Gary Steel marks the sad occasion of NZ music legend Ray Columbus’s death with this revealing Q&A, never before published in full, conducted in Ray’s posh Omaha pad in 2011 around the publication of his autobiography.
I REMEMBER HIS country house was very white. His wife hovered around the margins. Ray was very friendly, and said he’d read my stuff for many years. The interview captures Ray just the way he spoke – in a torrent that could just go on and on, but never in a boring way, because one thing would lead to another, and along the way, there would be all these minor revelations. In 2011, Ray was obviously frail, and his short-term memory failed him a couple of times during the interview – more like mental hiccups than major disruptions. For those with the perseverance, there are some great quotes below, and some interesting comments about growing up in Christchurch, Helen Clarke/John Key, and the transition from entertainer to rock star to and back to entertainer.
Gary – In your book, to start on a subject that’s elliptical to everything else, you talk about the treatment that you undertook after your stroke. EECP? I met a guy last year from Omaha, another chap called Ray.
Ray – Ray Bradley! Wonderful! He’s an amazing character, a brilliant skier and he’s in his mid-80s, unbelievable.
Gary – He’s an amazing academic philosopher, as well.
Ray – Absolutely! He’s incredible. We met him through friends. We haven’t seen a lot of him this year, I must admit, but we’ve talked on the phone. Lovely guy.
Gary – He told me about this EECP thing and how somehow you were involved with it.
Ray – I was the first patient.
Gary – Do you have an interest in the company itself?
Ray – No, not at all. Absolutely not, no. The young man who owns it used to play American grid-iron, he’s a Kiwi. And he knew about machines because they use them for the teams for preventive injury, or for healing. And he knew about them, and that they were invented at Harvard, and whatever. We met at a friend’s party around the corner in Pt Wells, after my heart attack. So we’re going back some years, because I had the heart attack in 2004. And Linda came over, because she’s a self-healer and she knows every book – check the bookshelf. Except for my books which are autobiographies, showbiz books, they’re books about healing. She came over to me and said ‘have you been talking to Will Hinchcliff? And I said yes, the grid-iron player, he’s a nice bloke. And she said ‘he’s looking at bringing out these machines from China’. These machines had been designed at Harvard, approved by the FDA in a double-blind test, and had been great for recovery for heart, cardio-vascular disease, diabetes, all sorts of things… and I said I’d be into that. And he said ‘are you saying you’d be a patron?’ and I said ‘absolutely’. Because I had a major heart attack, which was kind of played down for a couple of years. It was only once I’d had a TIA mini-stroke in 2008 that I found out. Linda was with me at North Shore Hospital and there were four doctors trying to find out what had happened to me. They said ‘because your heart attack was a major heart attack’, and Linda said to me ‘you didn’t tell me it was a major heart attack!’ And I said ‘surely every heart attack’s a major, I don’t know, I’ve never had one before!’ It was one of those sort of things. But anyway, I said to Will, I’ll have a go at it because the thing I’ve learned from Linda is, if you try things, and this is not an alternative therapy… And anyway, I was absolutely thrilled. I’m a great proponent of it. It’s reversed my peripheral vascular disease and my cardiac vascular disease. I’m alive really because of EECP. And my medication of course helps. Will Hinchcliff brought in the machines because I agreed to be the first patient, so I’m probably the greatest proponent of it. Ray heard about me having it, and that’s how he tried it. And just last night I was talking on Maori Access radio because there’s huge interest in it, and there should be, because anything that can help your health… In a nutshell, what happens is that while you’re on this machine it pumps air into your body – ankles, calves, thighs and buttocks. Which are wrapped round with Velcro. And you’re hooked up to an EPG machine so it ties in with your heart rate. And then it massages those parts of your legs, because that’s where all of our blood goes, and the older you get the more your blood stays in your feet, your ankles. That’s how women get swollen ankles. It’s not just water, it’s fluid, it’s blood, it’s everything. What it does is while you’re at rest on this big bed it’s pumping your heart and the blood right through your body. And my body’s so used to it now that I get five to six times the amount of blood pumped through my body than I normally get. And meanwhile my heart’s at rest. And that’s the phenomenal thing.
Ray – It massages it. And as I said, it’s been approved by the FDA. I was furious with Aunty Herald because the writer for Maori health called me and I gave her a thorough interview, and I was so pleased that Maori were interested because I think it’s a major health thing. And I told her it’s not an alternative therapy, that the Food and Drug Administration, and Medicare in America, approved it. And her subeditor or she, I’m not sure which, wrote the headline ‘Ray Columbus sold on alternative therapy’. I was furious! I emailed her and said ‘I can’t believe I gave you this exclusive and you’ve deliberately… you people should be FIRED!’ I was furious! I don’t like words being put in my mouth. But anyway, it’s not alternative.
Gary – It seems that anything that’s not enmeshed within the current systems just doesn’t stand a chance.
Ray – I wrote to Tony Ryall, the minister of health around the same time, and I said ‘minister, do you get the feeling that every time I write to you about EECP, and how good it is, and you delegate it to one of your executives, that they see that as you putting up a roadblock? Because that’s certainly the way they treat this, and I find that appalling, while people are dying every day, when they could be using these machines.’ But I didn’t even get a reply to that.
Gary – Well, Ray Bradley reckoned he had made the recovery he has because of it.
Ray – Absolutely. He was a downhill racer, an 80 year old, more than 80, a ski racer in the veteran Olympics if you like, and he’s an academic, a professor twice, a professor of psychology and an amazing character, and before he used the EECP he was told that he was going to have to have surgery on his knees, and that he had a major problem, an erratic heartbeat and whatever. That’s all gone. He didn’t need the surgery, didn’t need anything. And he is an educated man.
Gary – Exactly, he’s not the kind of guy that would fall for any bogus treatment.
Ray – And I’m not either. I used to be a skeptic.
Gary – What do you think of what they call alternative treatments?
Ray – Linda’s an expert on it, and if she suggests to me that I should try this or have this – even this morning she was talking to me about something that would improve my brain. After my major stroke in 2008 I was a vegetable… not a vegetable, but I was pretty bad. Couldn’t talk properly, couldn’t walk properly. I had a limp, I was crippled down the right side of my body. My vocal chord was paralysed so I couldn’t sing. And we kept most of this quiet, because we’re private people and I don’t like all that to be out there. But my recovery has mostly been because of Linda; the things she’s found or recommended. This morning was no exception. She said ‘Oh darling there’s a wonderful thing that will help your brain’. She’s always finding something that’ll improve me, which I think is wonderful.
Linda – I’ve discovered the Brain Bullet.
Ray – The Brain Bullet, it’s the latest thing. [laughs] It’s light years away, I mean I’m an old rocker. But I realise that, because I was a heavy smoker when I was a kid, I didn’t know it could kill you. By the time I found out it was a very dangerous thing I was already an addict. I was addicted to cigarettes.
Ray – I used to steal my Dad’s butt’s out of the fireplace and used to put them in my draw and re-roll them later, in newspaper, anything I could find. I used to sneak a smoke, it was just appalling, and by the time I was 13 I was already an addict, and the only upside of it is that it stopped me, particularly in San Francisco during the psychedelic era, it stopped me looking at anything else. And whenever one of these guys would say [ludicrous American accent] ‘what are you on man, you’re higher than any of us?’ I used to say ‘I’m not on anything, I’m like this all the time’, and they would say ‘you’re crazy!’ And these are the same guys who used to get crazy on the weekend, uppers or downers or LSD or marijuana, and then on Tuesday have to go to their shrink. I’ve never been to a shrink in my life. I don’t like sharing my thoughts, or whatever. I’ve never had hangups.
