’s sake. You and me and a quick drink between friends. A toast to remember your old John and a toast to my old Erica.’ He lifted the glass to his lips and drank. ‘To Erica. And now you. Go on. A toast to Johnnie. Come on.’ Dick moved his face closer to Marg’s and cupped his hand behind her head, tilting the tumbler to her mouth.

‘I made it for you, Marg. Drink to John. Remember him. For Christ’s sake.’

Marg took the tumbler and with a quick flick of her wrist pushed it away. It spewed over Dick’s shirt. As she spun round to leave he grabbed her neck, pulled her to him and held her close to his chest, his wide eyes inches from hers.

‘You forget John, you hear. You just up and fucking forget that man. He’s dead and buried and we have unfinished business, all right. So you listen to me!’ Marg closed her eyes and went limp. Her smothered moans softened and her head fell upon his chest. A creeping smile turned the corners of his mouth and he trembled at the remembered image. Ecstatic. Johnnie and his crumpled chair at the foot of the cliff. Marg at the top, her taught body framed against the boiling black clouds.

‘There, there. You understand me. I don’t have to spell it out. I ain’t going to hurt you. Marg. I wouldn’t do that. I won’t ever hurt you. Okay? Here. Here’s your bread. Here, look. Take a second one. It’s on the house. Take it.’

Marg moved slowly from Dick’s embrace, her eyes gazing vacantly ahead. She slipped both loaves of bread into her kit and moved towards the door.       ‘Leave John out of this,’ she said. And she left.

Dick walked back behind the counter as the bell rang and a young child walked into the shop.

‘Go away will you,’ shouted Dick. ‘We’re not open for another hour.’

Mike Chunn – An Open Letter on the New Year

Emily Perkins when she agreed to be the Play It Strange Lyric Award judge said “So many songs say more in their three minutes than I can put in my novels!”. The language of songs is now proven to be of paramount importance in the longevity of their impact. We all know that Yummy Yummy Yummy sold a million copies. But its place in our lives has virtually vanished. And while Bob Dylan’s A Hard Rain’s A Gonna Fall may not have been heard on radio or seen on television at the time, it rings in the hearts and minds of millions to this day.

That is why Play It Strange does what it does. It receives, via the Lion Foundation Songwriting Competition for secondary schools, the words and music of hundreds of young teenage NZers. They are heard and after long consideration, the forty songs judged as the most worthy of global reach are funded into professional recording studios. What better way to know the psychology, intent and wisdom of these students; their observation of our odd humanity. It can’t be done with just music. Lyrics are the story. But the music – therein lies the glue that binds those words to us.

Here are some words by Grace Wood (photo above):

Now you’re gone

There’s a face on my wall

It’s looking down on my carpet

And it’s judging me

And I judge myself

As I did as you laughed

But I won’t face the demons

that you tied to the ceiling.

I go out to the park

All the people walk past

Wonder what they are thinking

Are they judging me?

If they’re happy or not

Is this all life has got

An empty old box of society’s……

Set me free

Like I want to be

Let me take the wheel

Let me spread my wings

I run like the shadows are chasing me.

Here they are with music:

http://playitstrange.bandcamp.com/track/run-like-the-shadows-are-chasing

There are no radio stations broadcasting just poetry and prose. Music in its mysterious way finds us hoarding that unique construction – the song – to our hearts. It is a world of reinforced truth. And with teenagers; this is all in a world where the paths are crooked and the temptations are monsters.

That’s why Play It Strange does what it does. Because without our programmes, hundreds of songs would have turned circles in their private worlds and never been thrown in the air.

One of the great oddities in our society is the belief, most often espoused by those who have never written one, that writing a three-minute song is an easy thing to do. Well, yes. It is. Just as playing golf is easy. You hit the ball – if you miss it you get another chance – and then you go find it and hit it again. Eventually you reach the last hole and event though your round may have taken 345 shots – you played the game.

Writing a song can be done in a matter of seconds. Play out a few notes on the piano or ukulele or anything and mouth a bunch of words and there you are.

