In honour of NZ Music Month, Gary Steel climbs into the crumbling catacombs of his back catalogue, and disinters a different story Every Day In May (EDIM). Today’s piece appeared in Metro magazine, some time in 1996. It was my first Metro story.
Note: I had wanted to write about Corben Simpson for years, and finally got the chance, but I hadn’t expected to encounter the man in such a depressing situation – or series of situations. At times it felt voyeuristic peaking into his pain, and I remember thinking ‘how the hell do those 60 Minutes-style reporters deal with the emotional gravity of the lives they’re covering and sometimes impacting on in the process? The postscript to this story is that his life continued to spiral downwards. These days, he is reputed to be living in a workers’ hut near a fruit cool-store in Katikati. Currently, almost none of his music is available, although I hear that a compilation CD is in the planning stages.
Singer/songwriter Corben Simpson was one of the talents of the golden age of New Zealand rock, the ‘70s, when life was a party full of hope and dope. Today this legendary figure is on the skids. What happened? Gary Steel jiggles around the pieces of the puzzle.
THE FIRST TIME I meet Corben Simpson, he’s holed up in a workmen’s hut behind a bankrupt dye factory in Te Atatu South. It’s a grim scene. Hectares of depressing West Auckland suburbia suddenly gives way to a blotch of industry. Two types of ugly. Territorial zombie eyes stare you down as you drive through a scrap yard from hell and there it is, a squat concrete bunker.
Inside, the cheery rhythms of Aotearoa Radio strain to drown out the industrial hum and clatter and Simpson sits in the dim half-light, rolling ciggies with spindly, stained fingers.
He’s stayed her often in the past couple of years. Between times, friends or old lovers have let him set up shop for a night or two and, when things get really desperate, he can always kip in the old bomb out back.
Simpson is an imposing figure, wild-eyed and skinny, with an unpredictability at every exchange. Sober, he’s friendly as a fish. And he’s proud that he’s finally learnt how to whip up a good meal since his last girlfriend threw him out. Today, however, it’s gumboot tea in a dirty old mug, while his little terrier, Shiba, gnaws on a gangrenous-looking bone.
The last real home – and happiness – for Simpson was a squat he had a couple of years back in Colville, Coromandel. He lived in a caravan with no power, sharing the beachfront site with a few other nomads, living on the fish he caught. There he was able to put life on hold, indulge his passion for the bottle, play and sing round campfires. Until the land was sold, that is, and the small community was turfed out.
In Simpson’s bunker there’s scant evidence of his important part in New Zealand’s rock history. Nothing to suggest I’m in the presence of pop genius. Just a stack of broken-down guitars. He tells me that someone stole the only working model a few weeks back.
IT’S 1972. THIS writer is 12, reluctantly attending Hamilton’s Peachgrove Intermediate School. I’m grappling with the Big Issues. Like: Why did Jimi, Janis and Jim have to die so young? How come the minister at Mum and Dad’s church has taken exception to my straggly hair, when Jesus himself was obviously a hippy? And why did that ugly girl Wendy kick me in the balls?
Without warning, it’s announced there will be a rock concert in the school hall in a couple of hours. Attendance is not mandatory but most of the kids turn up anyway. We’ve never seen anything like it. It’s a far cry from the standard, wholesome school entertainment. It’s BLERTA – a bunch of stoner FREAKS! They take to the stage and the music’s wild. There are songs and stories and the climax is a thing called ‘Dance Around The World’, where some members of the band – including this tall singer dude with long, long hair – come out and lead the entire assembly of kids in a dance around… the room!
A couple of months later I got to buy the single of ‘Dance Around The World’, doing my part to catapult the fable (adapted from a Margaret Mahy story) to the number one spot on the hit parade.
It had been a great couple of years for the group’s singer, Corben Simpson. In 1970 he had wowed the audience at a Max Cryer-organised royal command performance for Prince Charles and Princess Anne, and then stole the show at the Redwood pop festival, where the audience kept him on stage for over an hour, despite his intention to play only a few songs. In 1971 he won a coveted APRA Silver Scroll award for his song, ‘Have You Heard A Man Cry?’ (in 1975 it won the APRA Golden Scroll for best New Zealand composition of the previous 10 years). At 21, he was already being called New Zealand’s leading songwriter and newspapers and columnists were trumpeting praise. Corben Simpson’s part in the social/artistic phenomenon of BLERTA (Bruno Lawrence’s Electric Revelation and Travelling Apparition) as singer/bassist on their anarchic travels around the country would surely put him on the map forever. Outside BLERTA he had a solo career still percolating. Having recorded an album with former band Littlejohn and his first solo album already, he only needed to look forward to his deal with EMI and towards overseas territories. No lesser personage than Jose Feliciano had taken ‘Have You Heard A Man Cry?’ back to the States with the intention of recording it!
