Stroke: Songs for Chris Knox

Last updated 10:41 20/11/2009

In June of this year Chris Knox suffered a stroke. I was in Auckland when it happened. I received a handful of text messages from friends and family alerting me, asking me how I felt.

Chris Knox

I have met Chris a couple of times in passing, spoken to him a couple of times on the phone and a few times via email/Facebook. He has always been incredibly accommodating, whether a semi-formal interview or a relaxed chat. But I would hardly say I know him well at all. Still the text messages flooded in. And some phone calls came in too - to see if I was okay with the news; to see if I knew anything...

We were in Auckland for Simon & Garfunkel - and approximately 20 minutes before the Sunday night show I was called by a Dominion Post reporter saying that word was around that Knox was not doing so well. They were preparing a story. Could I comment? I started talking about him - instantly - in past tense. I felt awful. I knew I was doing it. I knew I didn't want to be. And I guess I knew - straight away - that what I was saying would be kept on file for an if-needed scenario.

I babbled on about the shorts and jandals; about seeing Chris play in the old Bodega - wearing a dressing grown one evening. And the time he asked someone to improvise a keyboard stand so my mate ran down and put his hands out, while on his knees, bowing down to Knox, offering himself-as-keyboard-stand. He received a signed copy of this album for his troubles. And I was passing it off as my story. I waffled on with whatever stories I could about Knox - because I had been put on the spot, asked to offer comment. And I tried way too hard, worried that the next morning I might see myself in print and feel very upset at the reason behind it.

Fortunately that story never came to be. And the story of Chris Knox's recovery is - for now - a very happy one. The stroke has taken its toll and there is a long way to go, but he is recovering movement. He has that famous grin back. He is even, slowly, timidly, making movements toward creating again.

Most New Zealanders know that Knox is a creator and a commenter - so to have him silent has been the worst kind of artistic purgatory. He is beginning to draw again; he has been keeping a visual diary of his recovery.

Most recently John Campbell served up this segment on his show. And over at Public Address Russell Brown offered this lovely piece.

Both of those offerings, and this one too (for what it's worth), are in tribute not only to Knox and his battle to date but also to the tribute album that has been released to help with his recovery; to promote his songs; to show the healing power of music. That album is called Stroke: Songs for Chris Knox and it features an all-star cast of Kiwi and international players.

The musicians gave up their time for a friend; for a hero. They gave up their time for the cause - and because they love the songs of Chris Knox.

Knox has, since my discovery of him at the end of my high school days and particularly at early university orientation gigs, been one of my favourite songwriters. You know, as a listener, that Chris Knox cares about the craft of songwriting. And his DIY ethos, his low-key approach marries primitive techniques with technology. Knox was immediately designing album covers for himself - and for others; he was, from the get-go, creating his own promotional films and videos. And his ability to use a couple of instruments and basic recording equipment might have been written off by some as the work of a person uninterested in adornments; but actually Chris cares about the song - he keeps it simple. It is part of the reason his songs resonate. The other reason is because they really are good.

And of course you can hear that on his albums - and his Tall Dwarfs work; and all of the work he has been involved with, from his Friend alter-ego to the early punk days; through the solo work to becoming part of a band again with The Nothing.

But you can definitely hear it on the tribute album too.

It is the perfect kind of tribute album. It is for a good cause. It is for a deserving songwriter/musician/artist. And the artists who have contributed have all thought about their selections; adhering to the lo-fi quality that feels synonymous with Chris Knox's work. But importantly, the artists on Stroke manage to twist and tweak, to offer their version of a Chris Knox song. Not to merely cover but to interpret. There is a difference. And you will hear it time and again on this album.

That again comes down to the quality of the source material. Chris Knox songs are personal. But they are also universal.

Boh Runga nails Not Given Lightly; there's the feeling of 1950s rock'n'roll and doo-wop in the arrangement and her vocals are soulful and impassioned. It's the best I have heard her on record.

