I thought I’d write today about the place I live, Port Chalmers, because I find that as a songwriter the places I’ve lived in heavily influence my music and lyrics. As I wrote about in a previous post about a couple of Australian music heroes of mine, I like artists whose music is inescapably rooted in place.
I like to research music, learn the political and social context from which it emerged and get a sense of the place the music came from. One of the great joys of watching the Bob Marley documentary at the film festival last week was absorbing the beautiful aerial shots of the green Jamaican hills and the streets of Kingston; understanding that this was the landscape that gave birth to Bob and from which his music emerged. When I listen to any of the great Delta blues players I’m transported to the American south; slapping insects in the heat, breathing in air thick with decaying vegetation, bouncing over cracked highways alongside cotton fields. I have never been to the American South or even America, so this vision is based on what little I’ve read or watched about the place. But it’s also based on the feel the music. I don’t believe great music emerges in isolation from its landscape – it’s all there, tightly wound into its DNA. I love dropping the needle on a scratchy old record and being transported by it. If it’s the Clash I’m in late 70’s London – Notorious B.I.G. or Illmatic-era Nas and it’s the grimy concrete of New York, all places far beyond my own immediate experience. But I can go there through music – it’s like cheap tourism.
As a songwriter, I’m drawn to places rich in history. That’s the first reason I love Port Chalmers. If you look at pictures of Port Chalmers from a hundred years ago, it looks much as it does today. Its four hotels still form the ramparts of the town. Chick’s Hotel has become well known in recent years to music followers and to travelling bands. Chick’s is one of the oldest hotels in New Zealand and the ghosts of long-vanished sailors, prostitutes; travellers and drunks inhabit its empty upstairs rooms. The fisheye mirror over the bar reflects its patrons through a lens in the fabric of time.
I like walking down the main street on a cold winter night, the smell of fish and chips drifting out from the two little little takeaway shops. The lights are on at Mackie’s where the regulars will be drinking Speights out of big bottles and taking bets on the greyhounds. At the bottom of the main street, the port hums and bangs away, container straddles like giant metal insects buzzing around amid a lake of blue fluorescence.
I love the constant movement of the town – the port operates 24 hours a day and at any time you might run into Indonesian sailors outside the supermarket or Ukrainian sea captains drinking vodka at one of the bars. In the summer cruise ships unload busloads of American tourists in beige shorts, crisp white sneakers and baseball caps. Then there’s the locals – your born and bred Port people; among them fishermen, wharfies, mechanics and builders. There are also the artists, musicians and others who have wandered here and never left, perhaps finding the same raw beauty in the place that I do. Some of them can be found mingling (albeit sometimes uncomfortably) late at night down at Chick’s.
I like to drink all this in, in the hope some of it finds its way into my songs now and again.