During this triumphant tour, BLERTA was planning its first album and had already booked the studio time. But, by the time ‘Dance Around The World’ hit the top spot, BLERTA had fizzled to a full stop. Something truly unique in the annals of New Zealand rock history had disappeared overnight and Simpson was on his own again.
BLERTA had been formed in 1971. Bruno Lawrence was already a veteran of the New Zealand pop scene, having lent his considerable drumming abilities to other crucial groups like Quincy Conserve. Aucklander Corben Simpson had drifted to Wellington where he had hooked up with the group Littlejohn and recorded his first solo album, with Lawrence on drums.
Their producer, Ed Morris, who gave Simpson his first taste of the recording scene and now manages Wainuiomata “legend” Chloe, says of Simpson: “He had an amazing voice, a good simple bass style with a driving feel to it… Corben could have been a commercial star if he’d wanted, but he was always more interested in being progressive and individualistic.”
Having drummed up a storm on Simpson’s studio tracks, it didn’t take long for Bruno Lawrence to join Simpson’s band, Littlejohn, which provided the original core of BLERTA. Simpson: “After a few months he said, ‘Why don’t we start a great big band, get a bus and travel around the country?’ He was 10 years older than us and had ideas we didn’t even dream of. We got Littlejohn and a bunch of other musicians and off we went!”
The first BLERTA tour was down south and it raised a ruckus. “Straight” New Zealand hadn’t seen anything like it before. The heartland was already threatened by the cute pop fabrications it saw weekly on TV’s Happen Inn. But it was freaked by this bus full of long-haired, dope-smoking hoons. Simpson himself had misgivings when he saw the amount of marijuana being circulated, but in the end accepted the drug trade as a harsh reality, the only way to finance their idealism. When he once complained at one of the crew pulling out an enormous bag of dope, the response was, “How do you think we’re going to buy petrol and get around?”
“We were getting raided by the police. We got raided in Queenstown,” says Simpson. “We were asleep on the bus and they arrived to search it ‘because we suspect you have heroin on the bus.’ This girl picked up a movie camera and started filming the police, and they were embarrassed and freaked and didn’t know what to do. Later, we ended up projecting these black and white movies on a wall with the 15-piece band playing along to it.”
BLERTA was a unique musical and social phenomenon, and that ensured news coverage with every new territory it conquered. It was a complete sound and light show, mixing the group’s original songs with theatrical skits and filmed backdrops. And, of course, it was a brilliant exposition of the hippy lifestyle: a large community of artists on the road in a psychedelic bus, complete with wives and children. Lawrence’s leadership and experience was pivotal. Not only was he a seasoned muso, but he already had acting experience, having starred as a bikie in the opening episode of the ground-breaking Pukemanu, and had won a Feltex acting award a few years previously.
BLERTA member Grant McFarland remembers: “All the BLERTA musicians were experienced. Corben had a whole career ahead of him, everything going for him, and although it looked like a sort of mad hatters’ tea party for hippies, in fact everybody there was a professional performer.” Ahh. So they were a professional bunch of mad stoner freaks. Makes all the difference.
THE SECOND TIME I meet Corben Simpson, he’s on the verge of eviction. There’s been some trouble. A gang of youths have been hassling him. When he calls the cops, he gets arrested and spends a night in prison. As we leave, a young Maori lad turns up at the door demanding some dak.
We adjourn to the local pub, a brightly lit suburban bar called the Thirsty Rooster.
Simpson’s as nervous as hell, so it’s a relief to bump into an old buddy, Matthew McCahon, son of the famous painter Colin. McCahon mumbles about how he used to be a mechanic fixing Vespa scooters but gave it up when the customers gave him too much trouble. Now he does nothing much in a Glen Eden house he got from the proceeds of his Dad’s will. So we talk about nothing much, and after a few pints of beer we say our goodbyes to the son of a painter man, get a couple of monster bottles of cheap Italian red wine and head back to Simpson’s digs, where he feels more comfortable.
He got into music “because my parents were mean to me”. Meaning? “They made me take piano lessons for three years. By the age of 11, I rebelled and got a ukulele. Then I got a guitar and one of those books, Play The Guitar In Five Minutes! That’s the best lesson I’ve had in my life!”
