How can I remember someone I never met? Well, through her voice, of course; a voice that, through her work with ‘70s hippy troupe BLERTA, made me realise just how few really great singers New Zealand had.
Beaver (real name Beverley Jean Morrison) had a career after BLERTA, one where she performed at the famous Ronnie Scott’s jazz club in London, and gathered no small measure of acclaim. By this stage, however, I was wearing drainpipes and “pogoing” at punk gigs, and jazz just wasn’t on my radar unless it screamed in a freeform mass like late-period Coltrane.
Apparently, Beaver raised a family with actor Bill Stalker, another of the BLERTA retinue, and she kept on singing until her fateful brush with sarcoma. Beaver died on Sunday, May 23, age 59.
Oddly, I was spinning the BLERTA CD compilation, The Return Trip… (EMI) last week, and marveling at her performances on songs like ‘Bankman’, ‘This Is Your Life’ and ‘Hit Us With The Truth’. It was a voice that could really belt it out, and had a steely power that made it perfect for blues-oriented material, but it was also capable of sensitive renderings. At an impressionable age, I thought of her as the closest thing to a NZ version of Janis Joplin, and while she never screeched or emoted with quite the intensity of Joplin, hers was an instrument that really lived a song.
Those BLERTA tracks – taken from mid-‘70s albums that found the group in a multi-media domain far from their origins and without the popular support they mustered when Corben Simpson fronted them – sound great 35 years later, and it doesn’t matter that Beaver only interprets other people’s songwriting. Both Simpson and Beaver did their share of cover versions, which makes me wonder if that’s what’s missing in lauded NZ vocalists in 2010. Perhaps the likes of Hollie Smith should have learnt the ropes singing other people’s songs, rather than get bogged down in their own dreary material.
Whatever, Beaver was a class act, and those early years with BLERTA (which she may have considered as just a footnote) were really something special, and strangely uncelebrated. I’d love to hear from those more knowledgeable on the subject than myself just how Beaver came to BLERTA, and what the group went through in those years. That album she sings so well on – when she must have only been in her mid-20s – originally contained vocals by another singer, and I believe Beaver had the onerous job of replacing those performances. And what of the eccentric, Monty Python-like television series the group made in 1976, or the Wildman film? [I believe these cult items can be viewed at the NZ Film Archive].
What was wonderful about BLERTA was it gave everyone a chance to “blow”, as it were. There are some fine jazz compositions, and the group had its own way with jazz-rock fusion, but also had a theatrical side.
I believe a memorial service is to be held at the Auckland Town Hall on Saturday, followed by a wake at Sale St, and I’m sure that will be a hive of remembrances from those who actually did get to meet Beaver. I never got to do so, but at least I did experience the voice. GARY STEEL