Steve Braunias meets a legend of New Zealand music and pop genius Corben Simpson.
There was the time Corben Simpson – the lost genius of New Zealand pop, full-on stoned mystic, whose addresses included a hut behind a bankrupt dye factory in Te Atatū South and a fruit-packing shed in Katiikati – appeared onstage at the Wellington Town and mesmerised his audience when he sang a song to a fur coat he draped over the mic stand. And the time he witnessed a musician receive an electric shock when setting up for a gig, rushed to his side and proceeded to rub Tiger Balm on the man's forehead, announcing: "This is for your third eye." So many times, so many stories where he said or did things that make everyone who ever knew him routinely describe Simpson as "different" or "interesting" and just as often "mad".
A recent visit to his home in Tauranga was to spend time with another, more domestic version of a legendary figure. Simpson, 71, very thin and with a long beard, was like one of the many strange exhibits crammed inside the house – the healing pyramid, the giant bouquets of paper flowers, the crystals and beads and tapestries. He had very large and luminous green eyes. His fingers were extremely and improbably long. The strangest thing about him though was merely the fact of his continued existence: he'd survived, he'd hung on in there.
Life is sweet. He lives with his partner Karina Williams up in Bethlehem Heights; their home interrupts Tauranga's suburban boringness, with two gypsy house trucks out front. The front porch is a wilderness of tomato plants and roses. Inside, there are guitars all over the place, signalling Simpson's active return to live performing with his band In Orbit. Tauranga has always had a thriving and knowledgeable music scene and Simpson is widely respected in the region as one of the greats, a blazingly original talent who made works of art.
He appeared at the 2019 Silver Scroll songwriting awards as the guest of honour, performing his classic 1972 song "Dance All Around the World" onstage with the Auckland Youth Choir. No one knew who he was when he arrived at the ceremony and took his seat in the audience. Karina saw people giving him strange looks. She said, "You could see it on their faces. No one acknowledged him or anything like that until he went up and sang. He let it all out and the crowd were just amazed. Afterwards they were all wanting to come and talk to him. They were all saying, 'Oh, I thought you were dead!'"
The song is an incredible piece of music, a transcendent psychedelic masterpiece, with surely the strangest lineup of co-composers in New Zealand pop history – Simpson wrote it with director Geoff Murphy (Goodbye Pork Pie) and the great children's author, Margaret Mahy. He was with Blerta back then, Bruno Lawrence's travelling commune of players and stoners, wives and children, touring New Zealand on a Bedford bus. He also had his own solo career. He won the 1971 Silver Scroll for his gorgeous love song "Have You Heard A Man Cry" (later awarded the Golden Scroll for best New Zealand song of the decade) and recorded two albums. Get Up With The Sun, from 1973, is the best document of his genius and nearly 50 years on sounds just as fresh, weird, awful, silly, inspired and fantastic.
"I listened to it a little while ago," said Alan Galbraith, who produced the album, "and I'd forgotten how good it was. I was kind of in awe of Corben's talent, as most people were. What a talent. Jesus. Mind-boggling. Astonishing! There's no question, he's a true artist. But he had his demons which is a shame because he might actually have been a superstar."
Simpson was about 22 when he recorded the album at EMI's studios in downtown Wellington. "He always had that slightly haggard look about him," Galbraith said. " Very good looking. A craggy, rangy sort of guy with that sleeping-on-a-bus-stop look."
Things were relatively stable, though. He lived in Lyall Bay with his wife Barbara and their baby daughter Kimberley. One of the songs on "Get Up With The Sun", "Kimberley", is a gentle and crazy lullaby to her. Simpson had an amazing vocal range and many compared him to Van Morrison, someone who used his voice like an instrument, but songs like "Kimberley" and "Running to the Sea" are more about examples of someone who used his voice like an opportunity to liberate the soul and set it free. He didn't sing like an instrument, he made an entirely new sound. Interesting, different, mad … It was all there in his music.
Roger Watkins, then drumming in Wellington, remembers a concert Simpson gave at the Town Hall: "He had a rabbit-skin fur coat, full-length, and put it on the mic stand and a sang a song to it with his ukulele. He absolutely mesmerised the audience. That was just part of his thing. He was a very, very engaging character. I remember he bought an acoustic guitar and cut the sound hole into a square with a hacksaw, and painted the entire guitar in blackboard black. Weird s*** like that. He could be a pain in the arse as well, and often drop in on people at two or three in the morning with his entourage. But people forgave him because he was such a talent.
"He was one of those odd sort of characters who is more talented than they believe they are. I've known a couple of people like that. They just don't really get it, that the gift they've got is so far ahead of anyone else around and they don't take advantage of it or they don't treat it seriously enough and try and build a solid career. They kind of lose faith in themselves. Corben was different to any one else around. He was special. He had this gift."
