Spencer P. Jones has died. I loved so much of the music Spencer P. Jones created and assisted. For he was behind so many bands and various guises, sometimes a sideman, often out front – his songs…someone else’s songs…killer player!
The Australian guitarist – best known for his involvement in The Johnnys and Beasts of Bourbon, but also for connections to Paul Kelly and many others – was in fact born in New Zealand. In Te Awamutu in the mid 1950s. He moved to Auckland and from there to Australia. There were a few trips home – with The Johnnys, with Paul Kelly, the Beasts…
But he became an Australian rock’n’roller – a true blue hero of the pub-rock, country-twang, rockabilly, punk…a legend.
I first heard his playing without knowing it was him. I loved The Johnnys. Still do. Hell of a band. Then I heard him on stage with Paul Kelly, and on record too.
That made me hunt out Jones’ solo debut, Rumour of Death. Terrific album. He made plenty of great solo records – and was making them all the way through – 2010’s Sobering Thoughts by Spencer P. Jones and The Escape Committee is a ripper. And 2012’s Spencer P. Jones and the Nothing Butts was my next favourite.
I interviewed him once. Over the phone. It was weird. And he wasn’t well. That’s my guess. I never wrote it up. I don’t want to dish dirt – but it was just a peculiar thing. I was genuinely thrilled to be having the chance to talk to him. And he called me – early – to make sure it was happening. I figured it was going to be a superb interview…he was super keen! He also told me a new number to call him on when I dialled back.
What a difference an hour makes. I rang and he was discombobulated, vague, not with it – that’s as nice as I can be about it. In fact it was like I was listening to a different person. He all but fell asleep mid-sentence. More than once. And I’m sure my questions, though probably asked of him before, were not that boring.
I never wrote that interview up. And this might seem an odd place to mention it. But I don’t know…It’s part of my memory of Spencer P. Jones. The only time I ever interacted with him was gutting to me – but what was going on for him? Was he wasted? He surely can’t have been nervous. So used to the game by then – and he’d phoned up early, and eager. I hoped, as soon as we ended the phone-call, that he was okay. But there was nothing I could do and very little I knew about what I’d just experienced. I just left it there. No way was I going to mock him in the press, nor make him sound better than he was. It just had to be filed away, a missed opportunity I guess.
Last week I was asked to comment on the death of Aretha Franklin. The radio station’s producer messaged me – gave me 10-15 minutes of warning. I dashed away from my desk to get in place to take a call and have something to say. Midway through my instant-reflections the show’s host put words in my mouth about how Aretha had been “still going strong” – so I corrected her and said that, actually, recent shows and albums by Franklin were close to dreadful. And just as I pointed out that in actual fact that didn’t matter since she’d long ago done more than enough, more than just about anyone to secure her place, the host told me off for speaking ill of the dead.
I wonder if we’ve got these conversations all wrong. Why can’t we talk about our own memories and attachments when someone that means something to us dies? In most cases we didn’t actually ever know them – we knew their work, or some of it, the bit/s that mattered to us.
So I never knew Spencer P. Jones. I knew some of his history. And a lot of his music. I knew he was ill. He had been diagnosed with liver cancer – his struggle with liver disease public since (at least) 2016.
The one time that I talked to him he totally blew it. His music – most of it, the stuff I knew – was so fucking good that it simply didn’t matter that he botched our chance to connect, to have a part of his story – a good part – out there via my pen. That wouldn’t have mattered at all to him of course. And I found a new thing to write about that next day instead. Just as I will find something tomorrow or the next day or later tonight or next week.
But today I thought about Spencer P. Jones of course. I thought about that music. I have my copy of Highlights of a Dangerous Life right by the stereo almost always. I’m digging out my copies of his solo albums, I’m hooked again on Paul Kelly’s Words and Music for many reasons. But when I listen to it next it’ll be for Spencer’s playing of course. And in all of this I thought too of that awkward time he went from charming and friendly and funny to barely being able to speak. An hour or two passed between those two conversations. And what went down in-between I’ll never know. But whatever it was it was part of what made the man, perhaps part of what took him down too.