The international artists that lined up to be involved include Yo La Tengo,  Bill Callahan (aka Smog), Lambchop, Jay Reatard, Will Oldham (aka Bonnie 'Prince' Billy), A.C. Newman, Stephin Merritt (aka Magnetic Fields, aka The 6ths) and Lou Barlow.

Locally we have Jordan Luck, Alec Bathgate, David Kilgour, Hamish Kilgour, The Bats, The Chills, Don McGlashan, Sean Donnelly (aka SJD), The Verlaines, The Checks, The Mint Chicks, various members of the Finn Family...it really is an all-star cast. Friends have turned out to offer a helping hand. To pay tribute. To record their versions of great songs from a great writer - and, by all accounts, top bloke.

The double album is just $25. And all of the money goes to helping with Knox's recovery. It goes to helping Chris and his partner, Barbara Ward.

Tonight in Auckland there is an official launch gig. And the album has been available in stores for a week or so. To paraphrase the guy that sold it to me in a store last week, hopefully this has Chris back up in jandals and shorts in no time.

I hope so.

Chris Knox CartoonSo - will you be buying the album? Have you grabbed it already? Favourite songs? Favourite surprise covers? (Jordan Luck's take on Becoming Something Other is amazing). And what stories would you like to share about Chris Knox and his music? Are you a fan? Do you remember any particular classic gigs? Favourite songs or albums? Favourite moments chatting with the man perhaps?

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19 comments
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Sylvian   #1   11:01 am Nov 20 2009

When I was 12, I had a fateful summer in which I discovered the Sex Pistols, the Clean and most importantly, the Tall Dwarfs. It was important because, as a child I had always wanted to play music, be in a band, be a rock star. Unfortunately, I had no idea how to. The popsatrs I loved, Bowie, the Beatles et al, all had this mystic quality that I knew I could never possess and, as such I thought I would never be a musician. Upon hearing the Tall Dwarfs and the Clean, I discovered that anything was possible. It wasn't the fame that mattered, it was the songs and being creative that counted. Also, coming from Dunedin, I was further inspired knowing that this was all happening in my own backyard. The Tall Dwarfs song that I will always love is 'The Brain That Wouldn't Die', a psyhcotic lo-fi horror punk dirge, with what sounded like a ruler htting a desk as the drum track! As for Chris Knoxs' solo efforts, a special favourite would have to be 'Meat'. It has a wonderful melancholy that tugs at your heart strings. Thank you Chris and godspeed your recovery. x

tomatohead   #2   11:31 am Nov 20 2009

I saw Chris Knox at the Cuba Street Carnival. It was raining, but the punters in the outdoor carpark were all game. He was fearless. I'd heard so much about the jandals and the shorts and the looping pedal and the wandering around and the spontaneity, but I still wasn't prepared for high wire nature of his set.

Going to place that order for "Stroke" now.

Nigel   #3   11:36 am Nov 20 2009

I am totally bummed that Head Like A Hole didn't get asked to contribute. If I had know about the album I would have insisted. I guess that comes with the teritory whn you sit at home playing guitar in you dressing gown instead of 'socialising'. Anyway, years ago when Chris was playing at Bodega Tom Watson and I noticed he had a 'Jim' t-shirt on. Jim Woodring is a famous Seattle artist who produces the comic 'Jim' and 'Frank'. He is also a big Chris Knox fan. Towards the end of the gig when Chris asked for an idea to improvise a song I got Tom to shout out "play a song about Jim" to which he instantly whipped off a brilliant song about Jim Woodring. Afterwards Fraser from Bodega introduced us and then pretty much forced Chris to come over to 301 and record 'Jim' to which he did and that was that... Till a year or two later when I emailed Jim in Seattle and mentioned the above story. Then next time I was in Auckland and went over to Chris's with a friend he told me he had A)gotten a frantic email from Jim demanding a copy of the song and B) completely forgotten about it..... So theres my Chris Knox strory and whoever put that album together A) good on you and B) YOU SUCK, cos you didn't ask hlah to contribute

Rex   #4   11:46 am Nov 20 2009

I first saw Chris Knox fronting Toy Love in Welly and his passion and energy were staggering - and yes there was blood. My mates and I thrashed the Toy Love album and I still love it.

