Wednesday, 13 June 2018

Forty years in the wilderness

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When I was a youngster we had a wind-up gramophone. My father had received it for winning an event at harriers. The turntable used to revolve at 78 rpm, and you had to put in a new needle every time you played a record. Needles came in little tins of 100 and you bought them at local gift shop Arts and Crafts. I remember my cousin Bill Geary moved the technology forward by building a turntable powered by electricity. He made the pick-up arm out of balsa wood. This marvellous machine played the new ‘long-playing’ records that went around at 33/and a1/3 rpm and had a needle that played over and over.

There were no record shops as such back then - the popular music industry had not yet started and so the selection was limited. I was so enthralled by the electrified player that I was unwittingly exposed to classical music, which I grew to enjoy. My favourites were the Hungarian Rhapsody part 2 and The Waltz of the Flowers.

Films influenced our lives; we called them ‘pictures’ and in my early teens my unlikely hero was Mario Lanza. I saw all his films, bought all his records (our wind-up gramophone had now been replaced by a ‘radiogram’) and I even wrote to him in Hollywood expressing my admiration. I got a letter back from his secretary with an autographed picture of the great man himself. I had this framed and hung it above my bed. My parents watched me quizzically; most of my contemporaries would have had Marilyn Monroe on their bedroom walls. (Later on, when I started to take an interest in the opposite sex, mum and dad yearned for my Mario Lanza era).

I was fickle though. A new hero emerged in the form of clarinetist Benny Goodman. I saw ‘The Benny Goodman Story’ at the Regent Theatre four times. We had a music shop in the State Theatre building back then called the Geoffrey Farrell School of Music. As I recall Mr. Farrell showed a greater interest in alcohol than he did arpeggios, but I espied a second hand clarinet in his window and determined I must have it. Mr. Farrell allowed me to put it away on layby and I was soon its proud owner. I offered myself to the Wairarapa College orchestra as first clarinetist and I’ll never forget the sheer thrill of playing in an orchestra with violins, violas, cellos, and the like.


When I left college my father sent me to Palmerston North to learn the meat trade at an old and well established butcher’s shop in that city. I found myself a clarinet teacher over there and continued my studies in that instrument.

But as Bob Dylan was to later put it: “the times they were a-changing.” A fellow named Bill Haley was making his mark with a new and exciting style of music and I put a guitar on layby at a Palmerston North music shop. My music teacher, sensing the interest was waning on the clarinet said I had to choose one instrument over the other. I sought wise counsel with my landlady. She told me rock’n’roll would soon die and that clarinet music would live on forever. I listened attentively then opted for the guitar. I went to her funeral in Palmerston North seven or eight years ago. It was too late to point out that rock’n’roll had outlived her.

I taught myself to play the guitar; I sold my clarinet and bought an amplifier and when I came back to Masterton after two years in Palmerston North I formed a rock’n’roll band with a friend named Melvin Carroll. We called ourselves ‘The Drifters’ then later 'The Signatures.’ I was the band’s vocalist and alternately played guitar, bass guitar and double bass. We were the only rock’n’roll band in the Wairarapa at the time and played regularly two or three nights a week. I was making more money strumming a guitar than I was stringing sausages.


Marriage, family and business interests intervened but a couple of years ago my wife suggested we go to Wellington to the ballet. I nearly had a fit. Me go the ballet! Then I had pangs of conscience. Hadn’t I dragged her over the years to concerts of my choice, like Neil Diamond and the Shadows? I agreed to make the pilgrimage as long as I could go in disguise in case there were other people from Masterton there. I had a reputation to maintain. I didn’t want anyone to think my pre-pubescent love of Mario Lanza had more latent meanings. In the event I sneaked into the Wellington Opera House without being seen, slunk down in my seat and waited to be bored out of my brain. I couldn’t have been more wrong. I was enchanted from the minute the curtain went up. The ballet was The Nutcracker Suite and you can imagine my delight when, the orchestra suddenly burst into Waltz of the Flowers and I saw Tchaikovsky’s imagery as it was intended. I had to choke back the emotion and fight back the tears. Now I knew how the ancient Hebrews felt; I had spent forty years in the wilderness.

It’s not that the rock’n’roll we played was all that bad. The lyrics were simple love songs and the music basic 12 bar blues. As it has progressed, however, the words have got more complicated and somehow twisted in the process. There has been a sort of a darkness emerge that was never there in its infancy. Music can influence us hugely; it has a power that can either enhance or destroy. I peruse some of the lyrics from today’s offerings and can only conclude that they are concocted in depraved drug-induced minds. You hear of teenage suicides and suspect that for many, evil music had dominion over their lives. On the other side of the coin it has been discovered that classical music has healing powers and surgeons are playing it in the background during operations with amazing results.

It’s not for me to preach. I still tend to have a liking for middle of the road popular music and to date The Nutcracker Suite is the only ballet I’ve attended. But I have a belated admiration for my wise old landlady and from time to time contemplate what direction my life might have taken if my clarinet teacher had only been a bit more persistent.

(First published on 30th of September 1998)

“At every one of those concerts in England you will find rows of weary people who are there, not because they really like classical music, but because they think they ought to like it.” - George Bernard Shaw. 

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