Simpson lost more than faith in himself. He lost his way and there were people in his life who were worried he wasn't going to find his way back.
He was a quiet, elusive sort of person to interview but now and then he spoke at length. Prompted by whether he remembered recording "Dance All Around the World" at the EMI studios, he said, "Oh yeah. Every second of it. The original was 30 minutes long but we cut it down to three for radio. People always talk to me about that song. But one day someone was telling me, 'Oh, you're such a fantastic composer Corben, you're so original!' And I was sitting there and I realised the melody is taken from 'Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star'.
"I thought, 'Holy hell. It's the same thing.' And then I thought, 'I've got to stop listening to music.' So I locked myself away and I wouldn't listen to any music from anywhere. I just wanted to clear my head of music because I wanted to write music that I'd never heard before. But it was a crazy idea. I went away and wrote all these stupid things. I lost all idea of commercial music. The trouble was I missed out on the popular music of the day. I don't know what years it was – like probably 1975 to 1983, something like that. And then I went to see Ravi Shankar after that and he changed my life just by asking a question.
" I was just walking past the Town Hall one afternoon and the promoter saw me and said, 'Corben! Do you want to come to the Ravi Shankar concert?'
"I said, 'I haven't got any money.'
"He said, 'Come in and I'll give you a seat.'
"I said, 'Okay then.'
"And he gives me a seat right above the orchestra pit. I sat there and I started meditating. I was sitting cross-legged and was deep breathing and had my eyes closed. People started coming in, and were squeezing past me, but I just kept on meditating. And the band came out and played, and I just sat there totally relaxed and didn't open my eyes once. I was transported by the music. Everybody left and I just sat there. I was floating around in outer space.
"And then I'm asked if I want to meet the band. So I go backstage, and Ravi Shankar was there.
He said, 'What's your job, Corben?'
I said, 'I'm a musician.'
"But then I realised, 'I'm not a musician.' Because I wasn't in tune with the popular music of the day. I realised that's what I needed to do. And one day I was in Taumarunui and the record shop was blaring out 'Help' by the Beatles. It went into me and wouldn't come out. I went home and it stayed in there for days and days and days. I'm all right now, though ..."
Simpson's monologue was a journey that bypassed time and space, operated on its own logic, was true to itself. He was a gentle spirit. But his dreaminess was sometimes experienced by people in his life as a nightmare. Kimberley Simpson, the daughter who he crooned so fetchingly to on his album Get Up With the Sun, adores her father. Her love for him is able to accommodate an honest assessment. Asked if she thought of him as complex, she said, "Yes. A little bit tortured. A lot tortured, probably."
The family broke up when she was 3. She said, "I loved him dearly. I really did. But it was never really stable … Dad lived all over the place. He seemed to shift around a lot. But he'd always turn up at the summer holidays. He had this van – the strangest-looking van. Very small. Tiny. And he'd turn up and we'd go to wherever he was living for holidays. He used to let me drive it when I was 6 or 7. He did the clutch and I did the steering. But it never had a WoF or a rego. What he'd do is get a cigarette packet, it was normally Peter Stuyvesant, and he'd rip a square off it and spit on it, and stick it to the window. That's why we never got pulled over. It fooled all the cops. He's a tin arse, actually. He always gets himself out of situations."
He moved to Taumarunui. He moved to the Mahia peninsula. He moved to Bulls. He moved to Grey Lynn, in the Hakanoa St house where Chris Knox lives. He moved to Colville in the Coromandel and lived off the grid: "All I wanted power for was to plug in my guitar." Good times. He was off the grid, too, in the packing shed in Katikati and the workman's hut in Te Atatū - but these were bad times.
One of the all-time great music profiles in New Zealand journalism was Gary Steel's portrait of Simpson in Metro magazine, in 1996. He tracked down Simpson in Te Atatū ("Simpson sits in the dim half-light, rolling ciggies with spindly, stained fingers"), went drinking with him and Colin McCahon's alcoholic son Matthew at the Thirsty Rooster in Glendene and later visited him at a makeshift shack in a backyard in Mt Albert: "This is the fifth place Simpson has rested his weary head since I spoke to him two months previously."
It's a very bleak portrait. Simpson had hit rock bottom. He had gone to prison for six months. He had no money, nowhere to live, nothing. The magazine story ends with Simpson saying, "I ask my mum sometimes: 'What is it with me?' and she goes all quiet and won't say anything. I think she knows something she's not telling me."
He took refuge in booze, and in that other narcotic: talkback radio. At his Tauranga home, he chuckled and said, "I was a demon for it, yeah! I used to ring up all the time. I was one of them!" His favourite was Ewing Stevens on the midnight to dawn show on Newstalk ZB. The strange thing is that it led to a kind of redemption.
