Ray Columbus: The man who came back from the dead

Kiwi music legend Ray Columbus was supposed to have died more than three years ago. Steve Braunias finds him in lively, cheerful spirits at his home in Snells Beach.

There was a very cheerful 73-year-old man standing in the lounge of his home in Snells Beach the other day who looked exactly like Ray Columbus. The tide was going out, and the water was flat and grey. A wind was blowing the clouds. He said: "I remember you."

I said: "I don't think we've met."

He said: "You might be wrong about that."

There were white orchids in a tall glass vase on the dining room table. I was expecting an invalid, a small, vague, feeble version of Ray Columbus. He should be dead. He should be long dead, gasping his pained, pitiful last breath at least three years ago, when newspapers ran with the morbid headline: "Family Gather at Singer's Bedside."

But he looked great. He looked exactly like himself, the one and only Ray Columbus, a lifetime of fame glowing on his face.

Advance warning was that he could only answer yes or no. Even that effort would exhaust him. I thought, "Oh God, I'm going to have to yell questions like 'HOW ARE YOU RAY?' and my face will ache with the strain of putting on a kindly smile". Tea and sympathy, and then get the hell out of there. Actually, I stayed for three hours.

His wife Linda made tea and pizza. He wore tracksuit pants and a checked shirt over layers of black thermals. He felt the cold, although it was a warm morning. The house was right on the shore.

Ray Columbus says a lot of people tried to beat him up one day at school because he was "so weird".
Ray Columbus says a lot of people tried to beat him up one day at school because he was "so weird".

Grant Gillanders was there, a long-time friend, and also a kind of Columbus archivist. He's reissued numerous 1960s New Zealand bands and singers on CD, in association with English label Cherry Red; his latest international release is Now You Shake, a Ray Columbus selection featuring the standard hits recorded in Herne Bay in 1963-64 with his great twin-guitar rock band The Invaders, but also rare tracks from his wild and experimental solo years. In 1967, he went to the US, in the Bay Area, and fronted a band called The Art Collection. They recorded a classic piece of heavy psychedelic punk rock in the shape of Kick Me, with its monstrous fuzz guitars and freak-out lyrics: "This is a nightmare," screams Ray, "and I'm going insane!"

It's about the fear of flying mixed in with the fear of tripping on LSD; curious how he tapped into panic and hysteria instead of the peace and love vibe going on just down the road at Haight Ashbury.

Kick Me was less like the dreamy Eight Miles High by The Byrds than it was like the seething I Wanna Be Your Dog by Iggy and The Stooges. But then he was never very laidback, and never much belonged to any scene; he was always only ever Ray Columbus, who went his own way, did strange things. He grew up in Woolston, in Christchurch, and had the gall to persuade his band, The Invaders, to move to Auckland; within weeks, they owned the city. It was his idea to build a New Zealand version of Phil Spector's wall of sound when he recorded his massive hit Till We Kissed in 1964, it was his idea to take a half-written song by maybe New Zealand's greatest ever pop composer, Shade Smith, and turn it into People Are People, an idiosyncratic hit ("People are people whatever they earn on payday!") from 1971.

Ray Columbus has won two APRA Silver Scroll songwriting awards. Photo / Supplied
Ray Columbus has won two APRA Silver Scroll songwriting awards. Photo / Supplied

I asked about his year in the US. He said: "I enjoyed the whole scene of just doing something a bit different. Kick Me was the most psychedelic thing I ever did. I sent it back to my management in New Zealand, and they took one look at it, one listen, and went, 'Holy shit! This guy has gone completely wacko!' They'd just released my version of Edelweiss, you see. I'd gone too crazy for them. Ha!"

I said: "You've never really fitted, I think. You've always been an individual. What's made you like that?"

I think my father, probably. My father told me when I was 6 that I was going to be on the stage. Before I knew it, I was tap-dancing.
Ray Columbus

"What was your dad Jack like?"

"He was a drunk. But he died happy, and I was able to forgive him what he did. Because I understood once I found out that he'd been involved in the war, that's what caused all his problems and hang-ups. Ha! I used often at 12 o'clock at night get a taxi home from The Square, and he'd get one from the guy behind me in the rank. He wouldn't offer me a lift. He'd say, 'Gidday son,' and we'd go home in separate taxis.

"But I saw a lot more of him than the other children, because we went away together. We went on trains and boats to tap-dancing competitions."

"He seems determined to make you famous," I said.

