Pre-Merkin Monkley

A long while before The Merkins I was in a band called Cutting Room Floor, a name I never particularly liked. The Clinkoes would have been a better name. Or Chin Music. In fact, we were called Chin Music for a month or two. Harmen, our tea-chest bass player, came up with that name after the Hopalong Cassidy sidekick. But it didn’t take Spud too long to find another band (in Norway or somewhere) with the same name. Spud had some big, world-conquering ideas resulting from the fact that his previous band, for whom he wrote the songs and played drums, had struck it fairly big. I mean, he had played in front of 200,000 people at some big open-air concert in Holland.

So I wrote a letter to that band in Norway:

It has come to our attention that your pop group has been using the name “Chin Music.” We regret to inform you that this name is already in use in terms of our own pop group and we insist that you take the time to find another. You will be able to gather from the enclosed photographs that you are not us. The matter is further complicated by the fact that, as it appears, you have released albums under our name. Luckily, we’ve not heard them yet. In point of fact we have gone to some trouble in order to avoid the kind of publicity created by the release of LP’s and such like. On the other hand, we would never consent to change the name of our band as that is sacred to us. Perhaps it is possible (though unlikely) that you were aware of our existence and thought by our canny silence that the name had, as it were, come up for grabs. No such luck.
Obviously it will require some effort on your part to recall all your LP’s. For the good of the planet we suggest that once they’ve all been returned you forward them onto us as we will be able to sell them at our gigs, thereby proving (in case your pop group is any good) that we’re not as good 'live' as on record, or conversely, that we’re as dodgy on tape as we are 'live.' We prefer the latter. We hope you can see sense.

Regardless of my efforts, we became Cutting Room Floor. Spud and I cut a deal. He named the band and I named albums, of which, in our own tried and trusted demo style, we duly produced two: “Life’s Too Long” and “Deleted.” The third was to be “Life Is Dead” but we folded before it ever got made. Between the second and the third unmade album, Harmen left the band and Rob came in on drums, and we stopped playing folk-music with a death-wish. Instead, we went all out rock n roll.

Needless to say, there is some band crawling around the region of Illinois USA purporting to be The Merkins. I can live with that.

*

Before Cutting Room Floor there was The Hoovers, which had Stuart Shepherd on acoustic guitar, slide & harmonica, Early Dave on double bass, Harmen on drums, and me. Way back when, we were resident at The Temple on Queen Street, either Friday or Saturday nights. We did 50/50 original and covers. We did a Satchmo-type version of “Everybody Loves Somebody.” We did “Johnny B Goode” all in minor, and a re-written New Orleans folk-jazz version of “House of the Rising Sun.” We did old cowboy songs.

I wrote a lot of songs in the time we were at the Temple. Our last date there got recorded. For that gig, I remember, Dominic turned up and played piano. He knew none of the songs but who cared? Also, Harmen brought along a Hoover vacuum cleaner with its lid off. Harmen had divined that, if succinctly placed on top of the air outlet, and once the power had been turned on, a table tennis ball would hover and bobble within the upward stream of air like an alien space station about nine inches above the Hoover. If I hadn’t seen it myself I wouldn’t have believed it. Neither the audience as it turned out. Someway through the evening, I said “ladies and gentlemen, please welcome the ping pong machine,” indicating that the power should be switched on (which was their job) and we began our next song. As luck would have it, the intro to the song and the length of time it took for someone to find the switch coincided, and at the exact same moment the song kicked in proper, the ping pong ball lifted off, remaining bravely poised mid-air. For a minute or two we were all heroes. The Hoovers. The audience. And that little ping pong ball.

*

Previous to The Hoovers was another band which shall remain nameless. Anyway, we only ever played one gig.

I met Mike at a party in Grafton. Not knowing anyone, I sat down next to him on a couch and we got talking. As it turned out it was his place. We talked music. I told him I’d just bought an amp and a guitar. To buy them I had borrowed some money from Teresa Bainbridge and also sold a painting by my great great aunty. Mike and I formed a band on the spot.
Through Mike I met Becky and Jim, and Rod and his girlfriend Jane. Also Ross. From that one party I somehow became attached to an entire group of people. Stuart and Megan. Tim Wilson. Marcus Lush. Quite a few others.