Gary – What was your reason for writing this book?
Ray – I’d been asked for years. In fact Geoff Steven who used to be a director of the company, he asked me years ago, in the early ‘70s, would I write my book, because I had such an interesting life, and I said I’m not interested in exposing people or name-dropping or… I don’t want to do one of those sorts of stories. And I realise now that I was far too young, far too immature, but when Penguin contacted me, and it was during Sweeney Todd last year when I was doing a cameo performance at the Maidment. It was a major for me, because I had to remember just a simple little cameo thing every night, and it was a challenge I had somebody, an assistant offstage who would always be on my case. And a couple of performers who have become good friends, they used to also… [makes coaching gestures] because I do have stroke moments when I’m in la-la-land. I can get enthralled in watching the production and forget that I’m… So anyway, when the marketing people for the play put out that I was in the show, Michele Hewitson from the Herald contacted them and said I want to interview Ray Columbus. And so they were over the moon. I don’t seek publicity, I don’t need it, I’ve got nothing to sell, but if you think it will help the show, then sure, I’ll do it. Well it turns out that, she’s a lovely person, and… I don’t want to say she’s a fan but she’s an admirer of what I’ve done, and she particularly loved the red pants I was wearing for that interview, and I said ‘actually, they’re for you’, which was absolutely true, because I bought them in a sale at one of my favourite stores in town, and they were just hanging in my closet. They were red, corduroy trousers, and they were a wee bit long, and Linda said she’d take them up one day, but I said I’ve got nothing to wear them for, basically.
Gary – They were trousers you bought a long time ago?
Ray – About a year earlier. They were sitting in my closet and I hadn’t worn them, because as I’ve got older, even though I still get called ‘the Mod’ and ‘the Modfather’ and I am still a fashionista in my head, living in the country I don’t have… I used to go to all the opening nights and what-have, but once we moved up here and I had health problems we slowed down a bit. But anyway, I wore these pants and Michelle made a big feature, a full feature in the Herald, and because of a couple of things I told her, and she said ‘I couldn’t possibly print those because your fans wouldn’t believe it’, but then Penguin contacted me and said we loved that feature and we want to talk to you about writing a book. And I said ‘that’s interesting, because the two things that no-one knows about but I told Michelle about she wouldn’t print because she said the fans wouldn’t believe it and she was a fan herself in a way. And she was shocked, and I said I guess there’s something there, and that’s how the book came about. And really I’m now in a place where I can write that book, with the great help of Margie Thomson, who did a sterling job of getting me to open up, which is very hard, even though I get verbal diarrhoea. Getting me to open up – Linda read the proofs with me in the States when we were there in March, and said ‘how did she get you to talk about all this stuff’, and I said ‘she’s just really good at it’. And I shocked her a couple of times, and then near the end, because we had so many interviews and sessions together, and she wrote in my vernacular which I’m just thrilled about. Because Linda’s the sort of person who would look me in the eye and say ‘how do you feel darling?’ and I’d say ‘good’, and she’d say ‘how do you REALLY feel?’ Get in touch with yourself. And I said ‘good!’ So when I read the book it’s like reading someone’s story, but I know it’s mine, and Marg, she got me to open up really well, did a fabulous job, and the things that Michelle Hewitson turned down, she didn’t even allude to them, she wrote a story about my red pants and the fact that I was a household name. And that was a lovely article, but really the reason that Penguin contacted me. I said after a couple of meetings, I want the book to officially end around 1968, because from then on I become PC, I become a good parent, role model, and I don’t think it’d be exciting, and everyone knows it all anyway, you just have to go on the web and read all the things I’ve won and what I’ve done and… It’s just out there anyway, whereas people don’t know the other stuff, my childhood, the upbringing, the values my parents gave me, the training I got, that is what made me Ray Columbus. And I was really delighted that Penguin said ‘we’re happy with that’, because otherwise… I know there’s another story there, but we’re not going to write the Bible, how big do you want the book to be. Anyway the research would have been incredible, because I’ve got so much in my head and in my memory cells about the TV Ray Columbus, particularly, since 1968 on… but most people know that stuff. But there would have to be a lot more expose, a lot more gossip, and I didn’t really want to write that book. I’ve never believed there’s a story there anyway.
Ray – Oh yes, oh yes. There’s two or three things in there, particularly my youngest brother Barry I can imagine him reading and saying ‘Raymond’s made that up’. Because he’s not… I’m such a secretive person, and I never discussed it with him or my Mum. There’s three things in the book I never discussed with any of the family, they don’t know about them. But they’re in the book. I thought if you’re going to finally open up, and that’s where Marg, my co-writer did so well, she got me to open up and come out with those things and… that’s the exciting thing, that some people will find exciting. But for me it’s just all part of Ray Columbus, and I think it’s quite good that people don’t know about things, but will find out. I hope they just like the story.
Gary – The aspects of the book that are the most revealing I guess are the upsetting story about the attempted rape as a teenager…
Ray – No-one knew about that. When I say no-one I mean Linda knows about it. I don’t know whether I even told my first wife, but I definitely didn’t tell my family. I was ashamed.
Gary – It’s the kind of story that if it happened to somebody these days, they’d probably go through years of counseling.
Ray – [Avoiding the subject] I was asked to touch on the cultural thing. In my psyche at the time, and that’s a word that I wouldn’t even have used at the time, there’s no such thing as a culture. I was a young tap-dancing singer from the age of six. I was an altar boy, or training to be an altar boy – I was a devout young Catholic. I started working part-time when I was nine, I worked after school in the theatre or whatever, selling sweets and stuff. The only cultural thing in my life that I remember in those days was the Woolston Brass Band, which I learned in later years was famous, one of the best in the world, and they were in the street where I was raised in a state house. And that was cultural. And sometimes I’d bike to school and ride past the Te Wai Pounamu College, which I believe… I always thought was a Maori boarding school for young women. I still don’t know if that was the case. It was a beautiful, very Victorian fence and building and whatever, and you couldn’t see much from the road. So that was cultural, I suppose, but I never thought of it as cultural. Cultural wasn’t in the lexicon. My culture was that I was learning to sing and dance, I played soccer. I was a bit of a sissy boy as far as other people were concerned. The Kiwi thing – I don’t think anyone was called a Kiwi back then. It was after the war, I think people were just grateful to be alive. It was a totally different lifestyle. When you look now at what is happening – we know all about culture because we are assailed with it, we’re bombarded with it, because it’s part of what New Zealand’s about now. I think I was 21 when I found out that Dad was Greek/Irish. I always thought he was part Maori because he looked a lot like my bass player, Billie Karaitiana [Kristian]. His Dad was like my Dad, olive skinned, heavily lidded eyes, and I used to think Dad looks like Karaitiana. But I didn’t worry about it. I didn’t think ‘are we Maori?’ We were just Christchurch kids. It was only my Grandma that told me one day, Dad’s Mum, that we were actually part Irish-Greek. I said is that why Dad disappears when there’s a wake? But he also disappeared for tangis. I only learnt about that because he was never around, he’d go away for days. But no-one really worried. I didn’t worry about my bassist – or he was my piano player then – Billie Karaitiana … he became Billie Kristian for the Australians because they couldn’t pronounce his Maori name. He was Maori, we were New Zealanders, but we weren’t Kiwis. Kiwi wasn’t in the lexicon either. It was a totally different world.
Ray – Totally British town, very conservative.
Gary – In a way quite cold-hearted and quite tough, by the sounds of it.