At 15, Simpson joined his first band, The Plague, but at 16 he was shipped off to Rotorua to live with his aunt as penance: “I helped some guys who stole a water truck from the council. They got me to come along and let the water out in the streets for a prank.” There he joined another band called… The Plague, getting his formative influences from an old jazz musician.
“He used to sit me down and put on this horrible music, Thelonius Monk, Gil Gilberto. I didn’t understand it but it went into my brain.
“When I was about 19, I had an argument with my girlfriend and decided I had to leave town. We broke up and I ran away to Tauranga, and I wrote ‘Have You Heard A Man Cry?’ because I was so fucking heartbroken.
Simpson started another band, Sons & Lovers, but ended up playing around Waikato as a solo artist and getting married, before making the move to Wellington, then the centre of the recording industry in New Zealand.
Having already experimented with hallucinogenic drugs in the late ‘60s, developing chronic insomnia, Simpson was “around 20” when he had his first breakdown, triggered by his withdrawal from prescribed Valium. It would seem that many of his later problems stem from this period.
“I had a recording contract with EMI but they didn’t like my original material. They wanted me to sing covers,” he says.
Some cover versions owned by his former record company, Strange Records, were acquired by EMI and added to the album, against his wishes.
According to Patrick McKenna, EMI hired him to collaborate with Simpson on the album: “We started, and suddenly Corben got shitty with everybody and started doing his own… unique kind of music.”
The unique part of the album is where the Corben Simpson legend gathers speed. John Dix claims in his rock tome Stranded In Paradise that Simpson insisted on moving his bed into the studio, recording the entire album flat on his back.
The oft-told story comes from engineer Frank Douglas, but Corben denies it… sort of.
“It’s all bullshit. A lot of bullshit. There’s an element of truth. The truth of that story is, it was a night recording session, a great big recording studio and I was in there by myself, and all the songs I was recording that night I used to play on the couch at home. All I did was take my couch into the studio and I sat on my couch and played those songs in the great big studio, all by myself. No sleeping bag, no booze, no drugs. Completely straight.”
Whatever the truth, Simpson’s original songs on Get Up With The Sun are touched with the same coating of inspired lunacy that created legends out of such great Missing In Action figures of international rock as Peter Green and Syd Barrett. ‘Running To The Sea’ is up there with Fourmyula’s ‘Nature’ as one of the all-time great Kiwi evergreens. From there on in, the weird gets going: ‘Kimberly’ is a spectacularly unfettered lullaby for his young daughter committed to tape in baby talk; ‘What?’ is a multitracked, melodic F-word; ‘Le Poisson’ is an echo-drenched, wigged-out protest about nature’s desecration; ‘Kazumpet Voluntary’ is the Last Post of kazoo la-la-land, and ‘No Trespassing’ was about as angry and unhinged as you got in pre-punk rock. To top it all off, the album cover photo was a double exposed shot of a giant magic mushroom.
“I wrote ‘No Trespassing’ when I was angry, and a few years later I had the opportunity to perform it on the steps of Parliament at the end of the Maori land march,” says Simpson. “It felt real good.”
As the conversation degenerates into slurred bantering, Simpson adds that he doesn’t like to play any of this material now. It’s too angry, too bitter, too naïve. Instead, he does great versions of ‘Waltzing Matilda’ and ‘Ten Green Bottles’. Yeah, right.
Get Up With The Sun stiffed at the box office. But 1973 was still a busy year. His profile was never higher than the night he was a lead item on the TV news, having performed stark raving nude at the inaugural Ngaruawahia Music Festival. Today he plays the incident down: “The sweat was dripping off me and I thought ‘I’ve gotta take my shirt off,’ and the crowd was yelling at me, telling me what to do, and I took my trousers off, still had my undies on, and it drew them into a worse frenzy. I whipped off me underpants, and what happened was that hundreds of people took off their clothes. I was just playing like normal, sitting on a stool, with the guitar covering my privates.
“I was arrested, locked up and convicted of indecent exposure. That made me very angry and opened my eyes to the injustices that were going on.”
In a newspaper report at the time, Simpson lashed out at the police:
“I am shocked that the Minister of Police has called for an inquiry into why I was allowed to do what I did. I see nothing disgusting in the naked human body. I see only God’s beauty.”
He also commented on people urinating in front of the police at the festival: “When you get 18,000 people together, a lot of them are going to need to urinate at once. If I needed to urinate badly I wouldn’t hold back just because a policeman was looking at me. A lot of people have died because they held their urine for too long.”
