I know this place. This was your garden.
This is where you spent each day for thirty years, until you began to look like something that had grown here. Barkish skin, fingers dyed with dirt, arms like tough old twigs.
You could never leave, you said, because they depended on you. Horned poppy and honeywort. You knew which needed shelter, and which could stand the wind.
Now it is three years since you took the birdfeeders down because you wouldn’t be leaving sugarwater for those fat tui again. It is three years since you carried your last sack of sea wrack up from the beach and over the hill to spread around these bushes with the blood and bone.
I was ready to see this garden gone. I thought its life was tied to yours. But the garden didn’t die. It just went mad without you. The things you’d tamed turned lawless. The weeds went to war with the flowers. I thought your absence would look like a hole or space, but your absence is busy and wild.
Not everything has changed. Those succulents remain, stoic on that sandy bank where you left them. You knew they’d take care of themselves.
Your days in this garden were all about decisions. I see that now: where to dig, where to sow, how to live and when to go.
‘Play Nasty For Me’
Recording is a type of sorcery that allows you to travel through time. It can bring back the breath of the dead. Or it can transport you to a lost moment in adolescence — as I discovered in 2014 when a reel of tape came into my possession. The object felt magical in my hands: an old box with splitting sides and a peeling label with ‘MAMMAL — LIVE (Nelson) Dec’ 74’ scrawled in biro. The shiny brown tape inside was wound a couple of inches thick around a brittle plastic spool — what magnetic secrets did it hold?
This artifact belonged to the late Graeme Nesbitt and was a recording of the band Mammal, of whom he was sometimes referred to as the manager. It captured them on a typical night away from their Wellington home, playing to an audience of — well, who exactly? It’s hard to tell. There’s no applause. Nobody shouts ‘Good evening Nelson! Are you ready to rock?’, so we never know who might have shouted back. At one point a passing punter has found the microphone that is being used to make the recording — I see it positioned on a solitary stand somewhere in the centre of an old wooden community hall — and, wrapping his entire mouth around it, issues a series of primal howls. For maybe twenty seconds, this almost entirely cancels out the sound of the band. Finally he roars out his only intelligible words: ‘MYYYY NAAAAME IIIIIS!…,’ at which point someone — I’m guessing Nesbitt — tears the mic away from him and the identity of this rock‘n’roll animal is lost forever (though his immortality is assured by the existence of this tape.) The band, now in the midst of a stratospheric instrumental, becomes audible again.
I was not in the audience that night in Nelson, and yet the sound was strangely and instantly familiar. It was a song I’d heard so long ago that it seemed like a dream — like the reunion of The Beatles I’d once watched from the side of the stage until the alarm clock woke me. Or maybe I had misheard it. Perhaps the melody and lyrics that had faded in and out of my memory for the past forty years were quite different from what had actually been sung. The truth is, I had never been able to recall many of the words, or even much of the tune. Mostly it was just a refrain I’d heard at a rock show in Victoria University’s Student Union Hall one Friday night in my early teens. It went ‘Play nasty for me…’, and here it was on the tape.
No wonder the memory was dreamlike. The song itself is a dream. It has its own dream-logic, in which one place can suddenly become another, and the most improbable group of characters can find themselves in the same story.
It starts out as an old-time country song, a two-step dance tune in attempted four-part harmony. ‘Well I’m only the back door to the motel of your heart…’ groan the singers, tired and off-key, like it’s three in the morning at the Goneville R.S.A and there are just two couples shuffling around the dancefloor, clinging to each other to stay upright, and one drunk sprawled out with his head in the bass drum, and the bar manager has told the band that if they want to get paid then they’ve gotta play one more song but if it isn’t ‘Ten Guitars’ then it better be something everyone knows. It is neither, though it could be one of ten thousand country laments.