Mike played the drums. Rod and I were on guitar, and Ross played bass. At first it appeared that only Mike and I could sing. Eventually we figured Mike should be the lead singer and we got in Gareth to take over on drums.
We bought a PA and rented a house on MacKelvie Street which we converted to a band practice room. We called it the Ranch.

Ross and I even decided we would live there. But unable to return home before ten at night for the noise of bands practicing, we mostly lived and dined and entertained ourselves elsewhere. It is possible, for example, to find a Ranch credit on “Submarine Bells” by The Chills. They practiced there for ages. Best deal ever. One night, my girlfriend and I got back early, say half past ten, and The Chills were still going for it, cheating as you do. I poked my nose in the door and said: No worries, but can we hear “I Love My Leather Jacket?” What my girlfriend and I then heard… well, who can recount this kind of stuff? I believe we got the better of that deal.

I taught guitar at Mount Eden prison, although this was simply an excuse to deliver dope to Reuben who was awaiting trial. I would arrive at our practice room in the prison and the first thing that happened was I’d take off my boot and pull out the package. Not a big package but better than nothing. Before anything happened, the drugs got done, and after that we just jammed.
Through my "teaching guitar" at Mount Eden I managed to organise for our band to play there.
Some weeks prior to the gig Rod and Mike went on a skiing holiday to the South Island. Within a day or so of their return, Ross and I got the story from Mike. We weren’t going to be able to do the gig at the prison. Rod had totally flipped out. AWOL in a parallel universe. Right up there in the mountains. He was a river of strange ideas. He called Jane ‘The Ice Lady.’ One minute he was walking around naked, then he was banging a spoon on his head. There was no way we were going to make it to the gig. Meanwhile, Rod was staying with his parents in Pakuranga.

“What kind of strange ideas?” asks Ross.
Mike scratches his elbow. “Well, for example, one night at the hotel Rod came up to me very serious, like he’s some deranged spy, and he whispers in my ear: “Clever men wear squeaky shoes.”
“Good name for a song,” I say.
As Rod is studying to be a doctor we wonder aloud if it might be a self medication issue. A drug problem. We don’t know.
“Let’s see if he comes right,” I suggest. “We’ve got two and a half weeks. If he comes good we’ll play the gig.”

In the van on the way to the prison I marveled at the number of soft drink bottles we were taking in. Both Rod and Ross thought it wrong to turn up empty handed. It was early afternoon. We set up the stage. Jim was our sound guy. Some of the prisoners were assigned to help us set up. By the time things were nearly ready the Prison Manager appeared and told me I’d better come with him. It was through him that I had organised the gig. In his office was Rod, and I could see straight away that Rod had flipped again. Apparently Ross and Rod had been sharing their three litre bottles of vodka and soda or whatever with the inmates, a state of affairs the Manager entirely disapproved of. The gig would have to be called off. Meanwhile, Rod was demanding over and over again “book me! Why don’t you book me?! Come on. Arrest me!” As if the Prison Manager was the cops.
I don’t know how I managed to calm both Rod and the Manager down, but we were eventually allowed to play the gig.

We must have played for an hour and a half. Apart from our own songs we did a version of “I Fought The Law,” and also “Man In Black” by Johnny Cash in honour of the occasion. The whole gig, Rod didn’t play more than four or five notes on his guitar, none of them the right ones. On top of that there wasn’t a single clap between songs from our audience who, it was my impression, were so staunch they didn’t even speak, let alone clap, and certainly not for white, middle class wannabe gay people.
Eventually, our set came to an end. At which point I mentioned to the inmates that, without an invite, we were going to stick around for a while and that if anyone felt like it they could get up on stage, pick themselves an instrument, and play.
I sat down by the mixing desk with Jim. A couple of inmates got up, one of them finding my guitar. He got himself a chair and sat down to play. Another inmate sat at the drums.
It started off quiet but soon built into a slow, rhythmic vamp. A sad beauty come from some place far away. Beside me were rows and rows of knobs and buttons and faders. I smiled at the thought of Ross and Rod keeping me in the dark with the soft drink bottles full of vodka. I was staring at the buttons and listening. Both sadness and beauty were present. As they always are. But you can’t always hear them.