Ray – Look it really was. I remember as a teenager I would ride my bike outside Christ’s College, and sing ‘Black balls are cheap today’ as they were coming out, because they were all wearing their black and white caps and their black and white scarves and their black and white ties. I mean I liked the uniform. As a fashionista I liked the way they were dressed. And I’ve met so many Christ College boys since like Hamish Keith who were devout students of the school and loved that whole thing, but it was a lifetime away… I was a Catholic dog who stunk like a frog… we were a totally different world. It’s a totally different culture.
Gary – I grew up a Methodist in Hamilton and had no idea that there was this big clash between the Catholics and Protestants.
Ray – Well when I was a kid, walking past Woolston school, Catholic dogs stink like frogs, and we would yell back names will never hurt me. And my sister used to say be quiet Raymond, I was a loudmouth, and of course if we went to the swimming baths, the Catholics were thrown in clothes and all every time. The main reason to go there was to cool off on a hot day, but the biggest thing was making sure I didn’t get thrown in before I got into my togs. It was just a totally different lifestyle. There was no racism, even though I think Christchurch was very conservative, and it probably had the equivalent to punks or whatever in those days, but I didn’t notice. Because I was always so busy with my little life, I was always singing, dancing, learning that, becoming an altar boy, playing soccer, all these things keep you very busy. My little life was an encapsulated little… you’re the centre of your own universe, you don’t know it, but you are. It’s interesting to read about because it’s light years away from what happens today. Can you imagine walking 10 miles or 10ks, a seven year old and a six year old going to tap dancing lessons? You wouldn’t walk a hundred feet up the road. It’s just not done.
Gary – I couldn’t help wondering – Christchurch now has a bit of a reputation for being tough in the sense that it’s where people think of the skinheads as coming from and the right-wing anti-Asian movement and all that stuff…
Ray – I never saw that, but what I saw was bigotry. The loss of freedoms. But of course I was identifying with James Dean and Elvis’s early movies, and Marlon Brando, and because I worked in a movie theatre I saw movies that were way beyond my years, because I didn’t have to pay to get in, and I didn’t have to show an ID either. But I would be able to go in after the interval, after I’d sold ice-creams, and sit down with one of the ushers on one of the stairs, never on the seats, and watch movies that just… it was my fantasy, my world really. I loved that thing, but I saw things that were way beyond my years, because I’m a bit of a sponge. So I would then, through those eyes, see things that I thought were very unusual, that I didn’t think were right. But the skinhead thing, that didn’t come along at the time. But I felt certainly that Christchurch was run by churches and women’s guilds, and I worried about the bigotry there. I didn’t wear it as a badge on my sleeve, but I was always aware of it. And of course I played on it, when I look back now. My trying to look different or make a statement. But that was just part of my universe, I suppose.
Ray – Oh of course. I’m sure I was. I remember my Dad telling me as I got older that some famous tapdancers were Allblacks. Hookers, he would say to me, they were tapdancers. Were they? ‘They’re great with their feet, that’s why they’re great at playing rugby’. And I knew I was a good little soccer player because I was fleet footed, as they say. I was good with my feet. So I never… I used to like the attention [laughs] if anyone made a fuss of me for the way I was dressed or the way I behaved or whatever. I took that as a chance to switch on attention, and I thrived on it. When I look back now I think [laughs] that’s what maketh the man.
Gary – Do you think that now you would have been regarded as ADHD or hyperactive child?
Ray – Linda’s often said that to me, because I had bug-eyes at the time. Maybe even thyroid, but nothing was diagnosed. People just didn’t worry about that. My uncles thought I was a black sheep, or a cissy boy, or they would tease me because of the way I wore my hair or wore my clothes, and try and get a rise out of me, and I just got on with… My mother was quite accepting. She was encouraging. She just reminded me really, always, that if you do this, there will be ramifications. You’ve got to take responsibility for your actions. This is your idea. I’ll do this for you, but… it’s the old slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, isn’t it? That you look back at now. I didn’t know that at the time, but that’s basically what she was saying. Do this and you will have ramifications.
Gary – Which is what kids don’t get taught these days.
Ray – I think the two things that Mum taught me that I live by even today: responsibility, and don’t tell lies. If every child was taught that, what a simple life we’d have. I live by that still today, I can’t stand cheating of any kind or lying of any kind. But of course I also kept secrets, so on the other hand I didn’t talk about my private life.
Gary – So it’s not exactly lying but…
Ray – I was a closed book. I’d think ‘I won’t tell Mum about that, it’ll upset her’. And therein lies the book really, because these things weren’t known, about the Ray Columbus person.
Gary – I suppose back then the whole victim culture that’s developed over the years didn’t exist. So if things happened… it’s a hard life that you depict, both for yourself and for your Mum, there wasn’t that fall back into pity and…
Ray – That’s right. When I’d ride to Xavier College with my uniform on and DA hairdo and cap on the back and my tapered trousers and over-big drape jacket and my ties tied back to front and my winged collars and that… other boys would push me off my bike, jump all over my cap, get everything dirty, and I learned very quickly not to complain to the teachers, because they would just say ‘well it’s your fault, told you not to do that’.
Gary – Told you what?
Ray – Not to adapt your uniform like that, and not to comb your hair like that, and not to wear your cap like that. You want to do it you’ve got to do just like Mum said, be responsible. And Jimmy Fisher, my big bodyguard, who used to come to my rescue whenever I had problems… I remember once when there was a bricklayer, I think they were building squash courts or something. He had a whole load of bricks or blocks, and as fast as half the class was coming at me I was picking up bricks and throwing them at them, just to try and keep my clothes from getting dirty and my hair from not being messed up. Really, you think about it now and think ‘go figure’. And Jimmy has said to me now, actually you were a smart mouth. But I was happy to protect you because I loved your Mum’s baking. So… [laughs] I never let up. And years later when I left the school and became famous in this country, particularly for television in the late ‘60s and ‘70s, I would run into Xavier College old-boys who would say to me ‘Did you go to Xavier College? We never realised it was you’. Of course not, you called me Clumbum, I don’t think you ever knew my first name. You judged me to be a certain type of person, but I know I was Clumbum, and I wasn’t popular. So I’m not surprised you don’t know me. I was sent to Conventry is the saying, that I know retrospectively now; often I was just ignored, or I was picked on, it was one or the other. So a lot of the boys that got to know me because I became famous years later, and I remember one day we were on the C’mon ’68 tour and Trevor King, who just died recently, he was Mr Showbiz in this country and he used to manage Max Merritt in those days, a lovely raconteur with Kerridge Odeon, toured with the Beatles and all sorts of people – Vienna Boys’ Choir – fabulous man. He said to me, we were on the bus one day and he said ‘when we’re in Christchurch tomorrow the principal of Xavier College wants you to address the assembly’. And I said that’s surprising. He said are you interested? And I said yes, as long as you tell him… ask him why he wants me to address the assembly. He said I already know, because you’re the most famous old boy. And I said well, if he introduces me like that I’ll have to say the reason I’m the most famous old boy is because I did most things my way, and now I’m invited back. So when he went back to the school and told them that he withdrew the offer. [laughs] That happened twice. He said I can’t understand that Ray, that they’d withdraw the offer, and I said I’m not surprised, because I can just see them thinking oh no, that’s a problem. And it was years later that Xavier and Sacred Heart merged to Cathedral College, and I once again got invited, and by that time I was the college’s most honoured old boy; I’d got an OBE by this time, and won just about every award you can win in the country and… But there was no perimeter on what I could talk about, and I was quite delighted to go there. My opening gambit was when I was at Xavier College I always wanted to merge with Sacred Heart. [laughs] And all the kids laughed. And the first question was have you ever done drugs, and I said I’ve done the worst drug known to man, a terrible drug. And the teachers were standing behind and I could feel them freeze, thinking my god, why did we let him up on the stage. And I said ‘cigarettes’ and the kids all went ‘awwwww’. I said cigarettes are the most vicious, the most hideous… and I didn’t even know at the time what was going to happen to my health. It’s all come back to haunt me. Of course I was Mr Clean by this time, with everyone, and to have me even talk about a cigarette as a drug was a big thing. But it’s funny how those memories keep returning.
