They've met, briefly, Shaun Johnson and Richard Hore. It was pleasant enough, nothing remarkable or momentous, but there was mutual admiration. "Good player," said Johnson, 75, a pianist who lives in Wellington. "He plays very nicely," said Hore, 64, an organist who lives in Christchurch.
Strange to think of New Zealand's most famous and hardest-working blind keyboard players being introduced to each other and shaking hands in their world without sight. Hore has never seen anything. Johnson could barely see anything for most of his life although he could make out colour, and even read, until about 13, 14 years ago, and then nothing. The last colour he could see was the deep blue behind the Twentieth Century Fox graphic at the movies. "I don't know what it looks like now," he said.
I met the two of them in the same day, Hore at his Christchurch home with his wife and two daughters in the morning, and Johnson that night in Wellington, at the James Cook hotel on The Terrace, where he has held a residency playing background piano music six nights a week for an incredible 39 years. I took something along to both interviews: copies of some of the instrumental albums they made in the 1970s, and asked for their autographs. Johnson got me to direct his hand to a white space. He signed his first name. It was uncertain and child-like but legible. Hore got me to do the same, and wrote both his names; it looked like no handwriting I'd ever seen before.
Johnson was playing in the lobby bar of the James Cook when I arrived. He was a small, compact man, and he wore a black tuxedo jacket. He played The Way We Were and Yesterday and the thing that struck me was how quietly he played. I sat nearby and watched his hands hovering over the keyboard, the long, graceful fingers barely touching the keys. In truth, it felt a bit creepy to observe him and know that he had no idea I was there. It was a kind of voyeurism, a covert act; I felt something similar when I realised I'd left something at Hore's house in Christchurch, and returned to pick it up. Tall and thin, he let me in the door, but of course, he didn't have the foggiest where I'd left it, and I tramped around his house until I found it.
Johnson lives in a bedsit in the city. Confined spaces suit his needs. "I've learned Wellington geography very well," he said. "I don't know the suburbs at all. But I know the central city extremely well." I would have loved to have seen his apartment. "You won't get to see it," said his younger sister, Maureen Lee, who I met at her home on Auckland's North Shore. "I've never been allowed in. Liz hasn't either." She meant their sister. "He won't let us in. He's proud; he wouldn't want us to see where he lived. We worry about him, but he's where he wants to be."
Richard Hore, his wife Marilyn, and their two daughters, Amy and Meg, had only just moved into a townhouse when I visited. Their home was still being repaired after the Christchurch earthquakes. "I'm still finding my way a bit," he said. "But the girls have done a fantastic job of making it feel like home. The organ and the piano are here, all our furniture. It's a good house to get around."
Johnson was at home at the James Cook. He propped himself at the bar after he finished playing, and he ordered us a couple of beers. You had to be on your game with him. He could be quite sharp, he didn't suffer fools or foolish remarks. There was also something remote about him, a distance; he wasn't sentimental, he took a pragmatic view on things. I asked if there were particular songs that moved him, and he said, "Not really. But I was talking to a woman here just last week, and she told me she and her husband used to go courting in the 1940s in London, so I played for her a song which I don't often play, called London Fog. I learned it from an LP by Julie Andrews in the early 1960s. And it meant so much to her."
I asked, "But nothing gets you like that?"
"No," he said, and took a long draught of his beer.
Hore wore his heart on both sleeves, where everyone could see it, even himself. He was talkative, perhaps rambling, very emotional, trusting, vulnerable, expressive. "I've written a book," he said. "I've called it Blind Faith. 26 chapters. Over 100,000 words. I've had a bit of a life. I've had a few experiences. Before I married, I had infatuations. I lost my virginity at 25. No, 26. But that wasn't a lasting friendship. I'm no saint. I admit it; I'm no saint. It's all there. But there's also a section called 'Warm Fuzzy Moments.' Another is 'Life Shapers'. There's a loose section on daydreams ..."
When I asked him whether any songs moved him, he said, "Oh yes. Wind Beneath My Wings – that's a special one. When I play that one I find it hard not to get teary-eyed thinking of Marilyn. You know, 'Did I ever tell you you're my hero?' Because that's how it is." A morning in a townhouse in Christchurch, and tears rolling out of a blind man's eyes.
