The music of Wellington band Spines found me in the mid-90s. I was new to Wellington and buying records. I saw this record called The Moon and I bought it because of the cover. I bought it on a whim because I was intrigued by the image and I noticed that Ross Burge was the drummer. This Kiwi band had to be good – since Burge was, at that point, still a member of The Mutton Birds and he had played on many things I loved; his ta-ta tata drum fill opens For Today by the Netherworld Dancing Toys.
I loved the strange songs by Spines – I’d never heard songs like this. Great lyrics, weird structures but it still all made sense. This was music that spoke directly to me. These were some of the best-written songs I knew. And for a while there I felt like the only person that knew them.
I soon found Act Your Age, recorded just before The Moon and spotted one day, again, because of the cover. Jon McLeary, the writer of these songs and the singer of the words was also the painter of the album covers.
About 15 years after I first heard this music and formed a part of my identity around the love of songs by bands like Spines, I met Jon McLeary. I’ve told this story a few times. It’s a story that continues on to this day. I love this story. My friend Riki pointed to Jon in a bar one night. He said to me, “that guy is one of the best songwriters this country has ever produced. Do you know him? That’s Jon McLeary”.
This lightbulb went off. I almost shouted, “I DO KNOW HIM!” And then clarified that I didn’t know him at all, had never met him, but I knew his music. Riki then told me that he had been playing drums for the Spines and I was amazed to know they were still a thing. I met Jon that night, a brief chat – I don’t remember much. But it was pleasant and I was thrilled to meet him; he said he liked my writing. (You always remember those sorts of details). I told him I loved his work.
Over the next couple of years we would bump into each other in various places – and then particularly on Facebook (for the bad rap it sometimes gets and often deserves it’s also a most magical place for connections and reconnecting).
One of my favourite things about writing all day and most of the night here is that I edited and hosted Jon’s autobiography-in-columns written as weekly episodes between 2014 and 2018. They’re still there. Click that link and read through over 200 mini-chapters that are alternately heartbreaking and life affirming. Learn about Jon the painter and Jon the poet, the formation of the Spines and earlier duo Negative Theatre, his novel Manslaughter, and the stories that informed all of that work. Through these prose-poems we meet Jon’s family and friends. We learn about the people that were there for him and the people he sometimes let down. The heroes that championed his sound or informed his work, the heroes he still worships.
Jon listens to music like very few people I know. It consumes him. He can hang on a line. He can post a clip of a song by Bob Dylan or Steely Dan or Todd Rundgren or Joni Mitchell or the band Yes. And he can summarise what is most magical about it in three or four words – taken directly from the lyrics of the song. He can make you think about the tune in a whole new way by clipping words from the song and posting them as if a headline, conversation-starter.
Sometimes your favourite band becomes the one you get to play in. It can’t happen often – it is certainly not anything I ever imagined. But over two nights I filled in and played drums for the Spines. We played in Masterton and Napier. And we didn’t play to a huge crowd. And I didn’t give a fuck about that. I had already died. And was playing from heaven.
I own a Jon McLeary painting. It looks at me from the wall every day. And I love it.
I search the second-hand bookstores for a copy of Manslaughter (I’ve read it – but I had to return it to the library; almost didn’t want to) and I keep my Spines records on the shelf and in my heart, they’re signed now by Jon. I have almost all of them. Only one to find…
And the best thing about all of this music – is how little of it you can hear unless you were there or unless you found it in the store when you did.
You can check out Epidural – a pretty good album the new version of the band made a few years ago. I loved Dreamboat which is still pretty new, less than two years old, and available on Bandcamp or Spotify or CD. So it’s about. But those old records are records – actual LPs; as much of an argument for having a music collection as there could ever be.
And the memories I have of listening to them alone, of introducing people to them, of playing a song in a set at the bar doing the late-night DJ thing…those are memories that help make the music seem almost stronger. If that’s even possible.
Just recently an archival project surfaced. Backstory – Spins Live in 1986. This was a version of the original band giving it all it had. Shortly after this the band “Spines” (a bunch of groups by this point but always driven by Jon and his songs) was shelved for a time. And then McLeary came back to the Spines. Special mention must be given to bassist Les Knight – a key reason the group remains to this day. Drummer Malky too. These guys have been Jon’s best musical friends.
The legacy of the Spines is complicated – and I was never seeking to explain it. Some of the country’s best musicians have been on the stage with this group. And me too. (Lol). Seriously though, past players include several of the country’s best ever drummers and to mention just Caroline Easther, Ant Donaldson, Riki Gooch and Ross Burge is to more than prove that point.
Happy 40th birthday to the Spines. Formed in 1981. Still here in 2021. Still going. Still growing.
When I got into writing about music, I never tried to make enemies. Some might say it came naturally enough. But the cruel or tough things I’ve said have always been from a place of wanting to separate what means the most to me with what doesn’t really register in any real way. Key word there is ‘real’. I certainly never planned to make any friends through doing it – I knew that reality and it’s not best to try. But to get to know Jon and so many past and present Spines has been something special. They’re a family. They consider themselves a family. And they tell me now that I’m part of that too.
Music writing doesn’t find you. You have to find it. And there are many days when you really wish you hadn’t. Or had been able to leave it well alone after a time. What I’ve most wanted to do when writing about music is tell stories. Describe the reasons for listening and the way it registers. Describe the sound and feeling too – of course. But you want to communicate more than just serving up links. I still want that. And I still know there are stories to tell when a band like the Spines can write songs like Your Body Stays, Lions, You Seem To Be Happy and The Prize For Industry and as far as I’m able to tell not enough people will ever get to hear them.
Happy 40th Birthday Spines.
All love and best wishes to you Jon McLeary. Thank you so much for the music.