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Mammal Makes Holy Smoke at St. Matthew’s


St Matthew’s in the City – a cathedral in central Auckland – is known for its basic Christian values, by which I mean that a lot of New Zealanders think it is dangerously radical, politically and theologically. I like it. I like my Anglicans radical, socialist, pro-gay, pro-the downtrodden. Christians were all like that once upon a far-off time.

I think it was already going that way when Mammal, a name band in the early ’70s, found itself booked to play there in a Battle of the Bands kind of thing. By “found itself booked,” I mean, “surprised by Graeme Nesbitt” again. Graeme was our manager, or booker, or publicist—we never really knew which.

Peter Kennedy was in the band at the time and, for the occasion, he had obtained the appropriate costume for an Eastern Rite priest, although we called it Greek Orthodox then. He also had a phosphorescent pink wig, worn as a fringe to completely obscure the face. He must have had his reasons.

When we rolled up in our band bus, there were already too many bands there, all trying to keep their gear organised in a shambolically overcrowded performance space. Somebody had not thought through the detail, you would be astonished to learn. Not only was there no stage or anything like it, there was no provision for the constant to-and-fro of many bands moving much equipment in-and-out.

In those far-off days everything tended to operate under the logistic aegis of Michael Mouse productions. But anything with a left-wing tinge would be more so. I’ve never worked out why, but it probably has something to do with the inevitable shit-fight that we leftists have whenever we start talking to each other about our assumptions or about our music tastes.

In those far-off days everything tended to operate under the logistic aegis of Michael Mouse productions.

Mammal had recently obtained a “smoke machine” – actually a rudimentary cooking appliance usually installed in “single men’s huts” as they were called at the time. I think it was Gil Peterson’s idea but it may have been Graeme. Anyway, you put a handful of powder from a brown paper bag on the element, and turned it on. Smoke was supposed to ensue.

Perhaps we should have had a trial run with this state-of-the-art, new – er, I mean, No. 8 wire – technology. We played our set, but we did not burn with frustration or even suspense when the smoke, in which none of us had much faith, failed to swirl and billow and add awe, shock and drama to our unnaturally early 11am performance.

It had not been one of our fairly frequent triumphs. We packed down gloomily, avoiding eye contact with the personnel of other bands, some of whom we would have known. You prefer eye contact to be at the gigs that have been triumphs. Not firing is embarrassing. Not firing but over-smoking is worse.

Then abruptly, in the absence of fire, there was smoke, lots and lots of pungent, biting, choking smoke. Our smoke machine delivered, not on cue, but it did its best. The cathedral quickly filled with smoke; apparently we had used too much powder.

Now St Matthew’s is a very big building, a real cathedral, and it’s a genuine challenge to get a good sound there. Many years after the smoky event described herein I sang very loud, somewhat confrontational, gospel at a slumbering John Key. It was at a big, corporate charity gig where the great man could allow himself to relax. Filling the room with sound has always been a challenge, but filling it with smoke was really – well, easy, once our pile of chemicals did their smoky work.

Detractors of St Matthew’s politics no doubt expect it to fill with fire and brimstone one of these days, so we gave them a harmless rehearsal.

I suppose Mammal had gotten used to unintended consequences, but I’m resigned to the strong possibility that our fumiferous exit may have looked like a tactic to throw off the competition ... I think the band on after us would have been disadvantaged by not being able to find their instruments in the murk, or their breath to sing with, when the time eventually came to do that.

But by then we were long gone. After a short time it seemed that a bus full of helpless mirth was a better response to the situation than getting cross with the technical crew.

As for the unhappily fumigated audience – there hadn’t been many at 11 in the morning. I suppose there must have been some judges present, because it was a Battle, and somebody had to win. If there were judges, we did not meet them. Nor did we figure in the results. No prizes for The Big Smoke, but it did give me an idea for a song, eventually.

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Rick Bryant’s funeral service was held at St Matthew’s in the City, Auckland, on 11 December 2019. It featured performances by many of his collaborators, and can be viewed online.

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This story originally appeared in Café Reader, and is republished here by permission.

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