David Fisher

David Fisher is a senior reporter for the NZ Herald.

Greatest NZ Stories: Special day to sing a sad song for a lost love

David Fisher and photographer Mark Mitchell travelled the country looking for the greatest Kiwi yarns. Follow their journey in this series.

Reporter David Fisher and photographer Mark Mitchell drove from Cape Reinga to Bluff, meeting amazing Kiwis. Today we wrap up their series with a double header - the former Dunedin rock chick who has never forgotten her lost love, and the Foveaux Strait lighthouse keeper and his wife.

Day 24: Dunedin

Two gigs a year, and Francisca Griffin is owning the set.

"This one is for Mr Leather Jacket," says Francisca, doyenne of the Dunedin Sound. "Yeah, you know who you are."

She's in Inch Bar in Dunedin. Once she was called Kathy Bull of Look Blue Go Purple and loved Mr Leather Jacket, who has long since died.

She's changed her name and is now Francisca. Mr Leather Jacket, though, will always be her love - former Chills drummer Martyn Bull.

"I am so sick of crying after you have gone/ shedding some skin, where to begin/ inside out or outside in."

She's small, Francisca, and her guitar looks bigger than she is. It's upside down, which she explains later.

On stage, though, she's wiping tears from her eyes. "I cry every time I'm in public singing," she tells the crowd, tuning for the next song.

Inch Bar was originally called Homo Espresso (as in Coffee for Man) but then someone threw a brick through the window, worried there might be gay people inside.

It was renamed Soda Bug, which was fine. Then the brick-thrower realised this could mean Sodomy and Buggery and again expressed concern over gay people with a brick.

Name aside, it was never a gay bar. Inch Bar has been a home for music and craft beer for almost two decades. Once, so the story goes, Anton Oliver and Jeff Wilson came in looking for a Speight's after an All Blacks game. "Speight's?" cried the outraged bar owner. "F*** off!"

At Inch Bar, it hosts a different kind of Dunedin royalty.

Francisca came to Dunedin in 1975. Her dad was a mining engineer working at the University of Otago. After her first dose of New Zealand, she went back to North America and became a different person.

She came back in 1981, kitted out in a leather jacket which someone stole, a pile of records and blue hair.

The music scene was furiously energetic, seething with talent and urgency. She remembers going to the EMI store and Lesley Paris, future Look Blue Go Purple band member, was there. Boodle Boodle Boodle from the Clean was pressed into her hand.

Dunedin was humming along with itself when she met Martyn Bull at a gig in an abandoned warehouse in December 1981. He was playing music with friend Christine Voice, with whom he played in the Elevators and who went on to join Snapper.

"I became friends with Martyn. Well, more than friends. We very quickly became well attached to each other. And it went from there."

He was 20 and she was 22. It was easy to keep track of.

"I remember waking up with him one day," she says.

"When's your birthday," he asked.

"I said 'March 6' and he said 'That's my birthday'."

She made him get his licence out to prove it. "In love ... it was amazing. We were glued to each other."

She wanted to play. "Martyn taught me to play. He could pick anything up and play it. Twenty minutes into an instrument and he could have it sussed."

He showed her scales, then shared important knowledge, saying: "Play and play for 20 minutes and exercise your fingers, then after that the good stuff comes."

She plays her guitar upside down. When she started, everyone else was right-handed so necessity drove left-handed Francisca to learn backwards.

"It's not like we talked chords and notes. I couldn't read music. I can only barely now 30 years later.

"Why use five chords when you can get away with three or two or one?"

Dunedin was isolated from the music culture with which it was trying to connect. "We made up our own culture," says Francisca.

The stories of Dunedin at the time are allegories for conservatism, distance and exclusion from music. New Musical Express took six weeks to arrive by post, records took three months by ship.

"You don't know you're isolated if you're in the middle of it," she says. "It was freeing, although we didn't know we were set free. We just did what we wanted to do."

There was a communal embrace in the joy of their discovery. "Everybody shared instruments, shared knowledge, went to each other's gigs, hung out together." They had fun and carved out the Dunedin Sound.

"None of us made up those words [Dunedin Sound]. There were a whole lot of people morphing in isolation."

Martyn joined the Chills in March/April of 1982, not long after their birthday. He went to Auckland with the band in May 1982, recording Pink Frost and another colour-linked song for the band's Rainbow EP.

Returning to Dunedin, he wasn't well. Francisca recalls: "We both woke up the next day and were completely wiped out." The couple went to their doctors.

There was nothing wrong with Francisca. "Then there was a knock on the door. His doctor had come to take him to the hospital."

