It was the best of pubs, it was the worst of pubs.
In his memoir In Love With these Times: My Life With Flying Nun Records, Roger Shepherd says of the Cook: ‘It was a terrible dive. Some remember it fondly, but mostly what I remember is the incredibly sticky bar top.’
Image copyright Fairfax NZ, by Hamish McNeilly
Back at the refurbished Cook, more than three decades after the period being described, Shepherd last night sat down with music writer and aficionado Grant Smithies to chew the fat about his memories of founding and maintaining independent record label Flying Nun. It was a low fi affair: Shepherd and Smithies sat on black chairs under a naked bulb toward the back of the stage; the audience hung back, hands in pockets or clutching a beer like it was a gig, awaiting The Verlaines perhaps or maybe The Clean. It had been like that getting in too: a line down the street waiting for the doors to open, Graeme Downes prowling around with a cigarette, fans breathing steam and exchanging opinions disguised as facts. There was one major difference, clear in the light thrown by the beer fridges: the audience members were all of a certain age and they were all well dressed. The audience of 1987 was literally here again in 2017, nodding, sometimes guffawing, listening quietly as Shepherd and Smithies reminisced.
Then it really was a gig. Verlaines front man Downes was suddenly behind the microphone in his trademark suit and scarf and pointy shoes, untamed hair, a thin legged poet with a mighty voice. Then that was over too, curtailed by a broken guitar string, also a trademark ‘If I had a dollar for every string…’ Downes muttered, and lay his instrument down to join Shepherd, Smithies, Robert Scott, Francisca Griffin and Roy Colbert at the back of the stage for another casual conversation.
Aside from former owner of iconic Dunedin secondhand store Records Records, Roy Colbert (once named in the Otago Daily Times as the seventeenth most influential citizen in Dunedin), the speakers were all musicians in bands championed by Flying Nun through the eighties. They offered a range of anecdotes about this golden age of New Zealand music. Francisca Griffin, formerly known as Kathy Bull, lamented how every interviewer always wanted to know what it was like to be in her all female band Look Blue Go Purple; Shepherd dismissed the easy label ‘Dunedin sound’ that had been given to Flying Nun bands – ‘They all sounded completely different!’.
Bob Scott, bassist for The Clean and The Bats amongst other bands, remembered the casual violence outside and after gigs, involving the bodgees vs the scarfies or in one case police officers seemingly practising their baton techniques in preparation for the Springbok tour protestors; Downes spoke of the competition between bands, how someone or other was always raising the bar; Colbert recalled a shipment of The Clean album sleeves arriving devoid of actual records, ‘the kind of thing that happened sometimes with Flying Nun’.
As discussion again gave way to performance, as Griffin, Scott and Downes played solo sets, the festival audience settled into pub crowd mode, yakking and making their own connections. Snippets could be overheard: ‘Didn’t you used to flat next door to us in Cumberland Street?’ ‘You were the manager of Radio One for a time weren’t you?’ ‘Did you see them at The Oriental in ‘86?’
And as the crowd dispersed, propelled down the stairs, out into the starry night, it seemed that the value of the night lay in the rekindling of these conversations, in the warmth of a remembered and shared time. For this, there is good reason to thank Roger Shepherd and the flock of Flying Nun bands, good reason to thank the Readers and Writers Festival for bringing them back together, good reason to be in love with these times.
Attended and reviewed by Aaron Blaker on behalf of Booksellers NZ
In Love With these Times: My Life With Flying Nun Records
by Roger Shepherd
Published by HarperCollins