He was the wild singer in 60s rock band Larry’s Rebels, but now Larry Morris keeps to a promise he made to his mum (96) and dad (89) to look after them to the end. Steve Braunias meets a true legend of Kiwi music.

The dining room table next to the kitchen in Larry Morris' house was set for breakfast.

There were the teacups, upturned on their saucers, and there was the toast rack, and the butter on the butter plate. The teapot sat beside the sink. It wore a striped woollen cosy with a pom-pom. And there was the morning Herald, folded, and open to the crossword; Larry's father John, 89, tackles it after he gets up, usually at around quarter to one in the afternoon. A caregiver turns up not long afterwards to look after Larry's mother Lister, 96.

A visitor arrived with scones for morning tea, and Larry got out the plates. He was a thick-set man, 69, with dark hair, a square face, and narrowed eyes. He spoke in a rich, beautiful voice, and of course he talked about the past, because he had so much of it, but always as though it had just happened, the details were fresh and vivid, and he routinely called people - like the detective who arrested him for possession of LSD, and the crooks who he knew during his five years in prison - by their first, middle and last name.
He had something of the villain about him.

A hard man, an old con, in a small state house surrounded by mansions in expensive Parnell, warming the tea in a small kitchen. There were thick curtains over the front door. The bookcase in the hallway was stocked with copies of music biographies - Billy Haley, Bob Dylan - and books on sex. Framed photographs on top of the bookcase included one of Tommy Adderley, Larry's best friend, a singer who died in 1993, and one of Larry being introduced to Prince Charles, backstage at a concert in 1970; the young Prince is caught with his mouth open, in mid-blather, and Larry looks up at him, long-haired and handsome, then at the height of his fame as the singer in rock'n'roll band Larry's Rebels.

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They enjoyed crazy success - sold-out tours, seven top 20 hits in two years - and recorded a classic album, A Study in Black, from midnight to dawn in May 1967, exactly 50 years ago. It sounds just as dangerous now, with its fuzz guitars and Motown drums, a funky and serious garage band given one shot to get it right. Morris was the star.

He left the band in a terrible sulk in Whitianga. He was indignant that management got a better class of motel room. He went solo and made two albums in the 1970s, one before he was busted for LSD and one after he got out. They form the bulk of a new Frenzy Music CD, Larry Morris: Anthology.

Morris has written the liner notes, and they read like an elliptical biography - the drug bust, 10 years as an illegal immigrant in the US, a busy romantic life. There have been marriages (four) and children (five). His new wife Gloria is a Filipino woman, 24 years his junior; they've just come back from 30 days at their South China Seas beach house in the Philippines.

Most days, he's at home at his around the corner from the quiet waters of Hobson Bay, staying close to his mum and dad. "They're both in there asleep," he said, and made a pot of tea. His mother has stage three dementia. "She spends the majority of the time asleep. She really lives in a sleep world, my mother. It's not a very good life. But she's happy."

• Watch: Morris family singalong

60's rocker Larry Morris and his 97 year old mother sing 'Cocaine Bill and Morphine Sue'

The three of them, always the three of them. Larry was an only child. They lived in Herne Bay, also Taumaranui, Ngaruawahia, Hamilton, other places, always on the move, always together - and now full circle, Mr and Mrs Sturdy and their ex-con, ageing rock star son (Morris is his stage name) in a small house behind a row of olive trees.

The visitor said, "I understand you made a pledge to your parents." He said, "I did. Thirty years ago. Dad was out of it one day. He loves his whiskey, Dad. Still does. But he doesn't drink much of it now, thank God. Not that I would ever tell him what to do. He's nearly 90 and I'm not going to start telling my father how to live his life.

"So I went to visit him at their caravan at Awakeri. They were on the beach there. It's a lovely spot. I arrived at about 5am after playing a show, and Dad was still up, having been drinking all night on his own. Mum was asleep.

"My father, when he's shit-faced, becomes very philosophical, very lucid. He says to me, 'You know, son,' he says, 'I'm thinking about the future. I don't know how long I've got if I carry on like this. I probably won't make 60. But can you do me a service?'

"I says, 'What's that, dad?'

"He says, 'Don't ever allow your mother to go into a home.' He says, 'You look after your mother if anything goes wrong with me.'

"I says, 'Yeah, I give you my word', and I gave him a hug, and here we all are. I'm doing it.

That's basically what the reality is. They stuck fat with me when I was in prison and that's what I'm doing now. Sticking fat."

He repeated it quite a lot, and the visitor said, "What the hell is this 'sticking fat' thing?"

"Prison term," he said. "Staying loyal."

He said his parents were living in Putaruru when his mother started going downhill with dementia. One day about 14 months ago his father put two pizzas in the oven for dinner, forgot about them, and the house nearly burnt down. Morris packed them up the next day and brought them to Auckland.

The visitor said, "Fire, Larry. Again with the fire." He said, "Yeah. Jesus. I didn't think of that. You're right."

