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The man who helped make the Dunedin Sound legendary

Colbert with Shayne Carter in March at Anything Could Happen, where the Octagon Club transformed into a recreation of Colbert’s store, Records Records, and staged performances inspired by the Dunedin Sound he helped champion. Photo/Justin Spiers.

On April 13, the third iteration of the Tally Ho! concert will feature the Dunedin Symphony Orchestra, Martin Phillipps, Shayne Carter, Nadia Reid, Anthonie Tonnon, and special guest soprano Anna Leese. The late Roy Colbert, aka the "godfather of the Dunedin Sound", helped make the first Tally Ho! a success. In this 2017 article, Joanna Wane celebrates the wit and wisdom of the renowned music writer.

When David Bowie died last year, my brother-in-law Roy Colbert felt the loss.

An influential music writer and the owner of seminal second-hand store Records Records in Dunedin, Roy had interviewed Bowie back in the day (apparently Bowie couldn’t work out how to use his hotel-room toaster). But it was the death of Leonard Cohen, 10 months later, that really hit him hard emotionally, he told me, when I texted him on hearing the news.

Only 19 days earlier, Cohen had released his last album, You Want It Darker: wry and beautiful and washed in melancholy. “I’m leaving the table,” he rumbles on one of the songs, in a voice that was once described as deeper than a Siberian coalmine. “I’m out of the game…”

We’d paid outrageous ticket prices to see Cohen when he played in Auckland in 2013, because Roy’s eyesight was so bad by then that he wanted virtually front-row seats. There were four of us: me, Roy, my partner Phil and Phil’s sister, Christine, who Roy married in 1975 wearing a flared brown velvet trouser suit.

I still rate those hours with Cohen as not just the best concert I’ve ever been to, but one of the most memorable nights of my life. I loved Cohen. I loved Bowie even more. And I loved Roy, who’d been part of my life since Phil took me down to Dunedin to meet the family one Christmas almost 30 years ago. But it wasn’t until after Roy died, in July, that I realised how many other people loved him, too.

The “St Roy” card by Chris Knox – part of the Flying Nun Records Trading Card Set released in 1991 for the label’s 10th anniversary.

“Today, it’s like The Octagon has gone,” wrote Russell Brown in a Hard News column titled “Remembering Roi”. (That’s how he liked to spell it, in a mock-grandiose reference to the French origins of his surname, Colbert, although he lived his entire life in Dunedin.)

“I only just learned this morning that dear Roi has died,” emailed a friend and fellow writer a few days later. “Hell, this really knocked me. I know he was sick, but I still imagined he’d go on forever. Seriously, meeting him was a tremendous privilege. I still can’t believe he took an interest in me. He was one of the most vivid, warmest and cleverest people I’ve ever encountered. I really wish I’d told him that.”

Roi was the kind of person it felt cool to know. (“That disgraceful lout!” Sam Neill said, roaring with laughter, when I interviewed him about Hunt for the Wilderpeople and name-dropped our mutual connection to Roi.)

As artist Grahame Sydney said at his funeral, Roi was many things to many people. A writer whose final Otago Daily Times “Dazed and Confused” column (he once partied with Led Zeppelin) was dictated from his bed; a musical mentor dubbed the “Godfather of the Dunedin Sound”; a mad-keen golfer whose column of hapless exploits, “Out of Bounds”, became a cult classic in The Cut magazine; a prodigious and outrageous letter writer whose script for a feature film set in Central Otago made it to second base in Hollywood; a grandfather of two and composer of legendary Christmas cracker poems that lionised the younger members of the family and mercilessly ridiculed the rest of us.

He was also an occasional contributor to this magazine, writing a profile on Port Chalmers singer-songwriter Nadia Reid after convincing his doctors to let him check out of hospital in time to see her show.

Read more: The subtle influence of The Clean

You could say Roi, diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes when he was 12, was one in a hundred. Those are the odds of developing a rare cancer, as he did, from the anti-rejection drugs he’d been taking since his sister, Julienne, gave him one of her kidneys 12 years ago when he went into renal failure. 

A physical wreck for most of his life, he’d survived so many medical crises we took it for granted he’d always somehow manage to pull through. So his death, which he faced on his own terms, as he did life, came as a shock. He was 68, a year younger than Bowie, but well short of Cohen, who made it to 82.

The funeral, standing room only, was bookended by love from his family. In between, the line-up was like some kind of cerebral celebrity roast. Central Otago poets Brian Turner and Jillian Sullivan spoke, then artist Grahame Sydney – all veteran competitors in the famed Ida Valley New Year’s Eve “Bastards” darts tournament. Roi, who had tunnel vision, couldn’t see well enough to drive a car but was a dead-eye at darts, making it onto the champion’s shield a record three times.

