Chris Knox: career iconoclast
Jan 16, 2010
It was a big week for Chris Knox. It began with a Laureate Award from the Arts Foundation in acknowledgement of his unique contribution to the arts in this country, sealed with a $50,000 cheque. It concluded with a sold-out concert at the Kings Arms to launch an all-star CD set of his songs. In between there were media calls, photo shoots, plaudits in the papers and a television feature on Campbell Live.
The musician, performer, cartoonist, critic, television presenter and pioneer of lo-tech pop handled all the attention with a familiar mischievous glee, which would not have been surprising but for the fact that five months earlier, on 11 June 2009, he had suffered a major stroke which has left him with limited control of his body, mental confusion and virtually no speech.
And yet at these very public events - the first he had really been involved in since the stroke - Knox appeared his essential self, charming and challenging in roughly equal measures.
I had been invited to the Laureates presentation with Chris’s close friend and founder of the Flying Nun record label Roger Shepherd, to accept the award on Chris’s behalf. Chris’s partner, Barbara Ward, had been unsure whether Chris, who was still staying at the rehabilitation centre where he was undergoing intensive therapy, would make it to the evening ceremony. But he did, and when Roger and I stepped from the stage to hand the trophy to the seated singer he rose swiftly to his feet, grabbed the heavy bronze Terry Stringer statuette and brandished it at the 450 attendees, while roaring what might have been an affirmation of triumph or the closing bar of a punk anthem.
Three nights later he was roaring again, this time on the stage of Auckland’s King’s Arms. The occasion was the launch of Stroke – Songs For Chris Knox: a two-disc set of Chris Knox songs, recorded and gifted by various artists to raise money towards Knox’s recovery.
The capacity crowd was there to honour Knox and hear some of his songs played by a line-up that included some of New Zealand’s most revered musicians: Neil Finn, Don McGlashan, Shayne Carter and David Kilgour, among others. Few expected to see Knox himself, nor were prepared for what they witnessed.
Mounting the high stage with assistance, Knox confidently positioned himself in the centre, grabbed the microphone with his good hand and stood eyeballing the crowd. A look of subversive purpose took me straight back to the first time I had seen him, fronting Toy Love in the late 70s. As the band – a kind of alt-rock supergroup led by guitar legend David Kilgour – launched into a two-chord riff, Knox began an improvised song, wordless yet gut-wrenching, abstract yet powerfully musical, reminiscent more than anything of the cathartic John Lennon and Yoko Ono ‘primal’ Plastic Ono Band albums that have always been a musical touchstone for him. After just a few minutes and a decisive cue to Kilgour it was over, leaving an audience both drained and exhilarated. It was perhaps the briefest, certainly the most emotionally charged, rock’n’roll set I have seen.
In many ways it was a classic Chris Knox performance. In spite of the wordlessness of his singing - peculiar for someone particularly noted for the acuity of his lyrics - it was easy to be convinced, as many were, that his recovery had been complete.
And as the night rolled on, with each of the guest performers inspired to take unusual risks and give something extra of themselves, one could almost imagine that there had never been a stroke at all but simply that the time had come for this singular, substantial, and widely-admired body of song to be honoured.
As for the Laureate, the Arts Foundation had made its decision to grant Knox one of 2009’s five awards three days before the stroke occurred. When the Foundation’s Simon Bowden called Barbara Ward as Knox lay in Auckland Hospital, his announcement of the grant decision shone as a single bright moment in an otherwise dark time.
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Chris Knox may now officially be a cultural icon, but he is hardly a typical one; more like a career iconoclast. Born in 1952, he was brought up by adoptive parents in Invercargill, where from a young age he was noticed for his artistic abilities and lively imagination. By the early 70s he was in Dunedin, supposedly for tertiary study. Instead, he wound up working a series of dead-end jobs – postman, forklift driver, factory hand – while his evenings would frequently be spent drinking, dreaming and creating mayhem.
“Me and Mick Dawson, who ended up as the bass player in my first band, were idiot dancers supreme at the Captain Cook”, Knox recalled when I interviewed him last March. “Any band that came along that had even the faintest bit of rhythm, we would get up and do these ridiculous dances. I’m no dancer but I’m happy to work to my liabilities and restrictions and it was definitely a kind of performance, in that having an epileptic fit is a kind of performance.”
Though he had been a devoted Beatles fan and admirer of Split Enz when they were still Split Ends, it was not until punk arrived in 1977, with its pledge to purge the planet of dinosaur rockers, that Knox made his musical move.
