Punk and New Wave saved a teenage John Campbell from a wasteland of classic hits and changed his life forever. He writes about his passion for music – and shares his playlist.
I was once so shy I couldn’t say important things out loud.
I know that seems highly unlikely, given my reputation for never shutting up. But television is a form of dress-ups, and the confidence it loans you can sometimes become personal property. (Like not returning a library book.) And without even understanding how it’s possible, you’re holding words up to the world and saying – “Hey, everyone, look!”
Prior to that iteration of me, back when shyness made me as cautious as a new lawyer, when I most needed (but couldn’t find) words to communicate the longing I felt, or the sadness, or the hope, I found music.
Yes, I do understand that people tell these stories all the time. That almost everyone has a song that feels like it was written for them. That almost everyone has known the unexpected and tender solidarity of feeling seen by a songwriter. And it makes me love music even more.
Still, when music first saved me it felt like no-one had experienced this before. That music and I were in love. (Look at us, everyone. Me and these tunes. LOOK AT US!)
My best friend was Tim. Tim loved music, too. But Tim was so cool he didn’t need music to say the things he wasn’t able to say because he was able to say them. I’d make girls mixtapes on a C90 and Tim would say ‘they won’t listen, Johnny Campbell’, but I knew they would because those songs said everything that needed to be said, everything there was to be said.
(As an aside, when Tim died, his wife, Catherine, played Don’t You (Forget About Me) at the drinks after his service. We were in a bar on Ponsonby Road. And she asked everyone to sing it. And we really did. Loudly. Some of us in tune, some of us out of tune. Men who’d spent their lives not singing in public. Women whose memories of school choirs enabled them to elevate Simple Minds to something approaching a sublimity. I cried and sang at the same time. It was stupid, heart-breaking, joyful and right. And that’s the magic, isn’t it? That’s what music can do. A pop song carried the weight of a beautiful man leaving us.)
I realise now that Tim was right. None of my tapes were ever listened to. But I hope they were recycled. That other music was taped over the top of my songs, and they began their lives afresh, saying whatever it was those girls wanted to say. That my C90s became their C90s and that they carried their messages to other hearts.
My childhood was a wasteland of classic hits. They weren’t classic then, they were just hits. But they’ve become classic in the decades since and time hasn’t improved them.
I hated that music. Hated it.
I wonder, now, if ‘hate’ is too strong a word? Perhaps the music was emblematic of the received banality of my adolescence. The way all the TV we got, all the radio we got, all the music we got, seemed to come from a small number of Pākehā men (sic) whose world-view seemed (to me) so empty, risk-averse and joyless that the pop culture they dispensed diminished rather than enriched.
Or maybe, to quote Ada Limón, “I am reminded of the righteousness I had before the scorch of time.”
Or, maybe, I was just a little shit.
Hate it or not, Hotel California isn’t my story. I couldn’t give less of a damn if some dudes from California (WOOOAAAAH) took acid, or pretended to, or imagined it, or even if they did, literally, find a beast they repeatedly stabbed but couldn’t kill – although, aptly enough, that’s how I’ve always felt about that song.
The first time I sensed that music might say something worth saying was when my mum began to listen to Joni Mitchell, Joan Armatrading, and Phoebe Snow… women who would make her eyes drift to somewhere a long way off. I was young and stupid, so I didn’t realise until later that she wasn’t looking out, she was looking in, to that place in the heart that music makes us able to see.
I first found it with punk rock – or new wave.
It wasn’t just the music, it was the audacity of the giant middle finger it held up to the dullard music programmers of the radio stations of my teens. Here were people who felt the same way I did! And they were expressing their contempt on my behalf. It was as exciting and miraculous as a first kiss.
But even then, all those bands were English, and as much as I loved their music, it still arrived with the message that life was elsewhere. And I wanted life to include me.
And then, and I cannot overstate my gratitude and wonder, came Flying Nun.
There were moments, when I was watching The Clean, or The Chills, or Straightjacket Fits at the Student Union Hall at Vic, or the Last Resort Café in Courtney Place, or the Rock Theatre, or the Terminus, or at whatever piss smelling, rotting carpeted venue would let my baby-face in, in which I felt a sense of belonging so uplifting and electric that it changed my life.
Music puts anchors in your heart, and not even the wildest sea can remove them. It’s decades now since I stood in those pubs, clubs and halls, feeling a sense of possibility that I had never realised music could contain for me, and I still feel the thrill of being part of something so… alive. (If anyone who was ever in those bands is reading this – thank you.)
What other names do I list, in this love story?
The music and the years cloud into each other.
Last week, a glorious friend sent me a song that I’d listened to for a long time and then not at all. That’s not abandonment. I carry the gratitude for every song I’ve loved in my heart.
But, and this is why I can’t understand classic hits, it’s the epiphany that excites me. The blush and thrill and wonder of falling.
The new Jamila Woods album contains a song called I Miss All My Exes. (It’s now the first song on the playlist I write about, below.) It’s one minute and fifty-seven seconds of perfection. (Truly.) And it ends – “I never left any one of them. Not really. I just went somewhere new.” That is exactly how I feel about music.
But after punk, after Flying Nun, after the indie bands, after all the Januarys made hotter by each new summer’s favourite album, I stumbled upon the women who sing sad songs.
That’s a misnomer. Not all their songs are sad. But they wrestle with being alive in such a generous way. And they articulate the trepidation and crazy hope that shy people feel. And they tip-toe into the world so bravely, looking over their shoulder to check you’re with them. And on my worst days, when people I loved were dying, or when I was being fired, or when I’d really mucked something up, they held me and led me on.
“I have never told anyone everything”, the poet E.J. Koh wrote. But I think, although it may be fancy, that those women do.
