The Geography of Music

I am going to write a book this year; a book that may or may not be called Brown Plastic Glasses.  Because I am going to do this, and because we were out at Raumati, I went back to look around my old secondary school.  Although the school has changed at the fringes it is essentially the same set of buildings at its core.

Here is a map of my old school:


What fascinates me about my memory is how it decides to retain some things and to reject other things.  Almost all of what I remember about school is of no importance.  Why have those trivial moments stuck with me for so long?  What was it about those memories that stayed with me when so many other things, even quite important things, have been erased?

Take point 3 on the map.  It is the path between the block where I had to take Economics because there were no other friggin options at my school, and the gym where the gym teacher was a little man, in little shorts, with a little mustache.  On this exact spot, for reasons I can’t remember, Anthony, HD and I burst into the chorus of You Give Love A Bad Name.  I suppose it was 1987 and I was in the fourth form.

I’m sure we nailed it.  I’m sure it sounded perfect.

Walk a few feet on and I know that I heard about how HD, whose real name was Hugh, had been ignored by a teacher when he asked to be called HD, and how Maths was called Math in America. HD had just come to us from America via Saudi Arabia and was a trove of musical knowledge and cheap Saudi Arabian knock off cassettes of pop music I had never heard of.  Bon Jovi, of course, I had heard of.  They were huge at this time.

I had a guarded relationship with Bon Jovi.  Slippery When Wet was an album that I – and the rest of the world under 16 – loved, but by the time they got around to their next album – New Jersey – I was (a) into a heavier sound, and (b) too self-conscious about being cool to admit I liked Bad Medicine and Lay Your Hands On Me.  Those two albums were great.  I can admit it now.[1]

On the other hand they did represent a few things that were ridiculous about “rock” in the mid 80s.  They were less a rock band in appearance than a team outfitted from World Wrestling Federation reject costumes.  There was also the hair.  Amazingly, the whole look became utterly generic no matter how preposterous it was for staunchly heterosexual men to spend hours on their hair and makeup and dress like pirates in drag.  Those bands also had the gift of saying, singing and doing incredibly stupid things. [2]

The other look in my home town was AC/DC and Iron Maiden which was lanky, with lanky long hair, and a singlet, and skinny jeans and basket ball boots.  I was a confusing mix of both styles by 1988.  I had the basket ball boots, and the acid wash jeans, but I was not a singlet guy (too self conscious, too pudgy, too much unfortunate body hair), and I still had a soft spot for frothy pop music so from the waist up I wore T-shirts or cutting edge jerseys, and got a perm.

You Give Love A Bad Name was originally written for Bonnie (Total Eclipse) Tyler as If You Were A Woman (And I Was A Man).  The song’s message is that gender doesn’t matter that much when we get down to it, an idea thematically picked up in Bonnie and Jon’s hair which appears to be identical.

Number six on my school map features the gym where I saw one of the most heartfelt dance performances of my life.

The previously mentioned PE teacher (little man, in little shorts, with a little mustache) ran us through a dance unit.  Getting kiwi boys to dance in 1987 was a bold undertaking doomed to failure.  I can’t even remember what song my trio of uncoordinated males did or even who the other two lads in my group were, but I can remember one of our moves: it involved us moving forward in a line making locomotive chugging actions with our arms at our sides.  I can remember this because each performance was videoed and I got to see the full horror of our performance over and over again.

There was this girl in our PE class who had no friends.  She was short, and a little hirsute, and odd in her manner.  This was of course social death in the heartless and conformist world of teenage culture.  She was not bullied in an overt way, but she suffered the bullying of being shunned.  To all appearances she didn’t give a shit, and had her own energy and independence, but I imagine it was – at least in part –  a front, and that school was hard and lonely.

She didn’t work with anyone for this unit, and nobody saw her rehearsing anything.  My group spent its rehearsal time trying out various half-arsed moves in a really self-conscious way and then laughing for the other 59 minutes of the 60 minute lesson.  For some reason our whole class sat down to watch her performance in the gym.  Probably we watched other performances, but hers is the only one I remember.  It was performed to Holding Out For A Hero by Bonnie Tyler.

Let’s not pretend this is a Hollywood movie.  We didn’t all give her a standing ovation at the end, and she didn’t suddenly become accepted into the group and turn a new page in her life.  There were some people in the audience who sniggered, and I bet she heard them.  When you are an outcast you are attuned to the snigger.  You can hear it and you can master the urge to flinch.  You can walk straight through a classroom of sniggering little shits with that stiff-necked walk of those practised to ignoring hurt.

It wasn’t Hollywood, but it was pretty close for me.  She had clearly rehearsed her heart out, and the dance was full of movement and energy and – dare I say it – yearning.  I was moved.  I was moved by her commitment, and by how well-hidden her emotions must have been every day, and by how brave she was to do this, and by the music.  Holding Out For A Hero for fuck’s sake.  From the outside it looked suddenly like her anthem for surviving school, her anthem for putting up with all of us, and the promise of some decent human being in the future.


[1] Actually not so great.  I just listened to Slippery When Wet and New Jersey again and got really bored.  They wrote great singles but too much Bon Jovi is like eating too much candy floss.  I also remembered that I hated their ballads.  All these goddam “rock” bands had a ballad and they all sounded the same and, for some of these bands, they were their biggest hits so what you ended up with was a procession of “rock” bands sitting around clicking their fingers and crooning on RTR Countdown.

[2] Part of the gift that keeps giving from these rock bands is their absurdity.  Even Jon Bon Jovi, who was pretty sensible, had the poor judgement to think Livin’ On A Prayer was a dud that should be off the album, and the appalling lack of self awareness to later claim that the song was about “Reagan’s trickle down economics”.  Yeah, and Bad Medicine is about the pharmaceutical industry.

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I wrote a book called Kaitiaki o te Pō

2 thoughts on “The Geography of Music”

  1. Being New Zealand this is more than likely true. Although unless we were in exactly the same year at school we would have been socially dead to each other.

  2. Hmmmm, I think we were in the same 6th form class, or maybe 5th – doesn’t matter. Nicely written piece, thanks for the trip down memory lane.

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