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Mental Chickens

HOW A PUNK-HEAVY SOUND TRACK FOR AN OBSCURE NEW ZEALISH ART FILM BECAME AN ELEGY FOR A LOST FRIEND.
DISCUSSED
Radical-Centrist Maori Activists, The Chills, The Two Most Freaked-Out People in New York, Flying Nun Records, Deaf Rock Fans, Ulster Bricklayers, My Bloody Valentine, Straitjacket Fits, Tortoise, Shoegazer Swirl, The Jean-Paul Sartre Experience, The Jesus Lizard, The Mekons, ’60s Ska, Lo-fi Kingston Pop, A Pharmaceutical Luncheon
by Todd Pruzan
Illustration by Tony Millionaire

Mental Chickens

Todd Pruzan
19 Snaps

Why on earth was I reading about Winston Peters? Who was Win­­ston Pe­ters to me? This gadfly I’d never heard of, this radical-centrist Maori activist politician hustling for issues I’d never encountered, half a world away? And I mean that literally, by the way: there are 8,153 miles of land and ocean between my old apartment on Roscoe Street in Chicago and Peters’s home district of Tauranga, on the Bay of Plenty in northern New Zealand. A nation so discreet that mid-1990s reports of a brewing race war, replete with terrorist threats and car attacks and fears that a spark could ignite a full-on antipodean Belfast, barely surfaced in the northern hemisphere. But I’d seen an article, somewhere, and the unlikeliness of it all made Winston Peters a great talking point, I thought, if I should happen to encounter a Kiwi at a party.

At this particular party, in December 1997, there were two. Scott and Nomi, both redheads with rare accents of jumbled vowels, stood on the wood-frame back landing, pausing to catch their breath in mid-retreat from a couple of years in high-finance London—and, it emerged, a couple of years as a couple. They were on a long layover, visiting friends before returning to Auckland, and they were amicable enough, chatting together over their plastic cups. Wouldn’t they be floored that some dude in Chicago, in dumb, thick America, could be interested in the ins and outs of their homeland? I had my card—I played it: “So, um, hey. What’s this Winston Peters guy all about?”

I understood my mistake instantly. Both faces scrunched, both heads reared backward. Scott sighed, then nodded. “Ahhh… Win­ston ­Peters.” Obligingly, he offered a brief Petersology, but clearly he wasn’t so much impressed as unsettled. ­Lesson learned: coming to a party armed with quiz-night insignifica doesn’t mean you should necessarily lock and load. If I’d been the one interloping at an Auckland house ­party—Hey, that alderman of yours in Chicago, Bobby Rush: bit of a bomb-thrower, is he?—I might have inadvertently sprayed my host with a mouthful of Steinlager.

At least I wasn’t wearing my Chills T-shirt. Because no sooner had I stopped asking after New Zealand’s legislators than I became a full-on pest, ticking off a laundry list of the bands I’d caught at Lounge Ax, the humid indie-rock club lit entirely by Christmas lights that stood just across Lincoln Avenue from the alley where John Dillinger had been shot to death. The Chills. The Bats. Bailter Space. The Jean-Paul Sartre Experience. Straitjacket Fits had left the biggest impression of all, midway through a cardiologically punishing ­triple bill (dubbed, aptly, the Noisyland Tour); their albums were full of ethereal shoegazer swirls, but live they’d played the loudest, heaviest gig of my life, and my last without earplugs—

Hey, so where’d Scott go? Must’ve run into someone…. Nomi seemed charmed, though. Maybe she was homesick. New Zealand didn’t have much of a reputation in this self-­absorbed city. Chicago’s sense of itself, at least to its troops of privileged, aggressively unassuming postgrads, had shifted from that of New York’s resentful sibling to a pose of defiant independence. It had rock music down, that’s for sure. Nirvana’s ambush from Seattle­ on America’s record stores and ­radio formats had fully consumed itself by then, but the attack had fed precious oxygen to Chicago’s holy trinity—­Smashing Pumpkins, Liz Phair, and Urge Overkill: three brief candles keeping a hopeful, cynical city in their sway. And Lounge Ax was the tiny high temple, a joint where ­guitar heroes cheered on other ­guitar heroes. In 1995, a new neighbor of the club had filed a noise complaint, accidentally setting into motion the bar’s eventual demise, but the silver lining was the Lounge Ax Defense and Relocation Compact Disc, an unparalleled mid-’90s time capsule capturing the roaring Jesus Lizard, the rageful Shellac, the curiously geometric Tortoise, the drunkenly defeatist Mekons, and even such sympathetic blue-chip contributors as Sebadoh, Super­chunk, and Yo La Tengo.