“I was working at a friend’s record shop for a couple of weeks and it was just as ‘Neat Neat Neat’, the first English punk single, hit New Zealand. I made a little display of it and these two guys who were 7 years younger came in and said ‘Oh man, you’ve got the Damned single, fantastic!’ We started talking and it transpired they were fine arts students and they were having an end of year concert in 5 or 6 weeks. They were playing together as drummer and guitarist and needed a bass player, and I said, “I can play bass”. So I went along and disproved that theory, but showed them I could write songs and we were a band, bang. We searched around for a name, sitting around in the pub, and someone was reading the NME (New Musical Express) and we thought NME? Enemy! That’s good. The Enemy. ‘Cause all of the pub bands were playing vile stuff like the Doobie Brothers, so we were the enemy to that complacent, middle-class, lowbrow music.”
The Enemy’s sense of mission was reinforced by the response to their first gig. “It was indelible. We managed to come up with 12 originals, and probably half of them were really quite good. The crowd went apeshit and at the end made us play them all again, and backstage afterwards we went ‘Holy shit, we are the best band in the world and they understand’, and stayed up all night saying, ‘this is it, there’s no going back now’.”
In fact the Enemy lasted little more than a year, splitting up after repeating in Auckland the impact they had had in Dunedin. But from the remnants came Toy Love, who combined the Enemy’s punk purpose with an underlying sophistication, stemming from Knox’s formidable intellect and longstanding love of the Beatles and other pre-punk pop.
As a frontman, Knox was fearless and peerless. To get a reaction out of audiences, he would sometimes slash his arms or head with pieces of glass, while seducing them with his irresistible choruses, cunningly crafted lyrics and Lennon-esque singing. With a major label signing and an Australian-recorded album, Toy Love seemed ready to take on the world.
Yet by the mid-1980, after a demoralising slog around the Australian pub circuit, Toy Love, too, had disbanded. Knox vowed he would never deal again with major record labels, orthodox recording studios or bands of more than two members.
From now on he would make music solely on his own terms. With a small inheritance he bought a 4-track reel-to-reel tape recorder and began to change the world, his own way.
With Alec Bathgate, guitarist in both the Enemy and Toy Love, he formed the duo Tall Dwarfs, and began recording their songs in bedrooms, bathrooms and corridors. With fellow recording boffin Doug Hood, he hauled his 4-track around the country to make the first recordings of groups such as the Clean, the Chills and the Verlaines for Roger Shepherd’s fledgling independent label, Flying Nun.
When these records began to dent local sales charts, it became clear that here was a model for frustrated musicians; a fresh set of musical values based on doing it yourself. Over the next decade or so, Knox’s recordings would change not just the way music was made in this country but influence a movement of alternative musicians overseas as well.
Knox’s uncompromising character didn’t always win him friends. There were musicians and listeners who resisted his lo-tech aesthetic, refused to hear the richness of ideas in his do-it-yourself recordings, or were affronted by lyrics that unflinchingly addressed ugliness, old age, illness, sexuality and other subjects normally avoided in pop music or polite conversation.
In person Knox could be abrasive. I once saw him brush off another musician, to whom he had just been introduced, saying: “I’ve never met you before and I’ve never wanted to.” And the prickly persona, combined with the lo-tech nature of his work, means in some circles the real artistic depth of his work is still overlooked, while his un-star-like attire – he would usually perform in shorts and jandals – confounds most people’s image of how a pop star should be.
In spite of this he has become a national presence, popping up on television as film critic or arts presenter, while his cartoons and comic strips have featured regularly in newspapers and magazines. And paradoxically this scorner of sentiment has written the Great New Zealand Love Song. ‘Not Given Lightly’ claimed a high rank in the Nature’s Best collection of most-loved New Zealand compositions, and in spite of being full of the specifics of Knox’s own relationship (“this is a love song for John and Leisha’s mother/it wasn’t easy, I might not write another”) its resonance is universal.
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Roy Martyn had long been an admirer of Knox’s music when he first worked with him five years ago, as recording engineer & co-producer for the self-titled debut album of Chris Knox and the Nothing, a trio Knox formed with drummer Stefan Neville and bass player Jol Mulholland, and the closest thing to a conventional ‘band’ he has fronted since Toy Love. (The group would become a quartet for its second album with the addition of Martyn on guitar). But Martyn had not fully appreciated the depth of Knox’s musicality until it came time to record the vocals.