Well you trampled on my feelings
And you walked across my pride
Now the maître d has drawn the drapes
On the emptiness inside
And the switchboard that connects your heart to mine
Has broken down somewhere along the line
And the old-time band ignores my heartfelt plea
play nasty for me’ *
And on that last line something unexpected happens: there is a scream, a howl of electricity from centre stage, and suddenly the RSA is a psychedelic ballroom. Robert Taylor, Mammal’s lead guitarist, is playing nasty, his Stratocaster screaming in torment, while somewhere in the background the refrain continues – now as a raucous affirmation.
Play nasty for me!
The sleepy country song was just a bluff. This band is wide-awake and firing riffs like rockets. And yet this part of the song turns out to be a bluff as well, as it gives way to a wistful melody sung in half-time.
Homer standing by the plow
He’d go home but he don’t know how *
Homer? Now what is Homer doing here? This song, in its first three minutes, has already insisted that it won’t be tethered to the verse-chorus structure of the typical pop song, that it can — and will — go anywhere. But the appearance of the old Greek bard suggests not merely a detour from the norm but an epic, an odyssey, borne out over the next twenty-five minutes as this single song journeys through surf music, heavy metal, space jazz, bucolic folk… always trying to get home to that refrain.
Play nasty for me!
In 1974 ‘Play Nasty For Me’ was more than just a memorable hook in a strange song. It was a pop-cultural joke that any audience that night in Nelson would surely have smiled at. Play Misty For Me, the film that starred Clint Eastwood — and also marked the actor’s debut as a director — had recently screened in New Zealand cinemas. It tells the story of a disc jockey, stalked by an unhinged fan who obsessively requests the old Errol Garner tune ‘Misty’. Working musicians in New Zealand could relate to Eastwood’s character, subjected as they often were to similar demands from drunken punters. Steve Hemmens, Mammal’s first bass player, still recalls the night a bottle-wielding thug strode up to the bandstand, stood so close you could smell his alcoholic breath and demanded: ‘Play Help! — or you’ll need it.’
Back in the Nelson hall, ‘Play Nasty For Me’ cojures a parade of characters that might be refugees from Bob Dylan’s ‘Desolation Row.’ Homer meets Surfer Joe as Mammal’s drummer Kerry Jacobson strikes up a pounding tom-tom beat straight off a Surfaris single, while somewhere a trumpet begins to play ‘Oh Mein Papa,’ as though a bewildered Eddie Calvert has stumbled into the hall and, not realizing he is on the wrong stage, whipped out his horn and launched into his 1954 hit. Calvert was an English trumpet player and all-round entertainer whose successful career had been eclipsed in the Sixties by the rise of pop groups like The Beatles. But the beat boom wasn’t his only bugbear. He was also a vocal opponent of Harold Wilson, Britain’s Labour Prime Minister. By the end of the decade the avowedly right-wing Calvert had decamped to South Africa, where he recorded a version of the hymn ‘Amazing Grace,’ retitled ‘Amazing Race,’ in tribute to Ian Smith’s racist Rhodesian government. Around the time of this odious ode, Calvert was hired by Richard Holden, Entertainment Manager of New Zealand Breweries, to undertake a New Zealand tour, performing exclusively in taverns owned by the NZB.
On the Nelson recording, it is actually Mark Hornibrook, Mammal’s bass player and former National Youth Orchestra trumpeter — who is blowing the horn. But the fact that Calvert was actually touring the country — at the same time Mammal were trouping through the backblocks — is one of those coincidences on which the surreal world of ‘Play Nasty For Me’ is built.
We then hear a singer (probably Mammal’s Tony Backhouse) joining the chorus of ‘Oh Mein Papa’ in a full fruity tenor, like a drunken Eddie Fisher, whose vocal version of the same song had been a hit just a year before Calvert’s. Eventually the two Eddies realize they are in the wrong song, the wrong city, the wrong universe, and head for the exit as Taylor launches into a twanging riff reminiscent of Dick Dale, King Of The Surf Guitar, which he concludes with a long scrape down the E-string like a missile aimed to drive these pre-rock interlopers out the door. Things gradually settle into a circular sequence of chords as Taylor solos, now using his wah-wah pedal, which lends his notes a snarling tone that says ‘fuck off, and don’t come back!’.