In each case – golf and songwriting – the end result is similar. No-one will want to play golf with you. And a song thrown together like that is more likely to never have anyone want to listen to it. Or if they do – it will be for the last time.

What matters most with any pursuit of the imagination is the ambition that drives it and imaginative prowess you apply to it. Each year we are finding, in the Play It Strange world, songs that are more and more evocative. More engaging and rewarding. Songs that tell us about the writer, the writer’s community, this nation. And the powerful stance and proclamations they make – whether simple, complicated, heavy, light, broad-minded, internal: there is a true voice.

I’ve been asked many times how we do this – how we go about teaching students how to write songs. You can’t teach someone to write songs. It’s like sport. It’s coaches that matter. Not academics. What you do is listen, give feedback, guide and mentor the songs of young writers. And then in that objective environment they grow and become better and better.

LORDE AND THE PURPLE HAZE

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When Lorde dragged the back of her hand across her lips as she finished her performance of “Yellow Flicker Beat” at the American Music Awards, a tumultuous response flew up from a million homes around the world. In my corner of this planet I thought one thing. Lorde had achieved exactly what Jimi Hendrix did when he set fire to his guitar at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967. Both took the essence of well-behaved fashion and propriety and threw it into the air. They tossed it aside in sweeping, fiery imagery. I was fifteen in 1967 and totally in awe of the Hendrix moment of usurped authority and our vision was sealed – we were ready to follow. The same year I bought a bass guitar. All around me, the older generation sniffed and snorted at Jimi’s immature and cancerous nonsense. (My parents excluded I must add).
Lorde‘s master stroke must have found a similar response in the upper generations of society. Unbecoming? Of course. Tut tut. Wasteful!
And what of the world’s young people? Well, Twitter can tell us what.

Helen Showalter (USA – California) : “can we talk about the moment when Lorde smears her lipstick because I don’t know this woman personally but I will now go to war for her”.

Keiran Lyons (USA) – “Lorde has made me fall in love with my generation again”.

Matt Bellassai (USA – NYC senior editor at BuzzFeed) – “I just want Lorde to look me in my eyes & whisper “you’re free”….”

What really matters is what underpins both these imaged points-of-reference in the grand evolution of popular song/image/statement as has taken place in the last fifty years. Songs.
Jimi Hendrix’ “Purple Haze” in 1967 was embraced in the midst of the youth revolution as the paramount launch of a new era. Every young savvy teenager knew it. And the whole package of who and what Hendrix’ was (is) was launched.

Lorde’s truly extraordinary “Royals” with global domination and it’s 383 million Youtube views has done the same. The music of today’s youth has been jolted. By a song. And with a smear of lipstick across her face, the complete entity that is Lorde is realized.

Her presence has tens of thousands of young NZers taking aim. There is a real ambition in the classrooms, playgrounds and homes of teenagers to take on the imaginative mix of words and music and play in the same arena as Ella Yelich-O’Connor does. No matter how small their particular corner. No matter how hung in shadows it might be. The demand exists.

Current Ministry of Education achievement standards do not recognize songwriting in NCEA.
There is composition (the music) but the magical combination of words and music is not there. In New Zealand schools we teach our teenagers how to write tunes (composition). We teach them poetry, plays and short stories in English (creative writing); in Chemistry they learn how to analyse a chemical reaction (science), in Media Studies we teach them the skills to conceive and film their own documentaries.

We must give young people a proactive environment where they have encouragement, support, feedback and mentoring in the process of writing songs –and we can do this with the introduction of an achievement standard for songwriting in NCEA.

This is about the voice of young people. Songs are the fuel that ignites all our frames of reference. Songs are the launch pad for anyone who is able to claim the hearts and minds of millions of people through writing, performance, recording, image and character. It’s that simple.

2015 needs to be the year when an Achievement Standard in Songwriting is approved and the means to that end put into play. The Ministry of Education can now, in the reflected glory of Lorde’s global domination, say: “Songwriting is the core of any nation’s music tradition. Songwriting must be of our nation’s schools”.

Mike Chunn – CEO, Play It Strange Trust

(Thanks to Angela Barnett for her assistance)