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The Te Kūiti Underground

It seems to me that the realest reality lives somewhere beyond the edge of human vision.

—Russell Hoban

Halfway up View Road, I turned to look back the way I had come. View Road was a gravel road, a dead end. Below me was a crosshatching of paddocks and roads and the sewage pond, and you could see Te Kūiti Airport. This wasn’t really an airport at all but a well-groomed field with poplar trees at each end and a tumbledown house, the club house, where the pilots, including my father, gathered. It was really just another paddock, the planes like large animals.

As I stood looking, catching my breath, a young man appeared around the corner about 100 metres away. I felt a small leap in my chest. He’d been following me, I thought. Looking for me. He’d had a hunch I would be out walking, and now here he was. I heard the crunch of his boots on the gravel as he approached. Perhaps I should have turned and walked away, avoiding his eyes, but I stayed very still. The man was wearing a grey T-shirt, the collarless sort with a few buttons below the neck. Straight-legged blue jeans. He was also wearing sandals, which was a bit unusual. As he got closer he raised his eyebrows and made a slight pout, and, I swear, his head wobbled a bit from side to side. He reached for my hand. Yes. It was Paul McCartney.

Specifically, it was Paul McCartney as he appeared in his picture in the sleeve notes of The White Album: unshaven, almost dishevelled-looking. His fringe was just riffling his eyebrows; his eyes were a sad liquid. Together we began to walk, hand in hand. I noted that Paul McCartney’s fingers were slightly calloused. Of course: he’d just finished playing the bass on the greatest album of all time. We walked slowly to the top of View Road, then we looked out at the hills, trees, roads, cows, the interlocking parts of nowhere. We talked about music, books, writing, our families. I had a lot to say to Paul but much of it wasn’t ready to form words, so it filled my chest like a balloon. Still, Paul looked at me sideways, nodding in agreement as I didn’t talk.

It was 1997. The Beatles had split nearly 30 years before. In this reality, Paul McCartney’s face was beginning its slow collapse. Anyone coming the other way on View Road, not that there was ever anyone, would have seen a grim-faced girl with her hand flapping out at one side as she walked.

As my favourite bands changed, Paul became mutable. He would start out as Paul and on the way home become George. A few times he was Tom Petty, wearing a black hat, then Billy Corgan before he lost his hair, scowling attractively. For a good long while he was Thom Yorke, his lazy eye fluttering in the harsh light. And soon he was Beck too, loping along in sneakers and acid-washed jeans, occasionally shrieking with laughter like he did on Mellow Gold. It was enough to imagine a warm, intelligent presence, but this presence was always a musician from a stage or studio in a big city from somewhere in the world. It was always someone who could make an ordinary place, an ordinary moment, more intense, more like a film, something driven towards meaningful conclusion.

I’d told myself stories before and sometimes written them down, before sending them off to the editor of School Journal, whose address I’d copied from the inside cover of a Part 3 journal at school. There was a hedgehog that went hang-gliding off the top of Mangarino Road. There was an intricate messaging system among the tiny crayfish in the streams in the bush above our house. Aliens had crash-landed their UFO in the bush and now had a secret colony there! My stories received polite rejection letters from the editor of the School Journal, which I showed to my parents with sorrow. But I was fourteen now and wanted to be part of the story. I wanted to walk beside someone from a different universe, someone who would turn Te Kūiti into something else. Its army-blanket green would become a romantic backdrop, the same way the desert was a romantic backdrop in The English Patient, instead of just lonely and hostile.

At the same time, the landscape of Te Kūiti created a delicious sadness in me. The hills, the row of pines above a clay bank, the Te Kūiti sky, a smothering grey – these surroundings confirmed and enhanced my loneliness, showed me that it was real. I didn’t have many friends at high school, I didn’t have a boyfriend, and although I wanted to be a writer, I wanted more to be in a band and become very famous. I had a limited sense of the ridiculous but a strong sense of the melodramatic, and I gathered the landscape into my mood as if gathering up a luxurious fabric, pulling it round me and breathing it in. I believed that no one living in Te Kūiti had ever felt the same as I felt then.

One day I wrote a fan letter to Beck, whose album Odelay had just come out at the CD store on Rora Street. ‘Dear Beck, I have never written a fan letter before’ – this, of course, was a lie; I had written to many famous people, including Paul McCartney – ‘but I wanted to write to say how much I love Odelay.’ I imagined Beck reading the letter, slightly distracted at first and then drawn in by my words, marvelling that his music had travelled all the way to the bottom of the world to a girl who lived in a town he would never have known existed, if not for my letter.

