Puppies – I always hated the name – was a small bar located ever so slightly off the beaten track in Wellington city central still, but a basement, yet another Wellington venue with an annoying pillar in the way. It was a stoned-throw from the action but if you could summon the enthusiasm to get there you were lucky to see some pretty special shows.
Ian Jorgensen – known to most as Blink – was the man behind Puppies. He’s known for his A Low Hum brand, he’s toured bands around New Zealand and the world, created the festival Camp A Low Hum (which also wrapped this year) and way before he started organising shows and managing acts and being an enthusiastic cheerleader for music in New Zealand (bringing international acts out to the country and taking some of our bands out to the world) he was a great rock photographer – beautiful black ‘n’ white shots of anyone and everyone in New Zealand music; that was my introduction to Blink.
He set up Puppies almost on a whim – he even wrote a book about Puppies (a pretty good read). He wanted to change the culture somewhat, change perceptions around gigs. He wanted to have affordable shows that started on time. Puppies was a bar but the focus was on the music – you could get a beer, sure. But you were there to see and hear music. Drinking was secondary. This shouldn’t have seemed a seismic shift but clearly it was – and though Blink might want to deem Puppies a success as an experiment the reality is it’s closed. Finished. Done. Shut down. And it’s not reopening under that name, it hasn’t been handed over to someone to carry on “the success”. It’s dead.
I was late to the party with Puppies but did get to see some great shows there – David Kilgour solo, and then Lawrence Arabia’s James Milne on his Man Alone tour. And a very good set from The Bads and The Craig Terris Band.
I played a DJ set as part of the Square Wave Festival and two of the best shows of 2014 seemed to happen just two nights apart. Liam Finn introduced brand new material and old favourites with Lawrence Arabia as (a secret) opening act.
And also The Clean – for just $25 – the mighty Clean; world-beaters. And there they were in all their ramshackle glory in front of about 100 people packed in and loving it. The sort of gig you tell your kids about one day.
I liked a lot of the ethos around Puppies – announcing show times and sticking to them, making gigs affordable, making drinks available but never the focus.
One act, early on, praised Blink for having paper in the green room so they could write out a setlist; they didn’t have to ask for it – it was just there. Blink knew these things. But he was also very smug about it, very pleased with himself, boasting that Puppies was an experiment and once the experiment proved its hypothesis he shut it down. Um, no one shuts down a venue that is succeeding. They shut down a venue that can’t work anymore. Or one that bleeds money. Or one that just falls out of favour. Most obviously, the costs against it grow too high – in one way or another. And it’s such a fool’s errand to even be involved in this. A way to burn money.
So, in that sense, I’m not sure that it was ever going to be a success story – this is, after all, a country that expects bars to serve after-work drinkies, to play the rugger on the big screen and for all those arty-farty types to just quit whining given they’re already getting some government hand-outs, and more than they should, why don’t they just actually work for it…etc…
Something needs to change. The culture needs to be reworked. And though Puppies had a tight space, an annoying pole in the middle of the room and a slackness at the bar that was both endearing and, er, criminally vulgar, it was at least an attempt to offer something different. To put the onus (back) on the music.