This story contains discussions of attempted suicide that may be distressing to some readers.
Steve Braunias meets guitar legend Peter Posa at his home in Te Awamutu, and listens to stories of a life of massive fame but deep despair.
There was a walnut tree out the back. The little house was up high on a ridge on a country road, six kilometres outside of Te Awamutu, and looked over a smooth, green valley. Elms and oaks burned orange in the autumn sunlight. It was very quiet; the only sound was a magpie attempting a few syllables.
An old man sat down in an armchair. He wore a lilac shirt and was hunched over. He lay his left hand on top of a hot water bottle, and his right hand on top of an icepack. His wife sat nearby. She fetched him a box of tissues.
A hospital bed had been set up in front of the windows. "It's my stroke bed," he said, in a hoarse voice. He meant that it followed him home from Waikato Hospital after he had a massive stroke two years ago. The left side of his body was paralysed. He had since recovered movement in his shoulder and arm, but the hand remained inert, and looked pale and floppy, like a fish on a riverbank.
He was peeling pears in the kitchen when the stroke began. He remembers his speech was a bit slurred. He said, "And I was a bit…a bit…I wrote all these things down before the interview, and now I can't remember."
His visitor said, "You were a bit dizzy or something?"
The old man, who had long white hair and dark eyes, said, "No I was a bit…not co-ordinated very well. Dis-coordinated. Disoriented. But I got through peeling the pears. It was a real job. And I was swaying on my feet a bit, wasn't I, Margaret? I went into the bathroom and next thing I went down with a bang."
His wife said, "First he went to the toilet, and then he went to wash his hands."
He said, "Did I go to the toilet, did I?"
"Yes," she said, "and then you were lying on your left side."
There was a bookcase in the lounge. It was crammed with paperbacks, all testaments to Christ. There was Lord, Change Me! and: Christian, Set Yourself Free. Also: Sodom Had No Bible. Off the corridor was what they called The Everything Room, which has a fireplace, and where he studies the Bible and makes notes. Next to it is the Music Room. He doesn't go in there anymore.
"The funny thing is," he said, "I played guitar for three days, including the day of the stroke, and I played my heart out. I played almost out of myself. I was in the Music Room, and Margaret said, 'I've never heard you play like this before, Peter.' Didn't you, Margarita?" That was his affectionate nickname for her.
"He'd never sounded so good," she said.
"It was something unbelievable," Peter said. He grimaced; a form of arthritis gives him cutting pains in his right hand, like razor blades, and also in his feet, which feels like walking on broken glass. "Those three days that I played – it was a great feeling. I'm my own worst critic, always have been. But I actually built myself up those few days. I couldn't believe the riffs I was doing."
The visitor said, "And what do you make of that now?"
Peter said, "Well, I don't know."
"You were going out."
"I think so."
"Because that was the last time you played?"
"It was. It was my last performance. My farewell performance," said Peter Posa, New Zealand's greatest, most successful, most loved and loneliest guitarist.
He made over 20 LPs in the 1960s and his 1963 single White Rabbit sold about 100,000 copies; the album of the same name sold twice as many. He only ever made instrumental records, no singing, no language, just a band led by Posa and his distinctive, shining guitar sound, heavy on the reverb and a marvel of fast, confident picking. He was a kind of franchise.
All his records had the same happy and optimistic tone. He first arrived on the charts in those strange, hesitant years of pop music in between Elvis and the Beatles, and stayed the distance, sometimes recording two albums in a day. He filled the Auckland Town Hall.
He was big in Australia, he toured the Pacific islands. He met Sinatra in Vegas and was invited to sign on with a crack team of session musicians in Hollywood. But he came back to New Zealand, because that's where he could be miserable.
He was born in 1941. His parents Paul and Millie were Croatians. They spoke in broken English, and owned a fruit orchard in Henderson Valley, then ripped out the trees and put in grapes.
Peter was the youngest of three boys. He loved listening to country music on the radio. His mum took him to town to visit her sister who ran a boarding house on Hobson St; he'd stand and stare, mesmerised, at a guitar in the window of a nearby trading store.
He said, "Eventually I went inside. I couldn't play then; I just wanted to hold it. The man got it down and said, '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 got it for my 9th birthday. I played it all the time and stared at it all the time. 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 melody and harmony at the same time; by the time I was 17, I thought, 'I'm going to start a band.'"