The young Morris was a rock star in his heyday.
The young Morris was a rock star in his heyday.

Earlier, over the scones and the tea, he'd told a story about the time he burned down a sawmill. He was 16 and it was his first day on the job. They were living in Taumaranui and he borrowed his mum's Fiat Bambina to drive to the mill at 4.30am. Half an hour later, he'd blown the place up: he was given a flaming stick wrapped in muslin, the flame appeared to go out, and the foreman told him to reignite it under the tap of a 44-gallon barrel of petrol.

"There was a little flame that I hadn't observed," he said. "And then BOOM. It blew me backwards, I lost all my eyebrows and the front of hair got burnt off, and everything was ablaze. All that dry timber - the whole place went up. It was a complete accident. But everyone lost their jobs, and the foreman says, 'You'd better get your arse out of here. I'd leave town if I were you.'

"So I went back home, it's not even six in the morning, and mum freaks out when she sees me with my burned face. Dad says to me, he says, 'I've been considering buying a dairy on Jervois Rd [in Herne Bay, Auckland]. I'm definitely buying it now. But you need to get out of town immediately.'

"So the cops interviewed me and then one of them put me on a bus that day to my auntie's place in Auckland. We stopped in Hamilton, and I'm looking out the window of this bus and I see this poster. It says, JOIN THE NAVY. SEE THE WORLD. BECOME A MAN.

"So I enlisted that day."

He discovered that he suffered form chronic seasickness. A year later, hanging around at the back of the Dairylands shop doing nothing in Herne Bay, he joined The Rebels, in 1964. The band included rugby commentator Winston McCarthy's son Viv on bass, and John Williams on guitar, who later learned riffs and licks from Jimmy Page on a New Zealand tour with The Yardbirds. Screaming fans, shows in Australia...There were seven years at the top, and then the Incident at Whitianga. Morris said, "I should never have quit. It was stupid. It's the biggest regret in my life."

Larry Morris of the music group Larry's Rebels joining in a hymn at the Birkenhead Methodist Church service. Photo / NZH
Larry Morris of the music group Larry's Rebels joining in a hymn at the Birkenhead Methodist Church service. Photo / NZH

The visitor said, "But you did leave. Is that when your troubles began?" He described how after he went solo, his manager sent him on a cabaret tour of hotels in the South Pacific - Fiji, Tahiti, Noumea. "The money was good," he said, "but I was as bored as f**k. You miss your mates when you're not in a band. It was hard graft, and I was singing My Prayer and shit like that. 'My prayer is to linger with you/ to the end of the day in a dream that's divine.' Jesus! Awful.

"So there I was in Tahiti. I didn't speak French and no one spoke English. I had this lovely little beach cottage where all the artists stayed - Howard Morrison was finishing just as I arrived, and he said, 'You're going to get bored shitless here, mate. I'm never coming back.'

"On the fourth day I was out on the beach with nothing to do and I see these two long-haired guys throwing a frisbee...."

He became friends with the two Americans, Jim and Ed, and they visited him back in New Zealand, and gave him a present: a sheet of LSD, with 1013 hits of acid.

"So I asked a mate, 'What am I going to do with this?' And he said, 'Speak to Spike.'
"I spoke to Spike, and Spike set me up with a guy. But he got arrested and he f*****g gave me up. I got seven years, and he walked."

John Sturdy walked into the kitchen. He wore a dressing gown over pyjamas, a tall, thin man with blue eyes, and a heavy, rattling breath from asbestos poisoning.

Larry said, "You want me to bring you a cup of tea, Dad?"

"Okay."

"You get yourself back there and I'll bring it. I'll bring you a cup of tea as soon as it's made, Dad."

He filled the jug, and said, "Prison was frightening. Terrifying. But my father gave me a copy of Kahlil Gibran's The Prophet, and he says, 'You can escape these walls in your mind.' He says, 'Take this on the chin and do it like a man and learn from it.' I've learned more from my father than anyone in the world.

"I had a heroin habit after I got out of prison but my dad saved my life. A friend of mine came around with one day with a little piece of pink rock and he says, 'I don't want this anymore, you have it.' He says, 'You can either smoke it or throw it down the toilet.'

"I smoked it and three days later I had a habit. One day Dad opened the fridge at home and there were three milk bottles missing the silver foil lids. He says, 'What's this about?'

"I says, 'You've busted me. I'm chasing the dragon.'

"He says, 'What's that?'

"I says, 'I'll show you.' I took him into the shed and took a hit. I've always been scrupulously honest with my father and never lied to him about anything. He has great respect for me for that.

"So he says, 'What do you want to do about this?'

"I says, 'I need to get off it. It's going to kill me.' I went cold turkey with my dad by my side."

He filled the teapot for John, and sat down again at the table with a knife. The visitor had also brought a bacon and egg pie to share.