A few weeks, perhaps a month later, I received a reply from Beck. Or from someone pretending to be him. The letter said: ‘Wow, what’s it like living in New Zealand? Do y’all have the Funky Chicken there? – Beck.’ I read the letter over and over, my hands shaking, until it ceased to make sense. Although, I had to admit, the letter hadn’t made much sense from the start. What was the Funky Chicken? Was it a dance, a food, a fast food joint? What amazed me was not just that Beck had written back to me. It was that he had written the words ‘New Zealand’. He’d said the secret code word that granted us access to the rest of the world. And he was interested to know what it was like here. It didn’t seem an idle interest, but a genuine one. He was so interested that he’d said ‘Wow’.

I wrote a long letter in reply. No, as far as I knew we didn’t have the Funky Chicken; what was it exactly? I told him about my town, how its closest city was Hamilton, and that every year we had a celebration called Midnight Madness, when all the shops stayed open till midnight, and there was a sheep-shearing competition at the Civic Centre. Te Kūiti men were so fast at shearing, I told Beck, that the town was known as the Shearing Capital of the World. I wrote about this mockingly, as if talking about someone in my class at school who I’d decided was a moron. I told him that the Mangaokewa River often flooded and made the riverbank muddy so I couldn’t walk my dog there. I also told him in some detail about walking up View Road and imagining him walking with me, in his checked shirt and jeans and old sneakers, the same outfit he’d worn in that interview in Spin Magazine.

I didn’t hear from Beck again. But the first letter made me feel that I was destined for great things.

As I played the piano and howled into the living room, singing about the broken heart I hadn’t yet experienced, I sometimes thought about being on a stage with my brother JP. It was JP who was becoming famous. He was doing a songwriting course in Hamilton and he had a four-track recording machine. He’d had a song on student radio and he regularly played gigs with his band the Clampers, who had a small but devoted following in Hamilton. To my father, this pursuit of music was baffling. Nobody made any money writing songs, certainly nobody who came from a town of farmers, electricians and accountants like him. ‘You’ve got to have money coming in,’ he told my brother. ‘You can’t not have money coming in.’ In secret, JP and I made fun of this belligerence. Gotta have money coming in. Gotta have money coming in. It became a kind of chant.

Despite this, I knew that Dad liked to hear JP play. He would cajole him into playing at his friends’ milestone birthday parties. (Sometimes JP would impersonate Dad: ‘“Play some Eagles, JP. They’ll love it. Play Hotel California!” I feel like a performing monkey.’) When JP relented and got out his guitar, Dad looked as happy as I had ever seen him. Leaning on the bar, awkward with pride.

We had all been proud, though in my case envious too, when JP had auditioned to play at ‘Neil Finn and Friends’ in Hamilton and had been chosen to play alongside the man himself – Neil Finn, the great Neil Finn. There was a photo in the Waikato Times of the two of them standing on the stage, looking uncannily like brothers: blond hair, long arms, guitars held at the same angle. JP is mid-song, wide-eyed in the expensive-looking spotlight. He looks braced, maybe hitting a high note. Neil Finn is holding out one hand towards him as if presenting JP to the world.

When JP came home to Te Kūiti on occasional weekends or at term break, Dad sometimes cornered him in the kitchen. ‘I was talking to a bloke at OMYA,’ he might begin. OMYA was the limeworks across the railway line from the airport. It was a place of blinding white gravel and cooling towers and mini forklift trucks constantly in reverse. ‘I thought we could set something up.’ He would look at JP with a funny expression, leaving the words on the brink. Gotta have money coming in. We’d all stand there in the kitchen, Dad in his office clothes, me in my high-school uniform, Mum in an apron with her glass of Country cask wine, and JP in his cardigan and cord pants, plumes of blond hair sticking up around his head. He had been writing songs all day and recording them in the bathroom, where the acoustics were better. ‘All right, I’ll have a think about it,’ he’d say unhappily. Many of the worst jobs he’d ever had began this way.

My father had lived in Te Kūiti his whole life. So had his parents. He was born there and now his name was on a sign outside an accountancy firm. He seemed to be always on his way to and from the office in his blue Fiat Tipo, his only passengers the many lever-arch files sliding around in the backseat. Or he was off to rehearsals for the town plays that he acted in. He lived deeply inside the town, was known to everybody, and, perhaps because of this, he seemed to live elsewhere from me. As I got older, we had less and less to say to each other. By the time I was ten we had stopped speaking to each other much at all. I avoided him and he seemed to avoid me too. I watched as he made people laugh on the stage, with his hair talcum-powdered grey, playing various comically unhinged old men – a vicar, a murderer, a hapless husband.

