In 1999 Spinoff Editor Duncan Greive featured in a music documentary called Sweet As. 16 years later it was innocently suggested by Throwback Thursday’s new sponsors NZ On Screen for post, with the newsy hook being that we headed into festival season. Against his better judgement, he agreed to re-examine what is without doubt most publicly embarrassing thing he’s ever done.
“We want to thank everybody that played today,” says Elvis Costello from a darkened stage in a bad suit. “Particularly everybody that played for no money. Which is nearly everybody – I hope you know about that.”
This moment forms the climax of Sweet As, a documentary about the ill-fated revival of the Sweetwaters multi-day music festival in 1999. It collapsed owing $3m, and almost no one got paid, giving a hard narrative edge to what was meant to be a slice-of-life documentary.
Along with the fancy international artists and the caterers and what have you, there was another group performing for nothing at Sweetwaters. They were the two sets of festival-goers cast to be subjects of the documentary.
One group were a set of old-timers reliving their mis-spent youth, two decades on from the original festivals. The second a group of teens doing it for the first time. I was one of those teens.
The process had started months earlier, at the other end of summer. My friends and I had heard about the documentary somehow, and headed to an art deco building just off Mount Eden Road to audition for the part of “youngsters”. I recall there being dozens of groups there, who we assessed as bags of teen meat, weighing them against ourselves.
We didn’t think we had much of a shot, with the generalised angst that is common to people that age. Looking back, though, it was near inevitable we made it in, because despite five of our six being yet to amount to even a solitary bean, the sixth was Kate Elliott.
She was 17-years-old, beautiful and cool. More to the point, she was an actress who’d just been very well reviewed in a Montana Masterpiece Theatre-type drama which had aired on TV One at 8.30pm on a Sunday night. Back when that kind of show was watched by somewhere around half of New Zealand’s population. Casting jackpot.
I was extremely fucking earnest at the time. I had just turned 19 and was into music to the point where I’d downloaded my entire $10,000 student loan over a couple of months – which you could do back then – and spent it all on records.
I dyed my hair black and used soap as gel, which was not good when it rained, which it did that weekend. I wore what were then-known as “slave beads”(!) and listened to the first three Manic Street Preachers albums way too much. I was a deeply shameful dork who somehow thought it was fine to write – in a clear tribute to Richey Edwards – “Futurist/Nihilist” on the application forms next to
Describe yourself: _______________________________________________________________________
I should make it very clear that I did not know what either of those words meant then, and still do not to this day.
This would not be the first massively embarrassing thing I would do in association with this production.
Anyway. We got cast, and made our way out to the paddocks where the festival was held. There were long queues to get in, and we stayed in tents. Watching the clip which exists to shame me forever on NZ On Screen, I realised that we tented as a conscious production decision: the old timer crew stayed in flash-looking camper vans, so as to accentuate the generational divide. I felt the small twinge of a gyp at 16 years’ remove.
It is a deeply indefensible emotion. I had an amazing time at Sweetwaters. We all did. The lineup was incredible. I remember seeing Pere Ubu, who would soon mean a tonne to me, and met my idols The Clean. David Kilgour signed this horrible bright orange messenger bag I wore all the time back then on camera, while I jabbered idiotically. A treasured memory of his for sure.
Our six had only known one another as a group for a year or two at the time, but we remain friends of some stripe or other to this day. They’re all going great guns – Ben’s had a #1 album, Nigel is a big cheese ad producer, Libby is an art director and Kate has stayed a cool actor. One of them is about eight metres away as I type: Leonie Hayden, current editor of Mana magazine, with whom I now share an office.
Back then we were just fearful idiots, with me easily the most idiotic. Leonie was there for the single most mortifying scene of the whole production. Even though we were definitely about alternative music back then, the two of us foolishly ventured to the dance tent at one point. And even though the drinking age was then 20 – rendering all but one of us underage – footage was captured and ultimately screened of me sorta pogoing like a massive fuckwit, while she looked on in shame and amusement.
My memories of the event are somewhat blurry. Not because of alcohol – we were not only underage but too useless to smuggle any in – but perhaps because of first gen party pills, which were being seeded at the event, and handed out for free in buckets.
Doesn’t seem a great idea.
The festival exists in my mind as grainy as the SD pictures are now: a series of fragments and emotions rather than verifiable scenes. I had come out of high school, which I hated, into a group of friends who I loved and cared for a little too much. Those three days were a culmination of a particular time in my life which felt like a movie, as my favourite rappers say now. I’d been pretty isolated for much of my teens, and here I was with these cool people – and now there were fucking cameras around!
I spent way too long saying way too much borderline frightening stuff about the state of the world, of which I was a long way from qualified to utter even a single opinion. One small mercy is that so little of that rubbish made the final cut.
I should be more grateful again that the seven minute excerpt which exists on NZ on Screen is so fleeting and late in the piece. No one really gets a lot of screen time – except, vaguely creepily, the girls in the communal showers.
But when this aired, during a period when there were only three channels, it was watched by a lot of people. It was a massive shame paroxysm when we got together to watch it, on a projector at Libby’s parents’ house, in front of a bunch of friends and adults. Then, when we all thought this thing had died and disappeared, it jolted back into life around the start of C4.
The channel seemed to air it every Sunday night at around 10.30pm, just when all your acquaintances were baked and drifting. To work at Borders during the early ‘00s, as Leonie and I were doing at the time, was to regularly have it air and bring a whole new round of shame.
When this was suggested by Irene at NZ on Screen as a good topical intro to festival season I felt like she must be trolling me. Surely the coffin lid wouldn’t creak open again? But there it was. Just a merciful fragment, during which my 19-year-old self barely moves and says not a word. If only that were true throughout.
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I felt like I just had to take up her suggestion. If I’m going to write about other people’s shameful experiences on reality TV, then I have to be big enough to expose my own. So here it is:
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