Stroke: Songs for Chris Knox

21:41, Nov 19 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.

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.

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.

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.

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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.

So - 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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