I've always avoided playing old songs. Every new band, I've built the set from scratch. I'm sure it's partly contrariness that leads me to deny the people the songs they want , and I'm sure, at heart, I remain a child who will do the opposite of whatever he's told. But I think it's important to move forward and do more than just repeat yourself. It'd be dull if you were still having the same conversation you had when you were 20.
How often do you see someone stumble onto a creative blueprint and then trade off it for the next 25 years ? Not being snooty or anything, but to me that's a failure in imagination. If performance is about connecting with your material, i've wondered too, just how acutely you can connect with something you decided on two and a half decades ago.
Still, the few times I have returned to exhume various artifacts from my own dark and murky past, I've found that it is possible to find a way back, and, quite often, righteously so.
The Straitjacket Fits reunion tour a few years back showed me that. Beforehand we wondered whether the music might sound a bit jokey or old timey - but it didn't. It was actually a joy to rediscover that sound . We were as pleasantly surprised as anyone by the sudden melodies and mutant chord shapes, like another group had written them. It was obviously rock , but not quite like how anyone else had played it. That was nice to find out. It also confirmed the truism that if it's good it's always going to be good, just like how Mozart still sounds good, or how Howlin' Wolf still sounds good or how you listen to Miles Davis and he's right there in the room. As the noted philosopher Dave Chappelle once said, the truth lasts, and all the other stuff just falls away.
The Straitjackets tour was a healing process for us as a group too. Being in a popular band is such a fast, head spinning experience that when it ends you're left to wonder exactly what happened, and what exactly it is you're supposed to do now . There's bound to be stuff left hanging over. Our tour cured most of that. It was a lovely full stop where we reassembled and together discovered some sort of validation. It was a relief to discover it free of all the politics and pressures that had surrounded us as a band.
I had a similar experience at the Chris Knox benefit show in Auckland a year and a half ago. Chris had been such a huge influence on me a kid, that it only seemed right to play the songs I'd written growing up. I loved playing the Doublehappys songs - defiant and scrappy little buggers from another era that still stood up. It's so true that the biggest obstacle in rock n roll can be knowing too much. As you get older you become so aware of the details that you can begin to look in all the wrong places . When you're young you understand that the Feeling is all, and you zero in on that. The Doublehappys had that feeling in spades.
We were punks - young, drunk and obnoxious, but we were also (semi) literate and we understood our rock n roll. Roi Colbert got it in his liner notes for the Doublehappys' compilation record when he wrote that it was music "you make when you're young and think other people are full of shit", when you are "utterly in love with the sound of the electric guitar". Yeah, that was us. Teen misfits freezing our asses off in Dunedin's North End, crashing away on our cheapo Japanese copy guitars. We truly didn't give a shit ... well, we did actually , and therein lay the conflict behind our noise.
One of my favourite moments at that benefit show was revisiting 'Some Fantasy' , one of the last tunes Wayne Elsey wrote for the Doublehappys. It seemed really appropriate to have Graeme Downes playing that song with us that night. Graeme is a doctor of music, and he grew up with Wayne and I in Dunedin, so he is eminently qualified when he says that 'Some Fantasy' is an incredible fucking song. It's amazing that what amounts to a life philosophy can be thrown together in three verses and two chords like that. I suppose the fact Wayne died so young gives 'Some Fantasy' so much more weight, but it is such a real, and knowing, lyric for a 20 year old to write.
I love how the song starts off kind of dark and sordid where you can almost smell the codral colds, the damp flats and bottles of bad port, but it gradually turns and steers it's way into the light, and ends up finding hope, and not hope of the bullshit bank ad variety, but the real stuff that nobody can deny.
Just the verses ...
I don't believe that fatalism is an end in itself
Between the bottles the sun will still rise
It seems the good must surely go to heaven
And I ain't got a thing to worry about
Because complacency told me not to bother
And hypocrisy told me something else again
24 hours a day, 7 days a week ... A misery ... Some fantasy ...
And the last verse ...
I don't have to throw my life away
But i would gladly give it to you
Darling forever ain't long enough
Love must last longer than time itself
Better than ... Some fantasy …
24 hours a day ... 7 days a week ... Some fantasy ...
In retrospect that final verse is so sad, but it's still uplifting. Wayne's been gone 25 years now but 'Some Fantasy' keeps him close.
So, yes we'll be playing that track in the 'Last Train To Brockville' shows. There'll probably be some other songs in the set that we regard with a little less reverence, like 'Joe 90.
For most of my life 'Joe 90' has seemed like just another mistake, but when I played it again for the first time in I-don't-know-when, I finally saw it for the snotty , and quite triumphant, teen punk anthem it probably is. We wrote the song about a kid in the year behind us at school who looked exactly like Joe 90, so when we sing the chorus we're actually singing about him, not Joe 90. At any rate it's pertinent and powerful subject matter for any 15 year old to explore. You can only write what you know.
'Joe 90' hasn't been the only spooky flashback I've had preparing for these shows. Playing some of these riffs and chords I've actually felt physically transported back to the rooms where I first wrote them. It's the closest I'll ever get to time travel, beyond memory or deja vu, and a rather delicious feeling I wish I could bottle and share with you all.
I still rate 'Dialing A Prayer' over 'She Speeds' even though the latter was the one people picked up on . I wonder too how I put the notes together in 'Randolph's Going Home' as that song feels almost divined in the way so many unlikely chords roll into each other. It's still one of the best songs I've written.
Some of the notes in the older tunes I could barely reach vocally as a 19 year-old so there's no way I'll get to them now. Perhaps in these sections I can bring on the dancers, introduce the band, or get someone up to make a speech (Russell ?).
I've sometimes missed the extra melody of the other guitar or voice in a couple of the Straitjacket Fits' songs, but on the other hand, I like the directness of the power trio and the music still sounds complete . It's good to distill a song to it's most elemental form . You find out whether a song has any backbone like that.
I'm also extremely happy that the new guitar pick ups I scored in the States last year means we can now do 'Crystalator' justice, after a year and a half of dribbling along on a pair of lame humbuckers . The guitar has to grab to make that song sizzle and, yes folks, grab and sizzle it currently does.
In fact a lot of the set thunders away . You have to push right out to make a lot of these songs work but it's an accepted musical fact that right out is a pretty good place to be.
We hope to see you somewhere there at the Last Train To Brockville.
We have one double pass to each of the Last Train to Brockville shows in Wellington (Bodega, Friday May 6) and Auckland (King's Arms Saturday May 14) to give away to the readers in each centre who give the best account here of which song from Shayne's back catalogue they like best, and why.