Rocking with Dr O’Leary

Fences down as Paekakariki celebrates local poet laureate and his backing band

By David McGill

St Peter’s Hall, Paekakariki, Guy Fawkes night, about 7.30pm. Folk are gathering for the live launch by Kapiti musicians of poems by Paekakariki poet laureate Michael O’Leary.

The hall hosts broad cabaret tables with blue light centrepieces, soft blue lights identify the bar to the left of the entrance, there are coloured lights on the old white walls, a small rainbow glitter ball revolving overhead.

Dr O’Leary, I presume

Dr O’Leary presides in the far corner below stage beside a stack of the freshly pressed CDs. There is an expectation of stage fireworks.

John Baxter takes a seat beside me at the back table. The musicians didn’t get my father’s poems, he says. Be interesting to see how this goes.

Ruth arrives with her celebrated platter of cut sandwiches: Cucumber and celery, cheese and chives, ham and mustard, delicate little asparagus rolls. She offers a glass of red wine to wash down the sublime sammies, as the musicians warm up on stage. Helen Dorothy steps forward with her delicate guitar, accompanied by mandolin.

Tribute to Michael from Sir Jon

Community Board chairman Adrian Webster reads a tribute to Michael from Jon and Jacqui Trimmer. Mayor Jenny Rowan takes the risk of her own poem tribute to launch Michael’s CD.

Dr O’Leary, I presume, says John affectionately as Michael tells us there are three commemorations.

He came to words from the music of the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan. His mother got him out of bed by yelling the Beatles were on the radio. She died on Guy Fawkes night 1968, his father the same year.

The dispossession of Parihaka

The second commemoration is the brutal dispossession of Parihaka. John Baxter is wearing the commemorative white feather.

The third is Guy Fawkes himself, the only person, Michael says to much laughter, to enter Parliament with honest intentions. The musicians, he says, chose what they sing on the CD from his three poetry collections of recent years.

Niels Gedge steps forward on stage to sing the ‘Doowop’ song that is the Mayor’s favourite: ‘Did Jesus play his guitar, gently weeping.’ Ah, yes, reference to George Harrison. And at the end, as it was for the Beatles, ‘Let it be, yeah, Let it be.’

Francis Mills and the deep mellow country

Francis Mills is on stage with Michael. We know the songs well from the fundraising concert for the CD a few months back. Mills has a deep, mellow country style and warm guitar strum that is perfect for two of my favourites on the CD.

First ‘A Memento of You’, an extraordinary narrative of meeting a woman unexpectedly at Raumati shops from whom the poet stole a scarf. She tells him her mother has just died and the scarf tightens around his throat. The revelation ‘mocks us/So deceptive and beguiling, and then it shocks us.’  I cannot get out of my mind the words ‘Surpised, yet not surprised/ Bound together, but we must be apart’.

The second Mills number is ‘Self Deception’, an SS officer observing the loading of Jews on the Belsen bound death express. He sees a boy who is Jewish looking float away and realises he is watching himself. An ‘evaporating image’ you cannot forget, cloaked in Michael’s love of railway stations and steam from the engine’s boiler billowing everywhere.

Celebrating with dance, music, everything!

The launch is a celebration, the musicians crank up their best dance music, Al Witham with his mean swamp blues has half the audience bopping and swaying round the dance floor.

It is too much for Michael, who abandons his CD table and joins the swirling dance exponents. The glitter ball spins faster, the music accelerates, Gilbert Haisman pounds the piano keys, Niels and Romeril strum and blow on the sax, Helen Dorothy’s exquisite voice. Kayte Edwards of the Green Parrot band steps stage front to conclude the MCing with riffs on the contributors and her stunning rendition of my other favourite, the eponymous track ‘Fences Fall’.

The high tremulous split of the word ‘des-o-lation’ sends shivers all over me. The ‘desolation appears/T’ween us lies the emotional wasteland’ are the words, belied and yet not belied by her powerful, positive, soaring, swooping delivery.

The opening words are so true: ‘Across the table you sit from me/Good wine, good food before us.’ And great music, 12 tracks for $20. Michael has to return to his CD table to sign those rendering down his CD stack.

Opening with an ‘Orakei bastard’

It is autobiography we can all access, beginning with the blank slate ‘of an Orakei bastard’ in the opening track that has one of the poet’s typically complex literary, cross-lingual, demotic puns ‘T.A.B. Ula Rasa’. The part-Maori/part-Irish poet chants in Maori and English with counterpoint from Gilbert Haisman’s sprightly jazz keyboard playing.

The album moves through the scarf tightening, the Beatles Doowop, the uplifting des-o-lation, Al Witham’s wonderfully lugubrious ‘Fifteen Years’ blues reminiscent of Tennessee Ernie Ford on ‘Sixteen Tons’, the ‘quietly breaking petals’ of Helen Dorothy’s heartrending ‘Breaking Beyond’, Brian Romeril’s blues wail ‘I’m Cryin Mama’, Al again on the extraordinary ‘Make Love and War’ where Vietnam is as bad as the Nazis because ‘It doesn’t matter who’s killing ya/If you’re being killed’.

Kayte Edwards trilling again in ‘the embrace we live for’, ‘For that Moment’. Francis Mills with ‘Self Deception’ and accompanying Michael declaring ‘I am a stone/I am a poet,’ and ‘Words fly from my weather-worn exterior’.

Ah, but what words, and how richly they are revealed in this magical CD. You can hear for yourself, contact Michael for the CD at  $25 each. Too late for Ruth’s sammies, but. I helped finish them while chatting to Paul about The Who, out of the corner of my eye Michael whirling boyishly round the dance floor, his ‘evaporating image’ smiling back down.

As we left, a firework gushed rainbow rain into the night sky. Was that John Baxter I saw striding off into the night, the white feather fibrillating? This time the musicians did the poet proud.