I was 17. Final year of school. I’d done a bit of journalism work for the National Youth Drama School, an ad hoc publicity officer role. Because my interest, at that time, was to move into journalism (I’ve been thinking about moving into journalism ever since then, a silly limbo to be in of course and now a dying industry). So my “payment” for this volunteer role was free entry to any of the classes. Being completely uninterested in acting – somewhat frightened of it and by it, actually – this wasn’t really a good deal for me. And then I scanned the list of options and saw a class about music. I decided that was me. And so for a week I got to bash about on my drums, we played Led Zeppelin and Faith No More and Black Sabbath songs in and around learning a few jazz standards and watching some movie scenes with great music cues. I made buddies with a few people I’m friends with to this day. Plus one guy who totally let the side down.
Anyway, the patron of the National Youth Drama School – and this is going back to the mid-1990s – was one Bruno Lawrence.
He basically just wandered about the school from time to time. Usually in rugby shorts and jandals. Often nursing a beer. (It was as if Chris Knox was his stylist).
So one night, after the day-long class, midway through the week, I’m loading my drums into my car to head off to a band rehearsal (I was in a band at the time, we played 11/13ths of the album Siamese Dream. No, really). And so I’m loading my drums up. A shiny new/ish set (at the time). And this sandpaper-voice announces itself over my shoulder: “flash drums, cunt”.
It was Bruno Lawrence.
Now, I should say at this point that I grew up a fan of Bruno: The Actor. Absolutely. Smash Palace of course. Also The Quiet Earth – for the way he holds his own, as it were. The movie Utu had a profound effect on me at a very early age. In all likelihood I was far too young to be seeing it. But anyway, point is, I remembered Lawrence from those films.
I knew Tears and I knew that he wrote Ride The Rain – what a song! I knew Blerta and I knew that before that and long before The Crocodiles he had stints not only in Quincy Conserve but also with Max Merritt and The Meteors. Bruno was one of my favourite drummers.
We used to go and see his wee jazz combo playing in bars in Hawke’s Bay. When he wasn’t in movies Bruno lived out the back of Havelock North, out at the beach. His kids went to the same school that we went to. It being a small village, it being the way New Zealand was 20 and 30 years ago, everybody knew Bruno. Or thought they did; acted like they did.
My mum used to get mistaken for Bruno’s wife. In the supermarket, going about her business, in for some shopping…and then someone at the checkout would ask – out of the blue – “so, Bruno’s back in town then is he?” My mum would reply, “is he?” which no doubt gave the villagers another story.
So I’m armed with all of this when Bruno Lawrence all but shoulder-taps me and tells me, “flash drums, cunt”. It’s all racing through my head, that time I saw him play some of the coolest jazz (that wasn’t really jazz but felt like a very cool kind of jazz – and only later I’d have Ginger Baker’s trio record, Going Back Home and that would help me to understand the kind of jazz it was). The films I’ve seen him in. And TV. Dance All Around The World and Tears and Ride The Rain and of course I think he’s one of my favourite drummers because I know him from TV and movies; because I know a little of the legend of Bruno, because he lives in the same town. But I really do love his drumming. There were times I sat mesmerised watching him because he is one of the first players I get to see live that actually shows you he’s playing with his heart and soul and mind. His whole body engaged in the act, not just his limbs.
And so he swills his beer, belches, lets out a satisfying gasp and – let’s not forget he’s called me a cunt. And what do I say to him?
“Um, thanks”. I look at my feet. I tell him – because I can guess that he’s a fan and because I really am a fan of this person too – that I dig Elvin Jones. I show him the picture of John Coltrane that I’ve photocopied and cut around and glued into the hole in the front of my bass drum.
He tells me that Elvin is it. The business. And then laughs that I’m lifting cymbals into the car that are wrapped in tea-towels. “Flash drums, cunt, but you need a cymbal-bag. Elvin Jones woulda had a cymbal bag!” I agree that a cymbal bag would be nice.
“Well, come on up to the house sometime and you can have mine. I’ve got one lying around you can have”.
I never did go on up to his house. I didn’t know how to carry that conversation on. But I was in awe of how normal he was. How down to earth. Of course this was not actually any great surprise. I’d seen his acting. I’d watched him playing. He’d called me a cunt and it was like the nicest compliment. There was no malice in the way he said it. He said cunt like it just rolled off the tongue.
A year on from that day he was dead.
I’m sure someone has already written or spoken eloquently about how the same qualities that made him a natural/gifted actor were part of his charms and talents as a musician also.
But much as I love seeing that familiar face on TV reruns – the brilliant Frontline, those movies I mentioned – I still think of Bruno: The Musician most often. More often than I think of Bruno: The Actor.
He was one of our greats.