He was a dynamic little guy, a vivid presence in New Zealand showbiz and also in ordinary life. To meet him was to have the impression he was actually the tallest man in the room. He had so much fizz and pizzazz, and this was when he was dying. I met him just the once, in March, at his house in Snell's Beach, when he cheerfully admitted he had no right to still be alive. It was so great to spend those three hours with him - Ray Columbus, in person, our first king of pop, who got to the top and stayed there less because of his talent than his desire to succeed.
His only option was to be famous. He was a dandy even at Xavier College, in disapproving Christchurch, and then the best-dressed man in New Zealand for three or four years. It wasn't just the snug Invaders suits; later, he wore the grooviest psychedelia, and he looks simply the coolest person on the cover of his 1968 album, Hit Tracks, in brown corduroy, black boots, and a cravat.
He recorded a fair amount of commercial junk and to hear She's a Mod one more time is to think the worst of him. The best of him, perhaps, was the other big hit for the Invaders, Till We Kissed, which he produced except in name. It was Columbus's vision to have it sound like the biggest ballad ever recorded; it was his Phil Spector moment, creating a wall of sound in the famous Stebbings studio in Herne Bay.
That was Columbus as pop visionary. Two years later, in San Francisco, he made the best freak-out song of any New Zealand recording artist of the 60s with Kick Me. It's an astonishing record. He screams, he wails, he sounds very convincing when he states: "I'm going insane!"
The track featured on a terrific retrospective CD, Now You Shake, released this year. It got good notices in the UK music press. Experts there knew all about Kick Me, that one-off rock classic recorded by some guy in New Zealand.
His US experience was eventful but short-lived. He returned and built a career in light entertainment. He became increasingly conservative but then he always was, at core. He never did drugs, he worked hard. In his autobiography, he writes about how shocked he was to see one of the musicians in his band the Invaders lying in his hotel room with the door open, reading a comic and having sex with a fan.
He also wrote tenderly about a tragic early love affair with a woman who was nine years older than him. She left Auckland, suddenly, and he tracked her down to Wellington. They met one night at a bus-stop: "She tells me she has been pregnant but has lost the baby." They never met again.
He later married, and they had two children. It didn't work out. But then he met the love of his life, Linda, and entered a state of bliss that he remained in for the rest of his days.
He had very firm convictions. He had a thing about past lives and I think he was under the impression we'd met before in some other place in some other century. "I know you," were his first words. "No, I don't think so," I stammered; he beamed from ear to ear, he was plainly unwell, but he blazed like an electric light.
He was funny and candid. He said he didn't quite know how he'd kept living but the answer was right in front of his eyes. He was madly in love with his wife.
It was his final interview. He was like a man who had woken from a dream; he'd not been that eloquent or even just able to say a few words for a long, long time.
He was unsteady on his feet when he waved goodbye. The darkness was returning. The next day, he couldn't remember that we'd met.