October/November 2013

by Trevor Reekie

Moments Like These: John Dix

by Trevor Reekie

Moments Like These: John Dix

Twenty-five years ago, author John Dix published the original ‘Stranded in Paradise (New Zealand Rock’’n’’Roll 1955 – 1988)’, a benchmark and defining book that documents the history and development of our local music industry. ‘Stranded’ is more than a rock and roll book – it’’s a definitive social documentary – and fair to say that Dix was no mere bystander observing from the sidelines. As he said in an NZM interview when the revised edition was published in 2007, “You can’’t really write about rock’’n’’roll, you have to listen to it and live it. Well, that’’s what I did.”” 1988 was the year NZ Musician first hit the streets, so it makes for an appropriate piece of synchronicity to feature John as this 25th anniversary issue’’s guest of Moments Like These.

When were these photos taken and what were you all doing?

Both were taken by Graham Hooper at Whare Tapare, the Herbs’’ headquarters in Kingsland, following a disastrous Kiwi Rock concert at Carlaw Park, organised by Hugh Lynn and myself. It was supposed to be the first of eight concerts in January-February 1990, but the dismal turn out prompted Hugh to pull the plug. This concert featured a big band with Rodger Fox as MD, backing Tommy Adderley, The Chicks, Johnny Cooper, Maria Dallas, Sonny Day, Tommy Ferguson, Shane Hales, Red Hewitt, Dinah Lee, Bunny Walters, Mark Williams… Johnny Devlin pulled out for some reason, replaced by Max Merritt, already in the country for the second concert.

The colour photo i’s with Johnny Cooper, the ‘Maori Cowboy’, whom I’’d known for many years, long before Stranded. The lovely young lady is Melissa Balducci, my PA. The other pic is of the Tommys, Adderley and Ferguson.john dix moments b/w nzm151  Despite my seemingly high spirits, it wasn’’t a good time and I was up early the next day, cancelling flights and advising musos. I caught Kevin Borich heading out the door in Sydney and I managed to contact Dave Russell at Melbourne Airport! It was one of the worst days of my life. A lot of bands had reformed and rehearsed so Hugh and I weren’’t too popular for a while. Still, something was salvaged – Max & the Meteors played the Gluepot, their first NZ performance in 24 years. Ray Columbus & the Invaders did a couple of gigs, Bruno hosted a Blerta reunion at Waimarama and the Flying Nun concert went ahead at the Powerstation. As Hugh says, “We were before our time.””

What was your earliest awareness of music, and what got you started in writing about it?

I grew up in a small town in southwest Wales. Born in 1951 so that first wave of rock’’n’’roll passed me by. I had no real musical preferences until I heard Ray Charles when I was 9 or 10. After that it was mostly black American, even after The Beatles and Stones. My mates thought I was square because I preferred Ray, Sam Cooke, Jackie Wilson, Etta James, Ruth Brown. That was my music, although I loved the Stones because they liked the same music as me and they were total rebels, parents really did hate them – The Beatles were okay but the Stones were a no-go in south Wales.

I organised regular bus trips to Cardiff to see the Stones (twice), the Beach Boys, Hendrix, and the big one for me – the Stax Volt Revue with Otis Redding, Sam & Dave and co., probably my most memorable concert. I was a hopeless student, too easily distracted, but I had a talent for writing, the only thing I excelled at, and I was contributing to the local rag when I was 14.The family emigrated to Adelaide in 1967 and I wrote for the Daily News and Go-Set magazine while working for a booking agency, organising weekend dances. I was young and it was fun; it was only later that I realised I should have been getting paid a lot more. The better Adelaide bands gravitated to Melbourne or Sydney, and my preferences ran to black American music and I was a total fucking snob.

After all, I’d seen the Stax Volt Revue! So I had that supercilious attitude of ‘…they’’re pretty good for an Aussie-band’. That is until I saw Max Merritt & The Meteors in 1968. Max became my teenage hero, the coolest white man on the planet.

What was the catalyst for writing Stranded in Paradise? How you were able to consider such a huge endeavour?

The original concept was not a history but a look at Kiwi rock circa 1980. I spent time with a dozen bands of the era, from top line acts like Split Enz to unknowns like Rank & File and up-and-comers Daggy & the Dickheads. I planned to write one chapter as a brief history – I spent a couple of days at the Turnbull and a weekend with Phil Warren, figuring that’s all I needed, Bruno would fill in the gaps. But then all these acts started disbanding, almost immediately, in front of my very eyes – Th’’Dudes, Street Talk, Toy Love… The original publisher, Geoff Adams, then suggested an actual history, and so the saga began. Geoff went broke, a second publisher got cold feet over tales of drugs and debauchery, and the book was almost at the printers with a third publisher when the 1987 stock market crash sent the economy spiraling. The decision to self-publish followed.

Two friends, Diane Kearns and Max Rees, assembled a team to put the book together. Diane managed proceedings, Max was in charge of design. It was early days of desktop publishing and we were all amateurs – we had an Apple Mac and a computer whiz plus a typographer, a design team, a runner for typesetting and bromides, and a whole swag of mates as proof readers, including Bruno and Bill Direen. Fane Flaws dropped in one day to add his touch (the Swinging Sixties chapter, all Pop Art, is Fane’’s contribution). I presented David Ortega, a Polytech student, with a selection of Rick Bryant pix and he did the cover.The second edition was published by Penguin. In between signing the contract and the book’’s release, I became caregiver to my mate Bill Payne, writer and poet, who required a liver transplant. I thought it would be a piece of piss but, unfortunately, Bill’’s body wasn’’t up to it and at a time when my focus should have been on the book I was wondering if my mate was going to last the month. A lame excuse maybe but the book no longer seemed important.

