Garth Young escapes to the islands

At 83, Garth Young is still making music.
At 83, Garth Young is still making music.

There he was on a recent Sunday night at the Waterline, a lovely outdoor restaurant perched above the blue lagoon, and two nights later there he was at Flambe, a fairly new barbecue joint, and two nights after that, Thursday night, there he was at the Anchorage, an elegant restaurant at the Sunset Resort - Garth Young, live on stage, a lean, white-haired 83-year-old playing sweet piano music all over the scented island paradise of Rarotonga.

Sometimes he plays seven nights a week. Tens of thousands of New Zealand tourists see him and hear his music every year, but very few are aware they're being entertained by a living legend.

He left New Zealand for the Cook Islands in 1980. "I wouldn't be alive if I'd stayed," he said, when we met at the Rarotongan Resort. "I think the workload would have finished me off."

He meant the stress of being the hardest-working man in Kiwi showbiz. To some extent he was the soundtrack of New Zealand music in the 1960s and 70s. A major exhibition about the history of New Zealand music, Volume, opens at the Auckland Museum on Thursday, and Young's fingerprints are all over it.

As musical director and arranger, he provided the backing for countless hit singles and best-selling LPs.

There was Alison Durbin's dramatic classic I Have Loved Me a Man. There was the complex musical stylings of Craig Scott's protest song about the Vietnam War, Smiley. There was also Wheel of Fortune, a frankly awful yelp sung by 13-year-old boy soprano David Curtis before, blessedly, his voice broke.

There were albums by Peter Posa, Mr Lee Grant, Kiri Te Kanawa. There were solo albums, too, by Garth Young. His earliest releases sold about 30,000 copies, and he guesses he recorded maybe 14 LPs.

Where there was a house party in New Zealand, there was an album of hit songs covered by Garth Young blasting out of a cabinet record player - showtunes, ballads, pop numbers, anything and everything. It was from a time of flagons for him and measures of Pimm's for her, Kiwi mums and dads letting their hair down and dancing on the Bremworth carpet.

Again, he was the soundtrack for good times, and languorous embraces - one of his albums was titled, Music for Dancers Who Prefer to Stand Still. He prefers to be still standing. At one point we talked about the recording sessions for Peter Posa LPs. He said, "The backing musos were the late Dave Fraser on drums, the late Slim Dorward on bass, the late Bill Hofmeister on rhythm guitar and myself on piano ... All my muso mates are dying off. I'm starting to feel quite lonely."

Only recently there was the death of crooner Tony Williams, huge in New Zealand in the 1970s, and who Young saw in Rarotonga a few months ago.

"I wouldn't have recognised him. He was just shrivelled up. Terrible. He was so pleased that they'd got their land sorted out - he was from the Cook Islands, you see, and went over to New Zealand as a teenager. He had a big house in Christchurch and thought it was time to come home again. They got their land back through the courts, but he didn't make it. Poor Tony."

Young wears a pacemaker, and walks with a slow shuffle.

Life in beautiful Rarotonga is good, and although he teaches music most days and performs most nights, he no longer has to endure the punishing schedule he set for himself as the go-to arranger and session musician in Wellington. How did he make it through the night?

"Dexedrine and Benzedrine," he said. Uppers, pep pills, perfectly illegal and absolutely necessary: "I was going day and night. I was almost always playing seven nights a week, two or three nights finishing at 3am. Plus teaching music - I had 80 students a week, who I'd take for half an hour. I got hooked, really. It got out of control."

How did he get his hands on the drugs? "I had a very good bandleader. He knew someone who worked in a pharmaceutical warehouse. I never had to pay for them."

Young eventually fled with his wife Maurine and their kids to Palmerston North, and bought the A'La Vista motel on Fitzherbert Avenue. It meant he got away from the late-night playing and all the drinking that went with it, but two TV executives paid a visit and offered him a lot of work on the music series New Faces. Young was hired to arrange the music.

"They needed 40 minutes of music to be arranged every week. The orchestra got bigger and bigger, and that meant more writing, and more copying for every part. In the end I was writing for about 45 musos, or half the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra. I'd start at 2am and write till 9am the next day, and get five hours sleep in between. I was working like a maniac! And that went on for months at a time.

"We used to take weekend breaks to Australia just to get away. I'd go away like a zombie. One day I said, 'I'm going to go somewhere by myself. I need to if I'm going to stay sane.' I picked the Cook Islands without knowing anything about them. This was in 1976. I got here and it was very primitive, but very cute."

He loved it, and took the family in 1978. They loved it too, and moved to Rarotonga two years later - with Young's aged parents in tow.

"I'm an only child, and they'd moved from Lower Hutt to Palmerston North to be near us. When I came up with the idea of leaving New Zealand, my mother said, 'Right, let's all go!' They were in their 80s then. They finished their lives here."

Garth Young plays sweet piano music all over the scented island paradise of Rarotonga.
Garth Young plays sweet piano music all over the scented island paradise of Rarotonga.

