The Shipwreck Bar was one of the best beach bars and Jim, its owner, was much-loved, writes Steve Braunias.
He brought his dog to the bar and a posse of guys, too, mostly just to have a good time but also for moral support.
Jim, round and whiskered, on the other side of 70, was making a stand. He needed company. Besides, he was at his best when he moved in noise. The loudest noise would always be his own voice, jawing away, telling yarns, old gags, anything to defeat silence and run it into ground; but he couldn't talk to himself. He led the banter. Everyone at the bar was made aware of him. The night belonged to Jim.
It was Thursday evening. Darkness had fallen, and the stars were behind clouds; rain was due, and it would fall heavily, constantly, for the next two days.
Jim had made the bar famous. CNN rated the Shipwreck Hut the third-best beach bar in the world in 2012. It noted, "Situated on Aorangi beach on the west coast of Rarotonga, the barbecues are a favourite with travellers, not least because of the corny jokes and barely believable tales of affable owner Jim Bruce."
Baba Nest in Phuket was rated number two, and Dune Preserve Beach Bar, Anguilla, was in first place.
In 2015, Conde Naste Traveller included Shipwreck Hut in its list of 18 Gold Standard bars around the world; it was up there with the Floreria Atlantico in Buenos Aries, Jamaica's Pelican Bar, the Hotel Costes in Paris. The write-up began, "Jim Bruce is the American guy behind the bar with the watery-blue eyes, telling off-colour jokes and the story of his life."
In fact he'd sold the bar on December 12, 2014. The date was fixed in his mind. He wore it like a tattoo. His legend lived on but his only presence at the Shipwreck Hut was as a kind of ghost; people talked about him in low voices, telling tales of yore.
The bar was stacked above the sand like a woodpile. It didn't have a door and it didn't have walls. It was open for dinner and belonged to the warm night air. There were tables and chairs on the wooden deck, and more on the sand. It was rough and ready and resolutely charming, with eight barstools propped up against the bar, and all manner of signs tacked up on the walls and hanging from the ceiling — one claimed, MAUI VISITOR AND INFORMATION CENTRE.
You could fall off a barstool, and roll down the sand to the lagoon. Above, the coconut trees dropped their cargo: THWUMP, later raked into a pile with household rubbish and burned. There were crackling little bonfires all around the island, points of light in the dark.
Rudy Aquino, a tall, silver-haired musician, who once played for JFK in the White House, strummed his ukulele and bonged his vibraphone every Thursday at the Shipwreck Hut.
"This man Jim," said Rudy, addressing the diners and the drinkers, "he made this place what it is."
There was applause. Jim said, "Thank you, Rudy."
The two men had come to the island from another island: Oahu, in Hawaii.
"He told me to come here," said Rudy, "and I followed."
And that was basically the truth about the migration of the two Hawaiians to the South Seas. Jim arrived in Rarotonga for a holiday in 1989. He loved it the moment he saw it. He told his friend Rudy about it, went on and on and on, cajoled him, serenaded him. Rudy now runs the Tropical Sands Motel on Rarotonga.
They were fixtures in Rarotonga, an established part of the fabric of daily life on the beautiful Cook Island rock. Every day, the Clockwise bus and the Anti-Clockwise bus ran in circles; every day, wild dogs roamed free; every day, tourists poured more and more suntan lotion into the lagoon, and the chemicals ate away the coral reef. There was the sunset side of the island the sunrise side of the island. There was talk of a shark cull. God With Us Academy advertised for a teacher: "Applicants must have made a commitment to Jesus Christ."
Rudy sang in a soft, unthreatening voice. Old numbers, easy listening. But then Jim got in on the act. He commandeered a barstool beside Rudy, and took the microphone. It was just like old times — Jim at the helm of his shipwreck, where he had provided so much merriment and hospitality until December 12, 2014. The tourists loved him.
"We've been running away to Rarotonga on a regular basis for quite a few years — first with the kid, later just us," said Auckland comedian Michele A'Court, of herself and husband Jeremy Elwood.
"No internet, a lot of swimming with the fishes and afternoon cocktails and whalespotting from the shoreline.
