Grant Smithies’ wonderful new book Soundtrack - 118 New Zealand Albums has recently been published by Craig Potton, and what a great piece of work it is. Beautiful production and sublime writing from Grant and assorted other contributors such as Shayne Carter, Hamish McDouall, Jolisa Gracewood, Chad Taylor, Damien Wilkins, Duncan Sarkies and Chris Knox. A true celebration of some great New Zealand music, including many of my personal favourites: the 3Ds (but sorry Grant, that’s not me on the recording of Hellzapoppin’ – I just came up with the opening bass riff during my short stint with them), Life in One Chord by the Straitjacket Fits, JPSE, Bressa Creeting Cake and my favourite band of the last few years, The Phoenix Foundation.
What I love about it is that it’s not just about the artists and the music – after all there have been plenty of words written on NZ music – but about the writers who are describing them, with these 118 albums as the soundtrack to some important moments in their lives. Grant’s story about The Jean Paul Sartre Experience and the death of a friend’s baby had me weeping into my decaf.
Actually, Grant asked me to contribute to the book, and I now deeply regret not doing it. I was a bit busy at the time, being pregnant, publicising my own book, giving birth and looking after a newborn baby. I wrote a story in my head though, so thought I might put it down on paper (well, on screen, anyway) now. It was about The Phoenix Foundation’s Horsepower being the soundtrack to my son’s birth.
Our baby was a week overdue and we went in for some routine tests – a heart and movement monitor. We’d had the same tests two days prior and everything was looking good. It had been a model pregnancy up until then. The baby was in the right position and good to go whenever he felt the urge to pop out.
Then we had some scary news – I won’t go into it in too much detail because it’s a bit too personal to share the feelings, on the internet, of what we went through at the time. The gist of it is that the baby’s heart was beating too fast and the doctors wanted to take him out that afternoon by caesarean to treat the problem.
After several false starts I was finally wheeled into the operating theatre. We had been told that we were welcome to take our own CDs with us, but my husband had forgotten to bring our selection of music, and it was too late to go back and get it. Crowded House were playing on the stereo as they sat me down to begin the process of putting in the epidural (which was a lot more unpleasant than I had prepared myself for!). I put my foot down. I was not going to bring my baby into the world to Crowded House. So they skipped to the next CD. Dave Dobbyn. Even worse. So the procedure was put on hold while they brought me over a box of CDs to look through. We browsed through the most mediocre selection of music I could have possibly hoped for, and just when I was about to give up and let them play some so-so compilation, my husband found a gem: Horsepower. My mood instantly lifted.
As they slid a needle into my spine while I sat hunched over, holding the hands of my husband and midwife, trying not to cry, I let the opening trill of 'Sister Risk' wash over me. Yes, sometimes it does bloody “get so hard”. I can’t explain how it felt to have that familiar sound around me while that most unnatural procedure was performed on me. A mixture of sweet anticipation and fear, instead of just fear.
After my legs had filled up with warm liquid ('Let Me Die a Woman' - the video for this is spookily apt for how I was feeling) then gone numb, and after I was laid down, and the initial wave of nausea caused by my dropping blood pressure had passed ('This Charming Van'), it all went remarkably quickly. At some point – I don’t remember if it was before or after the babe was out – I was paying enough attention to the music to make my husband get up and skip track six, the only blight on the landscape of Horse Power, the only song I didn’t want in the room with me to share that moment.
Once the baby was out (and I will spare you the details), I didn’t really pay much attention to the music, for obvious reasons. Instead I had something new to think about: a kicking, squashed, mewling bundle that was rushed off to the neo-natal ward to have an emergency ECG, where he stayed for a week while the doctors worked out what to do with him. I was wheeled into recovery and I don’t know whether it was the morphine or the endorphins, but I think I cracked jokes while the nurses did whatever they had to do to me, and I don’t remember much except looking at my green pearl-lustre toenails (thanks to a last minute pedicure from my five-year-old niece) and not being able to move them, and wondering when I would be able to eat something since they had starved me all day in preparation for the operation (my friends will read this and think ‘typical Rachael, thinking about food when she has just witnessed the miracle of birth’).
I would like to report that it has a happy ending – one year on, our son has come off his heart medication, and he has grown out of whatever it was that was causing his heart to beat twice as fast as it should.
But back to the book – a gorgeous present for any New Zealand music lover, full of stories much more well thought out than this one. I didn’t even talk about what the album Horsepower means to me, how it is my summer, my winter, my grief, my freedom. And now it’s the birth of my son.
The Sound of Butterflies was the title of my first novel, published in the UK by Picador, in the US by William Morrow and in New Zealand by Random House, and translated into eight foreign languages. In 2009 my next novel, Magpie Hall, was published in New Zealand by Random House, and in 2012 my first novel for children, Red Rocks. This blog is my thoughts on the world of writing and books.
Photo by Sharon Blance.