Finlay MacDonald at Penguin was very supportive and he did much to ensure that the book came out. I signed off the galleys at Auckland Hospital, where Bill was having his 10th or 11th life-saving operation, and later discovered the mistakes, obvious ones which I should have picked up, but I guess I was too distracted. Bill died six weeks before the Penguin edition was released.

Where did you find the line ‘‘stranded in paradise’’?

‘Stranded here in paradise / How can a poor boy break the ice?’ – A Record with Pictures from New Zealand, from the first Street Talk album. I don’’t know who came up with that line, whether Hammond or that crazy American producer Kim Fowley…

Stranded in Paradise could be considered to mirror a similar destiny that surrounds a plethora of NZ slow selling LPs and singles. Did the effort and expectations impact on your career?

I have rarely been a full time writer so the set-backs were mere disappointments and, to be honest, the reason I persevered was because I felt like a prat and the longer it continued the more determined I became. For many years the subject was a great embarrassment. I interviewed over 400 people, that’’s a minimum 400 people greeting me with, ‘‘What’’s happening with the book, Dix?’’

Did it change me? I guess so. The reviews were positively glowing, that took me by surprise. I figured the music media would like it but not the mainstream book reviewers. Out of 50-odd reviews there was only one negative – David Cohen in the Evening Post. He called me a sycophant and said it was ‘badly written and poorly researched’. My publishing partners were outraged but I thought it was a hoot. We had great reviews in every major NZ publication plus the Melbourne Age, Sydney Morning Herald, several overseas fanzines and even Greil Marcus in the Village Voice.I have always stressed that Stranded was an attempt to paint the big picture. It’’s amazing the number of musos who hit me up, complaining that they didn’’t feature – I still get it today. But these people only read the index, they certainly didn’’t read the introduction.

I mentioned, and this is a no-brainer, that there were a dozen books or more about various aspects, eras or genres of NZ music. The first one came out within months – Roger Watkins’’ When Rock Got Rolling, covering the Wellington ’’60s scene – and now, of course, there are heaps out there, although few if any the equal to Chris Bourke’’s Blue Smoke.

Is that Stranded’’s legacy? It would have happened anyway and, besides, Stranded was not, strictly speaking, the first such book. In 1964 or ’’65 John Berry wrote Seeing Stars, a collection of profiles on NZ and visiting performers, from Sir Howie to Satchmo. But, yes, I’’m aware that Stranded is the benchmark by which other NZ music books are judged.

There must have been times when you thought, ‘‘What am I doing this for?’’

I don’’t know whether Stranded’’s highly subjective approach is part of its appeal and, looking back, maybe a more objective history is required, but shit music is shit music and being Kiwi doesn’’t let it off the hook. I was obliged to write about artists whose music is anathema to me but, jeez, a poor musical taste is no reason to crucify the poor fuckers and some of the nicest people in the business have been in the shittiest bands. For instance, I hate that song Saint Paul, but Shane Hales is my mate. He’’s got class and whenever I’’m in his audience he dedicates the song to me!

You’’ve remained prolific and industrious, what are some of the other writing and music projects you’’ve been involved with?

Okay, since Stranded in 1988: I was employed by The Gluepot. I worked on all five Mountain Rock Festivals, founder-editor of Real Groove magazine (they, Real Groovy Records, wanted to call it Maverick. Maverick?). Had my own Queenstown music venue. Established a South Island tour circuit and spent five years at Parihaka Pa as an administrator of the Parihaka International Peace Festival, the best gig I have ever worked on. Few have anything in common, and the difference between Mountain Rock and Parihaka is budget – difficult to get a sponsor if you’’re not selling alcohol.I have never considered myself a fulltime writer and I have always pursued other employment. Promoting and tour managing has featured prominently, and I worked in radio for five years, believing that I could actually affect change in that industry. Some hope – it gets worse by the year.

In my younger years I worked in shearing sheds, a railway gang, a biscuit factory. Last year I helped a mate on a project in Te Awamutu, time trialling a new device, filming milkers twice a day, up at 4am every morning, seven days a week for three months. In Te Awamutu! I can understand why the Finns rarely return.

What’’s the best book on music you have read?

Mystery Train by Greil Marcus. My original concept for a history book was largely based on Mystery Train. Such an approach would have spared me the task of writing up artists whose success I don’’t endorse. Marcus chose 20-odd acts and told their story, from the obvious to the obscure; each was self-contained but, as a whole, the book covers the whole of rock’n’roll. I still think it’’s the best book written on rock music, although I have to mention Stanley Booth’s, The True Adventures of the Rolling Stones, an intriguing if tragic subjective account of his experiences. Spend 12 months with the Stones and become a junky!

What’’s your take on the changes and challenges in publishing today?

I’’m still coming to grips with new publishing technology. I’’ve had several approaches re an e-book edition of Stranded and I am considering one right now but with a big difference – not one volume but six, each covering a specific era, starting with the years 1955–1962. This would allow me to go past the ‘big picture’ and really explore and celebrate the music-makers of each era. Early days yet and I’’ve yet to make a decision. I’’ll keep you posted.

Your favourite NZ song?

One song? Poi E, probably, all things considered, and maybe Heavenly Pop Hit runner-up.

What’’s the most meaningful thing that you’’ve experienced so far writing about Kiwi music?

It’’s only rock’’n’’roll…

The best advice you ever got was?

Close the door.