Musical worlds continue to collide and collapse into each other: guitar-menace dissolves into smooth Buffalo Springfield-style harmony, which in turn is overpowered by rock-a-boogie as someone begins to wail the white man’s blues, until the whole thing unwinds again into cacophony. Strings bend and squeal, and a saxophone howls like a cat in heat. ‘It must be all them drugs they are taking…’ mutters what might be a bewildered onlooker but is in fact singer Rick Bryant giving voice to the general consensus.
Hornibrook, now back on bass, lets his fingers wander abstractedly about the fretboard, guitars chime and familiar chords start to emerge from the murk. It’s that old chorus again, though no one is singing it now. One of the guitars insinuates the ‘Play Nasty’ riff and we’re back into the theme for a few bars. There’s another scream, a few more stanzas of four-part harmony: guitars again, with Taylor accelerating his solo until it soars. Someone starts playing the riff from The Beatles ‘Day Tripper,’ which only spurs Taylor on. And then, with a final purgative howl, Bryant vomits out the chorus one last time.
In a climax as heroic as that of any rock opus, Kerry Jacobson pummels his drums in a series of John Bonham-style ba-da-la-bump-ba-da-la-bumps and the song comes to an end, followed by… nothing. Twenty-odd years of popular music — if not the entire history of lyric poetry, from Homer to Hendrix — have just flashed past in twenty-five minutes and no one seems to have noticed.
And that could almost be the story of New Zealand rock in the early 1970s. While the Breweries’ circuit hosted covers acts, showbands and faded offshore entertainers like Eddie Calvert, original groups were forced to create their own circuit of provincial halls, university campuses, unlicensed clubs, occasional festivals and street parties, little of their music ever finding its way onto disc.
Not that anyone else was playing anything quite like ‘Play Nasty For Me’. The song is sui generis: a singular, extraordinary piece of work. No record was ever released, no studio recording ever made. This was the age of the rock epic, with British prog-rock groups like Pink Floyd and Yes creating suites that took up entire sides of albums, but ‘Play Nasty For Me’ has little in common with these. What it does resemble — slightly — is the early work of Frank Zappa and his group The Mothers Of Invention, whose early work is full of such collage and jump-cuts; or The Beatles, whose ‘Happiness Is A Warm Gun’ packs a genre tour of folk, hard rock and doo-wop into three minutes.
But there is nowhere on the planet, other than a half-empty hall in Nelson that night in 1974, where you would have heard this. ‘Play Nasty For Me’ is a dialectic of pop, pitched from a place at the bottom of the world, upside down in the middle of nowhere, so far off the map that normal rules don’t apply. It could only have happened somewhere the stakes were so low that a band — suddenly realizing it could do anything it liked because nobody was watching and nobody cared — grasped that freedom with the full strength of its imagination, and created a monument — a memory — that would be almost forgotten for another forty years.
The tape seems to have ended. All is silent, but for the gentle swishing of the spool. Then, as if from the far end of a cave, can be heard shouts, shuffling, and the sound of — well, more than one hand clapping, at least. Who were these souls and did they know what they had witnessed? I hear Rick Bryant muttering, just off-mic, ‘Goodnight. See you later. Thanks for sticking round’, and the tape runs off its spool.
* Lyrics from ‘Play Nasty For Me’, composed by Mammal circa 1972.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Nick Bollinger is a Wellington-based writer and broadcaster. He is the author of How To Listen To Pop Music (2004) and 100 Essential New Zealand Albums (2009), and presents The Sampler on Radio New Zealand National. In 2015 he completed the MA in Creative Writing at the IIML with a memoir about New Zealand music in the 1970s. The piece published here is an extract from that memoir, Goneville, for which he won the Adam Foundation Prize in Creative Writing.