Bill Direen: Feeding the spirit of the people
The first thing that strikes you - before the voice, the songs, the poetry, the music - is the face.
Long and thin from brow to chin, large nose and ears, tight mouth, sad soulful eyes.
Bill Direen is one fascinating looking cat. He holds your attention in every frame of a new documentary by Auckland filmmaker Simon Ogston.
"There's a lot of visual character there, which is important to a filmmaker", says Ogston, whose Bill Direen: A Memory of Others is a local highlight of the current NZ International Film Festival. "And Bill also has a background in theatre, so I presumed he'd be a compelling performer, which he was."
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The 60 year old Direen is an actor, playwright, musician, poet and novelist, his vigorous creative life extending over four decades in New Zealand, Scotland, Germany and France.
Much of his writing has been for small underground publishers, and he has led upwards of 20 bands, so it's easy to lose track of what he's done, when, and with whom.
Consequently, there will be people out there who've never heard of Bill Direen. Ogston's impressionistic doco offers a curative to that: a series of sideways glances and telling details, a dip of the toe into a very deep pool.
"Bill's profile is not as high as it might be," agrees Ogston, "And that's one reason I made this film. He's veered from folk to rock and several other music genres, as well as a lot of novels and poetry and theatre work, and he lived in Paris and Berlin for ten years or so. It's not easy to follow his winding career, and there's probably not many out there who love everything Bill's done."
Ogston himself, however, is a fan. He has made documentaries about musicians before - composer/ percussionist Phil Dadson, Palmerston North art-punks Skeptics, cult Christchurch band Squirm - but arrived late to the Direen party, so A Memory of Others finds the director sharing his own sense of discovery with the audience.
"I'm originally from Christchurch too [where Direen was born], so I'd heard of Bill since my high school days, but he remained an artist who had a bit of mystery around him, which is always appealing to a filmmaker like me. I only started seriously listening to Bill's music a couple of years ago and was amazed by how prolific he was."
To give some narrative framework and forward momentum to the film, Ogston suggested to Direen that they set up a three week national tour, with himself and cameraman Jeff Smith tagging along.
"Bill lives in a little crib near Middlemarch, and the first time we actually met was at the baggage claim when he came to pick up me and Jeff at Dunedin Airport. My main concern at first was being able to fit everything into this little Honda we bought for the trip. That car needed a few repairs along the way, but it did make it all the way from Dunedin to Auckland and back in the end."
Beaches, cemeteries and rehearsal rooms. Makeshift shower-stall studios. The dark interiors of noisy bars. The driver's seat of that knackered Honda Odyssey as it barrels through farmland, bush, town and city.
There's Bill, moving through the landscape, his poetry in voiceover, the modern-day footage intercut with video clips from dusty old singles from the early 80s.
There's a lovely scene where Direen performs at a Wellington Primary school for a class of teensy students taught by his sister, Marie.
He sings them a song about a grandmother who goes a bit crazy and stands on her balcony, singing to the clouds.
The film wanders widely, the interview segments with past accomplices pithy and short, the whole shebang refreshingly free of the usual dutiful trudge through the subject's CV that sucks the life from most biographical documentaries.
"I wanted this film to be more expressive and cinematic," offers Ogston, "rather than attempt to give a comprehensive historical overview of Bill's long and varied career. That would be a fool's errand. There are great in-depth write-ups about Bill in Audioculture and other websites, but my aim was to make something more poetic that would extend Bill's existing body of work. I'm really happy with how it turned out."
On a freezing cold morning in the deep south, Bill Direen sits in his Middlemarch house, feeling much the same way.
"I love what Simon has achieved," he says quietly. "He trips around, forwards and backwards in time, and pieces it together in a clever way that will be very intriguing to people, even if they aren't fans of my work. And it's not just about me. I've worked with so many people over the years, and he drew on their impressions and memories, too. Simon made a mosaic using those voices and the music we made together, but the work of art he's created is ultimately his."
Direen was apprehensive when Ogston first made contact, but seeing the finished film was "a revelation", he says.
"I didn't realise I looked that way. You could see the way I changed during the course of the tour. Sometimes the colour of my face and even my bone structure looked very different. That was interesting to me - looking at myself as an object."
Esteemed British music mag Uncut recently awarded a 9/10 score to a reissue of Direen's 1983 album Beatin Hearts, calling it "staggeringly articulate, deeply beautiful, and brimming with nervous energy" but noting that Direen hadn't been accorded the legendary status he deserved.
A marketing expert would say that was a "branding issue", with Direen's diversity working against him.
Direen began as a folk singer, then studied under electronic sound pioneer Douglas Lilburn before joining early Christchurch experimental band, Vacuum.
After that came a long line of his own bands, with ever changing names and line-ups.
The Bilders/Builders/Bilderine/Die Bilders/Bilderbergers/Six Impossible Things/Above Ground/The HAT/AM Express/Urbs/Max Kwitz/Soluble Fish: Direen has released music under so many monikers, it's easy to lose track.
"Some of my bands were thrown together very quickly, which adds something special to the music, I think. We're often under-practiced so an element of improvisation is necessary, just for us to get through the songs. That lack of predictability brings a lot of fresh energy to the music. The songs themselves aren't, you know… Beethoven, but their simplicity means we can deliver them in many different ways."
Direen's richly expressive speaking voice
falls silent at one key moment in A Memory of Others. There's Bill, high in the Port Hills overlooking Christchurch, and Ogston asks him about his relationship with the city.
Direen talks of having to leave at one point, to get out and escape a "broken life" and "a lot of troubles".
Ogston doesn't press him for details; the moment is poignant enough without further explanation.
"Yes, well… he intuited that I didn't want to talk about certain things," says Direen, who's in no hurry to talk about these things now, either.
"Simon respected my privacy, and sometimes talking around the edges of things gives just as much insight. You know, I have three children who were born in Christchurch. Perhaps the earthquake reminded me of some difficult times in my life whose origins were connected with that city."
Now 60, Direen's still writing, recording, thinking, touring. He still makes consistently engaging work for very little cash and scant recognition, because making this work helps him understand the world in which he lives while hopefully changing that world for the better in some small way.
"Writing songs and stories and poems is necessary for me to function; they help me think. Sometimes you're just driven to do these things, even though there may not be a huge audience for them. Sometimes you play a show and only ten people turn up, like those little concerts you used to give to your family as a child. But little shows like that can really move the people who are there, and that's important. The creative work people do gives a throb of energy to the places we share, like blood circulating in the city's veins. It's essential to feed the spirits of the people who live there. That's what keeps me going, and I'm sure a lot of other people doing creative work feel the same. It's not about money; you know that someone might just chance into a room where you're doing a show and remember it for the rest of their lives."
Bill Direen: A Memory of Others premieres during the NZ International Film Festival, with Simon Ogston and Bill Direen hosting Q&A sessions after each screening.
Auckland - Event Queen St (Fri Aug 4, 1.45pm/ Sat Aug 5, 1.30pm)
Wellington- Te Papa (Sat Aug 12, 5.30pm), Embassy (Sun Aug 13, 3.15pm)
Christchurch - Northlands 4 (Sat, 19 Aug 6pm/ Sun, 20 Aug 5:30pm)
Dunedin – Rialto (Sat, 26 Aug 5:45pm/ Sun, 27 Aug 1pm)