Some days I prefer Twist and Lament For The Numb – but The Islander is a special album for me, it’s always the first of Dobbyn’s albums I return to; the one that reminds me of his talent, of how his talent stretches far beyond the simple, crude criticisms of him as a sloganeering riff-writing party-guitarist. It’s the one that offers – I think – the most depth, it’s broad too. But focussed. And it serves a crucial purpose: it is the completion of the great album trilogy that started with Lament and (arguably) peaked with Twist.
There are average Dave Dobbyn albums (but even the patchy ones have some great songs) and then there are these three records that are trimmed of fat, ready to go 12 rounds. And they’ll fucking knock you out, man. In and around the anthems (Waiting) and the (almost) obvious (Beside You) this is an album that delivers lovely surprises. Take Mobile Home, just over two minutes, he’s writing here with the economy and emotional impact of greats like Elvis Costello and Paul Kelly.
For all the talk of Don McGlashan as a great storyteller, a songwriter who composes musical short stories (and hey, I’m not knocking that – I quite agree in fact) I hear Dobbyn as a short-story writer working with music. I certainly hear that with The Islander. Hanging In The Wire begins with the “ain’t that just dandy” observation that the marine forecast is looking good. It could be Owen Marshall. Blindman’s Bend is like staring for hours at a McCahon painting. You look long enough you hear a song like Blindman’s Bend. Your life might not make any more sense as a result but you’ve had something beautiful, beguiling, wholly moving move through you.
Be Set Free manages to ape Neil Young without actually sounding like him. It’s too easy to sound like Neil Young (and no one ever quite gets that right, including Neil sometimes). But it’s much harder to hint, to show the impact without being a copyist. This again is where Dobbyn is a great musical short-story writer, in that he shows rather than tells. He leaves things open – including chords. Glorious chiming.
I still remember going to see Dobbyn on The Islander tour. I had the album and I was lost in it. I was lost in general – in fact. I was pretending to attend journalism school through a complicated ruse that saw me taking calls at a local pub during the day (“my office”), playing pool for a bar-tab, hiding, hiding from the truth. I know now it might just have been easier to front up and attend the bloody school. Watched a couple of true-crime docos recently on duplicitous acts, double-lives, the complicated web of not telling the truth. God it’s horrible when you recognise yourself or parts of an old life in and around those dodgy reconstructions.
So, one Saturday night I’m there in my room. A tough week of pretending to study. Slogging it out, running around aimlessly all in the hope of making it seem like all was as it should be. I’d set my alarm early to thwart my father’s encouraging morning phone-call. He’d ring to remind me to be up and at it and loving the world. I’d wake up five minutes earlier, choke on a smoke and then make out like I’d been up for an hour studying. As soon as the call was over I’d go back to bed. Man it was a horrible time.
But this album was a salvation. One of just a small handful of things in my world at the time that (always) felt lovely. No one wanted to go see Dave Dobbyn with me. So I’m drinking in my room alone, getting ready. Saturday night. I’m off to see DD. Smashed.
What an amazing show. All these news songs from The Islander and all those hits – you hear a song like Guilty and it stops you in your tracks. Especially when, at that time, it was about the only emotion I was capable of genuinely feeling; of knowing and – of course – of hiding.
I still have the set-list from that show. A talisman.
There are good songs on The Islander. It’s full of them. And then there are the songs that drop your jaw. Like Blindman’s Bend, What Have I Fallen For, Keep A Light On and One Proud Minute. And like Hallelujah Song. My god – or rather, actually, his God, Hallelujah Song. That’s a gift. That’s something special. That’s the reward from going to work for 30 years and plugging away at songs.
Even now I listen to One Proud Minute and my lip quivers, just as that gentle, gorgeous whiff of harmonica leaves its trace across the song’s intro. There’s something so stoic in the way these songs stand. These are songs of hope. This is the work of a craftsman. This is Dobbyn’s Leonard Cohen Album. His Costello and Paul Kelly. His Dylan and Young. This is Dobbyn stepping up and stepping around the idea of Kiwi hitmaker. He’s still delivering those – and he’ll still (always) serve those up. But this is the album that stands proudest for me. Not (always) his best. Not the only one you should have – but a damn good answer to anyone absurd enough to write this guy off as the wee ginger imp of pub-rock.
I keep coming back to this album. I get drunk with it. I dance with it. It keeps me company. It travels well – such a perfect album for any road-trip; it’s warm, inviting, there’s sorrow, there’s heart, there’s joy, there’s something deeply ,spiritually profound in the grooves of this record. This isn’t just a piece of plastic to place in the stereo. The heart is beating; you hear it as soon as you press play.
Many years ago I wrote to Mr Dobbyn via his manager. I had the crazy notion that I would write his story – a biography/a ghost-written autobiography. I received a nice note back: thanks, Dave is flattered. But he’s not ready to talk about his life just yet. Hey, and that was fair enough – if nothing else he’d not even met me. I was nobody. I wrote a few reviews – I’d found my own way through, stepping up and stepping around journalism school. I had no double-life, not anymore. But I was nobody. And he wasn’t ready. Both points were obvious.
And then, a couple of years ago I made contact again. This time I’m writing about Dobbyn’s song Slice of Heaven for my book, On Song. I get a meeting with him – we chat for hours. He tells me about his life. His writing. He is so generous with his time. I hang on his every word. I do my best to write it up, writing not just about his song but about his career, his life in songs. I figure it might stand me well for the future too. That maybe one day he will want his story told – or might want someone to help him to tell it. He might (now) remember me.
I try again most recently. I have one book out. I should write another. But it’s a no, for now. And you respect that of course.
So I wait. Because Dave Dobbyn’s story is bigger than just the music. It’s about so many other things. And man – with albums like this, with songs like I Never Left You, it could be a story just about the music. That would be enough. But there’s certainly more. There’s so much more. So I keep waiting. Hoping that one day it might happen. I’d do my best. I’d punch the clock hard on that one. I’d have the pencils sharpened; I’d be out of bed before any wake-up calls. What’s more I’d stay up. I’d work as hard as I ever could, as I ever have, making up for all the lost time – the fucking around in my life, the times when I had harebrained schemes and silly dreams and had no real facility to even get close to realising them; worse still I had no commitment, no passion, no hunger. Just a tourist.
The Islander is one of those records that got me committed. The passion drips from this album. The heart and soul is obvious. I first realised I wanted to write Dave Dobbyn’s story after hearing The Islander, after attending that show. It was such a silly idea – I wasn’t capable. I wasn’t worthy. I’ve since seen him play dozens of times. I’ve met him. Interviewed him. And kept listening. He’s one of New Zealand’s greatest songwriters. And if you ever needed a reminder of that you could reach for The Islander. It’s something special. It’s been a saviour in my lifetime. I still don’t know if I’m worthy when it comes to telling his story. But man I’d love to give it a go. I’d certainly be willing. Thing is, I hear The Islander and I’m hearing him tell his own story through this record. Through Lament and Twist also. These – for now – are the crucial pieces of his biography. These are records to treasure. These are small, nearly perfect. These are masterpieces.