But then he started talking about the eyes, how they were plastic and taken out once a year to get any grit taken off them by a sanding machine at the hospital. Now and then they just fall out. He said, "I was playing music at a dinner event when my left eye popped out, bounced off my thigh, and landed beneath the organ on the carpet. A lady sitting behind me picked it up and said, 'There ya are, mate.' I don't think she knew what she was holding."
Marilyn puts them back in when that happens. I asked what the eye looks like without the eyeball, and she said, "It's not grotesque. It's just a cavity." It reminded me of what both men had said when I naively asked if they moved in a world of darkness, and they said no, it wasn't like that at all, because darkness is a colour.
"It's a void," Hore said. "I move in nothing."
Shaun Johnson was born on January 30, 1944. He said, "I had a bit of sight. Not a lot. I was born with a not well-formed retina, and a not well-formed ... oh I can't remember the name for it ... It's what connects the eye to the brain – ah. The optic nerve. That's it. The optic nerve."
"Here's Shaun," said Maureen, his sister. She brought out a photo album. There were black and white pictures of a fat, cheerful baby who looked strangely ancient thanks to a pair of wire glasses. "When they put glasses on him, he never took them off, even as a baby, because he could see better." Another photo showed the two of them together, Shaun with his hand on her shoulder for her to lead the way. He estimates he had about 10 per cent vision.
The family lived in Dunedin. Johnson was sent to his local primary school when he was five: "But they quickly worked out I wasn't going to get very far with my eyes in that condition and in that state. So I got shunted up to Auckland to go to the blind institute school in Parnell as a boarder." Maureen remembers he was taken to the Dunedin train station by their mum and dad, and a man called Len Pilgrim escorted him on the long journey; it was his job to accompany children to the New Zealand Foundation for the Blind.
The family moved up later, and Johnson's father became a housemaster at the foundation. He built a school jungle gym, and they lived in a wooden house next to the main building, which now houses the Parnell library. Maureen's first boyfriend was blind: Eddie Low, who later became a famous country music singer. In the kingdom of the blind, sound was king. "There was a lot of music in Parnell," Johnson said. Piano lessons were compulsory and it's where Johnson learned to play, taught by two blind women. Later, he studied for a music diploma at the University of Auckland, when he also began his career as an entertainer.
His first gig was at a wedding reception in 1964 where a young Kiri Te Kanawa turned up and sang. He played in a band with a drummer and a guy on clarinet at other weddings, and also at RSAs and restaurants, but he preferred solo work. He landed a summer residency at the Chateau and drifted back to Auckland in 1967. "One day I saw a job advertised in the Herald at the Wairakei Hotel, so I came down on the bus on a Friday night and, the manager said, 'Can you play for us tomorrow morning?' I said, "Wouldn't it be better if I played tonight? I've dressed for it.' He said, 'Well ...' I said, 'I'll tell you what. I'll play tonight and I'll get three requests. They'll be Moon River, More, which was a Frank Sinatra song, and Doctor Zhivago. That's exactly the way it panned out and I stayed there for 13 years."
It was a classic Johnson story, casting himself as firm, in the right, one step ahead of everyone else. "He can be a little belligerent," said his sister Maureen. "Not exactly tactful." Well, there was nothing stuttering or uncertain about him, or the way he lived his life. He had a great set-up at Wairakei. He played six nights a week, giving guests at the Tourist Hotel Corporation resort a high old time as he played the standards, the pop hits, the slow romantic numbers, the uptempo dance raves. "On a Friday night it was a bloody madhouse," Johnson said. "Everyone was there to get pissed and then drive home."
Ingeniously, management had him record three albums as guest souvenirs, Shaun at Wairakei volumes I-III – the cover of volume II is a fabulous 1970s image of guests around the hotel pool, with a bikini babe served a bottle of champagne by a kneeling flunkie in a bowtie, a dude in a psychedelic shirt waving to someone, good times in the shade of punga trees.
I asked, "Was it an illicit sort of place? Hot pools, all that geothermal steam, miles from anywhere – did people go there for affairs?"