Gary – I have to disappoint you to say that your Mr Clean image is pretty well untarnished by the book really. You’ve revealed some things, but you still come out of it as a nice guy who never took acid or never played the field.
Ray – Well thank you for that. I trust Mum will rest in peace. I think it’s a tribute to her and Dad to a lesser extent that I could have gone off the tracks, but I was determined not to disappoint my Mother more than anything. I knew I was smart enough – and my teachers often told me I was much smarter than I behaved, and knew much more than I made out I did – but if I had a gift it was that I could actually visualise, before I knew what the word was. I could see things down the track. And I could see that if I do that, this will happen. That pops up in the book quite a lot. So thank you for saying that.
Gary – Well it is quite extraordinary when you think about it. Especially in entertainment full stop. But especially for someone who at a certain point was such a rock’n’roll figure. You could put the people on one hand who have not meddled with drugs, and been faithful to their partners. Those two things in rock’n’roll are so incredibly rare.
Ray – I was very pleased to read in Keith Richards’ book that he was very faithful to his partners too. And our roots were very, very similar. We had light years apart in every other way in our lives, but our influences were – there were two important things, one about the fidelity thing, and two, we were absolutely non-racist. We both had an affinity for African-Americans, black people, same as I feel about Maori or Polynesians or Asians or any race in New Zealand, the same thing applies. And that also comes in Keith’s book. But as people we never got on. We toured together for at least a month, and we didn’t get on. I got on very well with Brian Jones and Bill Wyman, and quite well with Charlie Watts, but I didn’t get on well with Keith and Mick, because they were just in different worlds, and we had our own thing. But I was pleased to read, and it just shows you that we’re not always what we seem. I’m very proud of the fact that I tried to live by my Mother’s values, or what I thought would be her values, and that may sound really square and probably cissy, I don’t care. I shaved this morning, I looked at myself in the mirror, and I don’t like what I see mostly now, because I’m getting very wrinkly and very old, but I’m pleased that I can still look myself in the eye.
Gary – You don’t see the young Ray when you look in the mirror?
Ray – No.
Gary – I tend to see the young me when I look in the mirror, but when I see a photo of myself it’s a real shock.
Ray – There were days in the last few years where I’d be walking past a shop window or mirror and get a hell of a fright when I see someone there and realise it’s me. And I think age is… Linda’s got a saying, ‘age is a bitch’, and I think it’s so true. It creeps up on you, and just in the one month we were in the States and reading the proofs of the books and so forth… We didn’t get to go to the States for Christmas, because we had a fire in the kitchen on Labour Weekend. We often visit our daughter and our grandchildren there. And so they called us on Christmas day and said we’re sending you air points tickets and we want you to come over, and the only date we could go was February, so we went over and stayed a month, and while we were there it was so interesting. At least six of my friends and acquaintance died, one in the earthquake, the head of CTV, a very good friend, Murray Wood. He was the musical director of That’s Country. I’d been emailing him and texting him, saying just push reply, you don’t need to say anything, I just want to know that you’re okay. But all around the world in the next month, all these different people died. I wrote eulogies for four, including Murray, that had to be read for me in absentia. I was talking on Maori Access radio last night about when Rob Guest died, when he had his major stroke a few months after mine, how it was probably, from what I understand, a very similar stroke to mine, but I survived, and he didn’t. He went straight into coma and never recovered. He was a younger man, he didn’t smoke, he lived with hypertension of course, when you’re performing at that level in multi-million dollar productions. I was amazed that they hadn’t checked his health out, but that’s another story. But the important thing is that I know I was saved and I suppose even though I know I’m a failed Catholic, I still have a spiritual side of me and wonder why I was saved. Maybe it was to tell Maori last night on Iwi radio about EECP and how it can help their health. I really don’t know. But that’s also why I agreed to write the book, because I’m ready and I can look at my life now, make a judgment call on how far I want it to go as far as parameters. And live with that. And of course breaking all the rules, there’s lots of flash forwards, and things like that, which was my idea, because as you probably noticed today my verbal diarrhea goes psh-psh-psh. It goes all over the place. The thing is that I’m quite pleased now that a lot of the things, particularly about my family, are out there on the record, about my upbringing and my training and the earthquake in Christchurch has brought that to the fore even more, because everything has changed so much. But I think it’s an interesting life. If it was set in Ireland or Scotland or somewhere I think it would be considered passé I suppose. But the fact that it’s set in Christchurch, New Zealand – and I may be biased – gives it a certain significance. Because certainly… I had to phone my big sister Patricia, who, ever since Mum died, she moved to Queensland. I phoned her when we were researching the book, and said how did we get to tapdancing lessons in Waltham? Did we catch the tram? First of all she told me she couldn’t be in the book: don’t talk about me. I said I’m not going to give any private information about you, but I just want to know how did we get there. She said Dad paid for the lessons but he didn’t give any money for us to take the bus or tram, so we walked. We walked all the way to Waltham, and had the lessons, and walked the whole way home? Took an entire day, really. It’s about 10 miles. We walked all the way down Kennedy Rd and all the way down Ensors Rd and then all the way down the back of Sydenham. She said I had to hold onto your hand all the way because Mum said to me don’t let Raymond’s hand go because he’s a livewire and he’ll be away. I remember how she guarded me, not that she really needed to, because times were so different then. Two little toddlers, she was seven, I was six. There’s a story alone there, absolutely other world, isn’t it?
Gary – Also the book, other than being an important personal history, it adds to the wealth of information about New Zealand music and entertainment history.
Ray – Why thank you. I think that’s very important because my musical life really was Fred Astair from a child, singing and dancing, and I didn’t even really know who he was. And by the time I reached 13 I heard Elvis, and then on the radio which was only twice a week or something, because they didn’t play them every day. And of course when the movies started to come along, the only other reference I had was my Dad, because we would go to the policemen’s ball once a year or whatever. Because he was doing burlesque, and I think I dressed in policemen’s clothes once, cheeky smart mouth. The first time I was ever in a place where there were this many police people in one room, they were all in drag, because they were all dressed up in tutus and makeup and whatever for the policeman’s ball, right? But my opinion of police was very, very good because of my father, and they were very protective of me in Christchurch because of that I think. So I was lucky, and I managed to push the envelope a little bit by being a smart mouth, but most of the time I respected the law very much, and they were Dad’s friends, so they were my friends. And that’s an important part of my upbringing too, very important. Recently I was stopped in Orewa, after my stroke, the old way before the tunnel was there. I was pulled over by a police car, about 10.30 at night, I was coming home. I put the window down as the policeman came out and said is there a problem officer, and he said be quiet, sit there. Be quiet? Very difficult for me. I thought he’s only 29, he wouldn’t have a clue who I am. So he sat in his car while he checked out the rego. Then he came back, and he’s a completely different person. Oh it’s alright Mr Columbus, it’s alright. And I said oh so you’ve checked out and found out my name is Ray Columbus and he said yes and I said but you probably don’t know who that is and he said yes I do, and sorry I stopped you. And I said look, I’m sorry you stopped me, too, because I was not doing anything wrong. My rego’s right, my warrant of fitness is right, and now you’re apologising to me because I’m supposed to be someone important. So they told you when you phoned it through. I take exception to the fact that I help pay your wages, and I’m a citizen of this country, and you should treat all citizens of this country with respect.
Gary – How did he respond to that?