¡Olé, Chicago! It was almost enough to make me want to stick around. But not quite. I’d already joined the enemy—I was leaving for New York a month later. New year, new city, new world. A wholly predictable pilgrimage—and, from Chicago, a predictably traitorous one. But I wasn’t alone. Nomi, it turned out, would be moving to Manhattan in a month as well.

So we traded email addresses. She was a year or two older than me and wore a default expression of wry amusement. And she was a music fan, albeit a less annoying one. “That Lounge Ax album sounds great,” she said. “And you know, you’re reminding me, there’s this movie that just came out in New Zealand… you’d like the sound track.”

*

Nomi and I made landfall days apart, eager, shell-shocked. Over dinner we traded CDs, and the joke that wasn’t really a joke: that we were, empirically, the Two Most Freaked-Out People in New York. She was already laughing at her new city—her hotel room at the W, impossibly pretentious yet barely larger than its own bed, and her subway commute to Grand Central, with a mob of employees sprinting for the crosstown shuttle like a siege of cranes. She was like a New Yorker from another country, already devising ways to keep her head together: “I just have to remind myself to do all these sorts of mental chickens.”

Hmm—must be a Kiwi thing. “On your bike!” (“Fuck off!”); “A box of birds!” (“It’s all good!”); “Mental chickens!” Months earlier, working as a reporter, I’d sat in a Chicago bar one morning with a bunch of expats to watch them watch live soccer via satellite, and an Ulster bricklayer had recounted his favorite World Cup matches for me: “Scotland vairsus Spain, Norway vairsus Addeleigh.” It had taken me hours to unspool “Addeleigh” as the boot-shaped Mediterranean peninsula where they make formaggio and Chianti and Ferraris. “Mental chickens” took some teasing out, too. But even after I’d slapped my forehead the next day—mental check-ins!—I’d agreed with Nomi. Truly, there’s no finer condition for the care and breeding of mental chickens than the first month of an open-ended New York City residency. And I can’t imagine a truer document of my mental chick­ens than the CD Nomi had brought me from Auck­land, the sound track to a Gen X drama called Topless Women Talk About Their Lives.

The album seemed like the perfect complement to the Lounge Ax CD I’d handed her. And even before I’d listened to Topless Women, I saw that it looked like something she’d borrowed from my CD collection rather than something she’d added to it. Slivered artfully at the top and bottom of the cover are two horizontal shots of the cast, a Maori and four palefaced pakeha (as some white Kiwis call themselves), lounging on a living-room futon. The title gets top billing, though, set at deafen­ing point size in deadpan Helvetica Extra Bold. (Well, c’mon—it’s a hell of a title.)

Not to disappoint, but let’s be clear: Topless Women is not about pole-dancers. Yet I don’t associate the title with the movie, either; I associate it with queasiness and sleeplessness and rattled nerves. Ten years after arriving in New York, my life seems impossibly removed from the one I had when I arrived. It’s a ­paradox of time’s fun-­house-mirror elasticity that a year can seem trivially quick, a mere sprint to the crosstown shuttle—yet ten strung together are momentous, epic. There’s no way to tally the great rewards and petty infuriations of belong­ing in the morass of New York, of knowing a setting that can make anyone feel so accomplished and buoyant and burned.

Never mind that it wasn’t con­ceived to accompany a New York life: Topless Women was a curious sound track for my first year. I was twenty-­seven when I installed myself on the parlor floor of a brownstone in Brook­lyn, renting beautiful dark-brown hardwood floors and an airy fourteen-foot ceiling from a grim, un­smiling land­lord from Wichita who could’ve been the model for Grant Wood’s farmer in American Gothic. In his fussy museum of a living room, five doors south of Fort Greene Park, I signed documents in triplicate and tried to brace myself for those moments I knew were on their way, when I’d be staring at the ceiling with my heart racing because it was six o’clock in the morning and I didn’t know where to buy a carton of orange juice and I was suddenly, absolutely alone.

*

There was a time in the late 1980s and early 1990s when music critics seemed immersed in a real New Zealand moment, cheering on the ascent of an artistically (though not commercially) influential label called Flying Nun, whose artists carved out a national genre and supplied the spark to a pop movement in America. Its indigenous sound isn’t so instantly familiar as a Maori tattoo. But the laid-back, garagey guitar and aimless vocals were charmingly indifferent to both precise notes and global market forces—as though news of Duran Duran and Madonna hadn’t yet undulated across the Pacific to New Zealand’s rusty docks.

