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Chris Bourke And What Music Used To Be

Writers and Readers 2012
Chris Bourke And What Music Used To Be

Reviewed by Megan Doyle Corcoran

Walking into the Embassy to hear Chris Bourke and Nick Bollinger in conversation, I was immediately hopeful that we’d hear more of the ukulele and scratchy vinyl playing for the audience. No such luck. Still, I couldn’t be disappointed. Because of Chris Bourke, author of Blue Smoke: The Lost Dawn of New Zealand Popular Music 1918-1964, I’ve got something new to imagine in place of the normal, inebriated chaos of Courtenay Place. Now, I can substitute the ghosts of all the musicians who came to record and play at burgeoning recording studios like Tanza (To Assist New Zealand Artists), which, by the way, recorded Blue Smoke in 1948. It was the first record wholly processed in New Zealand. I realize that my new ghosts may not be any less raucous than the crowds generally assembled, and that’s fine. If anything, they’ll add a little flavor.

Bourke and Bollinger are clearly music nerds. They love and live music, and earn their keep in music-writing. Fortunate guys. Chris got his start early. As a fan of Mad Magazine, he wanted to write something comparable. He was 10. It was the height of his devotion to The Beatles. He started his own magazine and called it Seltaeb. He says he liked the way the name looked sort of Latin, but I wonder if it was also a tribute to The Beatles’s backward instrumentation on Revolver. There was no time to ask. Sigh.

But this session, like Bourke’s book, was not about the total dynamic shift that followed the introduction of rock n’ roll to New Zealand. This was about what came before, which was not silent and not boring either. Bourke ascribes the common assumption that there was no fun had prior to Bill Haley’s Rock Around the Clock to two things: 1) the arrogance of rock era writers and 2) pure and simple generational distancing. No one wanted to admit to liking the stuff that came before. Bourke had a sense, however, that fun did occur prior to rock’s upheaval of all things right and decent. His mother, he said, dropped a few hints alluding to a boisterous jazz scene in Wellington. Artie Shaw, for example, came in the early ‘40s to play. He stayed at the Midland Hotel on Lambton Quay because the boat sheds at Oriental Bay were not good enough for him, or maybe for his wife, who could have been some beautiful starlet like Lana Turner or Ava Gardner. Crowds queued outside the hotel waiting for a glimpse of him. It was The Beatles, with a little less mania.

Bourke compiled the information in Blue Smoke from exhaustive research but all research has to start somewhere. He had a few anecdotes from musicology professors, stumbled into an acquaintance with a man who had a garage full of clippings on New Zealand jazz musicians and he had the Broadcast Library. When he found a Farmer’s mail-order catalogue from 1925 that offered a lap steel guitar, he knew the popularity of Hawaiian music had to be pretty extensive. According to Bourke, it would have first hit New Zealand in 1912 and songs like Haere Mai and When My Wahine Does the Poi are examples of the influence.

Bourke dispelled two myths about music as he talked. First, New Zealand was never so isolated as you might think. Ships traveled to and from Sydney, Vancouver and San Francisco carrying passengers who needed to be entertained. That meant musicians came along too. And every stop gave those musicians access to local music and each other. Sheet music and new records made their way into New Zealand with easy speed. Second, New Zealand’s music has never been subpar. Well-trained and talented musicians who played for the silent films moved along to dance bands when the talkies arrived. Then they covered rock n’ roll bands when NZ broadcasting standards wouldn’t permit anything as hectic as Chubby Checker’s Twist to play on air. And then, well, they continued to develop their own thing. Kiwiana music from the 50s and 60s Tanza period boasted the best musicians in town and based on everything Bourke described, it’s impossible that people weren’t having a lot of fun listening to it.

For more on Bourke’s discoveries and New Zealand music, check out his blog at http://bluesmokebook.wordpress.com/