Ray – He apologised. I’ve always had that attitude, and I don’t like disrespect, and even though I’ve probably pushed the envelope more than occasionally in my life, I try to be respectful, so I hope that comes through too, because those values go back to Mum AND Dad really.
Gary – One thing that did strike me very strongly when I read the book was… I grew up with the idea that rock’n’roll was like a religion…
Ray – Good.
Gary – …and back in the ‘70s and ‘80s I would have thought – I probably would have been one of those guys and seen some of the stuff you were doing in television as being kind of… like That’s Country…
Ray – Cheesy.
Gary – As I’ve gotten older, I’ve become more aware of the continuum of popular culture, and how it’s all connected. And to me it seems it wasn’t just like rock’n’roll just came along and changed everything overnight. You talk about growing up dancing to Fred Astair and your Mum whistling to Ronnie Ronalde – who’s still alive and living up in Paihia or something…
Ray – The last time I spoke to him he was living in Whangaparoa.
Gary – It really struck me that you brought that into the book, the fact that one of the things you mention is Herman’s Hermits, and how their pop songs had a link to burlesque and music-hall and all that.
Ray – George Formby! Mrs Brown you’ve got a lovely daughter, and I’m leaning on a lamppost at the corner of the street [he’s kind of singing]. I learnt all those songs as a kid. You’re absolutely right.
Gary – So my generation – I was 12 in 1971 – cusp of the punk rock era, and probably the previous generation, the hippies, all grew up thinking that there was a cut off line, when rock’n’roll came along and everything that went before was crap.
Ray – Exactly. When you arrived Linda was playing Diana Krall, and I think it’s great that Diana Krall is a great middle of the road jazz singer and great pianist, she looks great and she’s married to a punk, really, Elvis Costello. And you think ‘go figure!’ but that’s typical of… I know how relationships work and she must honour and respect what he is too, and he her. Otherwise, how could you mix those things together? And I think because of my tapdancing background I didn’t know any parameters. I’m an entertainer. And whenever I’ve been told – and I have been frequently, particularly by journalists, rock journalists particularly – who judge me and say you’ve done some very weird things in your life. They say you go from having the top rock band in Australia and New Zealand to singing Al Jolson and I said I was doing Al Jolson long before I had a rock band. I’m an entertainer. I don’t have any boundaries. If a director or producer, or musical director, says to me – and I remember one vividly when I came back to do C’mon ’68 from California. I’d already decided on being true to myself and being Ray Columbus, no matter what. That I would sound like I spoke, and not change that too much. In other words sing in the vernacular and register that I speak in, and I remember I was asked by Jimmy Sloggett, the musical director at the time, he wanted me to sing a big Maori ballad as I call it. And I said look, there’s one thing I don’t do is a big Maori ballad. I’m not a big Maori balladeer. And he said but one of your biggest hits is ‘Til We Kissed’, and I said yeah, but that’s rock’n’roll. It’s not the big [imitates John Rowles singing ‘Sheryl Moana Marie’). I’m not one of those singers. I can’t do that. It sounds awful when I even try and I’m sorry, I can’t do it. And I turned to Kevin More, the producer and I said Kevin, I hope you understand this, I didn’t come back here to be a copycat Maori balladeer because I’ll DIE, and I’m not willing to, and he said I can understand that, I’ll go along with that. Jimmy, Ray doesn’t want to be a big balladeer. So I was really delighted about that. And Kevin with whom I became good friends over the years, said he always respected the fact that I knew what I would be or could be and set my own perimeters. And it was really to do with arrogance and vanity, I didn’t want to make a fool of myself and try and pass myself off. I didn’t mind singing John Rowles’ ‘If I Only Had Time’ because it’s a little song. [sings it].
Gary – It’s not operatic.
Ray – Full diaphragm, thrusting… [sings ‘my-my-my Delilah’]. I admire that sort of singing, I’m a huge fan of Tom Jones. I did 52 shows with him, and I loved him, he was fabulous. But, and it was very embarrassing, because Herman and I stole most of the shows because most of the fans were into moptops, and poor old Tom, he felt terrible, he felt terrible, had to drink a dozen beer every night before he did the show. The last thing he said at the end of that tour in ’66 was that he would NEVER return to this part of the world again, and it took 16 years for him to come back. And I went backstage, and he had a bottle of Dom Perignon, and we sat up ‘til about dawn talking about that. And I said I’ve just got to tell you that Peter Noon who was Herman and I were daily embarrassed about how wonderful you were as a talent and our people didn’t realise, they went for us because we were the young moptop kids, and even though we didn’t want to decry what we were doing, we knew you were… as a singer, just amazing.
Gary – So he didn’t get any women throwing their undies onstage?
Ray – Only one show in Sydney, at Sydney Stadium one night, out of 52 concerts, he did. He hadn’t had the nose job, he still had the Greek konk in those days. So he was not a pretty boy but he could still move and dance and was wonderful, but Herman and I were continually embarrassed and knew that he was much better than we were. And I loved the fact that he still pulls out things like ‘Resurrection Shuffle’ in the middle of his big Maori ballads – or in his case Welsh ballads. The same sort of thing applies. When you put John Rowles in his prime, Engelbert Humperdink, Tom Jones, those three are just great balladeers. But the great thing about Tom is that he can also do r’n’b and rock and gospel. I just love his career and what he’s done with it, and I applaud him for sticking to his guns. I don’t know if you saw him recently, he was on the final of Idol and they did a… the cast, the finalists, did a Tom Jones medley, and he just came on and did ‘It’s Not Unusual’. And he still nailed it. His technique is so flawless, and he’s got that big… when he went for his big note, I noticed – coz he’s 70 now – I noticed that he had to use every bit of his technique to get that out, but I never had any reason to doubt that he would. Because he’s a pro. And he’s got that technique, that I just couldn’t do, never had. But the entertainer thing comes to the fore, and that’s why I did That’s Country, because I love doing television, and I’m just as happy singing… I never sing any songs that I don’t like, for a start off. For an opener or a closer, an ensemble song, of course you stretch the envelope. But I’ll do ‘On The Road Again’, or ‘Try A Little Kindness’ or something, that I’m quite happy to sing, because it fits into the genre of the music. But I’ll choose my own, or work with the MC and say I’m happy with that one but I don’t want to do that one. And that’s all part of being an entertainer. And so the rock’n’roller, the rocker, the songwriter/singer, that I’ve flirted with over the years, that’s all part of the entertaining. It’s not a fad, but something I embraced at the time because I could. I’ve never liked being pigeonholed, if somebody says you can’t do that – I hate the word can’t. I loved Sammy Davis Junior’s autobiography Yes I Can. And I know Barack Obama did a similar sort of thing, and I applaud that. So that has been my… that is something that whenever I’ve had the odd rock journalist who will come out and say you’ve done some strange things, I try to remind them that actually I’m the person being reviewed, it’s MY talent, otherwise why are you interested, so don’t judge me, don’t tell me what I should or shouldn’t do. I don’t do anything I don’t want to do, so live with that. And you are writing about me because it’s your job.
Gary – I have to confess when I was 20, I would have asked that question probably.
Ray – Of course you would.
Gary – I would have thought this guy, I’ve seen those clips, I’ve heard those tunes, the raw rock’n’roll songs, and it’s like the rush of rock’n’roll, and how could he be singing ‘People Are People’ five or six years later?
