“My brother has found a songbook from 1974, written in my sixteenth, his fifteenth year. It is a relic from the days when the two of us, with one or two friends, recorded cassettes in my bedroom, the front room of our house in Invercargill. It was made to accompany But Not the Majic Seal, the second of our releases and the first to be credited to Crazy Olé and the Panthers (the first of our cassettes, Good Taste and The Public Tongue, had been made in the name of Evintrude the Ruth). The book is handmade, with lined notepad pages (and some unlined, slightly smaller pages bearing archly titled watercolour illustrations). In pen and Letraset, the lyrics for the original songs on the cassette, mostly mine with a poem of Lindsay’s, are set out neatly. In the front of the book is the track listing, which also includes some Velvet Underground classics and the finale from Peter Hammil’s Plague of Lighthouse Keepers off Van Der Graf Generator’s H to He album; in the rear of the book are the personnel credits. I have taped a picture of a termite queen from Maeterlink’s book on the subject in the front, as though to segue directly into rock’n’roll from my school days.
The lyrics are embarrassing; some are derivative of Lou Reed, others of William Burroughs’ surrealist sci-fi, but the most shameful are the songs about women, drugs and sex written by a boy who’d not been kissed, nor stoned, nor really in love. Yet they are real songs; they are little different from those I write now in their attitude, only in their inexperience. They are full of recognisable attempts at the same wit I deploy now, as if my later experiences only confirmed something, about myself and about the opposite sex that I instinctively knew. In other ways the adult writer is presaged; the same symetrical verses and short, tail-like choruses, a similar feel for rhythm and rhyme, and even my favourite words and sounds are there (“She’s a girl of the world”). There is even a long, pretentious quote (in French, no less) from another writer (uncredited, but probably Rimbaud). The tunes and chords may be simple and are sometimes suggestive (as are the wry, world-weary lyrics) of the cloying melancholy of youth, but they are effective and not too far from those I still play.
When I learned a little more of life, I quit trying to write songs about it; the only exceptions were two cutesy rinky-dink love songs, not meant to be taken seriously, exercises in twee. When I say I quit, I mean that I kept coming up with the musical and lyrical phrases, but lacked the confidence that it takes to gather them together and say, “here is a song”.
When I resumed serious songwriting, so as to have something for my bands to play, I avoided the painful and tricky subject of love and reality; surrealism, protest, and drugs were my inspirations. Even after I had written good personal songs, I was often unable to sing them clearly and loudly enough: for years I hid behind the notion that I was not a good singer. Part of the problem was, that I had no very clear notion of who I was singing for; my vocal performances would vary widely, depending on my self-conscious interpretation of the context. What exactly does it mean, making the private public? It seems to me that, unless you are an emotional idiot, you will face this problem again and again until such time as you are prepared to assert, admit, confess or boast that you are an artist, and need not be subject to the same considerations as other people. This is what is meant by suffering for one’s art, and it is true whether you are a painter, moviemaker, or whatever.
By the same token, if you want to write love songs, you need to deal with the girlfriend reading them over your shoulder. If her critique is drying up your inspiration, it’s likely the same story in bed, and she doesn’t need to go out with an artist, any more than you need to sleep with a critic. A lover who gives you carte blanc, a muse who doesn’t know she is one, or a partner who likes to understand your songs, but who accepts that sometimes you don’t understand them yourself, and who feels flattered when you write a good song, not a flattering one; these are your friends. What they have in common is that the song is free to exist above and beyond your relationship (unless you have children, it is the part that will survive the longest). It’s only a map of the battlefield, not the action itself.
The song writing techniques I had learned in the years after writing the songs on But not the Majic Seal were ways of mitigating those faults I had seen in my older songs once experience, of life and love and rock music, had shed its light on them. However, we always remain callow in some way. If we are not still at risk of being in the wrong, about love and about life, then there is no reason to continue writing rock songs, which are, after all, the record of the crimes and follies of mankind.
I’ve made mistakes in the past, but it’s the future that excites me.”