The two families lived side by side in a couple of A-frames. Young and his wife have since found another place to live on the island; the two A-frames are still there, near the restaurants and bars where Young continues to perform.

Young speaks fluent Cook Islands Maori, and acknowledges that Cook Islands music has worked itself into his blood: "There's counter-rhythms and cross-rhythms - it's very precise, very interesting." His set list, though, is from the canon of popular song, one standard after another played on his Korg electric piano. The fingers still have a lovely touch, the notes ringing out across the warm evening air, towards the soft sand and gentle lagoons. But sometimes he misses the old days when he was in his pomp, back in New Zealand, burning the candle at both ends as heatedly as he could.

"The thing I miss the most is working with the orchestra," he said. "Having your pick of the NZSO and getting the guys in, and making the music happen. A lot of the stuff, we never even ran through it once. Once the balance was right and the mics were up, we'd do it live on the first take. We'd get the spontaneity; it was often very lively. They were such good players. I didn't have any training in orchestration or arranging; if you wrote it right, they played it right. It was wonderful. It was a privilege to have that. I do miss it. Now it's just me and my glass of gin at the piano."

Once upon a time he knew all the players, lived in the heart of New Zealand bohemia for nearly 30 years. The guitar player of choice in the recording sessions back then was Kevin Watson. "Garth could deliver on any kind of musical style," he writes, in a fascinating 8000-word memoir online.

"An amazing arranger who could sit up all night writing charts, including full orchestral arrangements, then record it all the next day, with hardly ever a correction."

Watson's memoir describes the producers and the sidemen who were part of his and Young's world - guys like Ron Dalton of Viking Records ("He had the smallest nose I have ever seen. It was like it had been flattened with a mallet") and double-bass player Slim Dorward, a gaunt individual who had a kind of crisis when producers insisted he change to electric bass. He never played another session. "He died a few years later," writes Watson, "but I can still picture Slim as a lonely figure walking up Cuba St with a big overcoat and his funny Russian fur hat."

Then there was the great Bruno Lawrence, who played drums for Young before he became New Zealand's best and most famous film actor. "Wonderful musician," said Young. "But I remember one time when he saw some people off on a ship. It was going from Wellington to Sydney, and naturally they were smoking some pot, and there was a drink or two. He was due to be playing in my band at the Pines the following night. His mother, who was a Scots lady, phoned me up. 'Ooh,' she says, 'we've got a wee problem. My boy's woken up in the middle of the Tasman, Mr Young."'

There was the extraordinary Noel McKay, a polished cabaret act and female impersonator. Young was a session musician on McKay's albums, including A Date With Noel McKay, from 1960; the star poses on the album cover draped over a piano, in a mink stole, stockings, earrings and a print dress. Young recognised the shot: "It was a place he rented at 34 Franklin Rd. I ran away to Auckland for a couple of years, and remember visiting him and his wife Henry - her name was Tess, actually, but he renamed her Henry. Henry Testicle, he called her. Not a lot of respect. The marriage was a sham, of course; he was gay. They had a sort of love-hate relationship.

"The story goes is that McKay was quite a substantial business name in Christchurch, and Tess thought he was from money - and he had the mistaken impression she was, too! But he never had any money, and all she had was the piano on the LP cover. What was more bizarre, when Tess died, he married a receptionist in the Mayfair Motel in Hastings. Totally normal woman.

"As a performer, he was very talented. He used to sew all his own costumes; he was the first person to use Velcro so he could rip his skirt off onstage. It was the most daring thing.

"We had a residency at the Hi Diddle Griddle on Karangahape Rd. Very classy place. Painted black velvet backdrop. There were two ships coming through Auckland at the time from the West Coast of the US; the crew would all come to see us on K Rd. We were doing four floorshows in Auckland a night. We'd drive hundreds of miles around the city.

"I remember once when a school committee met us at the door. They said, 'Mr McKay, it's an honour. We will give you the men's toilet to change in for your dressing room.' And Henry Testicle said, 'He's not going in your shithouse to get dressed."'

Another country, another lifetime. Young made a complete break with the New Zealand music scene when he arrived in Rarotonga in 1980; he didn't even go back for 25 years. He managed a cafe, the Hacienda, and found work as a piano player. One of his first gigs was at the flash new Rarotonga Resort, when he played with a vocalist by the name of Henry Puna, who is now the Prime Minister of the Cook Islands.

Vinyl can't withstand the heat of the Cook Islands. Young shipped all his LPs back to New Zealand, where his daughter keeps them in her home in Upper Hutt. "I have no idea how many albums I was involved with," he said. "I know of about 50. There's probably way over a hundred. Just the other day I remembered I made a couple of albums of Irish music."

He was once so vital to New Zealand music, such a tireless, ingenious maker of songs; what does he make of that? "Well," he said, "that's nice."

- NZ Herald

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