let's drink to shona laing

Pass the Whisper

Speech for Shona's Album Launch

Tauranga, Tuesday, 13 May 2008

I first met Shona twenty five years ago. Some of you have known her longer, some not so long. When I met her she wasn’t a bit like the long-haired folkie barely out of school she was when she left NZ. Not much like she is now. Though the heart’s the same.

When I met Shona in 1982 she was a surly skinhead, just back from England, and saturated with the intensity of her experiences. She sat in the bar at the old Mercury Theatre and muttered and seethed at us irrelevant theatricals. She was in love with drum machines and hard-edged synthesisers, and it would be fair to say she was angry. Sometimes quite definitely angry. Some of the time. Every now and then. Quite a lot actually. But not always. Injustice and the abuse of power burned her, they always have, and there was a lot of injustice and abuse of power about. There still is. Once you’d met her you couldn’t forget her.

She wrote songs to make things better, to denounce bullshit. She wrote songs about love, about lies, about loss and forsaken opportunity, about sacrifice and assassination, about hope, about needless slaughter on the roads, about her feet. Her tunes reverberate and continue to reverberate, her words, some needing to be searched out of labyrinths of private imagery, some blazingly clear, have their own lives as well.

She wrote and sang about what she wished to be true.

Her songs have reached people of many kinds in many places. For some they have been solace, hope, for some a call to arms.

Paradox and contradiction always went with her. She furiously chased top twenty fame till she realised she didn’t really want it, but she wouldn’t compromise a single syllable of her lyrics or a single note of her music on the way. She used her guitar as a shield and her voice as a spear; she made herself utterly vulnerable.

She could be ferocious one minute, generously sensitive the next; her work ethic was ruthless, she sought ecstasy, sometimes oblivion, wherever it might be ingeniously and not always legally found; she was merciless and wished to be merciful, she was merciful then unyielding.

It hasn’t always been easy for Shona Laing to live with Shona Laing. It’s often taken a lot of courage. From her, and maybe from those who love her too.

There’ve been times of civil war, complicated tribal conflicts, guerrilla attacks in the dark in unknown territory with barely recognised assailants.

There’s been scorched earth and blood steeped in alcohol. There’s been despair, retreat, recovery, healing. And time. A lot of time. Time for plants and loony animals, birds and sky. Time for painting. Time for friends.

Why did she collect only black sheep? Out of a sense of kinship with them?

She’s been a friend. I love her. Over the years we’ve shared dark places and dazzling ones. She gives and inspires loyalty.

There are heaps of people in this room who’ve given blood and tears and laughter to Shona’s work, and she’s given them heaps back. . .

I worked with her on her South album. With Gary Verberne, Billy Kristian, Brian Smith, Suzy Lynch, Beaver, Mahia Blackmore, Bunny Walters, Nigel Lee. 1986. The generous spirit of Bruce Lynch hovered in the ether above us. But mostly it was long weeks of long days and nights with Shona, me, and that extraordinary engineer and inspirational lunatic Graeme Myhre. We’d no doubt do it all differently now, but I’m still proud of South. It was a privilege to be there.

Now we’re here to celebrate the birth of a new album. Pass the Whisper. An album made not in a city but in a village, amid love and, sadly, death, but mostly peace, here if not everywhere. A new growth, old hopes and new ones. Old powers and new ones. No corporations, no samplers, and some first-take vocals. Jeez Shona, what’s happened to you?

When you really get down to it, what have we actually got? Each other, and the place we live in. And that’s about it. If we don’t look after these we can’t expect anyone else to. We need food, shelter, purpose and love. We need to dance, to sing, to listen. We need our songs and the people who give them to us. A world without songs would be a barren, deadly world.

So let’s drink to the bards, troubadours, mountebanks, trollops and sages and magicians who give us the songs we need. Let’s drink with wine and water and fiery spirits.

Let’s drink to Shona Laing.

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