He said, "Oh yes. There was plenty of that going on. I remember one night I was playing in the restaurant. A guy came in with his mistress. We all knew who he was and we all knew his wife. He asked for his usual table, and the manager said, 'Sorry, no I can't give it to you.' He got pretty stroppy about it, until the manager said, 'Well, I'll tell you why I can't. Your wife's here with her boyfriend.' Everyone heard about that one."
Johnson met his first wife at Wairakei. They had a daughter, and lived in a flat across from the hotel; it was a very social scene, with the executive chef, the gardener and the bar manager also living onsite. When the marriage ended, he moved to Wellington and scored the residency at the James Cook. He remarried and had two more children. "It didn't actually last that long ... I lost interest, really," he said.
His sister Maureen laughed, and said, "He wouldn't have lost interest in the physical side, I can tell you that." She told a story about how he came to her house one night for her birthday party; she invited him again to visit a little while later, and he said he'd be staying with her neighbour, a music teacher. "I said, 'You come to my birthday and now you're shagging my neighbour! What do they see in you?' He's not the most handsome critter in the ocean but he's always had plenty of women in his life." She began to list some of his girlfriends, and then she said, "Well - that's the thing about Shaun. He's had a life. He really has."
I stayed a second night at the hotel, and once more watched him play without telling him I was there. lightly. Again, he played with such a light touch. His hands were beautiful to observe, very sensual.
Richard Hore was born May 9, 1956. I asked what sort of life he'd led, and he said, "Happy and lucky."
Not long after he was born, his father noticed that his son's eyes glinted in artificial light, like a cat's eyes. It was discovered he had retinoblastoma: a cancer so rare that it only occurs in one in 200,000 people. Both eyes were taken out when he was 20 weeks old.
When he was four, the family travelled to Auckland for an appointment at the blind foundation in Parnell. It wasn't a success. "I didn't behave myself very well at all," he said. "I think I might have filched something off one of the pupils and refused to give it back. I can't remember exactly what, but I do remember being chased by the lady who was showing us around."
Back in Christchurch, he went through state schools, with special needs assistance and a lot of work put in by his parents. He learned colour from his mum, who devised the ingenious method of feeding him jellybeans – red, green, yellow, etc – and teaching him to associate taste with colour. His dad made him a braille board and taught him the alphabet: "Dad was a man for a project. I was his project for a good number of years."
His life changed when he developed into a kind of prodigy on the organ. Ode Records released his first album when he was 15. In 1975, he became a household name when he won his way to the grand final of Opportunity Knocks, a got-talent TV show which the nation stopped to watch. Shrewdly, Christchurch music entrepreneur Hoghton Hughes, of Music World, signed him up and released the Yamaha Organ Spectacular LP the very next day after the Opportunity Knocks final. It was recorded in his lounge: "Ten tracks in five or six hours! My playing was passable, put it that way. Hoghton's attitude was, 'Near enough is good enough.'"
He became an in-demand live act around Christchurch. He was playing on a Friday night when he first met Marilyn, who put it this way: "I picked him up in a pub." She lived in Wellington, and they began a long-distance relationship – I was going to write they started seeing each other – culminating in a strange kind of proposal.
He said, "She'd come down to Christchurch for my birthday. On the day before she went back, Dad said, 'I'm just going down to the bank.' When he came back, he gave Marilyn my late mum's engagement ring. After she died, he kept it in a bank vault. And then I got down on one knee and asked her to marry me."
They've been married for 31 years. Their love filled the room where they sat together in the townhouse. Marilyn said, "I said to Richard when we got married that I would do the things he couldn't do, but there was no way I'd do the things he could do. Like when we were married, Richard couldn't tie his shoelaces. I said, 'How about you learn.' And getting his own lunch. Now he does most things for himself." He said, like many husbands in possession of 20/20 vision, "Domestically, I can get by."
Richard and Marilyn held hands. Their daughters, Meg, 19, and Amy, 25, held onto each other in the same chair for dear life. I said to him, "You've not been a stranger to tragedy." He said, "No. I suppose it runs in the family." It was a hell of an answer but then his father's first wife died of a brain haemorrhage, and his mother's first husband died of cancer; and then the news of his condition ("It must have been a heck of a shock for Mum. Suddenly her baby boy became blind"); and in 2017, Meg was diagnosed with osteosarcoma, cancer of the bone.