Stand-out tracks from the new Anthology CD include the brassy John the Baptist from his 191 LP 5:55am (named because that was the precise time he was placed under arrest for LSD), and the fuming Speak for Yourself, from his 1978 LP Reputation Don't Matter Any More - the song is a vicious, bitter attack of Prime Minister Rob Muldoon. Morris claims that Muldoon banned his records from radio airplay and had all of his TV appearances wiped after the LSD bust: "I was on TV for three years, a lot. Now there's nothing of me. That's wrong."

Larry Morris of the music group Larry's Rebels. Photo / NZH
Larry Morris of the music group Larry's Rebels. Photo / NZH

His place in rock history was further distorted in Stranded In Paradise, the so-called founding document of New Zealand music, by John Dix. The few mentions that Morris receives in Dix's history are scornful. Morris puts it down to bad blood between himself and his former business partner, concert promoter Hugh Lynn, a long-time friend of Dix's.

But his band Larry's Rebels were regarded as one of the most spectacular live acts in the country, and their material included five original songs co-written by Morris and guitarist John Williams. They're the best tracks on A Study in Black; they all sound like the band are in an ecstasy of discovering how to make their own low-down, dirty rock'n'roll. As for Morris, he's one of the great craftsmen of song; he inhabits a song when he's live onstage, and makes it come it alive with his big, confident, howling voice.

An artist, an entertainer. The rewards were passing. He made a lot of money in music, he said, but had blown most of it. He said the Rebels made other people a lot of money. "We gave our management 40 per cent of everything we earned. We didn't give a f**k. We wanted to be stars. It was all about the music and the girls."

The talk turned to girls. "I'm always faithful to my wives," he said. "But when I'm single...I've had hundreds and hundreds of women. Because when you're in a band - at the Foundry [where he'd been a resident act], and this is God's honest truth, I would have between two and four girls a week, different girls. If you put a modest figure of two girls a week, that's eight a month, that's 96 a year so there were 200 in those two years and believe me there are a lot more. I had a girl during the break in a fridge once. Ludicrous. I'm into sex and I'm into women, but when I'm with my wives, I stick fat."

His first marriage went south because of prison. He discovered his second wife in bed with another man - he'd just come back New Plymouth in a taxi with Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley - and his third marriage finished after 36 years when he came home from a gig in Rotorua and saw two suitcases by the front door. He was left with two sons, then aged 10 and 12; that was when he was given the state house.

They stuck fat with me when I was in prison and that's what I'm doing now. Sticking fat.

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The visitor said, "How did you meet your new wife Gloria?" He said, "Well, this is it. I started going to Thailand just for the rumpity-pumpity. I was rooting myself stupid. I got talking to this German called Horst one day by the hotel pool. He was a Berlin firefighter. He says, 'I got sick of not being thanked for saving people's lives.'

"Real character, this guy. I'm playing at his wedding next year. He says, 'When you get home, go on computer and search for Badoo. You find a woman.'

"So I did, and the first girl I saw was Gloria. She was in Hong Kong. I was taken by her smile and two years later we got married in Mum and Dad's lounge in Putaruru."

Somehow this segued into a highly improbable but true story of how he entered the US by walking through a redwood forest at dawn on the Canadian border. He couldn't obtain a visa because of his prison record, but he was determined to get in, so he jumped out of a moving car and rolled into the pitch-black forest, bashed his way through for the next two hours, then scaled a wire fence, and walked into a bar in Blaine, America, wearing a black tracksuit with the silver fern. He lived in Los Angeles for 10 years.

He got up to take the tea into his dad. The visitor said, "All these stories - what do they mean? What's the moral of your life, Larry?"

"Well," he said, "I've had a good life. I've had wonderful parents, but I let them down with the prison thing. They invested their entire life savings to defend me in court. It put them to the wall. But they stuck fat. And now they're staying with me for as long as they're breathing."

He'd said to come back in the afternoon when Lister was up, and she'd sing. "She sings like a bird," he said.

He was right. John sat on the couch in the small lounge, and Lister sat next to him on a chair with a blanket over her legs, and she sang a fairly incredible song called Cocaine Bill and Morphine Sue, the small, frail 96-year-old woman knowing all the lines, and imitating sniffing lines of cocaine on the chorus.

Mr and Mrs Sturdy and their only child, together as always, the three of them happy in a small lounge in a small house near a bay at full tide. There was soft autumn sunlight coming through the lace curtains.

John clapped when she finished. "God bless you, darling," said Larry, and he laughed, and then he cried.

"He's got a lovely face, hasn't he," said Lister. She studied him. "Cheerful. A lovely, cheerful face."

"You gave it to me, Mum," he said.

She said, "Oh yes?"

He said, "We've had a wonderful life, but we've had our ups and downs. I've been the cause of all their troubles."

Lister took his hand. "Oh," she said, "but it's all been worth it."

Larry Morris: Anthology (Frenzy Music) and another new CD, 13 by the Larry Morris Band, are available now. Morris will appear at tonight's We Are One: Concert for Autism show alongside Jordan Luck, Fiona McDonald and others at Sacred Heart College in Glendowie.