To mark New Zealand Music Month, Steve Braunias meets a legend of Kiwi pop.
Everything cool about New Zealand music 50 years was embodied in the name, appearance, enigma and genius of one Shade Smith. Shade Smith! Incredible name, with its assimilation of the mysterious and the mundane. His real name was John. Smith got the Shade from T S Eliot's great poem, The Hollow Men: "Shape without form, shade without colour", which also served to describe his epic moustache. It was black as coal and thick as a beard. It hung over his mouth but left the corners bare. It made him look like a mystic, a holy man, someone from another spiritual plane – actually, he was from Huntly. As for genius, it came pouring out of him in strange and beautiful ways; there have been Kiwi pop stars before and Kiwi pop stars since, but none had the delicate artistry of Shade Smith.
We met one day this past summer. Our rendezvous was Thames. I took the bus from Auckland he drove from his home in Waihi. He suggested The Grahamstown, a large colonial hotel on the main street in Thames. That flat, sunny riverside town was busy with idle tourists mucking around on the way to and from the executive-class baches of Coromandel, but the hotel was deserted. It was early in the afternoon. I ordered a lime and soda, and got out some vinyl records from my bag to study the album covers of LPs that Shade made with his band, The Rumour, from 1968-72. The giant moustache, the sensitive face, the air of mystery…And then Shade walked in, bare of hair, wearing a hat and a pair of – of course – shades.
He was a trim 73-year-old man with a gentle and quiet manner. I thought of him as someone who probably liked to leave things exactly as he found them – no fuss, no clutter, no sudden movements. He thought things through, he was contemplative, also serene. He spoke in fragments – bits and pieces of sentences, as though he were plucking at notes of music in search of a pattern. He gave a soliloquy in that style, when he spoke at length, fascinatingly and unexpectedly, about the inspiration of one of his greatest and most well-known songs.
The Rumour recorded two LPs and had three massive hit singles. Shade wrote, composed and produced everything; he had the golden touch, and the hits he made sounded like nothing else. His biggest-seller – 125,000 copies, give or take - was "L'amour Est L'enfant de la Liberte". It ought to have been a worldwide hit but it was all ours to savour, a song of immense prettiness and charm. It was No 1 for four weeks. It remains a classic, with its bizarre accordion (played by two-time winner of the New Zealand Accordion Association award, Trevor Taylor; Shade took a tape of the song to his house in Mangere Bridge for him to work on), its intricately assembled melody, its message of emancipation: "You kept insisting / your fights of resisting," Shade writes, as the verse head towards the title chorus and its translation, "Love is the child of freedom".
The phrase came from a book he'd been reading, The Art of Loving, psychoanalyst Eric Fromm's famous examination of love. But the idea for the song came from somewhere else, somewhere he can't identify.
Shade ordered a glass of white. He sat with me in the empty saloon on a summer's day, and said, "There are songs that I know how they started and what I was trying to do. But this one – it was just there. I don't have an explanation. It just came out, I wrote it, and there it was. And it exploded. Radio stations played it endlessly for years. It just clicked, and I don't know why. No one knows why. The people choose, and there's almost no reason why."
We talked a little about his childhood in Huntly. His dad was a mines surveyor. "He was a great dad. Not an emotional man; he would go a little silent. Mum was – I don't know - I'm going to have to be careful what I say – she just didn't - she wasn't . . . I think she was frustrated. Nothing was a good idea."
He was born in 1947. His brother, Gerard, was born the same year – that commonly happens with twins. I asked about their relationship, and he said, "It's quite good at the moment." Strange to think of two brothers setting out from a small town in north Waikato to bring magic to New Zealand music while at the same time, two brothers called Tim and Neil were growing up in a small town in south Waikato, Te Awamutu, on their way to revolutionise New Zealand music.
John Smith, as he was then, and Gerard formed a band with Ross Hindman and neighbour Jacques Koolen. They won a talent quest at Huntly College in 1962. "Great band," states Terry Cole, in the YouTube comments section beneath "Holy Morning" by The Rumour. "I went to high school with them, they were the senior rowing crew, I was their cox."
Shade said, "Every town of about 5000 throughout the Waikato would have had at least five bands. And there was so much work. As soon as we started playing, we got hired – 21sts and weddings, and nothing else."
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The band moved to Auckland. Shade studied physics and maths at university. "I was amazed at physics," he said. "It opens your mind. It was making me write songs, inspiring me to write."