The visitor asked, "Were you a confident person?"
"No," he said. One of the few photos of him as a boy is of him smelling a rose. "No, I wasn't, at all. I was sensitive. Very shy. It might have been because of my strict upbringing. My father worked me hard. Picking fruit, packing it, then in the vineyard. But it taught me discipline and respect. I'm grateful for that."
"Were you a happy kid?"
"No," he said. "No, I wasn't. No. My father was so strict that he was almost a tyrant. And no love. I craved it. I just craved for him to put his arm around me and say he loved me or something. But I never got any of that. It doesn't bother me now."
But it bothered him most of his life. It blighted his career; a crackle of unhappiness ran through everything, set up a kind of static beneath the cheerful image and ringing tones of his guitar.
He got 500 letters of fanmail every week. He'd collect them at the Wellesley St post office and hand them over to the secretary of the Peter Posa Fanclub. He'd go into town with 200 pounds or more in his pocket, thousands of dollars in today's money, and buy anything that took his fancy. Also, he drank too much. He worried all the time. He was anxious, nervous, a mess.
Talking about his apparent mastery of the guitar, he said, "Nothing ever pleased me. I had such high expectations it was ridiculous. I just couldn't reach them. It had a bad affect on my health. Physically, mentally, emotionally. I had stomach ulcers, hernias... A perfectionist who is also a soft, sensitive person, a person like that is looking for trouble."
He found it. At the height of his fame, he collapsed, suffering from nervous exhaustion, and checked himself into a private hospital where he was given electric shock treatment. "I came right for a while," he said. "My health improved. I think the ECT helped a lot."
He kept it a secret; if the public knew he was a head-case, his career would have collapsed.
The visitor had brought along copies of some of his host's classic LPs. They included his 1962 debut album, String Along With Peter, his purest record, a clean high-fidelity masterpiece. "We were after a friendly sound, and got it," he said. He was photographed for the cover in a living room in Herne Bay with five sisters who lived next door to the Saratoga Avenue studio.
The Beatles had happened by the time of The Sound of Peter Posa (1964), and he recorded jangling covers of Please Please Me and Eight Days a Week. The cover showed a handsome brown-eyed man wearing a very nice suit, and holding a beautiful Gretsch guitar. The old man smiled to look at his younger, upright self, and said, "That's when I was quite stable. It was before the drinking got out of control."
The next LP he inspected was his 1963 best-seller, White Rabbit. The title track itself is probably the perkiest piece of New Zealand ever recorded, a little miracle of picking, as fresh today as when he recorded it in one take; when his CD White Rabbit: The Best of Peter Posa was released in 2013, it was the biggest-selling local record of the year, beating Pure Heroine by Lorde.
As for the cover of the 1963 LP, it showed Posa eyeing up a nubile young woman wearing a bunny outfit, and sticking out her pert bottom. The photograph was taken at the Station Hotel on Anzac Avenue in downtown Auckland. He was instructed, "Stand there with a smirk on your face." He did as he was told but he doesn't look as though he was acting; he looks like he's enjoying himself, that posing as a satyr came naturally to him.
He said, "I'm not proud of it, but I had a lot of women. Did I ever. I sure did." He avoided getting anyone pregnant ("I took precautions") and was just as successful at avoiding love. The drinking got worse. He crashed his Vauxhall Viva driving home drunk one night in 1970.
"It was a suicide attempt. I was coming around Henderson Valley Rd, and took the corner too fast. The car went out of control and flipped. I got out through the broken windshield. I remember lying on the ground and a couple of guys walked past looking like they'd been to a party. Blood was coming out everywhere, all over my face, and these guys just said, 'You okay mate?'
And a guy from over the road came over and recognised who I was, and said, 'You want a couple of Disprin?' A coupe of Disprin! I said, 'No, I'm going to need a bit more than that.'"
The visitor said, "Hang on. Was it a suicide attempt, or an accident? It sounds more like an accident."
He said, "It was an attempt alright. I wanted to do it. I wanted to end it. It was unbearable. It was too much. I was overworked. Too many tours, too many records to make…The pressure was immense. I couldn't handle it.
