The stillborn spy

00:04, Nov 26 2013
The stillborn spy

John Hanlon's songs were a soundtrack for a nature-loving 1970s New Zealand, damning dams and climbing higher trails. The public loved him, the NZBC couldn't work with him, but the CIA reckoned it could. Michael Fallow reports.

The crowd was booing. Hissing, too.

They had come in their thousands to Aotea Square to protest the arrival of nuclear warship the USS Truxtun in 1976 and, naturally enough, John Hanlon had been called to the stage.

He was the man who wrote and sang Damn the Dam, the anthem for the ultimately triumphant Save Manapouri campaign, and so many other songs exulting in a New Zealand at its most natural. Surely, a young man perfectly in tune with anti-nuke sentiment. So why was he refusing to sing?

It was the signs and placards.

"When I got there, I realised it was not an anti-nuclear rally, it was an anti-American rally. Kick Americans out, blah-de-blah," he recalls.


So he took to the microphone, and confronted the multitude. There were nukes in three countries, he said, Russia, China and the US. (The amplification made it echo. He still remembers the words coming out as Russiaaaaaa, Chinnnnnnaaaa, USssssssssss.) Only one of those would tolerate a rally like this, he reminded his people. And they should all remember that that country was the birthplace of these rallies.

Boo. Hiss.

But the signs came down because, come on, who didn't want to hear those songs?

This was neither the first nor last time that Hanlon's individualist streak kicked in. He has long found himself mistrustful of crowd mentality, reckoning that collective intelligence is inversely proportional to the number of people involved.

So, anyway, a couple of weeks after that controversial gig, he was at his day job as an advertising creative with Bob Harvey's MacHarmon company when a call came from some guy seeking an appointment.

Curiously, it was at a building smack-dab next to the Kiwi pub, a hotbed of subversive student sentiment.

He entered and found himself negotiating a series of doors "like a Maxwell Smart office". His host was an unprepossessing man wearing shorts and long socks.

As the guy was consulting one of a disconcertingly large number of files, Hanlon noticed something unexpected, tucked away amid all that paperwork. A handgun.

On the wall were pictures of Mr Long Socks with Prime Minister Rob Muldoon.

Talk turned from the business of selling sheepskin products to how impressed the man had been by Hanlon's comments to the crowd. Had Hanlon realised that the Truxtun rally was organised by communists? (Of course he had. But he also knew why. Nobody else would have wanted to be on the committee. "That's what always happened. in NZ. The rest of us can't be bothered organising stuff, so somebody with an agenda does it and we all show up," Hanlon recalls.)

Then came the do-you-love- your-country talk, and a more specific question: Might he might be prepared to keep showing up to such rallies, while discretely reporting back on who the organisers were.

The host could hardly be less impressive. A real wally, Hanlon thought. But a wally with a weapon. The singer blurted out his big question: Was this CIA? It's better you don't know, came the answer.

All trembling indignation, he made to storm out, but stopped at the doorway, turned around, and issued what he now admits was maybe the emptiest threat in the history of the world.

"I'm going to walk straight out of here. I'm not going to do this. And don't you even think about doing anything bad to to me because . . . I'm really famous!"

It was the only time he's ever said it. He really wants us all to know that.

In truth he told nobody except his partner, and even then he started to wonder whether he'd really encountered nothing more than a Walter Mitty-style fantasist. But, later, a picture of the guy hit the news, sharing papers with future prime minister Bill Rowling in a car park, of all places.

"See!" Hanlon triumphantly told his partner. "Told you he was a crap spy!"

It may have been hollow as a threat, but Hanlon's one-time- only claim to fame was far from an empty boast. Malaysian born, he attended a Western Australian boarding school, an environment about as parched of hippy liberalism as it was of verdant bush, snow-capped mountains and lakes of icy purity. Small wonder he arrived to find 1960s New Zealand a revelation.

By the time the mid-70s music scene rolled around, he was a hairy colossus whose albums stayed aloft in the charts for unprecedented runs. He collected Album of the Year and Songwriter of the Year awards three years in a row, a feat nobody else has matched. He also won the Apra Silver Scroll two years in a row.

But if you consult YouTube for footage of him in his performance heyday, you'd be doing well to find more than 15 seconds. Let's just say his relationship with the New Zealand Broadcasting Corporation was less than convivial.

Hanlon and the hierarchy didn't particularly get on, whether it was the Government planning to raise Lake Manapouri to ecologically ruinous heights or the guardians of public morality who scowled at his early song, Is It Natural?, which had the effrontery to suggest there was such a thing as randy schoolboys and so was expeditiously banned, as was Crazy Woman, what with it being about a prostitute.

The NZBC did want him on telly, all right. Happen Inn beckoned. All he had to do was sing, oh, Neil Diamond, John Denver, Cat Stevens . . .

"I refused to do bad versions of great songs," he says.

His cause was championed by a few rebels like David McPhail and Max Cryer but, as far as the corporation was concerned, the unwashed may very well have been buying his albums in unprecedented numbers but that was neither here nor there.

They didn't want someone with his own voice. They just wanted the voice for hire. And Hanlon has always thought of himself as a songwriter. "That's all I am. I try to remove me as an ego, so only the song and the words exist."

Dissatisfactions mounted to the point where he just walked away, set aside life as a performer and left for Australia where he developed his advertising career. Careful before you cry sellout. His activist heart still beats. His Sydney agency, LOUD, is responsible - pro bono - for the likes of the recent ad where a crated pig takes wings to the strains of Somewhere.

And now he's back in the limelight with a double-album career retrospective CD, After the Dam Broke, and a book: Golf: A Course in Life, which draws insights for life and business from the spirit and the disciplines of the game.

Golf is the only game in the world where you call penalties against yourself, when it's down to you to say, because only you will know, if you cheated or not, he says. Compare and contrast that with the cold professional savagery of lawyers, thriving as they do from conflict, obfuscation and the rejection of personal responsibility; so quick they are to advise that under no circumstances should you admit guilt.

Why the album, then? Short answer: Grandchildren. A while back they asked him: Are you a songwriter? Even his son admitted he could hardly remember his songs. As it happens, Hanlon never stopped writing and half the 40 songs in his CD are post- 70s work.

Natural New Zealand still cries out to Hanlon. Recently visiting old friends here - after all those years it was as if he'd just gone down the road for a bottle of milk - he forayed through Haast and found himself swept by familiar but profound satisfactions he swears no professional or performing successes have ever really topped.

Hanlon's singing voice is perhaps less exuberant, more careworn, than once it was, but the passion remains unmissable. In conversation, it's the same thing: The Aussie elections he found maddeningly mean-spirited, cynically disregarding the imperatives posed by climate change. But he tries to be cynical about nothing other than cynicism. For all their wrong- headedness at times, people are essentially good, he says. Sometimes misdirected, maybe.

"I get impatient, when people look for miracles while they're surrounded by them."

We marvel at the latest iPhone app, without realising that in the mirror each morning we see something that makes that technology seem antiquated.

"And there are a million examples of the miracles of nature happening outside our windows and it doesn't take a great deal of time to find them, either. Ten minutes in your garden will do it."

Spoken like a hippy, maybe, but you couldn't call him a wilted one.

The Southland Times