If I had to pick three musicians I’d truly despair to never hear again, it would probably be Tiny Ruins, Aldous Harding, and Sharon Van Etten. I’ve seen them all live – multiple times (Tiny Ruins eight or nine times – perhaps more often than any other band.) And on those nights, I’ve felt…
(wait for it)
But here’s a thing. The music I listen to most often now, the music I listen to every day, the music I put my headphones on and write to, the music I walk home in the company of, the music that repeatedly makes me happy in a way I had never expected, is hip-hop.
There’s a poem by Frank O’Hara (perhaps the poem by Frank O’Hara that every first year Eng Lit student is most likely to know) called Having a Coke with You. And it’s Frank reflecting on how much better his own taste is than a whole lot of people acclaimed for being artists and aesthetes. And it ends – “it seems they were all cheated of some marvellous experience / which is not going to go wasted on me which is why I’m telling you about it”.
That’s how I feel about hip-hop.
So, here I am, telling you about it.
This is my playlist.
I apologise if you don’t have Spotify. I do understand it’s a streaming platform with limitations, most significantly how little of the money it receives makes its way to the musicians whose brilliance it’s built upon.
But for the boy who made C90 mixtapes no-one listened to, the capacity, in my middle-age, to share the music I love with people who listen, is the kind of tortoise and hare story I used to promise myself life would contain. (Those middle-of-the-night Ted Talks we give ourselves, that usually never come true.)
It currently contains 166 songs, and it’s 8 hours 42 minutes long. (Although it changes, constantly.) That’s a useful length. A working day, for example, with a decent lunch break. Or, if you’re reading this just prior to driving from Dunedin to Picton, it will span the whole trip.
(Don’t shuffle. I beg you. Please don’t shuffle.)
I’ve been making this playlist for five years and two months. I know that because the song that’s remained on it longest, Self by Noname (track 13), was added in September 2018. And in that time, there won’t have been many days, and almost no weeks, in which I haven’t added songs, subtracted songs, or moved songs about to make it speak to itself (and me) more smoothly.
It’s ridiculous how much happiness I get from it.
Mostly, it’s the reward of exploration and discovery. (“You don’t know the meaning of true love if you think it can be deliberately selected. You just love, that’s all”, Saul Bellow wrote. He was talking of people, but it’s true of music, too.)
When I listen to this music, I go out beyond the repetitions and familiarities of my own life. I go to somewhere rich with other stories. Other lives.
When (track 15) Smino sings, “Take a break and roll the sticky, let’s get high”, I giggle, every time. Like Tim is still alive, and we’re both kids again, and we’re getting stoned on whatever shitty weed we were somehow able to procure, and life is funnier than life has any right to be, and we are happy.
When Noname, on the aforementioned Self, sings, “Y’all really thought a bitch couldn’t rap, huh?” and later, “My pussy wrote a thesis on colonialism”, I wonder when music contained a better, smarter, funnier rejoinder to sexism and misogyny?
When Loyle Carner (track 44) sings , “You can’t hate the roots of the tree and not hate the tree. So how can I hate my father without hating me?”, I think about being a son and being a father. (But wait, there’s more… that song’s constructed upon a 1971 sample from Pastor T. L. Barrett and the Youth for Christ Choir. Hip-hop’s capacity to dismantle, reassemble, magpie, collage… it never stops enthralling me.)
When Jazmine Sullivan (track 71) sings about the recklessness, self-destruction and grief that follows a relationship break-up, you realise she’s doing what E.J. Koh knows shy people can’t do – telling you everything.
When Adam Tukiri (track 84) sings, “On a good day squashed, on a bad day, fuck ‘em. And I just had a bad day”, I think about the lives not being lived, and all the dreams that aren’t coming true.
And when I listen to Adam Tukiri, or Diggy Dupé, or David Dallas, or SWIDT, or Mellowdownz, or Tom Scott and the Avantdale Bowling Club, and I know that I live in the same city as them, it makes me truly love Tāmaki Makaurau. All this sparkling brilliance. It’s us.
And when I listen to Earl Sweatshirt, still a teenager, singing Chum (track 85), I want to grab the person nearest to me, and say – listen to this brilliant kid. Listen to him.
It’s probably been 12 years since my father left,
Left me fatherless.
And I just used to say I hate him in dishonest jest,
When honestly, I miss this n*** like when I was six,
And every time I got the chance to say it, I would swallow it.
Sixteen. I’m hollow, intolerant. Skip shots,
I storm that whole bottle (I’ll show you a role model).
Drunk. Pissy. Pissing on somebody’s front lawn.
Trying to figure out how and when the fuck I missed moderate.
Who writes like that?
Or who writes like Jamila Wood, on Basquiat (track 111) – (Are you mad?) / Yes, I’m mad. / (What make you mad?) / I don’t fuckin’ know, you should tell me so, you done done it.
There is such a revelatory brilliance in this music that the snobbery against it, and the determination by people who don’t know it that it’s not for them, that it’s beneath them, and the timidity of radio programmers who daren’t play it (because, why?), induces in me a kind of pity-rage. You are missing out on part of the story of the world. Van Morrison does not tell it all.
Listen to me! I’m fifteen again, in Wellington, listening to 2ZM, inarticulately desperate for the radio to take me somewhere I didn’t yet know music could take me. And they’re repeating the same terrible shit, and every new song, which isn’t a new song but something regurgitated from the playlist of an oaf, is a small kind of heartbreak.
I am waiting for life to begin.
I am waiting for someone to save me from the fact life isn’t beginning.
I am waiting for the music I didn’t know existed.
But it’s almost there.
And forty years on, I want to tell that shy and hopeful boy, it will save you. Any day now. It will arrive, it will take you by the heart, and it will never let you go.
This essay is part of a new series ‘This Makes Me Happy’ about the things that bring us joy.