Simpson rejoined the newfangled BLERTA for a short time but soon fell out with the new guys in the band, mainly Fane Flaws: “They were still kinda learning how to play and they had energy, but I had already been through Yogananda and all that stuff and lost my ego, and I had to deal with all these young egos coming along and it just swallowed me up in the end; I just lost faith. It also became much more movie oriented and every time they pointed a camera at me I just freaked.”
And then there was Simpson’s aborted trip to Sydney:
“I thought, ‘I’ll go over there and crack it, because I’m at the top here now, a number one hit with BLERTA, plus two of my own albums, plus the Littlejohn album.’ But I went there and tried to get a job as a solo artist and they weren’t interested.”
Roger Clark, a friend of Corben’s at the time, disagrees: “When Corben went to Sydney, his wife worked while he fucked about, and came back complaining that the agencies could not recognise his talent. They would have wanted presentable, organized material performed by a disciplined and reliable performer. I think he actually went to see one or two agents in six months!”
Back in Wellington, something snapped. “I was getting the wrong sort of attention. I was really well known and I wasn’t earning anything like enough money to support myself in the lifestyle that was necessary to be upfront that much. In those days in Wellington, everybody knew what I looked like, because my face was always in the paper – I was always on television, on the radio, and everybody knew me and I didn’t know anybody. I’d walk down the street and everybody’d be staring at me. I didn’t know how to handle it. It drove me crazy – to the point of pushing over television cameras and photographers.”
The last time the nation watched Corben Simpson in all his glory was on Ready To Roll, the obligatory 6pm Saturday evening pop show. He was recounting a tale called ‘Frogs’, in which the whole world goes up in smoke, except for the high-ranking politicians who have a bunker under the Beehive. Television was never as mad or as delightfully naïve again.
John Dix, who was on the fringes of the BLERTA scene, says that “everybody in the entourage, except for the kids, were dropping a lot [of LSD]”, but agrees that “the stimulant that Corben favours above all else is definitely alcohol.”
Roger Watkins, drummer and rock historian: “Corben was a genius and as mad as hell, a nutter. He had one of the most stupendous pop voices ever – he used his voice as an instrument. He was a spectacular performer but a bit crazed.”
Watkins plugged a lead into the wrong socket one night and blew himself clear off the stage: “Corben came rushing over, just like Neil the hippy, ‘Oh wow, the ultimate, maan!’ He got out his Tiger Balm and said, ‘This’ll fix anything, I’ll rub some into your third eye.’”
Cliff Walker, who worked for Broadcasting at the time and helped Ed Morris out on Simpson’s recordings, remembers Simpson turning up at his house at midnight, dressed in a curtain: “His hair had grown very long and he looked wild-eyed, and he wanted to borrow my electric bass. He was going to play at the officers’ mess at Trentham. I don’t know if this was for real, or whether he just had a bad dream!
“I think Corben was out of time, too much for people to handle, in every way… he loved to give people the evils; he’d stare at you and play mind games. Because of this he used to get himself smacked around a bit, because he’d pick on the wrong person. He needs taking care of… Corben and his wife and kids would turn up in their van, not having eaten for two weeks or washed for a month. Several people tried to help, but it just never worked. He’d just up and off whenever he felt like it. He’s such a free spirit.”
Two people who did their best to help Simpson were drummer Roger Clark and his then wife, Anna Leah, who had a smash hit with ‘The Lovebug’ in the early ‘70s.
Now both living in Sydney and divorced, Clark sells real estate and Leah teaches her music skills.
They both remember Simpson with much fondness, although, having had their lives disrupted by him for years, Clark wishes he’d treated the situation differently:
“I love the guy, but everyone gave him too much latitude. He was like a spoilt boy and just didn’t have the discipline required to become a star.
“He used to come over and complain to us about how his wife was holding him back, but his wife and her mother bloody poured thousands of dollars into Corben.
“He was one of the few people of true international talent and he had a real depth and charisma on stage. He had a childlike view of the world, was very stubborn and was totally uncoachable. Corben never took responsibility for his life.”
Clark recalls Simpson, wife and kids turning up one night out of the blue: he was in town for a court appearance. After one night, the house was in a state of emergency. “I was given the task of telling him to pack up and piss off. I managed to bribe Corben by giving him our next month’s mortgage payment so he could afford to live and look after his family. The next day, another talented derelict rings me up and says, ‘Thanks very much for lunch; we’ve had a lovely time, a bottle of wine.’ Corben had blown all the money on a fancy lunch and a boozy afternoon and a few good joints.