"Tuesday night has always been barbecue night at Shipwreck Hut so we'd wander along the beach from the place we always stay — the Edgewater — and hang out on the beach with fellow travellers. Jim was always there, looking like a character from a Hemingway novel — or possibly Hemingway himself, all crumpled linen and a well-worn hat. Long-suffering wife who does the heavy lifting and holds it all together. Jim makes very strong cocktails in jam jars — which is why we walk rather than take the hire car. Beach there, road back so you don't stumble in the darkness on rocks and crabs.
"The staff there — all from local families — clearly adore him. There's a local cook who, I suspect, knows the whole story, whatever it is, and they're clearly great mates — they hang out together by the beer-can chicken and have little inaudible chats; and the women who serve all the food come out of the kitchen and sing. You get the feeling they're singing for Jim. And that he might be a fabulous old lush but if anyone said that out loud in a disrespectful way they'd get slapped all the way into town."
Jim was always there. But then he sold. Why? He opened a beer at 11am at his house in Rarotonga, around the corner from the Shipwreck Hut, and said, "Well, I needed to get rid of a partner. I owed her money, and I needed to get her paid off. I'm 74, so what the hell." All the doors to his house were open. Papers were scattered everywhere. But he had his dog; he loved that dog.
The bar was no longer Jim's but for one night only, he returned. He had the well-worn hat, the thick moustache, the red, liquid eyes; and upon his invitation, the women who served all the food came out of the kitchen and sang. But then Jim settled his not-insubstantial weight on the barstool, took the microphone, and asked Rudy to strike up Me and Bobby McGee on the vibraphone.
Rudy was a legend back in Hawaii, as a member of the cabaret act Don Ho and the Aliis — they performed for Kennedy at the White House, they appeared on Johnny Carson, they had a long-standing residency at the fabulous Outrigger Hotel at Waikiki throughout the 1960s. His light touch on the vibes contributed to the band's happy, tinkling lounge style; he also recorded the funkier, more startling live album from 1972, The Aliis Live, with wah-wah guitars and shrieking organs. And now here he was, backing Jim Bruce on a Thursday night at the Shipwreck Hut. Jim, the renegade; Jim, who was no singer.
"Oh I know," said Garth Young. "I know that very, very well."
Rudy wasn't the only legendary musical figure on Rarotonga; Garth, a nimble, mischievous 83, had once been a great hit-maker of New Zealand music, as the musical arranger of countless hit songs, and a solo star in his own right with more than 14 albums to his credit. He arrived in Rarotonga in 1980. He performs old standards on his Korg electric piano all over Rarotonga, and for a long while one of those residencies included the Shipwreck Hut. He was used to Jim Bruce sidling towards him during a set and picking a song. He knew the pain. "But he's got a heart of gold," Garth said. "He's very kind."
Rudy rolled out the opening chords. Jim croaked Me and Bobby McGee. Jim creaked Me and Bobby McGee. Jim's voice was like a man trying to touch his nose and hop on one leg at the same time, and falling over; it was like a garden path, overgrown with thistles and gorse, leading towards a swamp. It was terrible singing, flat and out of tune, all over the place, wobbling, unsteady, out of time, drunk — but he found a sincerity in the song, just for a golden, woozy moment or two, when his soul crept out of the creaking, croaking, tuneless voice and touched the song's essential regret.
Freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose. He'd lost the Shipwreck Hut. Sold it, got shot of it, walked away from it. It was all he had.
"The new owners told me they didn't want my advice," he said on the front porch of his house.
Garth Young had a similar, subtly different version of events.
"Jim was saying 'I ain't going nowhere. I'm gonna stay here and run the nights.' But the new people deserved a chance to run it on their own."
He'd not set foot in the place since he sold it. Not once, not for a second; just drove past it without a second glance. But then he heard on the grapevine — it's not a long grapevine in Rarotonga, — that the new owners had gone away for a few days.
Families ate fish curries on the picnic tables in the sand. Night fell over the pale lagoon. Jim called up a few mates. He got into his electric car and drove to the Shipwreck Hut for his comeback tour, one night only.
It was the talk of the island.
Getting there: Air New Zealand flies daily from Auckland to Rarotonga, with connections available from all Air New Zealand serviced domestic ports.
Drinking there: Shipwreck Hut is at Aro'a Beachside Inn.