Martyn was diagnosed in June of 1982 with acute myeloblastic leukaemia. Chemotherapy tortured his body and health. "So we then started journeying down the road of alternatives."

A friend of Martyn's went to hospital to bring Martyn back to life with her method of healing. Francisca doesn't have a name for what was done, but Margaret van der Vis left with black blisters up to her elbows, apparently having had a dramatic and positive effect on Martyn, who seemed better than he had for some time.

Martyn discharged himself. He "decided the chemotherapy was worse than dying" and had pinned his faith on alternative healing option.

"In amongst all this he was getting better and better."

Christine had plans beyond dealing with his illness. She "couldn't stand that we weren't married".

Francisca: "I came home from work one day and we're sitting on the bed talking about our days, and he said 'Are we going to get married or what'?"

They got engaged - then Martyn became very ill. "So we went home to his family in Masterton," she says, around the end of 1982. "They were Jehovah's Witnesses - they made us get married. Not that I regret it, in any way. We didn't see it as something that needed to be done."

There were vows in Martyn's parents back yard. Chills' members attended - Martin Phillipps was best man and Terry Moore gave Francisca away.

They returned to Dunedin. The Chills tried to keep going during this, she recalls, although looking back Martyn can be seen to be ill.

Martin Phillipps, on the Spare Room blog, recalls Martyn as thin and wrote "It quickly became apparent that the music was taking too much energy". "I still believe that the realisation that he could perhaps never play the music as he wanted to was subsequently a major factor in his losing the desire to survive."

It was on this return trip that Francisca and four others (Lesley Paris, Norma O'Malley, Denise Roughan and Kath Webster) started Look Blue Go Purple.

"You're sitting around drinking and saying, 'Let's make a band. Let's play music together'.

"We wanted to have a band where there were five women. We all played in everyone else's band. We wanted to play with each other to see what it would be like."

The first gig was in Broom Valley on March 5, 1983, the day before her and Martyn's shared birthday. She lost him just a few months later, on July 18, 1983.

"We said goodbye to Martyn's body. He was cremated which really messed his family up because when you're a Witness you get resurrected in the flesh so you have to be buried. I went back to Dunedin, Martyn under my arm, and we spread his ashes around the walnut tree at Purakanui, over the hill."

Look Blue Go Purple played a gig a month after he died and it went from there. The first recording sessions were a revelation. They had no idea what they sounded like and the resulting Bewitched EP was a delight.

"We all sat there going, 'Is that us?' 'Is that what we sound like?' Oh my God, I loved it.

"It was magic. We made the most wonderful record together."

Francisca had a hunger. "I wanted to be the Ramones," she says. "I wanted to go everywhere and I wanted to do everything. I wanted to go to London and be in a limousine.

"I was always the one who wanted to have it all. I really wanted to have it all.

"I wanted to play wherever, whenever, as long as there was a bit of money involved.

"Back then I wanted to go and be a stadium rocker. To tour the States and England and Europe would have been amazing. But it didn't happen. But it's okay it didn't."

The second record was called LBGP EP2 "which I named because I insisted it be called that".

They toured hard and partied hard. "We did drink an awful lot. We didn't drink beer - we wanted gin."

They drank at practice, letting the party start early, until they worked out that it wasn't helping and stopped. When it came time for the third EP, Francisca had stopped drinking completely - she became pregnant that year. Look Blue Go Purple waited to finish the record until Oscar arrived, the first of three boys (now 19, 21 and 24).

"And that was it for a while."

Music and performing returned a few years later with songs on compilations but she was drawn more and more to natural therapies. In 1999 she started studying as a naturopath, graduating in 2002.

Ask her why, and the answer is like many of Francisca's answers: "Martyn". In many ways, Martyn never left. "He's in my head all the time. He helps me play guitar. We talk all the time."

The talking isn't voices but a compelling feeling of presence. "It's not talking as much as a feeling," she says. He doesn't tell her to go and practice, as such. There is an urge to do so. "And when I practice, he joins me. He is Mr Leather Jacket."

Looking back, she throws out incredulity. "We did that?" she asks. "Wow. It didn't feel like we were doing anything monumental. In retrospect, it was pretty incredible."

It still feels incredible to Francisca, playing at Inch Bar, one of two gigs she does each year. She tells the crowd: "Mr Leather Jacket taught me how to play guitar and he gave me this amp. He had no further use for it."

And then she sings.

"When you went I didn't know I would miss you so/ You were in our life for only a short time/ You are in my heart and I know I will never let that go."

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