“Everything he was doing was amazing, from the second he started singing to the moment he finished. He’s not like a lot of other vocalists who will sing for ten minutes and then want a cup of tea or a lie down or go outside for a fag. He was bopping around the microphone and acting out the characters in the songs, this amazing performance for me alone, for eight hours! It was staggering.”
It was Martyn, in the days immediately following Knox’s stroke, who came up with the idea of a fundraising album. “I’d been pretty close to Chris and Barbara for a period of time, so the trauma of what was happening and how upsetting that was, was sort of balanced against having another focal point where you knew you were doing something useful.
“On one level it was incredibly easy to pull it all together. I just started firing off emails, and emails started coming back saying ‘sure’. There were the Flying Nun people at the beginning, the obvious people to ask: David and Hamish Kilgour (of the Clean), Martin Phillipps (the Chills). And as it sort of spiralled out, more people got on board with it.
“Without getting too hippy about it, there was just this big spiralling outward zone of goodwill. And in my experience with Chris things are often like this. Things that other people in the music business have found incredibly difficult or nigh on impossible, for some reason around Chris they are fairly easy. Most people in the music business are trying to make something happen. They are trying to become famous or trying to get attention whereas Chris is actually the other way around. People are aware that Chris has something and they are curious because Chris is an interesting person.”
Along with many of Knox’s old indie rock colleagues are some surprising contributions from representatives of the popular mainstream. Boh Runga delivers a personalised ‘Not Given Lightly’, while Jordan Luck offers a brave reading of “Becoming Something Other”, Knox’s unblinking song to a dying father. Stroke – Songs For Chris Knox is also strewn with the kind of throwaway pop confections Knox not-so-secretly loved: hear the insanely hooky ‘It’s Love’, performed by Neil Finn, his wife Sharon and sons Liam and Ellroy as The Pyjama Party.
And there are contributions from some of the offshore acts that took inspiration from Knox’s groundbreaking lo-tech productions, and subsequently became his friends and touring partners. It was Tall Dwarfs’ Hello Cruel World album that had first excited New Jersey alt-rockers Yo La Tengo in the late 80s. “That really overwhelmed me”, recalls guitarist Ira Kaplan. “The songs sounded familiar yet unlike anything I’d ever heard before. The aggression and beauty and just the sounds were incredible.”
Had he sensed an immediate kinship between Yo La Tengo and what Knox and Bathgate were doing? “I wouldn’t have been presumptuous enough to have found a kinship in the music of Tall Dwarfs, no. They were too good.”
Kentucky singer-songwriter Will Oldham, aka Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy, delivers a bare emotional reading of ‘My Only Friend’, a song that can be heard as a starker sequel to ‘Not Given Lightly’. Inhabiting the song was, he says, both “effortless and painful. I thought the words seemed difficult to say in the best of times, making it more important to re-voice them while Chris's own voice is hibernating.”
But Knox’s voice is not entirely absent from Stroke – Songs For Chris Knox. A couple of Knox’s recent recordings are included as bonus tracks: one with The Nothing, the other with fellow Tall Dwarf Alec Bathgate. Although wordless, Knox’s vocalisations are instantly recognisable.
Meanwhile a new Tall Dwarfs album is approaching completion. Bathgate and Knox had already recorded the backing tracks at the time of the stroke. Though the recording’s future was initially thrown into doubt, it soon became apparent how essential it was to Chris to keep making music. Friends began gathering at his rehab unit on Thursday nights, bringing guitars and singing songs.
As soon as he was able, Knox was returning home for weekends where he and Bathgate, with assistance from Martyn, resumed tinkering with the Tall Dwarfs tracks.
Roy Martyn: “I’d been talking to Alec about it and I said, ‘You’re obviously going to have to come up with all the words’. And he came back to me and said, ‘No, actually. I think we should go with Chris on this one and have no words on the album. Let’s not pretend, or cover up Chris’s stroke.’”
“And I think Chris has been like that from the word go. ‘Okay, I’ve had a stroke. People have strokes’.
“He’s a realist. Not many people have the guts to write about the reality of their own death, and yet we’re all going to die, there’s no mystery to that, and he’s always been pretty clear about those things in his songs. He’s certainly not deluded in any regard and I think that has paid off, ‘cause I don’t think he’s felt a ‘why me?’ self-pity with the stroke.
“And my experience of Chris has always been very much that weird mixture of complete acceptance of life and, at the same time, just going for it.”