Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Book Review: Goneville, a memoir, by Nick Bollinger

Goneville: "it's a place you could almost find on a map, but not quite" ...

In Nick Bollinger's preface for Goneville, the author describes the two New Zealands he grew up in – the one where males worshipped rugby and beer, and a rather more free-spirited bohemian one, where art and music was at the centre of everything. No prizes for guessing which version Bollinger found himself more comfortable in. In fact, Bollinger embraced the latter with such ease, he'd eventually go on to become not only an accomplished musician, but something of a highly influential tastemaker in his role as an arts critic, columnist, and music reviewer for the NZ Listener, and more recently, with Radio NZ.
Goneville, nowhere near Wanganui
Goneville works on a couple of different levels. Firstly, it’s Bollinger's memoir, his account of growing up in Wellington during the late 1960s and early 1970s. Secondly, it’s a detailed – if not quite complete – history of the capital’s music scene throughout the 1970s and into the 1980s, as seen through the eyes of a man who was very much at the heart of that particular scene. There’s also a natural crossover into all things social and political, and it provides a genuine snapshot of a world – or of a fledgling nation – that we’ve, for better or for worse, long since left behind.

Things jump around a little bit to begin with, but much of the early part of the book deals with Bollinger's childhood – with stories about growing up in 1960s Wellington, attending Onslow College, discovering music, and an acknowledgement of the hugely positive role his free-thinking, academic father (who died while Bollinger was still in his teens) had in shaping his own worldview.

From there we move into the core of the book, covering off Bollinger’s formative musical experiences; sneaking into gigs whilst still underage, playing wild-west-type gigs with school friends in the Hutt Valley, and being inspired by bands like Mammal, Blerta, Space Waltz, and early Split Enz (Split Ends), to name just a few. 

During his time at university, Bollinger was recruited as the bass player for Rick Bryant’s blues and soul-based collective, Rough Justice, and much of the book deals with his weed-ravaged experiences on the road, something of a hand-to-mouth existence, travelling in what might loosely be described as a “hippy bus”, as the band traversed the nether regions of New Zealand’s live music circuit.

Bryant features heavily throughout, along with local promoter-come-Dragon manager Graeme Nesbitt, plus there’s a fair bit about the late great Bruno Lawrence. Bollinger writes passionately and at length about each man. He clearly reserves a special affection for Bryant in particular, and the much-travelled rocker is the key protagonist in several of the more humorous anecdotes on offer.  

“He (Bryant, whilst driving the bus) starts telling me about the soul singer Joe Tex. This leads into an analysis of Tolstoy and winds up with the history of the New Zealand labour movement. It feels as though I have stayed at university, although it's hard to say what paper I have enrolled in.”

Onetime Lion Breweries promoter Richard Holden also features prominently, and there’s real insight into just how difficult it was for local bands to find the right balance between being able to earn a living, and fulfilling a wider ambition to produce original work. 

Richard Holden, on bands looking for work in brewery-owned establishments: “There has been some good original music but a lot of original rubbish. They will have to realise that we're not in the musical genius business. We're in the entertainment business.”

There’s also some interesting stuff around the breweries' attempts to control or monopolise nightlife and the live music circuit, with nepotism and licensing restrictions making it near impossible for venues like Wellington's Last Resort and Charley Gray's Auckland club, Island of Real (just two examples of many), to become fully licensed. Bands and promoters were forced to play a game imposed upon them by the beer barons if they wanted any level of exposure – beyond, by dint of some miracle, landing a “hit record”.
Rough Justice, 1978, Bollinger - bottom right
Later in the book, Bollinger deals with the demise of Rough Justice and writes extensively on just how much the landscape had changed by 1980, due in part to the arrival of punk on these shores. Near the conclusion, coinciding roughly with Bollinger travelling overseas to expand his musical horizons, he looks at the hugely divisive Springbok rugby tour of 1981, and his own involvement with the protest movement.
In some respects, Bollinger completes a full circle by the end. The counter-culture that took him under its wing in the early-to-mid 1970s had, according to all other accounts, supposedly died by the early 1980s. Yet in the form of punk and the protest movement, here it was again, reinventing or manifesting itself in a remarkably similar way.

Writing about the ultra-conservative Robert Muldoon gaining a third term in office as Prime Minister in 1981: “He (Muldoon) often talked about ‘the ordinary bloke’, a notional person on whose behalf he was fighting. The ordinary bloke seemed to be a New Zealand male who just wanted to be able to do a day’s work, go home, drink beer, and watch rugby. Anyone with progressive views on education, environment, or equality, was the Prime Minister’s natural enemy.”

Which is pretty much where we came in.

There’s a generous helping of black and white photos scattered throughout the book, all meticulously documented in the closing pages, multiple sources (of quotes and other content) are noted and acknowledged in great detail, and as you’d expect from someone of Bollinger’s pedigree, there’s even an extensive “selected discography” referencing the work of many of the bands covered in the book.

It’s an important book. Not just for fans of the Wellington music scene of yester-year, but for anyone keen on the social history of New Zealand. You simply won’t find anyone else more qualified to write about this stuff. Recommended.

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