The Invaders 1991 - From Left: Brian Ringrose, Ray Columbus, Billy Kristian, Jimmy Hill and Dave Russell. Photo / Supplied
The Invaders 1991 - From Left: Brian Ringrose, Ray Columbus, Billy Kristian, Jimmy Hill and Dave Russell. Photo / Supplied

"I reckon he was a frustrated performer. He was more than a bartender. He could dance, he could sing -- he was a bloody good singer. I think he was a great guy, really. All his friends thought he was a great guy. Everyone thought he was a great guy except his family."

"You took your parents to Government House in 1974 when you got your OBE, but they were separated by then. Was that weird?"

"They loved it! Both of them were so proud of the moment. They stayed in the same hotel -- they stayed in the same hotel room, which I thought was amazing. They were there in all their finery. And I was dressed in the most hideous suit. Crazy! But I always wanted to be different."

"Why?"

"I just always was! I remember at school, at Xavier College, a lot of people tried to beat me up one day because I was so weird. They were going all out, to kill me, really. The Brothers were in charge. They said, 'If you're going to look like this, you're going to have to take the trouble that comes with it. You can't get away with it.' It was because I still had lipstick left over from tap-dancing. It wouldn't come off! I'd wear it to school and people would say, 'What?'

"But it's just what I did. Dancing, and singing. When I lost my voice when I got sick -- I really was very upset about that."

It damn near killed me. I couldn't sing anymore, and singing is what I did.
Ray Columbus

Linda said: "I was doing work on the property one day, back when we lived in Matakana, and was chopping down a tree, and I yelled out for Ray to help. He came outside and he said, 'But darling. These hands are only made for holding a microphone.' I cracked up laughing. He was deadly serious."

He said: "That's what dad told me. He said: 'You were made to sing.' He visited me and told me that. In hospital. On my deathbed, if you like. He spoke to me. I can't remember all the details, but I remember he was happy."

I said: "I heard you nearly drowned when you were a kid, and you saw a white light."

"I don't want to make a big deal out of it. I was a lousy swimmer, that was the trouble."

Linda said: "When he was sick in hospital he reckons he died. He came back."

I said: "Did you see anything?"

"Yes I did. But I'm not talking about it."

"Do you think you'll see it again?"

"I think I will."

"Are you still alive?"

Singer in the first New Zealand act to have an international No1 hit.

Two APRA Silver Scroll songwriting awards.

And now these statistics, from Linda: "We were in a major car accident, and since then he's had 13 mini strokes, two major strokes, a heart attack, pneumonia, and the disease he's got, the auto immune disease, which has destroyed his kidneys. His heart is at 40 per cent and his lungs are very bad. Every morning we wake up and I say, 'Are you still alive?' And he says, 'Yes'."

There were antique luggage trunks beneath the glass table. The house was immaculate. They'd moved to their seaside home at Snells from their 7ha spread with passionfruit vines in Matakana, and Linda had to line about 30 enormous flowering pots into the small garden. I said to her: "How are you?"

"Exhausted. I haven't had a day off in nearly four years."

Columbus said: "She's amazing, I tell you."

I asked: "Where did you two meet?"

He laughed, and said: "At my restaurant I used to have in Remuera -- the Pasta Blaster!"

She said: "I walked in there one Monday night with some friends. Ray was maitre d'. We just looked at each other and there was an instant thing between us. It was a small restaurant, and all night long Ray kept coming up to the table and the whole restaurant was listening.

"He'd say, 'What star sign are you?' And he'd come back, and say, 'What Chinese year?' He worked out I was a tiger and he said, 'I'm looking for a tiger.' Then he came back, and said, 'Are you in a committed relationship with anybody?' He was seeing a woman in Australia. He's very honourable, my husband -- I've always said he was so straight I could use him for an ironing board -- and he wouldn't take me out until he'd personally gone over there and told this other lady that he wanted to have a relationship with me."

They met in 1991. I said to Linda: "Do you remember what he was wearing?"

Ray Columbus says he's always been different, and always a performer.
Ray Columbus says he's always been different, and always a performer.

"Oh probably something way-out. No, I do remember, actually. Funny you should say that. Do you know what it was, darling? Do you remember a silky sort of shirt, and it had emerald green in it, and taupe? Do you remember that?"

"No."

"And then we went to see Dances with Wolves. That was the day I fell in love with Ray. He had this beautiful suit and coat and hat, and everything was in taupe."