Roy Colbert (left) on his 14th birthday with mother Molly, brother Barry  and sister Julienne, who donated one of her kidneys to Colbert 12 years ago.

The Chills’ Martin Phillipps, who Roi had helped support through the darkest times of depression and addiction, sang the perfect, fragile notes of “Submarine Bells” a cappella. Fellow horse-racing enthusiast Shayne Carter (Straitjacket Fits/Dimmer), who’d first wandered into Roi’s shop as a 14-year-old and walked out with a Gary Glitter album under his arm, played soft guitar.

Chris Knox, left almost speechless by a stroke in 2009, flew down from Auckland and sat grinning Puck-like in a pew as we listened to a recording of “Alzheimer’s Calls”, the song he wrote for a surprise party thrown for Roi’s 40th birthday.

Dunedin art gallery owner Marshall Seifert talked sports (he and Roi were on the committee that helped organise their local basketball team, the Otago Nuggets); Country Calendar director Richard Langston read a poem, “Roi’s Typewriter”, from one of his published anthologies about being taken under Roi’s wing in the late 1970s as a 17-year-old cub reporter at Dunedin’s Evening Star, where Roi was then sports editor.

Judge John Macdonald, who was inducted in May into the New Zealand Basketball Hall of Fame and was often the “fall guy” in Roi’s golfing columns,  described his long-time friend as the original inventor of fake news. “His capacity for shameless embellishment, distortion, invention and even monstrous lies was unparalleled and knew no bounds.”

The Verlaines’ Graeme Downes, now a senior lecturer in the music department at Otago University, read the lyrics of a song he wrote back in 2012 when doctors told Roi – not for the first or the last time – that he wasn’t going to make it. “Somehow they managed to patch him up, and we got five years more of Roi than any medical professionals could have thought possible,” Downes told North & South. “He was a walking miracle. We’re all sad and it was a great honour to have known him, but he lasted a lot longer than people expected. And boy, did he milk those extra years for all they were worth.”

Downes remembers Roi’s Stuart St shop, Records Records, which opened in 1971, as central to The Verlaines’ early development and “the hub of everything – you’d stand in the stairway and talk for hours before you moved on”.

Colbert (at right) with wife Christine at Queen Elizabeth II Park in Christchurch for a David Bowie concert in 1978.

When the band got a test pressing of their first album, Hallelujah All the Way Home, in 1985, the first thing they did was head up the hill to Roi’s house and play it to him, in what became a ceremonial ritual. “He’d pour these ridiculously generous glasses of Scotch and you’d put the record on and sit on his big leather couch. I can’t actually remember him saying anything. But you’d hear it through his ears and know whether it was good or not.”

In 2015, Downes collaborated with Roi to stage Tally Ho!, orchestrating 23 iconic Dunedin Sound songs that were performed at the town hall accompanied by the Southern Sinfonia (now the Dunedin Symphony Orchestra), and with soprano Anna Leese sharing the billing with the likes of Martin Phillipps, Shayne Carter, David Kilgour and Downes himself.

Before he died, Roi had listened to Downes’ arrangements of all but the final three songs they’d chosen for a second concert, Tally Ho! 2. Joining the line-up was Nadia Reid. “In the last email I got from Roi, dictated no doubt, he said he was absolutely gutted that he wasn’t going to make it,” says Downes.

“But we got the first Tally Ho! over the line and it was everything he imagined it could be, and he conceptualised the second one and had heard 95 per cent of the show. His spirit touched so many people and resides in so many people that, without being metaphysical about it, a good chunk of him will be there and in the passion with which Martin and Shayne will sing.”

Colbert and Grahame Sydney in 2006 at the old Ida Valley Railway Hotel in Central Otago, where the champion’s shield for the hotly contested New Year’s Eve “Bastards” darts tournament hangs above the bar. Photo/Sharon Bennett

Central Otago painter and long-time friend Grahame Sydney was among those who spoke at Colbert’s funeral and has given permission for part of his tribute to be shared here.

The 19th-century American poet Walt Whitman famously wrote, “Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself. I am large, I contain multitudes.”

“Large” is not the first word that springs to mind when thinking of Roy Colbert, although he once described himself to a friend as “the Jonah Lomu of New Zealand literature, with just a slight difference in speed” – both being kidney transplant patients, of course. Except Roy was large, in heart and intellect. And he did contain multitudes, more than anyone I’ve ever known.

Whether it was music, or books, or films, or sport, or writing articles for magazines or columns for the Otago Daily Times, or a screenplay for a movie, or gently offering life’s wisdom across a cafe table or shop cash register, or doing his damnedest to win the annual and savage darts game of Bastards at the Ida Valley Railway Hotel, he was many things to many people, always something different to others than he was to ourselves.

It wasn’t fame that attracted him, it was talent, either recognised or not. Talent he could admire and so often encourage, and it was his unfailing interest in the lives of others – lives he could not himself lead, but which he could and did appreciate – that explains this remarkably assorted gathering here today.