"I was lonely, I was depressed – loneliness is a terrible feeling. That's really the thing I think that causes depressions.
"The loneliness might have stemmed back from the Henderson days. I'm sure it did. I think so…"
He had been on his way back to the family home. It was as though he couldn't bear to leave it at the same time as not bearing to be in it.
When he went to the US, and was on the verge of a fabulous new career as a studio gun for hire, he said he turned and came back to New Zealand because he was homesick. "But I don't know why I was homesick," he said. "I had so many friends over there, and I loved LA. But Christmas was coming up, and they called me and said, 'Are you coming home?' And I said, 'Well I guess I have to.'"
The visitor said, "By 'they', you mean your parents?"
"Yeah," he said.
"Where were you living when you were famous?"
"At home," he said. "All those years, I still lived at home."
"It's very strange," said Margaret. "It was like a magnet for him. It was like he had to punish himself."
The visitor said, "What was your room like?"
He said, "A little room. Single bed. A wardrobe. But I spent most of my time in a studio room out the back, in a shed. I loved it there. I had all my newspaper write-ups on the walls. I had all my guitars, and amp, and tape recorder. I'd lock the door on the inside, and let it all out."
It was as though he were describing a scene from In My Room, the great Beach Boys song by the similarly tormented Brian Wilson – "There's a world where I can go and tell my secrets to…" New Zealand's most famous guitarist, locking himself away in Henderson Valley, steadily going about losing his mind.
The car crash was the beginning of the end of his career. He never made another LP. He went on the sickness benefit. He suffered agonising whiplash, and drank to try to dull the pain.
There were long bouts of depression. He lay in his little room on the single bed, and then one day he decided to sell his guitars. He had 13 and he got rid of 11, including his beloved Gretsch, the beautiful guitar he cradles on the cover of most of his LPs. "When you're depressed," he said, "your mind's not thinking right. I was sick of music. I had a gutsful of it."
There were long years of drifting, and repeated electric shock treatments to try to snap himself out of it. He went looking for answers, and ended up at a Pentecostal church gathering in Oratia in West Auckland. It was the same venue where he played for the first time in public. It's also where he met Margaret. He invited her out to lunch, and they were married the next year, in 1991.
But still he suffered, still there were times he couldn't go on. They moved to Te Awamutu. He had three attempts at taking his life. "The last one," he said, "I just felt so lonely, so deep with loneliness, that I felt I was on the outside looking in, where you just can't feel love. I thought, 'I can't stand this anymore.'… Margaret came in and found me slumped over the couch, vomiting."
He was rushed to Waikato Hospital, and transferred to the psych ward. "It was like a hotel," he marvelled. "I had a beautiful room."
Nothing ever really changed until his stroke. It was like the ultimate shock treatment: he found God.
His visitor said, "In some ways was the stroke a good thing?"
He said, "The best thing that ever happened to me. It made me see the light. I'm a born-again Christian. I love my life now."
He can't play guitar any more. He doesn't miss it all that much.
"In some ways," said the visitor, "it was an instrument of stress."
Peter Posa said, "It was. It was my idol."
He will be 77 in September. He gets up most days at 7am and watches Christian broadcasting for hours. His favourite is US evangelist Jimmy Swaggart.
Margaret turned on the TV. There was Swaggart sitting at the piano, and singing He Washed My Eyes With Tears.
She had set out two rows of egg sandwiches on the table, and buttered ginger slices. The autumn sunlight warmed the hospital bed. There was a rose bush outside the window. Peter would close the curtains after his visitors left, and take his afternoon sleep.
WHERE TO GET HELP:
If you are worried about your or someone else's mental health, the best place to get help is your GP or local mental health provider. However, if you or someone else is in danger or endangering others, call police immediately on 111.
OR IF YOU NEED TO TALK TO SOMEONE ELSE:
• LIFELINE: 0800 543 354 (available 24/7)
• SUICIDE CRISIS HELPLINE: 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO) (available 24/7)
• YOUTHLINE: 0800 376 633
• NEED TO TALK? Free call or text 1737 (available 24/7)
• KIDSLINE: 0800 543 754 (available 24/7)
• WHATSUP: 0800 942 8787 (1pm to 11pm)
• DEPRESSION HELPLINE: 0800 111 757