Legendary entertainer Ray Columbus took an interest in the band and changed their name to The Rumour. When "L'Amour" soared to No 1, they became an in-demand live act. Shade said, "There was kind of like a cabaret scene in Auckland, which we kept being booked into. But we didn't fit. It was just uncomfortable. It was not enjoyable. I'd meet these people and they were coming from a different point of view. We were coming from being artists."
It was thrilling to hear him state the word: artist. The Rumour were operating at a strange time in New Zealand music. There were fabulous experiments in sound out on the margins – Space Farm (Space Farm! Incredible assimilation of the rural and the cosmic) played freak-out psychedelia, Blerta were bussing around the country doing their stoned theatrical improv thing – but commercial pop was very much artless and brainless. Shade changed that. He made art with "L'Amour", and with the band's other hits too.
"Garden of Your Smile" was another subtle and delicate gem (amazing line: "All the geese were singing on the dawn"). The ecclesiastical splendour of "Holy Morning", recorded with the ladies choir at St Mary's Cathedral in Parnell, became a standard song at Kiwi weddings (YouTube comment from Jurgen Sadlo: "Ruth Slocombe and Jurgen Sadlo married in April 1973 in Bluff and this was our song"). "No Money on our Trees" was his least artful hit but is surely the only song ever written about the impact on New Zealand agriculture when Britain announced it would cut trade ties to enter the EEC (amazing line: "There's no money on our trees / There's no market for our cheese").
At his peak, Shade had three songs on the 1972 Studio One Hits LP, a chart-busting record taken from TV songwriting contest. He bossed that record. All else is brainless and artless, but there's Shade with The Rumour's "Holy Morning", his solo song "Life of a Story", and, best of all, his timeless hit "Sunshine Through A Prism", which he wrote for Suzanne. This is the song of all songs. It's baroque – it kicks off with a celestial harp – and the huge production is meant to overwhelm the listener. It almost overwhelms the song, too, but the pristine beauty of it shines through; again, this was another Shade song that should have ruled the world, but there's something special in the fact it's a work of art that only New Zealanders have ever experienced, and cherished.
And it was the subject of Shade's soliloquy at The Grahamstown hotel that summer's afternoon in Thames. I asked him about the song, and he said, "I was kind of like in an emotional fog. I've realised that as an artist you are driven by a kind of – by something. My grandmother died when I was 16. And up till 16, I was a – I thought life was – well, I won't say life was beautiful, but life was – I didn't have any problems.
"And the reason was, if anything happened, say if you got bullied, I'd go to Nana and she'd say something very small but it sort of set me at rest. And when she died - from 16 till I was about 24, when I had my son, I think I lived in a really dark hole.
"Nana, who was living in our house, was really my mother. She was the one who I would go to. She could solve any problem. And so basically when I went into this dark hole for eight years of grief, I didn't really grieve properly, I didn't even realise I was grieving, I didn't even talk about it, I just carried it, and I was in a fog.
"The thing is when I look back now I realise why I wanted to write songs. It was the unresolved thing about my grandmother. Because if I went to my mother, she would just say – she would make it worse. And I'd written a number of songs and I realise now the heart of them is Nana. I think 'Sunshine' is about her. The driver is her. The core is her.
"In those eight years I was living a comfortable middle-class life, people have been through a lot worse, but I wasn't happy. You just need someone in life to say, 'You'll be okay. I believe in you.' And she did. No matter what I did, she believed in me. And I always felt - I felt confident. So after she died, I lost my – I felt everything undermined me. But the moment my son was born, and he was there, I thought, 'I'm going to forget about myself. I have to worry about someone else.' It was a magic moment."
It was a hell of a speech. And truly remarkable that one of the most heartfelt songs in New Zealand pop was about a dear Nana. Her name was Jane Laurel.
When we said our goodbyes, Shade gave me a copy of the CD he made last year. It's really good. He's still got it. He performs a wonderful, stripped-back version of "Sunshine Through A Prism" but the album's highlight is a track called "Beautiful Soul", an exquisite ballad featuring a violin solo by Alex Frame, the cousin of author Janet Frame.
I emailed Shade this week to say how much I loved that song. He replied, "My first inspiration for it was my grandmother, who lived with us and would sing melodic Irish songs unaccompanied. The second inspiration is Karen Carpenter and third, Sade. But the listener is free to imagine their own story and fill in the gaps." That's something great art does: leaves things open, provides a mystery.