Ashleigh Young - On Vorn
Vorn and his band are playing to a full house. In his dark glasses and a glowy white beard he looks like a cross between Nostradamus and Roy Orbison. From behind his keyboard he announces that the next song is his "posthumous hit" – a song about brain-eating zombies. The entirety of the lyrics is: "Brains!" The song is easy to learn. The crowd sings along.
How to describe Vorn Colgan? He's like a human theremin, seeming to make music out of thin air. His voice is a sweet, elastic yell. I used to see him riding a bicycle with massive chopper handlebars, hair streaming out the back of his helmet, honking his assault-grade horn.
I met Vorn years ago through my brother, JP, who sometimes played gigs with him but I was too shy to talk to him much. Vorn was untouchably cool. He played countless instruments, all of them really well. He rapped in a New Zealand accent and made it sound good. He had songs about trips to Family Planning and having a suburb to yourself when your friends move.
He once organised a Bob Dylan tribute show for people who couldn't afford to see Dylan when he came to town and it was one of the best things I've ever seen: every person in Vorn's band sounded like Dylan but from different eras. When I saw Dylan for real, it was like his soul had already flown back to California and left an inanimate white suit behind. Compared with Vorn, Dylan was low down on the joyous experience scale.
At the gig he's playing Dirty Lie, a churning, melancholy crowd-pleaser that – like so many of Vorn's songs – builds to a searing finale. "Here's to the old and dirty lie that if you make it through tomorrow things will be fine ... it's an old and dirty lie but it's a lie that just might save your life."
When great artists live in your town, you get used to them. You forget how great they are. Unless they move overseas and get famous, you assume they'll always be around, living lives just ordinary enough that they can keep themselves afloat. I got used to seeing Vorn playing at the Sunday vegetable markets. Majestic amid the cabbage, he'd be playing an accordion version of Psycho Killer or Loser and it was like he was playing to a stadium full of candle-waving fans rather than to the surly and the hungover scurrying by with their potatoes.
It's odd how we judge an artist's success by whether we've heard of them or not. In almost every interview and review, Vorn is described as "the best musician you've never heard of", even though for the last 20 years he's been making lush, frenetic, diabolically funny albums. Most of us don't make it easy for artists to find us. We watch television and listen to The Hits in the car and don't go to a gig. Vorn's been there all along; his body of work a manifesto of what an artist can do and be.
Some of his former bandmates have joined the stage to play novelty keyboards. There are lots of pro-wrestler grunts and bird noises. The gig is chaos. A few months ago I heard that Vorn had terminal cancer. It seemed like a terrible joke. Apparently some people thought it actually was, given Vorn's proclivity for bleak jokes. As I write this, I'm listening to his two-part song You Don't Have to Hate Yourself to Sleep With Me (But It Helps).
But it wasn't a joke. He planned to play one last tour. The promo included a disclaimer: "In the case of a miracle cure for melanoma preventing Vorn's death, no one gets their money back." On his Facebook page, Vorn posted a photo of himself wearing a T-shirt with a drawing of his face on it and black crosses over the eyes. It was like death was another musical genre and he was simultaneously embracing and defying it, the same way he can sing about smashing up TVs and make it sound beautiful.
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This gig is hard to describe. He and his band are so dazzling they almost make you forget the absurd fact that all of this is ending. Then you remember. After the encore, Vorn shouts, "For the love of God, put some sunscreen on," before leaving the stage.
In the days afterward, I keep listening to Stop Making Bedroom Albums, his song about how adults tell kids to follow their dreams. "It's true that we told you when you were in school that you could do anything that you put your mind to – but we always thought you'd put your mind to something useful. We always thought you'd dream of something real." Vorn not only dreamed of something real, he's made it.
In November Colgan plays New Plymouth, Whanganui, Auckland, Nelson, Christchurch and Dunedin. See undertheradar.co.nz for details.