Ray – Because the message is so true. When I co-wrote that with Shayne Smith of the Rumor, I was managing them at the time, and he brought that song to me, and I helped him to finish it really. The “people are people/whatever they eat for breakfast”, I think it’s in the book, where I mention that somebody who’s a fan of mine is everything but ‘People Are People’, that’s the one he draws the line at. This John Baker, he’s a lovely man, he’s an archivist, famous because he’s Jack Black’s, or The White Stripes tour manager for the world, and I respect him a great deal, and he’s a fan of my days in California, the songs that no-one would release here in those days, he’s absolutely adamant about getting out there, because he’s a fan of my era where… the stuff that pops up in the book in the flashes forward, learning about 8-track stereo and writing because I wanted to prove that New Zealanders could write and record their own songs, even though I don’t think I did particularly well. I’m not a prolific writer, but people like him are impressed with some of the things I did, like ‘Kick Me I’m Dreaming’, which… The record company when I sent that to them here, they said after ‘I Need You’ and ‘Till We Kissed’ and ‘She’s A Mod’, the fans would just HATE this terrible crap. And I used to say but this is what’s happening now, I don’t think you’re right. And even when I returned… Polydor let me record ‘Happy In A Sad Kind Of Way’ and a few other hits, and it worked well for me, but most of the stuff they wanted to pigeon-hole me into a middle of the road – and I really stopped recording in the end because I became Mr Quotas, and got a reputation where I was persona non grata with radio and record companies, and I thought I wasn’t very happy recording anyway, because the interest in the songs wasn’t really there. And even though I loved it, I didn’t love it as much as TV, and I loved the That’s Country series, and I helped sell it to America and I’m still very proud of that. And in fact next week, we go down to do Volume 2 of the CD/DVD of That’s Country. The first one went Platinum, and of course Murray, the musical director, died in the earthquake, and I want to do it for him, because it’s a tribute to him. And Richie Pickett died, the great country rock singer songwriter. He was only 56. He died within two weeks of Murray, and the great Trevor King died within a week of Murray, and he was getting dementia. And I didn’t mind so much with Trevor, because he was in his 80s and look, I would call him up and say hello Trevor, and he’d say is that you John, and I’d say no, but John and Heather send their best regards. Hello Ray! And we’d chat away, and then at the end of the conversation I’d say I’ll call you tomorrow before I fly out. Thank you John! When Trevor passed I thought all his wonderful memories are gone. He can’t relate to what happened, so I don’t mind Trevor passing, because it was quite sad.
Gary – But so many are passing comparatively young.
Ray – Richie was only 56!
Gary – And Beaver last year. Martin Winch.
Ray – Martin Winch! I didn’t even know he had throat cancer. And I found out through emails. And I knew Rob Winch and Martin over the years, he was a gentleman and a thoroughly wonderful guy, and I never even knew he had cancer. And because I’ve had some health issues that people don’t like to bother me… but I was really saddened that Martin died. The writer of ‘She’s A Mod’, Terry Beale died in England. And he was found dead in his chair, he’d been there for three days at least, and before he died, he told an associate in his band, he gave them my email and address and phone number, and he said you contact Ray Columbus to write my eulogy.
Gary – When did this happen?
Ray – In March. He died, and his greatest claim to fame was that, down under, he had a number one song. It was never number one for him and his group The Senators in England. His other claim to fame was that his original drummer became Led Zeppelin’s John Bonham, so we had these two things that… and he had a health problem with drinking and whatever, a self-destructive thing a bit like Richie I guess. His friend on emails told me that before he died he even chose where he was going to be buried, he did all this surreal sort of stuff. But for me to get a request around the same time that Murray had died and Richie had died. Also that Terry Beale died, and Trevor King, it just goes on and on.
Gary – And Ian Morris last year as well.
Ray – Well that was a shock. The thing is that, there are sad stories in a lot of those, and I don’t know too much of the detail but they all have a sad story. There’s an unfulfilled… Richie, I was his mentor and producer for one of his albums, I sang one of his great songs, ‘Honky Tonk Heroes’, on Nashville television and we both had a real laugh about that. We both had a laugh about that, because he said Bible belt America watching that would think “honky tonk heroes?” He had a great, bizarre sense of humour about it. And I said yeah, that did not escape me. But I was just proud to sing his song on Nashville television. He was a great writer, but was unfulfilled. Died far too young, and I’m his daughter’s godfather, and we’re now working on trying to keep his music alive, and getting other people to record the songs and whatever. That’s now one of my missions.
Gary – I should stop soon, but… I could talk all afternoon because there’s so much stuff, but…
Ray – It’s important that you get what you need. The musical influences.
Gary – Just a couple more things. That question of the book finishing soon after the rock career.
Ray – Became a household name, middle of the road.
Gary – Is there room down the road for a second part that goes into all that stuff, don’t you think?
Ray – It’s an entirely different story.
Gary – You say that it’s all on the net but…
Ray – It’s historically there, there’s tons of stuff there, but… I’ll see how this book goes. I’ve enjoyed having this project because Margi got me to open up and I got in touch with myself more, and because I’ve got Linda in my life I could relate more to my own life, and realise, looking back on it with my health problems, that were self-inflicted really, that actually I did have a story to tell. And it has a different relevance… If I’d written it in 1971 the year of your birth, it would have been fresh, all that stuff…
Gary – It wasn’t the year of my birth, I was 12.
Ray – Oh sorry. I got that wrong. The thing is if I’d written this book then it would have been a totally different book, because I wouldn’t have been the person that was writing it. I wouldn’t have opened up as much, and I would have been too close to it, and I wouldn’t have had the sense of mortality like I do now. So it has totally different relevance to me than it does now. Then it would have been still in the now, whereas I’m still in touch the American boys, the Art Collection that I used to record and write with in San Francisco, and they keep in touch with me on the net, they keep in touch with Rachel, with John Baker. And they realise now, in their own words, that this little upstart from down under, their own terminology, they didn’t realise that they should have got the chip off their shoulder and just listened and learned and worked with me like some of the other artists and groups, particularly black ones from Oakland did. Because of their arrogance, they realised that they missed out on an opportunity. So I emailed them back and said don’t beat yourselves up, arrogance is a part of rock’n’roll, and I know that better than anyone. I was an arrogant little bugger. And the thing is you’ve got to have attitude. Otherwise why are you in it? And even though I’m an entertainer, the rock’n’roll part of my life is really important, I love that whole attitude and arrogance thing and the fact that you could strut a bit, I just grabbed it by the throat and shook it, really. So I said don’t beat yourself up about it, you’re still doing a lot of the things we did. He said I learnt so much from you, and this new band we’re doing is a Sonny & Cher covers band, but we still do a couple of songs that you wrote and recorded, but our new lead singer can’t sing as well as you do, he doesn’t have the range and he doesn’t have the rock power. Well I’ve never thought of myself as a powerful rock singer, so it’s so nice to hear him say something like that to me now. He said you still have a cult following in San Francisco, and I’d love you to come out next year and sing with us. And I said [laughs] don’t even go there! I’ve got the book, I’ve got these other things, it’s very kind of you, it’s very flattering, but I’m no longer the rock’n’roll retro Ray, because I’m not happy with the performance on Band Together in Christchurch. I realise that I couldn’t sing and dance as well as I used to, after my stroke, so I’m going alt-country now, which I’m very comfortable with. The title of my first song is called ‘Yeah Baby I’m Gonna Burn But I Ain’t Going To Hell’. That’s another story, but I’m having lots of fun writing that. I love on the net my great co-writer Dave Russell out of the Invaders who was in the book, and plays a very important part of my life, I just told them what I was doing, I just said send me a riff, which is what I used to always do, and he would come up with ‘Now You Shake’ or ‘Yo-Yo’ or whatever. He just sent me this great thing called ‘Rat-A-Tat’, so I’ve got the hookline for the verse out of that, so I said okay, now I want some chords for the verses and it’s lovely the way you can just send me an MP3 and I can put it on the computer and go ‘Wow!’ And so I’m excited about that, pushing 69, and that’s given me something to do, and whether anyone else likes it or not I don’t know, whether anybody wants it or not, I don’t know, but I’m having fun doing it, and so is Dave, and that’s really important, because if I’d had my way the Invaders would never have split up, we would still be together today, I had no plans of splitting the band, but once Jimmy and Billy left for their own reasons, I never thought of replacing them, and it was only years later that I thought I could have replaced them. Only I knew how great they were, how great they made the band, and the fans were quite happy as long as I sang the songs, did the dances, and that’s what they cared about. And that was a big eye-opener for me. But when you look at the peers of the day like the Kinks, and particularly the Stones… Bill’s no longer in the band, Ron Wood’s now on second guitar, but really it’s Keith and Mick and Charlie Watts, and then they’ve got these sidemen round the back that you don’t even see, who are playing the music, but actually it’s those couple of people that really make… I love that about Keith’s book how he wrote those hooklines like ‘Satisfaction’, I love the way that came out, and how he did voicings on guitar and stuff. I’d learned all that from Dave Russell, I’d watched all that, doing original tunings and all this sort of stuff. It’s a totally different world to me, and I’ve been attached to it because of Dave Russell, and when we toured with the Stones, Keith Richards and Brian Jones were fascinated by Dave Russell. Because he was doing stuff that they couldn’t do, and vice versa. And that’s the great thing about this business, there are things to enthrall you.