Kimberley said of the Metro story, "It was around about then that I'd lost him for a while. He was pretty hard to pin down." Was she worried for her father? "Yes. Yes, I was." Specifically, that he might come to a bad end? "Yes I did. Yes. You've probably heard stories about Dad where he gets a little bit sloshed, he finds himself in awkward situations and he doesn't back down. Drunk Corben is different than sober Corben. Sober Corben is lovely, give you the shirt off his back. Drunk Corben can be a bit abrasive. But also he'd get on the turps and call talkback. I think he was quite lonely sometimes and took solace in talkback.
"I heard him late one night on ZB. I rang the station and said, 'Hey, this is going to sound weird, but this man Corben rang a few minutes ago, if you kept the number can you give him a ring and tell him his daughter is trying to find him?' And they did. They were brilliant to me, doing that. And that's how we reconnected and we've been in touch constantly since then."
All living legends have lives to lead while the legend lingers on in the dimension of rumours and false narratives. It was time to put some of the stories to the test. Did he indeed rush to the side of an electrocuted musician and apply Tiger Balm to his "third eye"? He replied, "Yeah, I remember that. Yeah that's true. That's me. That's what I used to do. I always carried a little red tin of Tiger Balm. I turned a lot of people into that."
Did he indeed sing a song to a full-length fur coat at the Wellington Town Hall? He replied, "I don't remember that. Did I have red gumboots on?"
New Zealand music lore has it that when he recorded "Get Up With The Sun", he demanded that his bed had to be picked up from his Lyall Bay home and brought into the studio. Was that indeed the case? "Oh that's bulls***," he said. "It was my couch."
The life, the legend … the reason for any interest in him is because of the art that he recorded - "Dance All Around the World", "Have You Heard A Man Cry", Get Up With The Sun. The album includes an ominous, dub-heavy chant, "Le Poisson", about nuclear testing; it sounds like it was recorded deep underwater. The track "No Trespassing" anticipates punk rock with its savage blast. "Running to the Sea" is sheer joy, unlike anything ever recorded in this country or elsewhere, and all in one take, with Simpson playing his guitar and singing on his couch at the EMI studios.
The LP was made with cohorts from Blerta, including Bruno Lawrence on drums, and Chris Seresin on piano. Lawrence was Kimberley's godfather. (Simpson is godfather to conspiracy windbag Billy Te Kahika.) On the day Lawrence died, she found her father mourning the great musician and actor in a Mt Albert home known to a generation of stoners as The Dak Shack: "There were a lot of musicians there and we just sat there and held hands."
Yes, Simpson said, he smoked a lot of dope and drank a lot of booze, and he suffered for it. But he was always lucky where it mattered most: in love. "My mum loved him the whole way through," said Kimberley. "She never stopped till the day she died." Simpson was with the great blues singer Mahia Blackmore for 14 years. Kimberley said, "She was like my second mum. Her and Dad were great together." His romance with Karina Williams is like a happy-ever-after ending. They knock about in their crowded house of mumbo-jumbo gee-gaws, and look after her mum, Ngaire, 83; they insisted on taking their guest to see her, propped up in her bed, eating a bowl of yoghurt and bananas. She seemed a bit confused and was unable to speak. But the fog lifted and she pointed at Simpson, and said: "I love him."
Karina met him in Katikati. She used to travel with the gypsy fair as a spiritual healer; later, she sold home-made kawakawa balm at the Katikati market, and would sketch psychic art. "Corben was living with 20 cats," she said.
He said, "And they were all black. They used to sleep on my feet. "
He stretched out his long, thin legs, lifted his feet in the air, and looked at them with the fond memory of when they were covered in 20 sleeping black cats.
She said, "He used to feed them all and he'd go without. And he lived in a shack. He was a bit of a hermit, I suppose."
He said, "I was a bit reserved. I liked my privacy. I had no neighbours. No electricity. I had my fireplace, and I had my cats. I was in a hut. It's still there. All my pictures are on the walls. The cupboards even have food in them. My bed is still in there."
She said, "All his history is in there."
He said, "Sometimes I go in there, open the door, and make a cup of coffee and sit there. I was there a couple of weeks ago. I was waiting for the cats to come back. They were all feral. I remember this guy in Waihi said to me once, 'I want a cat.'
"I said, 'I've got a lovely one for ya, mate.'
"I named him Big Boy. All fluffy, huge tail. So I got a cage and drove Big Boy the 20 k's over to Waihi. He let it out and it ran under his bed and wouldn't come out. Then it started shitting under his bed. He got wild with the cat. And then it ran away. But eight months later, I'm out there at my shed with all the cats and Big Boy turned up. Very raggedy. All those months, all the creeks and rivers it had to cross … it makes you think, doesn't it?" And then he opened his mouth, and let loose a long, haunting meow.
Dance All Around the World was voted #18 in 2001 Apra's Top 100 New Zealand Songs of All Time.