Or maybe being a punk rocker on a remote island nation, bobbing out there in the middle of the ocean, was like singing in the shower, where you could just belt it out, loud, loose, guessing vaguely at the melody, and sometimes even hitting it, but it didn’t matter, because nobody was listening. (The Chills, a Flying Nun band from the South Island university town of Dunedin, actually had deaf fans: students who thronged the band’s earsplitting gigs, moshing along to the floorboard vibrations.) But then again, New Zealand has long seemed the unheard, invisible Canada to the dominating United States of Australia. A few years ago in a Sydney music store, I asked a clerk to tell me about a CD I’d found, a compilation released by Dunedin’s Arc Café. He turned the disc over indifferently, then shrugged and handed it back. “Dunno, mate.”

Early punk on Flying Nun seemed attuned to vintage sounds from Liverpool and L.A., a timeless chime with amicable, jittery organ, rather than the era’s more familiar rage and revolution. New York was awash in attitude, London in ­anarchy—and New Zealand? Something more like ambivalence. This was surf punk, all right, but with no sunshine, no Dick Dale twang: just gunmetal skies and wet suits, menacing waves and hopeless search parties. It’s the same ambivalence you could hear a decade later in the American indie rock it inspired: brooding, lackadaisical music by Pavement and Luna and Superchunk.

Two Dunedin bands anchored the genre. David Kilgour’s group the Clean churned like an ocean undertow on urgent anthems like “Fish” and “Point That Thing Somewhere Else.” And while the Chills could be cheerful—their signature song was a heavenly pop hit that was actually titled “Heavenly Pop Hit”—leader Martin Phillipps often used shimmering colors to conceal his darkest thoughts. A 1984 single, “Pink Frost,” starts pink and quickly gets frosty, abandoning a breezy major-key intro for a hushed, uncertain four-bar phrase that ultimately dissolves into a spooked panic. “Wanna stop crying,” Philipps sings. “She’s lying there dying / How can I live when you see what I’ve done?” Mental chickens.

The Clean and the Chills both take pride of place on Topless Women Talk About Their Lives. Like the most salient, inescapable sound tracks of the 1990s—think of Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, or Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting—the album documents the personal vision of the movie’s director, Harry Sinclair. And as unfamiliar as I was both with Brooklyn and with much of the sound track, Topless Women pinpoints a jumpy mood.

Press play, and the sound track lurches into fifth gear without warning. The 3Ds’ “Hey Seuss,” an opening-credits wail, unleashes guitars like sirens and distraught bullhorn vocals from a desperate singer who yelps like a drowning man. The Bats’ “North By North” earns the Hitchcockian foreboding of its title, and Superette’s gloomy, gothic “Saskatchewan” oozes with frigid, sexy cynicism. Straitjacket Fits’ delicately latticed songs on Topless Women offset the Chills’ jaunty “I Love My Leather Jacket,” a sauntering tune that quickly yields to a characteristic gloom:

It’s the only concrete link with an ­absent friend

It’s a symbol I can wear ’til we
meet again

Or it’s a weight around my neck while the owner’s free

Both protector and reminder
of ­mortality

The weight around my neck doesn’t lift until Topless Women’s closing track, Chris Knox’s love song “Not Given Lightly,” a cheerful, half-assed blues that swells over five minutes from acoustic strums into tuneful distortion. His serenade finally gets the grim sound track to crack a smile, almost a moment too late, but just in time for a happy ending.

*

We hit it off. But not like that. Maybe someone somewhere was pulling strings, holding me at arm’s length: You’ll meet your wife in a few years—be patient. And being with Nomi—your heart would break. Oh, brother, in your life, you’ve never felt pain like that. So we had tea. And drinks, and burgers and hipster parties in Greenwich Village and Hell’s Kitchen. There was a glint in her eye, even helpless laughter when she told me about her absurd dating life, about the cardiologist from Weehawken who’d driven up in a Maserati and brought her to a pharmaceutical luncheon. And it took me some time to see beyond her humor. One evening, we sat at a bar at Spring and Elizabeth—Jeff Buckley’s album Grace was playing—and she somehow started talking about the night a few years earlier when she’d been raped on a kibbutz by a young guy, a family friend she’d trusted, who’d blamed her afterward for what he’d done to her. Maybe she’d only just remembered it. Maybe she’d just had to put it somewhere, and why not with her American younger brother.