"Taupe. God," said Ray and laughed.

1960s New Zealand band Ray Columbus. Photo / Supplied
1960s New Zealand band Ray Columbus. Photo / Supplied

Friends gone too soon

The tide was a long way out. There was a park bench on the seashore where Columbus likes to sit. The sky was white as a sheet. We talked about music, and the music business; he'd known too many friends who died too young, like Dave McArtney and Graham Brazier from Hello Sailor. "When Dave and Graham died, I was in despair," he said. "I was sad for both of them. Even though I wasn't part of their scene, their circle, I felt very much part of what they were doing. I felt they were trying to do the same thing as I was."

But he was better at business than most. "You had to be a good businessman," he said, "and I was determined to be that. I was always hard-working."

"You were very ambitious," said Grant Gillanders.

"And kind," said Linda. "Always kind. Can I tell you a story? I was going to build Ray's coffin."

I was supposed to be dead, you see.
Ray Columbus

She said: "We brought him home three-and-a-half years ago to die. That's the way we thought it was going to be. I was making log boxes at the time, for firewood, you know, and I thought, 'I could make a coffin like that'."

Columbus shrieked with laughter.

She said: "The log boxes were gorgeous! They had black metal all around the sides, and rope handles, and there were wheels on the bottom."

Columbus said: "They were great, man."

"So then I heard you have to line a coffin by law," Linda said. "I went to see an upholsterer, and ordered pink. We had all his funeral planned, what he was wearing, everything. And the upholsterer said to me, 'I won a radio competition when I was a kid, and the prize was meeting Ray Columbus. It was my first experience of meeting a true gentleman.

"He gave me a ride in his flash car, and he was so kind and gracious. I would like to upholster Ray's coffin for nothing as a thank you.'"

Columbus laughed again, and said: "But I'm still alive!"

Linda said: "I haven't made the coffin. I gave up. He won't die."

I asked what else they'd planned for the funeral. Max Cryer would act as MC, and Suzanne Lynch from The Chicks was in charge of the music. It was going to be held at Matakana, but now they have to rethink that. Linda said: "Are you allowed to have funerals on the beach?"

There was some discussion about the virtues of a public funeral, too, and then I said to Columbus: "Do you mind us sitting around and blithely discussing your funeral?"

He said: "Stranger things have happened."

Linda said: "We're not scared of death, either of us.

"I think that's the difference."

He said: "Life's pretty good, I reckon."

I said: "Is today a good day?"

Ray has described his wife Linda as "very special" saying he "doesn't want to leave her". Photo / Brett Phibbs
Ray has described his wife Linda as "very special" saying he "doesn't want to leave her". Photo / Brett Phibbs

Linda said: "Today is a very good day. Extremely good. I haven't seen Ray like this since -- he's been looking good for a while. He wouldn't do chemo. They wanted him to, but we refused. We don't believe in it. We've just worked on improving his immune system. But I haven't heard you and seen you like this in many years."

He said: "I've always turned down interviews."

Linda said: "What about you, Grant? Have you heard Ray talk like this in years?"

"No."

"You can't get two words out of him, can you? But today ... Is it the old memories, do you think, darling?"

Columbus said to me: "I felt when you arrived that I remembered you. We may talk some more."

I gather he thought I had a "spirit", which is terrible nonsense. He was into that sort of thing, past lives and such, but I said I wasn't having a bar of it, and said: "This is a hell of a thing to ask I suppose but do you ever wonder why you're still here? Because you're not supposed to be. You're supposed to be dead. How is it you're not?"

He said: "I was thinking about that this morning. I like it here! Linda's very special. I don't want to leave her."

Linda said: "But why really are you still here?"

We were all looking at him curiously, like he was an unusual exhibit. He wasn't much enjoying the inspection.

He said, frowning: "There's still things to be done."

Linda said: "But you don't do anything. That's not the right answer. Let's be honest. Why are you here?"

There's a lot to be said for delaying the inevitable. I liked being around Ray Columbus. He had such a killer smile, and his hair was perfect. He was alert, he listened intently, he laughed loud and often. He was New Zealand rock 'n' roll history made flesh. He had something about him, maybe a spirit. He was disappearing. He looked out the window, and said: "Look. The sky's gone black."

• Now You Shake: The Definitive Beat 1963-69 by Ray Columbus (Frenzy Music/Cherry Red) is available now.

- NZ Herald

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