Gary – It’s interesting that you’re working with Dave after all this time. I was going to say before, do you FEEL like the same person that you were back then? I interviewed Gary Numan – he toured here in 1980…
Ray – I saw him, I saw him.
Gary – And he can’t relate at all to the alienated young guy that he was in 1980. But he’s still performing those songs and he said it’s really hard putting himself in that kind of mindset.
Ray – That’s because he’s not an entertainer, see, he’s a musician, and that’s his perameter. Whereas I don’t have any boundaries. I can easily slip back into that mode with Dave Russell. If I’d been able to take Dave Russell to America with me, we would have had a different story in San Francisco, because Dave would have blown them off the planet. He was one of the three great riff men in the world: there was Keith Richards, and Pete Townshend, and Dave Russell. Now that’s known in Australia and New Zealand, but it’s not known in the rest of the world. But he was a major part of the Invaders, not only what we were, but our honesty, our roots, he knew instinctively whether something was cheesy or not. Or whether it was real. He knew, and I trusted his judgment. And even now, I had total faith, when I emailed him and said ‘could you send a little riff, this is what I’m working on’. He just loved the idea. He then sent me back another… It turns out every day, now he’s two years younger than me, every day he gets out his little recorder and his guitar and little amp, and writes and practices a riff every day, and he’s got a whole screed of them. Always thinking a head that maybe he could use them one day. And he’s not playing in a band or anything. And I tap into that. I never doubted that he would be able to help, and that he would get excited. It’s interesting that in rock’n’roll there’s a latency that, if it’s true it just stays there, it doesn’t go away. I treasure those memories more than any other part of my life because I got the biggest buzz out of that and I loved my band so much. I loved singing with them, I loved performing with them, because they were so great. I was determined that they would be the best that they could be, and it turned out they were, and everyone we toured with said the same. Del Shannon tried to steal the band! He wanted the band to take to the States. His manager smoked a big cigar, came to me and said Del wants the band, he doesn’t want YOU. And I said unfortunately I’m the leader of the band and I’m also their manager, and Del can’t have the band without me. Del just thought they were the greatest band he’d ever heard, and he was right. And Roy Orbison the following year said the same thing. He said we were the loudest band. ‘I just toured with the Beatles throughout England and you guys are the loudest band in the world!’ Those sort of memories are wonderful. And I knew how great the Invaders were, and that’s why I was so distraught when two of them left. I never thought of replacing them, because they were a unit for me, and I had worked so hard to get that unit. I was forced into a solo career, really. I morphed into it, but I was probably the happiest I’ve been in my life with Ray Columbus & the Invaders. And it was a great time, because that was my musical culture, and it comes back to this question, culture wasn’t in the lexicon at all back then.
Gary – We can all remember Rob Muldoon saying pop music wasn’t culture.
Ray – That’s right! We never… and yet when I met John Key in his electorate, because I wanted to make sure that I was no longer pushing quotas… Helen Clarke left New Zealand in a great state with New Zealand music, so I went to meet John Key when he became prime minister and he saw me because I already had an appointment when he was running for government, and so his secretary allowed me to go and see him. And the difference between them was night and day. From Muldoon or whatever. He came into the room singing ‘She’s A Mod’. And I said prime minister, thank you very much, and he said love it, everyone loves it. And I said how does it feel to be a rock star as a prime minister? He said what do you mean and I said every kid in this country, because technology and the net, they know who you are. He said I was just coming through the airport the other day and they were going hello John Key. I said can you imagine them saying that to Rob Muldoon? They would have been hiding behind pillars! When you said that, because you were born in the same year as Barack Obama, that you were the same sort of people, and I knew what you meant, and agreed with that, you got pulled apart for trying to compare yourself because that’s what New Zealanders do with the tall poppy thing. I used to get it all the time if I mentioned the Stones and touring with the Stones, how dare he be such a big head. I said you are right, you are a man of the people now, you are part of the technology, you are out there, you are a rock star in a way, you are the closest thing to what I’ve been, I know what it feels like. And what I liked was that he could see it, and you could talk to him on that level. And I think that’s great. I said all I want to know is New Zealand music is in great shape. Your predecessor Helen Clarke made sure of that, and I’m thrilled about that. All I want to know is are you keeping NZ On Air going because it’s very important. He said yes I am and I said thank you, that’s all I need to know. I now want to talk to you about health, and intellectual property, EECP and intellectual property, because that’s the thing I’m pushing now. But I was so pleased he said that. So I contacted the chief of New Zealand On Air and said I have it from the prime minister that you’re safe.
Gary – That leads on to my final question, I’ll make it my final question. Obviously you’ve been integral in pushing for quotas and all that sort of thing and seen the local industry become very healthy again after some years in the wilderness. Do you think at the moment we’re at that point where that sort of tall poppy syndrome, or the syndrome where we have to see something hit the charts in America or Australia before we’ll put it on the charts – have those kind of things receded away? Have we become more proud of what we’re doing?
Ray – Absolutely. There’s no doubt things have changed radically. New Zealand music is in a great place. I check the charts out every week, and I check out the biggest selling album and singles and most played on radio, or whatever. And I’m always watching that and I think New Zealand music is in great shape now. This is a great time to be a young performer and songwriter, and it doesn’t matter if they’re country. I mean one of the biggest record sellers in the world is Taylor Swift in America. Her albums have sold five million copies each, and she’s a country singer. I told a couple of country performers in Wellsford a week ago: don’t think you’re losing by being in New Zealand or you’re one genre or another. If you have great songs and you love singing them and you sing them well, you have a chance to really do something. That’s one thing Helen Clarke knew and understood. When I met her as minister of arts and culture, I said every kid in this country should be able to grow up without being called a cissy, because they don’t play rugby, they’re not big enough to be forwards or tall enough to be netballers, or strong enough to be league players. But they may want to dance, they may want to sing, they may want to write songs, and that should also be considered a very good New Zealand thing. In the modern parlance a Kiwi thing, which is a completely different thing to my parlance when I was growing up. I arrogantly thought we could do it because I didn’t have any parameters, but actually, today you can, and she saw it, understood that. She was the ninth prime minister in a row that I’d talked to about this, and she was the only one who got it. And I told John Key this at that first meeting. I said everything’s in great shape there. We should keep New Zealand On Air going. And I see now they’re morphing into a slightly more alternative thing, the garage band thing…
Gary – I was going to ask you about that. They had some stick last year, which resulted in Chris Caddick writing his report and making some fairly superficial changes, some fairly major ones like not funding albums anymore. Do you feel that NZ On Air, the idea behind it is watertight?