In the fall of 2000, there was an email to her friends. She’d been diagnosed. It was in her right breast. It was… not benign. Her vision had been deserting her, and she’d had fainting spells, and now she knew why. She was on leave, getting radiation. And even today I can’t believe how she kept laughing. Well, why not? Because she’d also fallen in love: Another Kiwi, a banker named Ian. They shacked up in a Spring Street loft, and he comforted her through her treatments.

I stopped over once at their place in 2002, to take in an orange June twilight from their balcony. She looked happy and exhausted. She’d been chosen as the face of breast cancer survival for a New Zealand ad campaign, and somehow that seemed like some kind of guarantee. And she and Ian were getting married, too. And they were leaving for Auckland. Enough of New York. Time to go back home.

On my way out of their apartment, I rubbed the top of her head—for good luck? Her crew cut was recovering its way back to health. “At least yours is going to grow back,” I said. She laughed. “You know—every guy says the same thing to me….”

The next January, from Auckland, she sent an email to friends about how her summer was ­going—her new marriage; her return to intensive care; her now-complete blindness; her adorable new black Lab puppy, Bleecker, photo­graphed in a lush green garden. And six weeks later, in March, I got another email. Subject: Nomi. For a few hours, I didn’t even open it.

*

Ten years ago, I took a photograph of things that don’t exist. August 1998, near the end of an afternoon amble across the Brooklyn Bridge. Nomi is in the foreground, shading her eyes and grinning serenely through a searing yellow haze. The World Trade Center looms behind her: two silent blue sentinels over Lower Manhattan. I haven’t seen the picture in years, and it seems impossible to believe that such a recent photo could be so full of ghosts.

Three years and one month later, my friend Joyce was crossing the Brooklyn Bridge into Manhattan, listening to My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless on her Discman, when the first plane hit. She hasn’t listened to the album since. I’m not going to claim that Topless Women holds such significance for me. In the weeks after September 11, I swaddled myself in Jamaican ska from the ’60s, a hundred songs that comforted me like a wise elder: The world is an old, old place, and it’s going to keep on spinning. But that lo-fi Kingston pop still bears the faintest residue of portent, of fighter jets whispering like UFOs over New York.

So what, then, is Topless Women Talk About Their Lives? The world’s best unknown pop, by its best unsung artists? Hardly. My favorite album? Not even close. But after ten years, I can finally nail down its place in my autobiography. It’s the album that brings me closest to that opening bell on my first New York decade. Proust had his madeleines; I’ve got Stereolab’s Dots and Loops, Lambchop’s Thriller, the Apples in Stereo’s Tone Soul Evolution, and this CD: the only concrete link with an absent friend. But how much grief is appropriate for someone who’s been woven neatly into my social fabric, and nothing more? Not a girlfriend, not a best friend—just a big spirit, someone I wish I could’ve introduced to more ­people, to my wife, to my daughter?

Maybe it’s inevitable that New Zealand would represent for me a vivid tumble of life and death, a cheerful tune spiked with morbid, mordant lyrics. When I was twenty-­five and working at an industry magazine, a Sydney correspondent emailed one morning to tell us he was headed to Auckland, where his eldest daughter had died in a car crash. When I phoned him at a relative’s house a few days later, his sister went to fetch him from her backyard, and the dangling receiver flooded my ear with the reverberations of morning songs: a box of birds, rejoicing on the other side of the world.

*

Some people dread their own nightmares. I’m more leery of those awesome dreams when I wake up grinning, momentarily unaware that I’m not as rich as I was a moment earlier, that the hatchets aren’t buried after all, that the absent friends are still absent. I used to think it was impossible that I might not remember what had happened the previous day, or week, or five years earlier. But here I am, wondering about a friend who’s almost entirely vanished. There’s no email to re-read anymore, nothing to find on Google, nothing but a compact disc. I occasionally wonder what she’d think of what my New York life has become, with my new family and my hemispheric shift from a decade earlier, when I had time to wonder about things that didn’t matter, like local politics 8,153 miles away, and Topless Women.

I still marvel at the album’s yin and yang of delight and unease. And maybe that’s what the movie’s director ­intended—capturing, in homegrown pop music, the nervous urban generation in Auckland a decade ago. But I wouldn’t know. I’ve never been to New Zealand. And I still haven’t seen the movie. 

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