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The Xmas excerpt: Goneville, a rock’n’roll memoir by Nick Bollinger

Nick Bollinger! He’s ace. He’s written about music with insight and feeling, and a lot of that stems from his background in bands. He recalls going out on the road with Rough Justice in this excerpt from his new, excellent memoir Goneville, which we totally recommend as a Xmas gift for the muso in your life.

One day, when we were travelling to a gig in Hamilton, Rick pulled the Rough Justice bus off the Desert Road and drew up outside Rangipo Prison where Graeme Nesbitt was nearing the end of an eighteen-month lag. It was his second spell of imprisonment, again for selling pot to cover the shortfall from a Dragon venture. While serving his earlier sentence he had been joined for a few months by Rick. The way Rick described it, it didn’t sound all that different from the times they’d flatted together in Aro Valley. Sharing a cell, they discovered that between them they could recite from memory the entirety of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. They also formed a band with other prisoners, calling it Rick and The Rock Breakers.

Rick went in to see Graeme while the rest of us waited. Although it was a minimum security prison, I was surprised when Graeme wandered casually into the yard where the bus was parked, said hello and wished us luck. He looked healthy and tanned, and amused to see Rick with a fresh busload of disciples.

If he were not in prison, Graeme might have been managing Rough Justice, using his charm and cunning to secure us better gigs. In the absence of a manager the task had fallen to Rick, which in those pre-cell-phone days meant parking the bus somewhere near a phone booth and emptying our pockets for change so he could call ahead to confirm our next booking. Rick did not enjoy communicating with publicans. He marvelled at bandleaders who simply treated it as part of the job. They might tell a joke, say something about the rugby, maybe even have a drink with the bar manager after the gig. He knew that this often gained them better fees and more frequent bookings but it was not in his nature to schmooze. I would see Rick through the glass of the phone booth, negotiating through gritted teeth.

He had a small network of contacts who sometimes found us gigs. He referred to them as promoters but they were usually characters he had met in prison: honest, good-hearted people but not natural entrepreneurs. One was Arney, who booked us several nights’ work either side of New Year in a gigantic gymnasium in Mount Maunganui. The place turned out to be approximately a thousand times too large for the number of people who showed up to hear us, but at least we didn’t have to pay for accommodation: Arney had given us the run of his rural homestead.

During the days of that summer residency we’d sleep, swim at the nearby beach, help Janet with the ongoing task of painting the bus, and argue over the set list. Our final night drew our biggest crowd, a few dozen locals. Next morning we packed the bus and went to farewell Arney but he had already left town, heading for the Kaimai Ranges. His message said he was going to work on the construction of New Zealand’s longest railway tunnel until he had paid off the debts incurred by his venture into music promotion.

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Rough Justice in concert (Image: Supplied)

The bus had by now undergone several expensive repairs, and I had begun to wonder if it was false economy to travel this way. It was hard to calculate the bus’s value as a publicity device. When we drove down the main street of any small town – often several times in succession as one of us studied the map and Rick tried to remember the address of the venue – people would stare as though at a giant moving billboard or passing circus. But the bus also made us highly visible to the police. We were stopped frequently. Usually they just wanted to check that our warrant and registration were compliant and we had paid our road user charges, but the more zealous often had a sniff around as well. The first time we were busted we were driving between Titirangi and our Ponsonby crash pad. It was late at night. We had been to visit Ian Watkin, the former Blerta member. He had cooked us a lavish dinner, far better than any road food or pub fare, plied us with wine, and regaled us with his own road tales, such as the time the Brisbane drug squad had descended backstage before a Blerta concert and searched his bag for contraband. They had found only his Cricket Umpires’ Association badge, and this had distracted them long enough for the rest of the band to sneak off and dispose of their stash.

As the police signalled us to pull over, Rick stubbed out his joint. Boyd had a tiny amount of pot in his pocket. He and Rick were taken to the police station. It was Rick’s tenth bust but Boyd’s first. Rick took responsibility for the pot and used his allotted phone call to ring Boyd’s partner in Wellington and warn her that a search of her property might ensue. She was half asleep and Rick was talking in code. ‘Ah, hi Bern, we’ve had some trouble with the bus. It’s the usual thing but don’t worry, Boyd’s okay, it’s just small bananas.’ The next morning she was still wondering about the bananas.

 By 1979 Rough Justice had begun to draw bigger crowds in the cities and we were starting to build a following at the Gluepot, the Ponsonby pub favoured by Hello Sailor and Street Talk. But our most appreciative audiences continued to be far from the cities with their hungover hoteliers and urbane critics. In the early ’70s some of Rick’s contemporaries – dropouts he had known from the Duke and university days – had left Wellington with dreams of living off the land. During Labour’s brief term in office from 1972 and 1975, there had even been state support for such moves, with Prime Minister Norman Kirk overseeing the establishment of the ohu scheme. Under this, remote areas of Crown land were made available for the establishment of communes, a possible antidote to what political historian Margaret Hayward called ‘the ills of modern society, as well as a means of showing people the virtues of a simpler life’. Other people pooled resources and bought land of their own. Community halls in tiny townships on the Coromandel Peninsula or the West Coast of the South Island became a kind of tribal meeting place for some of these groups.

When we visited such communities, rustic revolutionaries in richly coloured clothes would come out of the hills to hear us. There would be none of the usual blank stares, or moans of ‘Play something we can dance to.’ From the first note, these occasions would be big benign bacchanals, with Rick at his most relaxed. The happiest I ever saw him on stage was one night in a community hall at Barrytown, population 225. He commanded centre stage, a large joint in his mouth, which he removed only to sing. Standing behind him with the lights in my eyes, all I could see was a giant cloud of smoke.