He also had a forensic knowledge of Te Kūiti, and this made him even more difficult for me to understand. Why would you bother learning about this place? There was nothing here. But he knew the town from all directions, because as well as being an accountant he was a pilot. From the back seat of his four-seater Cherokee, squashed between my mother and one of my brothers, I would watch him at the controls. And despite myself, when I studied the back of his head, the fat headphones cushioning his ears and a microphone under his chin, a profound trust rose in me. He knew where he was going and exactly how to get there, whether we were going as far as Ōamaru, where my grandparents lived, or to Kinloch or Raglan, where we would swim. He knew how to fly through storms that threw us sideways, through blanketing fog and bulleting rains. He knew how to do aerobatics – loops, spins, rolls, vertical lines – though I’d only ever seen this from the ground, looking up with horror, wondering if he was shouting swearwords inside the cockpit. My trust of his knowledge felt uncomfortably like love. He knew Te Kūiti’s history and geography in detail, and when we were all flying together as a family he would point things out to us: rivers, lakes, the houses and farms of people we knew.

Watching him manoeuvre a landing was impressive: there was something triumphant in it, and, especially when emerging from difficult flights, something almost maniacal in his focus. He was like Batman bearing down on a villain in his Batmobile. He’d guide the plane towards the runway, flicking switches and twiddling various knobs, and burbling into a radio. At some point he’d reach a hand up and crank the lever on the ceiling that controlled the plane’s nose, the movement a bit like spinning a lasso. The familiar trees and grass stretched up to meet us, and then solid ground was rushing under our wheels. I was always grateful for his calculations and focus at the moment when he returned us to land. There was something magical in how he did it every time. I didn’t tell him that, though.

The curious thing was that my father, for all his fixations on money and a sensible career path, had once played music too – had once been in a band, of sorts. He would not let us forget this. He had evidence, and his evidence was the Washhouse Tapes. The Washhouse Tapes. They insisted that they belonged to a better, more hopeful, more creative, more possible time, and like the tapes themselves, this time would never really go away.

‘The Washhouse Tapes’ was actually a single, battered cassette tape. It was called the Washhouse Tapes because about some years after it was made, then lost, then forgotten, it was salvaged from a washhouse. Whose washhouse? No one knew, other than that it was a derelict one. But the origins of the songs on the tape were even more uncertain. These were songs that my father and his best friend, Hutch, had made when they were teenagers, with their girlfriends – my mother Julia, and Jenny – mostly on backing vocals. Why had the songs been written? What had the band wanted to happen?

They recorded the songs in the late sixties and early seventies in a cabin at Mōkau Beach, a West Coast fishing town about one hour’s drive from Te Kūiti. There is a Second World War sea mine mounted on a plinth in the centre of the township, because it washed up on Mōkau Beach in 1942. At the time of recording, my dad was a young accounting student and ham radio enthusiast, and his friend Hutch was a budding singer-songwriter and writer.

Hutch was the one with the good voice. I thought he sounded a bit like Brian Wilson: his voice full and pure. But my father did not have a great singing voice. It was reedy and tuneless and also held a strange urgency, which seemed to exacerbate the reediness. While Hutch sang tunefully and played guitar, banjo, piano or accordion, Dad would just roar, while bashing on a beer crate, slapping his thighs, hitting a coalscuttle with a stick, or making beeping noises on his ham radio set. In the recordings, he sounds like a kid still discovering the magic of recording sounds and being able to play them back to himself afterwards. He reminded me of the actor on the stage in the town shows – unleashed from himself, somehow.

The songs held echoes of their favourite music at the time. Bob Dylan, the Beach Boys, the Beatles. You could hear it in the harmonies, the chord changes. At the same time, the songs – which had been recorded by bouncing tracks between tape recorders so as to build up layers of sound – were of small-town New Zealand. The lyrics referenced places like Ruatoria, Mōkau, Ōtāhuhu, Porirua, Hangatiki. But then, every so often, there would be somewhere else. ‘Went on down to Santa Fe,’ Hutch crooned, or ‘I’m just a punk . . . at Punk Junction.’ Wherever that was.

It’s true that many of the songs were meant to be absurd. You could tell this by looking at their titles. ‘Meals on Wheels on Fire’, ‘Deaf Monkey’, ‘Waiting for My Eggs to Come’, ‘Amazing Grapes’, ‘Yodelling Night Cart Man’. In ‘Let Us Pray’, which ridiculed the church services they’d had to go to as kids, and which they still felt compelled to attend, Dad began repeatedly roaring at the top of his lungs, like a minister who had finally lost it at his congregation: ‘LET US PRAY’ until the song sputtered out. There were other songs that ended similarly – they just broke up into discordant noise, as if all of the instruments had suddenly disintegrated.

But there were one or two songs that were quieter, almost tender, like one called ‘Gartho’, which Hutch’s girlfriend Jenny sang, as she played piano. The song was just about missing someone named Gartho, who I thought must have moved away.

