Local legends rally for Knox

Chris Knox
Chris Knox
Since the late '70s, Chris Knox's can-do attitude has inspired a long list of musicians both here and overseas. Last weekend, in tribute to the songwriter, who suffered a stroke earlier this year, a collection of friends and fans celebrated the release of a double album. Shane Gilchrist reports.

Last week was a busy one for Chris Knox.

The influential New Zealand songwriter, who suffered a debilitating stroke on June 11, attended a media conference on Tuesday, November 17, with fellow recipients of the Arts Foundation Laureate Awards, carver Lyonel Grant, musician Richard Nunns, photographer Anne Noble and writer Witi Ihimaera.

Undergoing residential rehabilitation, Knox couldn't take part in the night-time presentation ceremony, so the award was picked up on his behalf by friends Roger Shepherd, founder of Flying Nun records, and music journalist Nick Bollinger.

A couple of days later, Knox's cartoon character, Max Media, who had been "resting" since mid-June, reappeared in the Timeout entertainment section of the New Zealand Herald.

And last Friday night, Knox joined a large bunch of friends to celebrate the release of the double tribute album Stroke at Auckland venue the King's Arms.

That the 57-year-old was not content to remain among the audience, but rather got up on stage and contributed vocal phrasing to a song was typical, according to a couple of those present at the gig.

The Verlaines founder and music academic Graeme Downes: "Chris sang a song at the gig last Friday. Wordless, because words currently fail him, but musical nonetheless in the phrasing and pitching of the sounds he generated. But, above all, it was the attitude of the delivery - defiance, defiance and more defiance. Chris, to borrow from Dylan Thomas, is not about to go gently anywhere, and never has".

The Clean's David Kilgour: "At sound-check for the tribute concert, I was told Chris wanted to play a 'song' with me and Noel Ward along with the Nothing rhythm section. We made it up on the spot on the night and it's one of the most intense and wonderful moments I have ever had on stage. This man has courage and is a great living force. His days as an artist are not over yet; it's just part two".

Knox, who since the mid-'70s has fronted The Enemy, Toy Love and Tall Dwarfs as well as performing his own solo material, has been a mentor to a variety of musicians, either directly through his early recordings of Flying Nun bands, or indirectly by way of his uncompromising artistry.

Flying Nun founder Roger Shepherd recalls the first time he saw Knox, in 1978.

As a Christchurch punk rocker, Shepherd and a few friends drove his unreliable Morris 1100 for four and a-half hours to visit Dunedin for the first time.

The venue: a Beneficiaries Hall crammed with surfers, bogans, punks and "future friends".

The band they had all come to see was The Enemy.

"They were the real thing," Shepherd recalls.

"Raw and concise but sophisticated musically and fronted by Chris Knox. He looked the part, was extremely confident and oozed charisma. Significantly, he could sing rather well.

"There was no doubt that this was the best punk band in New Zealand. And that was confirmed when the band relocated to Auckland. The Enemy transmuted into Toy Love and influenced a huge number of bands that came after them. It was because of their formidable music and performances as well as their attitude and experiences ... 1980s New Zealand music was shaped by them."

But, equally, Knox was shaped by his own early experiences, Shepherd says.

"As a music, film and comic-loving only child growing up in Invercargill, he made the escape to the big city of Dunedin via university. That was soon dropped and he worked causal jobs while honing his critical skills seeing and heckling bands at the Captain Cook.

"Punk rock energised many into forming bands and Chris was one of them. It was his doorway to a life that would eventually revolve around the interests he had developed as a child.

"Writing songs and singing with The Enemy was the start of a journey that saw him travel through the major record company experience, react against it and find his own voice by recording at home and releasing personal and idiosyncratic records that would influence many around the world.

"And let's not forget how important Chris was in the emergence and development of Flying Nun Records," Shepherd says in reference to Knox's involvement in a variety of the label's recordings.

"In many ways, Chris is a shining example of the modern version of the Renaissance man. He is the archetype 'post-punk' man. He is an intelligent and gifted individual who jumped into the fray of the initial punk explosion and then developed his thinking and skills with new and diverse work.

"Primarily, he is an exemplary New Zealand songwriter and musician but has also done important work with video and film, the long-running Max Media cartoon strip, and as a critic in print, on radio and television.

"He worked only in areas that interested him. Those were defined in childhood and his experience with The Enemy allowed him to move into a creative world that eventually afforded him a lifestyle on his own terms, a lifestyle altered by his recent stroke.

"Despite this setback, I have no doubt Chris' creativity will continue to emerge and evolve."

Want further proof of Knox's standing? Read the liner notes to Stroke, which was released last week (proceeds will go towards the cost of Knox's rehabilitation).

The double album features 34 cover versions of Knox songs, recorded by musicians from New Zealand and overseas, including Knox's long-time musical companion Alec Bathgate, Neil and Liam Finn, The Verlaines, Kilgour (brother Hamish also makes a contribution), The Chills, The Bats, Shayne Carter, Don McGlashan, Boh Runga, Jordan Luck, Will Oldham and Lou Barlow.