Others have spoken of Roy’s sporting obsessions; but he was also impressively knowledgeable about literature, films, screen-writing, and TV, and even to a limited degree, art. Styling himself as “Troy Blerco” – the anagram of his name he liked to employ – he always seemed to possess an extraordinary understanding and headful of facts about whatever was being discussed. This encyclopaedic knowledge and analytic ability were things which made his writings so very readable and informative, his quiet company so stimulating, and his influence so significant.

Roy was blind in one eye, with only partial sight in the other, which meant the world he walked through was not the same as ours: his was a world of blurred and foggy shapes, which only clarified within a few metres of where he stood – and perhaps helps explain why he loved the painting of his friend Wayne Seyb so much... Wayne’s wild and expressive turmoil of paint is sort of how Roy must have seen the real world. For decades and to the very end, Roy assured me that no matter how hard I try, I’ll never be as great a painter as Seyb.

When the brilliant English writer Dennis Potter was diagnosed with terminal cancer, in his final interview he spoke of his heightened sensibility and awareness of all the common, the previously unnoticed things around him, in particular the flowering plum blossom tree outside the window where he sat at his writing desk. Potter said when you know your life is coming to an end, things are both more trivial and more important at the same time, and that the difference between them doesn’t matter: what matters is the wondrous nowness of everything.

Well aware of his against-the-odds survival, Roy went through every day with that appreciation and awareness of the nowness of everything, and made the most of it. Every new day living was a gift. Even the mundane was a joy.

He wrote to me once, “When I am talking to you or [poet Brian] Turner, my ego is as big as Everest, but mostly I am the little man behind the pillar. I love it there.” How different in his written persona, which was all confidence, fluency, invention, and wheelbarrows of bullshit.

Colbert at his Dunedin home in 2014, with his “writing room” behind him.

There was a vast ocean separating his actual life and the fantasy life he often pretended to lead, the man he described himself as being, on paper. In the columns of recent years, he often exploited his diminutive stature. But in the treasured correspondence to his male mates sprinkled around the world, he was not only seven feet tall, stronger than Charles Atlas and more handsome than any movie star, irresistible to every woman of whatever age, but he made inventive and inexhaustible love to his wife four times a day at least, then whipped up a five-course gourmet meal for the family and fans all clamouring at his front door, before dashing off a couple of brilliant columns and nipping out for a few sprints up Baldwin St to work off his excess energy.

A letter modestly describing these superhuman feats would come in one day, then the next you’d hear that in truth he was in hospital battling another debilitating crisis and had been laid out limp and pin-cushioned with needles and drilled with tubes. But it was always in fun; the mockery always aimed squarely at himself.

Roy Colbert found Roy Colbert to be a useful and rather fascinating subject – and the succession of massive challenges to his health that dogged his whole life he used, not for sympathy so much as for beautifully polished, self-deprecating humour, and no small serving of wisdom.

Like the character in his friend Owen Marshall’s lovely short story “Hodge”, Roy was exceptional in his infallible bad luck: a sort of lightning rod who deflected misfortune from the rest of us. In Roy's case, of course, it was all to do with health. From an early age, Colbert copped it, and by the end of his life his body contained far fewer organs than the rest of us. Yet he accepted these challenges with good grace, with amusement almost – publicly, at least, it all became a story, a chapter in the legend he constructed around the fantasy life he loved to plunder. It was a way of coping with what would surely have submerged anyone else.

We are all thankful for having had a piece of this jigsaw character in our lives. This miniature Lomu in black added so much colour; this modest man behind the pillar made a difference to so many other lives. A few years ago, when the lymphoma had drained him of his usual careless defiance, he told me that he had had a wonderful life and was unafraid of dying – he just didn’t like the thought of how bloody stiff he’d feel the next day…

When, in 1955, the film star James Dean died at the age of 24 – crashing the Porsche he called the “Little Bastard” into a Ford driven by a young man named Donald Turnupseed (it all seemed appropriate to Roy, somehow) – the writer of the screenplay for Dean’s famous film Rebel Without a Cause, Stewart Stern, wrote a letter to the aunt and uncle who raised the young actor:

“And he gave me, finally, the gift of his art. He spoke my words and played my scenes better than any other actor of our time or of our memory could have done. I feel that there are other gifts to come from him – gifts for all of us. His influence did not stop with his breathing. It walks with us and will profoundly affect the way we look at things. From Jimmy, I have already learned the value of a minute. He loved his minutes and I shall now love mine.”

For “Jimmy,” read “Roy”. And love your minutes, as he surely did.

Tally Ho! 3
Saturday, 13 April 2019
Dunedin Town Hall, Dunedin

This article was first published in the November 2017 issue of North & South.

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