My parents would have dinner parties, and they’d get out the tape. I’d hear the familiar tinny racket, the voices crackling out, the piano with its yellow-sounding keys. I’d retreat to my room while they sat around crying with laughter. Every so often the battered cassette tape would be chewed up by a tape deck, and the tangled magnetic spools would be have to be teased out and rewound. Hutch and Jenny’s daughters hated the precious tape even more than I did, and protested vehemently, cruelly, whenever one of our dads put it on. Their oldest daughter Jessie once shouted, finally, ‘No one wants to hear your music, Dad,’ while Hutch, now a man in his fifties with greying ginger hair and aviator spectacles, acquiesced and gently ejected the tape from the machine.

In the early 2000s I’d take the night train from Wellington to Te Kūiti, listening to the White Album on my Walkman the whole way. Once, it was just my father who came to meet me. I got off the train onto the freezing platform at 3 o’clock in the morning. There he was in his railway-station-meeting clothes: a hooded duffel coat, hands in pockets.

The flat where he lived now was small and chilly, with dishes in the sink, towels on the floor, no pictures on the walls, an unfamiliar view of Te Kūiti through the window – you could see across to the other side of the valley, where we had lived before. That house had been sold, because my mother had moved to the South Island for a teaching job and my father was getting ready to go too. He just needed time to wrap up his business. ‘It’s a major upheaval,’ I heard him insist more than once, in response to why he was taking so long, ‘major upheaval.’

After a few hours of sleep in a fold-out bed in his study, and before he left for work that morning, he made us coffee. I watched him carrying out a long-winded filtering method using an old hand grinder and a grease-stained plastic funnel. I recognised the funnel from our garage. I’d used it a few times to funnel milk powder into plastic bottles for newborn lambs. And Dad had funnelled oil into the car with it.

‘What is this? What are you doing?’

‘What’s the problem?’ he said. ‘Gets the job done.’ And he tried to show me the method he had invented, but I shook my head.

We drank the coffee silently at the kitchen table. I thought I could taste the old garage.

In my half-awake state, the filtering method made me feel melancholy, as if it was a sign of my dad and me drifting further apart. I imagined various bits of detritus from our old lives across the town becoming strange tools in his solitary life. I imagined him becoming stranger and stranger in my eyes, and me becoming more narrow-minded in his. I thought of him alone in Te Kūiti, in purgatory.

While he was at work, I walked to the other side of town and up View Road. There was the smothering grey sky, the paddocks and gravel roads. Here was the cows’ silent evaluation as I walked by. And in the distance, the airport. I thought about my boyfriend, a drummer in a band, and how thrilling it was that we’d recently held hands in the back of a car. As I dwelled on this, my excitement almost made me feel physically sick. And then it seemed to me that Te Kūiti had somehow grown smaller.

That was the last time I visited. Soon, finally, my father would move away too, but he would still get the town paper delivered to their new address, and he would frequently visit, flying up from the south and landing at the old airfield over the poplars. He liked to race himself flying over the Cook Strait, getting his time as short as possible. He got it down to 18 minutes once.

Te Kūiti, 1964.

The Beatles had conquered England and the States

and they made their presence felt down in the King Country ...

These were the opening lines of a song called ‘The Te Kuiti Underground’ which my brother, still defiantly playing music, wrote in 2011. The song went on to tell the story of two questing musicians who, inspired by the Beatles, try to create ‘the ultimate pop masterpiece’ to set alight the musical and pastoral landscape of provincial New Zealand in the 1960s. They take their reel-to-reel four-track tape machine out to a bach at Mōkau Beach, where they record the songs in a creative frenzy. But, of course, the music they make is doomed to obscurity. Perhaps it is too ahead of its time, the men tell each other, and they resign themselves to ordinary lives. The story takes a tragic turn: years pass, the bach at Mōkau is swept away in a storm, and eventually both of the men die in horrible ways – Garth gets drunk one night and falls asleep on the main trunk line, while Pete dies alone and bitter after a divorce. Pete’s two sons return to Te Kūiti to clean out their father’s flat, and in a corner of his garden shed, they find a dusty cardboard box. Inside: the reel-to-reel four-track tape machine, and inside that, the tape.

It was when I heard this song that I thought of the Washhouse Tapes differently. There was some kind of yearning for other places and other lives in the songs. But there was also a romanticism of the King Country: it was as if this place, for my father and his friends, was as potent as Liverpool in the 1960s. Maybe it was something close to what I had felt as I walked in the Te Kūiti hills imagining Paul McCartney at my side: a need to make something more, to see something more than what there was. Perhaps I could even sense the yearning as a kid, when we played the songs on car trips to Mōkau where we would spend our summers. But I wasn’t yet able to recognise what it was that I was hearing.

This essay appears in Ashleigh Young’s collection Can You Tolerate This? (Giramondo: 2017).