Goneville: A memoir by Nick Bollinger (Awa Press, 2016), 293 pp., $39
The Kiwi music memoir has arrived with a vengeance in recent years. Leading the way was Simon Grigg’s How Bizarre, chronicling his journey with South Auckland Polynesian pop-rap outfit OMC to the top of the world charts and then all the way down through bankruptcy, madness and, finally, death. A wild ride and a fine book. 2016’s In Love With These Times found author Roger Shepherd detailing how, in 1981, he founded the Flying Nun record label in a Christchurch record shop, crashing it in London some 15 years later. Shepherd writes sloppily – no cliché is left unturned – but he observes the rise of the South Island indie scene well and is unsentimental when passing judgement.
Nick Bollinger’s Goneville reaches back even further to the mid-1970s when he joined a Wellington band called Rough Justice and spent the next few years touring New Zealand. Where OMC sold millions of units across the globe with their ‘How Bizarre’ hit and Flying Nun possess a remarkable alt.rock legacy, Rough Justice never released a record and failed to achieve even local hero status. Where Grigg and Shepherd’s memoirs detail journeys to international success, Bollinger’s band only ever find an enthusiastic audience in rural towns where hippie communities have taken hold (the Coromandel and Blackball).
Goneville, with its mocking title, then might be considered as the literary equivalent of Anvil!, the documentary feature about a hapless Canadian heavy metal band who continue touring to disinterest. But where Anvil! bordered on mockumentary, Goneville is serious in chronicling a band who take to the road and find neither fame nor fortune. Bollinger realises, in reflection, that Rough Justice, without original songs or sound and touring in a bus painted psychedelic colours in emulation of Ken Kesey’s Merry Prankster vehicle, were born to lose. Still, the author’s love of the music and fond memories of that era make Goneville – the title is lifted from both a song Rough Justice sang and Gonville, the Whanganui town that produced Johnny Devlin, the Kiwi Elvis imitator who briefly enjoyed huge success in the 1950s – a homage to those who got out and played for the people. Even if the people were, in Rough Justice’s case, overwhelmingly disinterested.
Goneville succeeds by being much more than just a band biography. It is, initially, a memoir of a boy – born in the late 1950s – who grows up in a liberal Wellington family: his father, an ex-communist, is an academic, his mother arrived as a child of a Jewish family fleeing Nazi Germany. Young Nick takes to pop music as a Beatles-enamoured infant. By adolescence he is playing bass in high-school bands. A typical boy’s own story unfolds with music always at the forefront of his thoughts: when asked to dance at a concert by a female pupil he excuses himself with ‘I like the lead guitar in this song.’
Goneville then branches out from memoir into a biography of the Wellington rock scene with special emphasis on two men who helped shape it: Rick Bryant and Graeme Nesbitt. Having met when junior lecturers at Wellington University’s English department in the late 1960s, both were devoted to literature, contemporary music and marijuana. Bryant and Nesbitt also played in local bands, but it was Nesbitt’s energies as a promoter and band manager that really made a difference and helped develop a circuit of sorts for rockers to play at universities and in certain venues. Financing their activities via dealing marijuana would ensure this dynamic duo were separately jailed for such.
Alongside celebrating Nesbitt’s role in developing a Kiwi rock circuit – and launching glam rockers Dragon on the world (his connections here involved several dealers who would shape the murderous Mr Asia network) – Goneville provides a lesson in largely overlooked social history by detailing the likes of Peter Frater, inventor of psychedelic light shows, and music entrepreneurs Richard Holden and Charley Gray. Holden was a towering figure who pioneered the booking of bands in Lion’s chain of pubs and ruled his charges with fists of iron. While rock musicians liked to think of themselves in this post-Beatles era as artists, Holden insisted they existed only to entertain and ensure gallons of beer were swilled. His international bookings included Pilipino hotel bands and washed-up light entertainers – the apartheid-loving British trumpeter Eddie Calvert being, notes Bollinger, one infamous example.
Drugs and alcohol – and their distribution and role in music making – are Goneville’s twin themes. Bollinger brilliantly draws on his late father Conrad Bollinger’s pioneering work on the breweries (1967’s Grog’s Own Country) and the power and control they exerted over New Zealand society. While it ended way before Rough Justice’s era, Bollinger describes the primitive ritual of the ‘6 o’clock swill’, and how later, when licencing hours were extended (so bringing bands into bars), a siren would blare forth at10pm to clear bars of all drinkers. This is a raw boned, artless land he describes and younger readers may be shocked to realise their parents grew up in a nation run by barbarian puritans.
By the time Bollinger is called upon to audition for Rough Justice Mark II – Bryant boasts to him of having left the mutinous members of the earlier incarnation on the side of the road – it is 1976 and the author is at university but more interested in attempting to make a career as a musician. He eagerly signs on and receives an apprenticeship in making music for little reward. Still, he obviously valued the experience and remains a Bryant (to whom Goneville is dedicated) disciple. The reader may often shake their head at the author’s equanimity towards Bryant, the singer being too stoned and irascible to ensure Rough Justice moved forward, but Bollinger forgives his musical mentor and provides an un-romanticised report of trying to make music in the Muldoon era.
Actually, the Bryant era brings forth Goneville’s only real flaws. Mostly this is to do with the detail – or lack of it. Bollinger suggests the band’s meagre earnings were often sunk back into keeping the psychedelic bus roadworthy but suggests little on how the band members survived (dole? part-time jobs?) and on what (a diet of Big Ben meat pies? fish and chips?). Groupies, inter-band rivalries, illness and ego – the stuff of most rock memoirs – are also absent, likely because Bollinger remains close to most of the band members and does not wish to cause offence. Goneville is a far politer memoir than How Bizarre or In Love With These Times and, while more skilfully researched and written than either, this unwillingness to address the band’s guts means it lacks the sense of authority those books conveyed.
That noted, Bollinger doesn’t shy from describing how hapless Rough Justice were. He observes how flash Auckland rockers Hello Sailor and The Dudes quickly overtook his band (they had songs, style, star quality) and how, when his female flatmates formed The Wide Mouthed Frogs as a jest of sorts, they also immediately surpassed Rough and attract the stewardship of the now free Nesbitt. Rough justice, indeed.
By 1979 Bollinger finally realises that Bryant’s dream is never going to be shared by the public. Band over, Goneville reverts to memoir, detailing the author finding work as a postie and his engagement in the 1981 Springbok tour protests. It finishes with a round-up of the Kiwi rock scene at the time. Bruno Lawrence’s tangi and the passing of Nesbitt in Malaysia add codas to a book rich in local characters.
Bollinger writes throughout with a calm dignity. Even when detailing distressing events – his beloved father’s sudden death, the dissolution of Rough Justice – he maintains a measured tone. A more ambitious writer might have mined for greater emotional resonance and/or emphasised how Rough Justice were akin to Ronald Hugh Morrieson characters (with the Shakespeare-loving Bryant serving as a Kiwi Falstaff as they roared through the boondocks in a ramshackle psychedelic bus).
Instead, Bollinger, a gifted bassist and broadcaster, settles on telling a warm-hearted if occasionally earnest tale of rock dreams in a nation where few then dared dream. Goneville’s greatest success comes in its documenting of a simpler – if more barbaric – era and giving such forgotten figures as Graeme Nesbitt and Richard Holden their due.
GARTH CARTWRIGHT is a New Zealand-born, London-based journalist and critic. He is the author of several books, including Sweet As: Journeys in a New Zealand summer, and the forthcoming Going for A Song: The great British record shop as oracle.