Ray – What I love about it – Brendan Smythe, who’s the main creative musical person on New Zealand On Air, he was my music advisory officer when I was on the QEII Arts Council after I got my OBE, and I was appointed to the QEII arts council. It was heralded at the time for a “rocker” to be put on there. But the thing that I really leaned towards and got the council to accept beside the quotas was originality. And he was my music advisory officer, and three things that we started: the demo tape recording scheme, video tape helped, and I worked in with the APRA music committee and I was also on their board. So I used the power – and this is all part of being the Modfather, which is not my title but I understand how business works. If you don’t once you get the opportunity use your place to improve things unselfishly, not so you can have a piece of it, but just doing it because you want to, then that’s when things happen. And I think the reason Caddick’s opinion was so well received last year was because New Zealand music’s in a healthy state. It’s getting middle of the road almost, so people like him are saying ‘we should now do this’. That’s because it’s in a healthy state. But it’s taken all of those decades to get to that stage. So I now applaud, and in fact I wrote to Grant Smithies when he wrote an article in last week’s Sunday Star Times about that very fact – that now garage bands and more middle of the road music’s getting a chance. So I wrote back to Grant and said I applaud what you said, because there’s still a rock’n’roll rebel in me where I remember don’t be a smart little upstart, how dare you think you can write these songs and get people to play them. You’re crap! Basically because I looked and sounded different, and that was a conservative point of view that I never accepted. I said so that person in me, who’s in the book, comes through and says ‘yes!’ I remember my teenage son, proudest moment of his life was when the Scavengers covered ‘She’s A Mod’ and did a punk version of it. He said Dad you’ve made it! So perceptions… And when I listened to it he said what do you think of it? And I said it’s good, the energy’s good, the words are a bit wrong, and he said it doesn’t matter, and I said well actually it does, because… I don’t want to know! He was just thrilled that a band that he admired, from his era, loved something I did, and that teaches you a lot. What I love about rock’n’roll is that it doesn’t matter if you are Bo Diddley or Keith Richards or Ray Columbus – Ian Morris, coming or going, whatever – the important thing is if you don’t have boundaries you’re always an enthusiast. I’ve noticed a big change in Grant Smithies, as a writer for the Sunday Star Times. He’s always been very anti Ray Columbus in his early days, and I notice lately he’s now talked about particularly my American recording days, and praises them a little, just a little bit. He says one of my original albums with the Invaders was a breakthrough album, even though it wasn’t successful, those little things make a change, chinks away at the armour. And I’m a great believer in chinking away at the armour. My musical culture is three people really: Elvis, Elvis and Elvis. But really behind them are Fred, Fred, Fred – Astaire. And it’s interesting that my Dad gave me that analogy that I’ll be Fred Astair, and to read now that people like Frank Sinatra heralded Fred’s singing talents, not only his dancing talents, said he was one of the really good singers in the business. Now you don’t think of Fred Astare as being a great singer, you think of him being a great dancer. He was musically a very good singer, and the only other person I’ve heard Frank say that about is Tony Bennett. And maybe Sammy Davis Junior. But Sammy was such an all-encompassing entertainer that he got the critics no matter what.
Gary – So it’s that problem again of people not being able to accept somebody who’s more than one thing.
Ray – Yeah! Pigeon-hole. So when Andrew Shaw asked me for the 50 years of Television for Heartland, to choose the TV performance that I was most proud of in my 50 years of television, he was surprised that I chose the ventriloquist dummy act with Max Cryer, where we sang “where would I be without you, brother?” I said I picked that because it shows my vaudevillian routes, that I was taught to be a little entertainer, whereas ‘She’s A Mod’ and ‘Til We Kissed’ and all these other videos that are maybe iconic in other people’s terms, for me are not as important as that duet with Max Cryer, because that actually shows what I learned, and when I grew up I could still tap into that, even when I was a rock star. And it may confuse some people, but it doesn’t confuse me.
Gary – Hopefully people are starting to understand that there’s a duality to people’s talents as well.
Ray – There really is. Over the years, particularly when I was on the Arts Council, and we would have a function or something, I would often find myself sitting down with a journalist, and I remember one, we had had a few drinks, and by the time he left, he’d convinced me to write a book that he was going to write with me. I never heard another word! It was the booze talking, but he was absolutely convinced that we were going to write this really radical book. So even though he was a journalist, he wanted to be a writer of books. So everyone has a string to their bow, and if you have talents, why not use them.
Gary – I think that real people usually aren’t just one thing. [I mention the Werner Herzog Antarctic documentary vis-à-vis Henry Kaiser, guitarist & diver].
Ray – Isn’t that wonderful. That’s really interesting, isn’t it. I never liked being pigeon-holed. Yes I can is a very good description. If a director like Kevin More or Chris Bourne or John Barningham said I’ve got this idea and I think you can do it, I would always try. If he thinks I can, I must be able to. I got great encouragement out of that, and I don’t think anyone should feel that they couldn’t. Maybe part of what became Kiwi was happening then. The only benchmark I had that something was happening in music locally was Max Merritt. Because I used to go to the teenage club in the Hibernian Hall and he had his great band playing there. And eventually my piano player, became his piano player, so I knew the guys I was hanging out with were good, because they were being poached by other people with bigger bands. And eventually I got poached too. The thing is that I never, ever felt that I couldn’t do that. Because I’d been trained to be a singing dancer, I never felt that ‘oh, you can’t do rock’n’roll.’ I always felt it was related, it was just moving from Fred to Elvis, really. So by the time I was 13 I made up my mind I was going to be Elvis. I just had to get big enough and ugly enough to convince Dad, by the time I was 16. And he wasn’t at all happy, initially, and I said but Dad I’m going to keep doing everything I’ve learned, but I’m just going to do it my way. I’m going to sing the sort of songs that I want to sing, not the songs that you’ve loved or Pauline’s loved, and I’m going to sing things that I love and understand, and I’ll still dance, but I won’t tapdance, necessarily, but if I have to I can. But I turned that down for Ed Sullivan, when I said I don’t want to do that. Because I knew that already in America tap dancing was science – unbelievably talented people that were far more talented tappers than I was. I felt that I had already proven down under that I could pop, sing and dance, and rock’n’roll, so that was where I felt most comfy, but I also loved it, so that’s where I still tried to do that in the States rather than do something half-arsed is probably the word, because I knew that there were so many people that were so much better than I was. So I probably became part of a culture and didn’t even know it. Max Merritt, Dinah Lee, Bill & Boyd, the Southerners, Ray Columbus & the Invaders… we were part of a cultural swing that was happening and we didn’t even know it. And Kiwi wasn’t a terminology at all. We were decidedly British. We knew whether we had Scottish or English roots and it was a very British town. And Maori wasn’t an everyday presence. Neither were phones. The communications were totally different. My world was practicing singing and dancing every night and doing my homework and learning lessons on Saturdays and also working by the time I was 9 after school and weekends at theatres, and also being an altar boy. I mean my life was full. My little universe was just packed. I was like that until my stroke, really, where I’ve had to slow down. So writing the book, the timing was good. I thought well, actually I’ve got time to do it. My brain works alright, but I’m not sure about anything else. Margi took care of that, and did such a wonderful job for me. I was just amazed when the proofs came through to me. How she captured my vernacular, and wrote it much better than I could, but it’s still my story.
Gary – Thanks, you’ve been very generous with your time.