“Unfortunately, Corben has relegated himself to the discard bin, full of talented people who were not willing to take responsibility for their own success.”
Anna Leah goes easier on Simpson:
“He couldn’t sleep at night. He was an insomniac. My husband and I would be asleep – we never locked our homes in New Zealand – and at four in the morning, suddenly we’d hear something, and right at the end of the bed would be Corben, just talking to us quietly while we were asleep. And we’d have to get up and make him a cup of tea.”
Didn’t she feel like strangling him?
“Oh no, we always loved Corben; we used to feel for him, because usually with tremendous talent you have those sort of unusual character traits and he had to live with himself.”
Patrick McKenna saw a different side to Simpson: “I always thought Corben had the best voice this country ever saw, but he was always a self-destructive character. Anybody who got close or wanted to help him, he’d just dick ‘em, you know? And he kicked the establishment in the face whenever he could… and he was downright maniacal at times. I saw some shocking displays on stage, like brown-eying the audience! It was a bit much!”
THE THIRD TIME I meet Corben Simpson he’s made his home in a drafty, ramshackle structure in the back yard of a Mt Albert house. He’s fixed some bright green lino over the bare wooden frames facing the sitting position on his mattress, just to get some colour comfort in his life. A kettle boils on the portable stove. This is the fifth place Simpson has rested his weary head since I spoke to him two months previously.
Happy just to have a roof over his head, he hasn’t played a note of music in months. A Playboy lies open on the floor: he’s been reading up on Prozac, which his doctor just prescribed.
Simpson reluctantly takes me on a scattered trip through his life after fame. Doom, doom, doom. It’s the story of a drifter, a man torn between (and moving back and forward between) the normal life of a manual labourer and a passion for music.
After the failed career bid, Simpson hung around the Wellington scene for a time. He remembers helping his best friend, the late artist Philip Clairmont, to shoot up. “Philip needed to shoot up before he could paint,” says Simpson.
With great pain, he remembers his time working at Kinleith sawmill near Tokoroa in the late ‘70s. The site of his second breakdown, Simpson was doing the nightshift, feeding wood into the mulching machine. Luckily, a roving supervisor stopped him from throwing himself into the mulcher and ending the misery once and for all. He was sent off to a psychiatrist and dosed up on antidepressants.
The ‘80s weren’t much better, but back in Auckland, roaming the streets of Ponsonby, he at least had a group of good mates to hang out with at the Gluepot and there were still opportunities to perform. Having parted company with his long-suffering wife, Barbara, Simpson embarked on a life of bit projects and heavy drinking, which inevitably led him straight to trouble. Usually at the end of a fist.
“I’ve got an intensity about me and that’s one of the reasons I’ve been attacked so many times. I’ve been hit so many times now, that in a way I’m always on the alert for it. Because I’m watching out the corner of my eye for someone who’s gonna come along and whack me, it’s almost like an invite to those people. At the moment I can’t even play the guitar, because this finger’s broken and that finger’s been dislocated, just by real nasty, jealous people. It’s just an ongoing thing.”
Having been a sometime, latterday beer buddy of Simpson’s, John Dix has witnessed the singer getting slapped around in some ugly situations.
“He gets out of control and gets himself into trouble, gets loud and quite verbally abusive, often in the wrong environment. Sometimes in the old Gluepot he’d be one of the four or five white faces there.”
Last year, things hit rock bottom for Simpson when his mentor and hero, Bruno Lawrence, died and it brought intense memories flooding back. Lawrence – who was cut with the same outlandish, exhibitionist cloth as Simpson – always gave the time of day to his former band mate and it was hard to accept that the rugged dynamo was really gone.
The two weeks Simpson spent on a marae in the Hawkes Bay at the time of Lawrence’s funeral were a very special time, and he wished there was some way of staying.
Struck by the sadness of this man whose life and career seems in permanent limbo, I ask, if he could rewrite history, would he do it any other way.
“If I had it all over again, I would have taken my father’s advice and stuck at my apprenticeship – I was an apprentice electrician – and got a proper trade behind me.
“as it is,” he says despondently, “I haven’t any grand plans for the future, because I don’t know what’s around the corner.
“I ask my Mum sometimes: ‘What is it with me?’ and she goes all quiet and won’t say anything. I think she knows something she’s not telling me.”
Oddly, Chris Knox – New Zealand’s other intense rock eccentric – has bought the house Simpson used to live in. He’s redecorated but couldn’t quite bring himself to cover up a piece of Simpson wisdom written in crayon on the lounge wall: “IT DOESN’T REALLY MATTER”. GARY STEEL