Roger Shepherd: In Love With these Times

My memoir hits the shops Wednesday June 1. A lot of my writing revolved around thinking about my relationship with my friend Chris Knox. Heres an extract from my book about meeting Chris in 1978.

Chapter 5: Chris Knox

In 1978 Paul Smith and I drove south to Dunedin to see a band I’d heard good things about. The reports must have been exceedingly favourable to prompt a five-hour drive in a clapped-out Morris 1100 that was barely powerful enough to climb anything resembling a hill. Whatever stimulated me to get down there and along to the Old Beneficiaries Hall in the town centre, nothing could have prepared me for the life-changing experience of seeing The Enemy for the very first time.

I had never visited Dunedin before. Dad was born above a butcher’s shop on Cumberland Street in 1915 and refused to set foot in the town, so we always drove straight through at, at least for a fully laden underpowered car, high speed. Whereas Christchurch seemed grey, spread out and open to the sky, Dunedin felt darker and claustrophobic due to its surrounding hills and harbour. It was grimy, but it had a charm and the people were nice. They liked to drink too.

The Enemy were a revelation. Original songs performed by a very proficient band fronted by a charismatic lunatic. It was punk rock music all right, but not as I knew it. This was a different monster, untroubled by the affectations that had quickly congealed around the movement. The major point of difference was their original material. It wasn’t played all that fast compared with what other punk bands were attempting to do. The Enemy played slower but the sound was bigger. They weren’t ponderous, just determinedly grinding. They were the real deal and by far the best band I had ever seen live.

There was no collective fashion statement, just an assorted mix of everyday clothing. The guitar player was very good. The drummer knew his stuff and looked genuinely menacing — bell-bottoms over work boots and a Speight’s T-shirt completed the South Dunedin working-class look to grim perfection. The bass player had long hair and also wore flares, which no one was going to take issue with. The singer, well, the singer was Chris Knox.As I’d learn later, Chris was the adopted only child of Fred and June Knox. Born in 1952, he’d grown up in a comfortable middle-class household in Invercargill. Fred was an accountant and stockbroker and a keen Freemason who eventually rose to the top of that organisation in New Zealand as the Grand Supreme Ruler. The Knoxes loved Chris and gave him everything he could want for, but I got the feeling they weren’t all that sure what he was about.

A rather bolshie, sharp-witted child of reserved parents, he was largely left to his own devices. Spoilt and overfed, a bit fat and a bit short on friends, he lived in his own world of comics and music. He was open to all kinds of music, but especially The Beatles. He was academically able, but Chris’s real interests were in what parents of that generation would have thought of as ‘trash’. That’s certainly what my parents thought of the comics, pop music and clothing consumed by the youth of the 1950s and 1960s. But that trash is now what we regard as popular culture, of course. Chris obsessively soaked it all up and developed the passions he would build his life around.

 Chris had arrived in Dunedin from Invercargill in the early 1970s to attend university. I can’t imagine university was ever going to be for him. Academic life would have been too rigid, too dull and too irrelevant. But it did get him out of Invercargill. Dunedin was a deeply conservative Presbyterian city that had been gradually declining for a long time, having once been the economic capital of New Zealand over a century earlier. Fortunately it was a university town and so maintained some connection with the rest of the civilised world. There was a bohemian set that flourished there and who supported bookshops and record shops and live music. Chris may have dropped out of university pretty quickly, meaning he had a succession of dead-end jobs (including grave digging, no pun intended), but he was free to read, draw and listen to music.

He was not a passive listener. Everything was analysed, approved of or rejected. He had a reputation as a heckler at live shows. He wasn’t interested in rehashed covers, he wanted to hear bands playing their own music. If he could be a harsh critic, he was also willing to embrace and encourage those he thought were making the right sort of effort.

Punk had arrived at just the right time. Not afraid to overstate his own musical abilities, Chris had pulled together The Enemy with Mick Dawson, Mike Dooley and Alec Bathgate. He found his forte in the process, as a songwriter and collaborator, as a very fine singer, and as an over-the-top front man.

The Enemy were like nothing I had ever seen or heard before. Punk, yes, but with lots of other influences from the 1960s and 1970s mixed in. All sorts of strange things, from The Beatles, The Kinks, The Stooges, The Velvet Underground and even The Doors. In a funny anti-matter kind of way they were rather glam rock. Perhaps they were an unglamorous punk glam rock band. But while there may have been some theatrics from Chris, they were never Rocky Horror. They weren’t like anything, really, from any other place or time. And I had never met anyone like Chris Knox before.

The Enemy at the Old Beneficiaries Hall, Dunedin, 1978, with me on the dance floor (photo by Jeff Batts)

The Enemy at the Old Beneficiaries Hall, Dunedin, 1978, with me on the dance floor (photo by Jeff Batts)

The audience at the Old Beneficiaries Hall wasn’t big, but it was a volatile mixture of punks and surfers and other misfits, bouncing around under a framed portrait of the Queen. A fire hose was turned on and I found myself out the front door, where the evening’s most bothersome punter (who had only one arm) was now lying beaten unconscious in the gutter.I had the car and we careered through the centre of Dunedin with too many people on the inside and some sitting on the bonnet. The whisky bottle was in danger of becoming jammed in the steering wheel. Better there than stuck under the brake pedal while hurtling downhill, I suppose. As I said, the Morris lacked power and was especially ill equipped for the steep Dunedin hills. Everyone on the bonnet was happy to jump off and push.

It seemed my friend Paul and I were staying at The Enemy’s house on Lachlan Avenue. Chris, Mike the drummer and band friend Doug Hood lived here. I’m not sure where Mick the bass player lived. Alec the guitarist was an art-school student, had a nice long-standing girlfriend, washed himself and his clothing, and liked to eat regular meals, so he lived elsewhere. The house was a rented, dilapidated affair. The wall of Chris’s room was parting company with the rest of the house. There was a dead kitten in a preserving jar in the kitchen. Thank god there was no microwave. The drummer’s appointment with the district court for assault was pinned to the wall.

There was plenty of lively chat until the beer and whisky ran out. I said I’d really enjoyed the show and asked for my money back so I could buy enough petrol to get back to Christchurch the next day. I passed out in an old worn-out and uncomfortable armchair rather than put my head down on the sofa — I knew who had been sitting there on a regular basis. I chose not to use the bathroom. We drove back to Christchurch the next day to tell everyone about this band we had seen in Dunedin. Nothing would be the same again.