My other Chris Knox story is singing Not Given Lightly with him at a gig at the old Bodega. Not quite sure how it happened but I think we were all singing along and he insisted someone get up there with him and it just happened to be me.

And I hate picking a favourite cos there are so many. And the way he could switch from down and dirty (Pull down the Shades), pure pop (Rebel) and heartfelt love songs (Not Given Lightly) means there is a song for every occasion. But if I have to choose one I pick Nothings Going to Happen by the Tall Dwarfs.

I was so sad when I heard of his stroke and hope he continues his recovery. He is a hero of the NZ music scene and has given me (and so many others) countless hours of fun and pleasure.

I will be buying the CD and wish Chris a full and speedy recovery. Chris... you rock.

Thanks for giving me the opportunity to say this Simon.

Darryl   #5   12:36 pm Nov 20 2009

I ran into him in Dunedin many years ago. We were both playing an Orientation gig at OUSA(?) and he came wandering along as we were loading in our gear. The two things I remember were that he liked my road cases for my drums (made by a carpet laying buddy, former Playthings drummer Dave Toland out of surplus carpet in the style of giant hat boxes) and that despite the less than tropical conditions he was wearing jandals. A very nice chap.

Scott A   #6   12:37 pm Nov 20 2009

Nice piece, Simon. I'll be picking up Stroke next payday for sure; as soon as I heard about it I knew I'd have to buy it, even if the covers were rubbish. But hearing the uniformly positive reviews to the contrary I positively can't wait to pick it up.

I think Chris Knox / The Enemy / Tall Dwarfs were the first NZ artist I really fell in love with. I was pretty young when I caught 'Bride of Frankenstein' on a music video show and immediately went "OMG, what is that!!!' Fortunately, my sister had a tape of their one and only album to hand and gave me it - I still have it somewhere, too.

And all though my late teens and twenties; all those gigs either solo or with Alec Bathgate at the Bodge (and, sometimes, other odd venues arond Wellington). Every one a fun night out, with great music, singalongs, humour, cynicism, aroha. Too many moments blur into one fuzzy happiness, but I honestly think I enjoyed the moment when Chris would give up the guitar and microphone to let someone else lead the singalong to "Not Given Lightly" the most. I got to play the guitar, once, which was fun but I always enjoyed watching how others would lead the crowded dark sweaty boozy jolly bodge through a song so famous and pervasive the artist didn't need to lift a finger to when it came to playing it live!

Get well soon Chris Knox!

Dandy   #7   02:26 pm Nov 20 2009

Remember the banana shorts and crowd interaction at many orientation gigs. Hope he recovers from this as well as he did when he got a song wrong (another fond memory). I am afraid he lost credibility with me however with that dreadful 'better off with labour' monstrosity towards the end of helen's reign.

Hey, he's not dead, you don't have to eulogise the man...

Susan   #8   02:26 pm Nov 20 2009

Being a fan of just about every artist on this album, as well as being a Chris Knox/Toy Love/Tall Dwarfs fan, I'm curious to hear the interpretations of Chris' songs. I'm especially excited about the songs by the Chills, Peter Gutteridge and David Kilgour. And it's for a good cause. What's not to like?

Karlos   #9   03:02 pm Nov 20 2009

Two iconic kiwi artists in two days... And all those John Mayer fans were saying you only write negative blogs hehe! I didn't even know this album was being made until I saw the John Campbell story. I'll definitely pick up a copy in the next few days.

kent   #10   03:08 pm Nov 20 2009

He was playing at a place called Diggers in Hamilton. I was pretty much toast and climbed up onto a beam right above the stage to watch the gig. Halfway through I fell straight on him, both of us crashing to the ground. All it took was a free beer and all was forgiven. Been to many of his shows, always a joy going to a Chris Knox gig.


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