I never remember not knowing this protocol—an indicator, surely, of how early in life I began singing. There were external factors. I attended church with my mother and father, a Gospel Chapel. In the wooden pocket built into the back of each pew were hard-worn copies of The Hymns of Faith and softback books titled Songs of Praise. Inserted into the middle of Songs of Praise was a photocopied selection—on green paper—of some of the congregation’s favourite songs. At the Open Worship service each Sunday night, at which attendees waited upon the Spirit, the Spirit tended to lead according to a tacitly understood timetable: an opening prayer and Bible reflection, then a mixture of further such reflections and song requests, followed by the Lord’s Supper, and, finally, a closing song. “Could we please sing number 23 in the Green Pages?” Mrs Docherty might request. And we would stand and sing.
Later, there was singing at school assemblies. Our teacher, a tall and energetic man in his 20s, had painted his guitar black and fitted it with the gear necessary for amplifying sound. He led us through a selection of rock and country classics. I still know the words, or at least selected lines and fragments, from “The Boxer,” “Jailhouse Rock,” “Delta Dawn,” and “Daydream Believer.” Once, a group of us boys earned Mr Houlahan’s rare ire by changing the words of “Dream” to “Scream.” We were seated on low benches at the back of the school hall, slightly raised above the heads of our peers and feeling invincible. Another time we altered “Grandad, you’re lovely” to “Grandad, you’re ugly.” Both of my grandfathers had long since passed away, so it seemed but a small betrayal.
There were also intrinsic factors. My mother is a pianist, chorister, and choral leader. For her, the idea of spending eternity with God singing his praises is quite appealing, probably more so than for my buddies from Linden School. Mum was a member of The Festival Singers, a Wellington-based choir. Among my parents’ collection of records, stacked between Peter, Paul and Mary, and Fred Dagg’s Greatest Hits, was a trio of Festival Singers’ albums. With me today, still, is the voice of tenor soloist Graham Wise, exhorting listeners to “Sing and shout in every land: ‘Glory be to the Son of Man!’” The Festival Singers’ repertoire was, in the 1980s, still carrying echoes of the preceding decade—“choruses,” set for choirs, with a little synth tossed in, creating a sound of its time, but in that time fresh and new and exciting. My mother was near the heart of it. The choir director and founder, Guy Jansen, was a friend and mentor who encouraged her gift for composition. A number of Mum’s songs, typically Scripture set to music, made it onto the choir’s records: her carol, “O He is Born”; my favourite, “Just a Cup of Water”; a setting of the words from 2 Chronicles, “If My People”; and even a song written especially for my brother James and me, “The Kingdom of Heaven,” composed after she heard me, aged seven, explaining to James, aged five, that he would be able to overcome his bad mood if only he would ask Jesus into his heart.
But I think it was from my father that I received my love of singing. This seems ironic given Mum’s pedigree and discography, and more so given Dad’s inability, through most of his life, to sing in tune. But sing he would. Around the house, at the sink doing the dishes, in the shed, it was common in my childhood to hear Dad sing. He was self-consciously bad at it, but it didn’t stop him. There is something in Dad’s spirit that gives rise to song. Early in life, my brothers and I learned the words to a Taranaki rugby supporters’ song from his youth, extolling the virtues of the team mascot, Ferdinand the Bull, thanks to Dad’s unerring memory for lyrics and loose approximation of tune:
Ferdinand! Ferdinand! With your fifteen men,
Play the game, guard our name, ruck and bowl again.
Let victory’s gleam shine on our team—
In this land you are grand Ferdinand!
It was a song he’d accompany with fist thrusts and, if we were lucky, a blast on the bull horn that sat on a shelf in the lounge and sometimes accompanied Dad to matches. Dad liked deliberately to mangle French pronunciations, too, as well as reprise linguistic stabs made by my brothers and me in our earliest years so that his speech was punctuated by exclamations of “Marvellukes!” and “Magnifi-queue!” and “Glarlias!” There is an impulse, very apparent within him but common to all of us, to give voice to feeling. These words were one way he did this. And so were the songs, no matter how ill they hit the ear.
In keeping with his own formative years in rural Taranaki, when he would beg his mother to drive him to New Plymouth on match days, Dad took me again and again to big games at Athletic Park in Wellington. It was a cold ground. Perched at the high point of Adelaide Road, it specialised in cool air coming from the north or, cooler, the south, right off the top of Tapuae-o-Uenuku. The air you breathed at the top of the Millard Stand was the pure stuff, hitting the lungs like a lozenge and making you want to shout. New Zealand rugby crowds are notoriously short on song, taciturn and grim, like the figures in John Brack paintings of ’50s Melbourne racegoers. But there was one chant that used to emanate from somewhere deep in the stands or over the terraces. It would come at a crunch moment of a test match, perhaps with the All Blacks on desperate defence or else feeding a scrum on the opposition 22, backline split left and right, options galore, and a try in the offing. The chant was simple and intoxicating: “Black! Black! Black! Black!”—on and on, barked backing, spat spondees, urgent and urging. It was really something to be in the stand and standing—everyone on their feet now—and hearing your own voice among the many.
Sometimes, in a quiet moment and taken with the urge to sing, I don’t know what to sing. I have this idea that somewhere there exists the perfect song, a song to wholly satisfy the impulse to sing. Every song, I know, is merely an approximation of this Undersong, a reaching after, a doomed attempt at achieving what only this rumoured song could ever achieve. I have been obliged to settle for a second theory—that for each moment and mode, for each impulse, each surge of feeling, there is a song, an actual, composed song in the real world of songs, that fits best. Sometimes the song is Elvis Presley’s “Mystery Train,” so simple in its lyrics and chord progressions yet in the mouth and breast of Elvis, conveying a yearning and feeling otherwise unutterable. In Elvis’s best songs, no matter how inane or maudlin or saccharine the lyrics, there is a coiled energy, a latent explosiveness, a pent-up power that’s more powerful for not being spent, hopping along on the jaunt of Scotty Moore’s guitar, rolling about with Bill Black’s bass. At other times, the song is “Mystery Girl,” written by Bono for Roy Orbison’s faultless falsetto. And sometimes it’s the plaintive haunting of Bernstein’s “Somewhere” from West Side Story or the repeated “Maria” from the same musical as if a Hispanic Jesus had just emerged from the tomb to call us each by name, over and over.