Two legends intersect out west in Henderson, near the sports fields and really good playground at Parrs Park, just before the streets fall away to a green valley of farmland, creeks, and gum trees. The main road is named after Bruce McLaren. The great motor racing champion was actually from Remuera but he learned his exhilarating art in West Auckland, winning his first hillclimb race at the age of 15 in Muriwai. A cul-de-sac peels off Bruce McLaren Rd a couple of blocks from Parrs Park. There's a small reserve on the corner. It's got a wooden seat and a couple of poplar trees. I sat there a little while ago and thought about the guy who the cul-de-sac is named after. I thought: "I must give Peter a call when I get home. See how he's doing."
You really ought to act on these kinds of resolutions because as a general rule the thing about the frail and elderly is that they don't have long to go. Peter Posa died this week. He was 77. He was the most celebrated and genuinely loved guitar player New Zealand has ever produced, but he was also broken inside, damaged, mentally frail long before a stroke made him frail in physical health. It was as though he made tortured artist syndrome into a lifestyle choice; certainly, he was a lifelong nervous wreck, until the end of his days, when something amazing happened. He found happiness.
I interviewed Peter last year. I suppose it was his final interview. It wasn't exactly a scoop and neither was there anything topical going on. No one was beating a path to his door any longer. I first caught sight of him through the window of his house outside of Te Awamutu. He had been such a glamorous, vibrant figure in New Zealand music and now here he was in the middle of a North Island nowhere, an old man in a lilac shirt, being helped to his feet by his wife, Margaret. I was moved to see that and of course, I felt an instant surge of sympathy but what I didn't expect is how much I liked him the second I met him. He was such a gentle spirit. Also, he radiated a sense of goodness.
He talked about his childhood in Henderson – a strict father, a protective mother. They were Dallies, Dalmatians, the term used back then for Yugoslavs or Croatians. His parents didn't speak very good English. They worked hard, and they made Peter work hard, too, packing fruit in their orchard, which they turned into a more profitable vineyard. He was shy, sensitive. One of the few photographs of his childhood was taken of Peter smelling a rose.
He talked about falling in love with music. He described listening, in a trance, to the radio during request sessions on Sunday afternoons and
Wednesday nights - country music, the foundation music of working New Zealand. He wanted to make that sound.
He said, "Mum used to take me into town on Friday nights. Her sister had a boarding house on Hobson St next to a traders. I'd stand in front of the window and look at this guitar. I just loved it. Eventually, I went inside. I couldn't play then; I just wanted to hold it.
"The guy got it down and said, 'I'll play you something. This is how it should be played.' He played Buttons and Bows and I'll never forget it. My heart fluttered. I thought, 'I've got to have that guitar.' Dad bought it on my 9th birthday for £5 – a fortune in those days, he had to work hard for that. I played it all the time and stared at it all the time. I practised so much. I took it to get the mail, I took it when we visited people. I learned very quickly. By the time I was 14, I could play two-string melody and harmony at the same time. By the time I was 17, I thought, 'I'm going to start a band.'"
It was a very good speech. The delight was all over his face, his smile. I brought along a stack of his solo LPs that he made in the 1960s – his record company hated Posa's band but loved Posa. Probably his best LP is his first, String Along With Peter Posa recorded at the Stebbing studios in Herne Bay. The cover shows a lean, good-looking guy in a living room with five young girls, neighbours of the Stebbings. "They got permission from their parents," Peter remembered, gazing at that image of lost youth. "They all look so cute, don't they?"
The album is a hi-fi masterpiece, "crafted on Telefunken Studio Tape Recorders with KM 56 Neumann Telefunken Condenser microphones and mastered on a recording lathe fitted with a Grampian feedback cutter", as the liner notes seriously report. It set the stage for Posa to perform his precision fingering. The tracks include Buttons and Bows. He was a virtuoso, and he developed a clean, sweet tone. The public loved it; local musicians were in awe.
I spoke with Kevin Watson, a session musician who also recorded a 1960s guitar album – he posed winsomely on the cover in a field of sunflowers – and he said, "Compared with other guitarists of that time, Peter had developed his technique much further than most."
Likewise, another prolific recording artist from that era, pianist Garth Young, commented on Peter's ability. Now 86, Garth lives the warm life in Rarotonga. He played on a couple of Peter's albums along with bass player Bill Hoffmeister, and said, "Bill was an interesting character musically, being super proficient on jazz piano and steel guitar. Before the recording session, all Bill knew about Peter was that he was some would-be pop guitarist. But when it came to working with Peter he was absolutely blown away by his talent."
Garth also said, "I felt that Peter, who was intimidated by large audiences, was superbly confident in the privacy of a recording studio." True, the crowds made him nervous, but so did everything else. Peter talked about his career, the 20 albums which made him a household name, the two massive hit singles (Wheels, White Rabbit), the sell-out tours, and much of it was a misery to him. He hid himself in his room at his parents home in Henderson. He drank. He had a nervous breakdown, he suffered depression, he signed up for a lot of electric shock treatment. There were numerous suicide attempts.
And then he said; "But I love my life now, Steve." He'd had a massive stroke three years ago. It paralysed one side of his body and he couldn't play guitar anymore and he found that so very liberating: it was as though it set him free.
I asked him, "Was the stroke a good thing?"
He said, "The best thing that's ever happened to me. It made me see the light. Before I had the stroke, I'd be at the window, and I wouldn't take notice of anything out there. After, when I came home, I looked out the window, and I said to Margaret, I said, 'I can't believe the colouring out there.' The light is so beautiful. How come I missed all this before?"
As a born-again Christian, he was in an ecstasy of God, Jesus, and evangelist Jimmy Swaggart. There was a kind of glow that came out of him when he talked about the joy he finally experienced from life. He sat in an armchair with a hot-water bottle and an ice pack to comfort his pain. It was a winter's day. The sun was hard and bright. There was a walnut tree out front, and a few days later he posted me a bag of walnuts and a letter. We spoke a couple of times on the phone and I thought about him fondly, always meaning to stay in touch. He was a dear soul and on Sunday he went into the light.