There has been chemo treatment, surgery to remove her fibula and muscle in her right leg, and another operation to remove part of her left lung. "She has a 30 per cent chance of survival," her mother said. "More than seven months would be good, wouldn't it, Meg?"
I said, "How are you coping with this, Amy?"
"Not," she said, and held Meg tight.
"The sisterly bond is like nothing else," said her father.
"Meg will jump into Amy's bed and they will have sister sleep-overs," said her mother.
I said to Marilyn, "Where do you put your heartbreak?"
She said, "That's an absolute killer. I'm not ready for it yet. But we have to be realistic. The chances of her surviving are slim. When we were told that, Meg said, 'Well, I'm not going to have quantity of life, but I am going to have quality of life.' So that's our mission."
In fact, there is a very particular mission: Meg loves Disney and wants to go to every Disneyland on the planet. A Givealittle page has raised $14,000 for the trips, and Hore busks with his organ most every weekend, for hours on end, outside a Christchurch supermarket. The family has ticked off three – Hong Kong, Los Angeles, Paris – and are aiming for Florida next year. "I just really like the happiness it brings," Meg said. "It takes me out of the world of living in a hospital." The whole family loves it – the rides, the magic, the being together in the happiest place on Earth.
Hore's favourite ride is Small World, an easy-going carousel set to music from many countries. "It brings me to tears," he said. "The ride is smooth, there's music playing, kids singing - I don't know what it is, it all combines and I come out of it crying."
Meg said, "It's the only ride that I can understand how Dad is experiencing it. Yes, there are things around you, a lot to see, but it's more about the music and the feeling you have for it."
He said, "The last time I went on it, I was sitting in the boat and crying even before it started."
He got weepy again, sitting at home, talking about it, reliving the exquisite loveliness and tenderness of it. The cancer he got as a baby could easily have killed him. He lived, he was lucky. He had the greatest family, he was happy.
All the taxi drivers in central Wellington know Shaun Johnson, and countless thousands, probably tens of thousands, of guests at the Wairakei Hotel back in the day, and since 1980 at that grand old pile on the Terrace in Wellington, the James Cook Hotel, will be familiar with him – someone special, an unsighted man in a world of music, playing so lightly that it sounds like it's part of the air. "I don't like playing loud," he said. "I never have."
Richard Hore, too, enjoys a deep and enduring fame. "Everyone knows him," said Meg. "My whole life, it's, 'Oh, are you Richard Hore's daughter?'"
Johnson's beautiful touch owes something to the countless hours he's listened to the masters of jazz piano – Dave Brubeck, Oscar Peterson, George Shearing, Art Tatum. When he rattled off that list of his favourite pianists, I said, "George Shearing was blind, too." Yes, he said, and told a story about Shearing, that a fan had once asked him, "Have you been blind your whole life?" Shearing replied, "Not yet."
Meg Hore said she loved watching her dad play – his feet moved so fast on the pedals, his face lit up. He never looked happier than when the family travelled to Blackpool, in England, and he was given permission to play Blackpool's famous Wurlitzer organ in the town hall. "Two nights ago I dreamed I was playing it, actually," he said.
I asked him, "Do you dream?"
Marilyn laughed, and said, "Avidly."
He trusts in dreams, acknowledges their power. He talked about a dream he had of his mother two nights before she died in 1992. "We were walking together along the corridor. There were no words being said. But mum had not walked properly since 1975, when she got MS. And then the time came for a parting of the ways. She went one way, and I went straight ahead."
I pictured the dream of a death foretold in a corridor, but when I asked if he sees in dreams, he said, "No. I dream in anything other than sight."
Maureen Lee flipped through the photos in a family album. There was one of Shaun on his wedding day on November 1971 to his first wife. There were two striking things about him – his beautiful hands, and how young he looked, like a kid, a teenager. "That's Shaun for you," said his sister. "He's always looked young."
Five days after my interview at Richard Hore's house, Meg was diagnosed with leukaemia. I called him last Saturday night. The family were camped out at a hospice but were all going out for a meal at Cobb & Co – Meg's idea, Meg's wish. They were taking each day as it comes. There weren't many left. It hardly mattered a whit whether he was blind or sighted; he was a loving parent, and he said the worst words a father can say: "She is dying."