The Sit In - sharing Christchurch stories in song

Adam McGrath has been holding a sit-in at the Woolston Community Library. There he has been talking to local residents ...
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Adam McGrath has been holding a sit-in at the Woolston Community Library. There he has been talking to local residents and will turn their stories into songs which will one day be performed at the same site in a free concert. Over coming weeks he will be moving around the city. Check The Sit In Facebook page for details.

 

Everything around us is grey. The footpath is a dirty grey, the long, narrow corrugated iron fence which forms an alleyway to our destination - a state house in Charnwood Crescent, Bishopdale, - is dark grey, except for slightly darker grey patches where someone has attempted to cover tagging. Above us, Bic Runga's concrete-coloured skies.

It's a Wednesday morning and the wind whips our faces as we shove our hands in our pockets.

Sonny Makiri, right, a traffic controller for SCIRT, watches Adam McGrath, on guitar, and Alice Ryan-Williams, on ...
Joseph Johnson

Sonny Makiri, right, a traffic controller for SCIRT, watches Adam McGrath, on guitar, and Alice Ryan-Williams, on violin, of Lyttelton band The Eastern give a footpath performance to rebuild workers in Christchurch in 2014.

Adam McGrath pats his giant ginger beard with one hand. In this grey backdrop he is a riot of life and colour. Across his knuckles "hold" is tattooed. Above the collar of his red and black Swanndri jacket, a bird's head tattoo peaks out.

We're embarking on, as the folk singer puts it, "a nostalgia bath".

He's returning to look at the state house he shared with his mother from the age of 9 to 17.

 

"See this fence," he gestures with the hand which has "fast" tattooed across its knuckles. "I used to tag this fence when I was a kid. Now I hate tagging, I'm a curmudgeon about it."

Earlier, we'd parked up the road, near the dairy where his mum once worked and Adam told a story about playing with his band, The Eastern, at the Labour party's Christchurch rally last weekend.

 

Synonymous with Lyttelton, the revolving "family band" of friends, led by folk singer McGrath, The Eastern are a band with grit, heart and barroom spirit whose music has been informed by Christchurch events. 

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Adam has previously been correctly described as "two parts Woody Guthrie, one part revival meeting and one part group hug".

After their performance, Jacinda Ardern had hugged him and he'd tried to play it cool when embraced by our nation's "it" girl, but a tendril of her hair had found its way into his mouth and he had coughed and spluttered.

Adam McGrath with one of locals whose story he heard at the Sit In at Woolston library.
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Adam McGrath with one of locals whose story he heard at the Sit In at Woolston library.

This week, Adam has been listening to other people's stories about their lives for a musical project called The Sit In.

With the support of the Enliven Spaces initiative, he's spending a week at a time in different parts of Christchurch, parking up near libraries and other places of social interaction. He'll make you a coffee, listen and talk. The plan is to turn these stories into songs which will be recorded for an album to be given away. Later, he'll return to these same spots to perform the songs in free shows.

It is quiet on struggle street. No-one is outside but there's still the feeling of being watched through twitching curtains. The sun is now out but the day still feels grey. Adam tells me he feels sad.

His mum had loved the small garden in front of us. She had nurtured and tended the plants in difficult soil. They had flowered and grown, adding pretty colours to their lives. She was particularly precise about the edges being crisp and neat.

"Everyone knew that you didn't f... with Mrs McGrath's garden."

When a neighbouring woman was beaten by her partner, she fled to Mrs McGrath's house, confident he wouldn't dare follow her there.

On another occasion a teenage Adam was in his room, loudly listening to Suicidal Tendencies, and didn't hear his mother's screams. A member of the Mongrel Mob had entered their home by drunken mistake.

The man fled. His mum called the police and they'd searched but hadn't found him.

Later that night, she'd gone outside and found the Mongrel Mob member passed out on her back doorstep.

There are still shades of his mum's past love and care evident in the garden now but the edges aren't as neat as she would have liked.

We walk back to the car, back down the grey tunnel alleyway and emerge in the present.

On our way to see the Marist Western Suburbs Rugby League Clubrooms, we cut through a nearby park toward's the scene of Adam's "field of glory" and he remembers watching his mum walk down a similar path to catch a bus to work. She was working in a children's toy store when the store held a special children's day and his mum had dressed as a clown and done a bit of face-painting.

It was such a success, her employers decided to make her a clown permanently so she became Whizzo the Clown.

She caught the bus to work, in full clown make-up and costume, tucked under one arm a toy dog the children in the toy store had a competition to name.

Adam remembers watching her walk down the path to catch the bus to work, in full clown regalia, puffing on a cigarette.

"She couldn't really do facepainting," he says, a smile in his eyes. "So she just drew pictures on the children's faces."

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Adam McGrath's favourite place in Christchurch isn't Lyttelton. His favourite place is Bishopdale Mall.

We sit outdoors and drink fantastic coffees bought to us on a tray by a cafe owner. Adam is a regular and likes to follow his coffee with an old-fashioned raspberry milkshake.

This week for the Sit In people have talked to him about "goddam Nazis", addiction problems, their troubles, their happiness, their illnesses. A parent spoke to him about the practicalities of life with their transgender child and a man who can't work because he has ADHD quietly told Adam about his love of art. Then there was a cheeky 90-year-old named Mavis who came to the library for her weekly stash of large print books.

Seven years ago on Tuesday, September 4, our city's stories shared a chapter  when the 7.1 earthquake struck Canterbury. Since that day, the people of our city have continually battled to pick themselves back up time and time again. It's something we do together.

After the February 2011 earthquakes, Adam and his band The Eastern did a tour of Christchurch, performing hundreds of shows in people's backyards in liquefaction and dust. They performed free shows for emergency services personnel, children and our elderly. At the time, Adam said "I can't fix the roads, but I can play music, that's how I can help".

There was an old Christchurch saying that you couldn't open your wardrobe without finding The Eastern playing in it. 

Together with the other members of the Harbour Union they released an album which hit the top 10 charts and raised money for children affected by the earthquakes and helped our earthquake homeless.

The Eastern recorded a double album, Hope and Wire, in a red-zoned home in Dallington in 2012.

Whenever there was a protest in Christchurch about inequality, or school closures or some little guy being screwed over by a big corporation or politician Adam and his band were there, supporting the cause, singing.

Adam has faced personal disasters in recent years too, including the death of his mum.

More recently, on an overseas tour he caught something thrown off a balcony and hurt his right hand. It is still causing him a great deal of pain. We speak the day before he visits a specialist to find out how it is going to affect his guitar playing. He wears a brace on it 24 hours a day, only taking it off to perform.

Despite this, he still played two fundraising concerts recently, including one for Redcliffs School.

Tonight, as part of BoxFresh4! he plays alongside The Response at The Piano from 8pm. 

Outside another state house Adam grew up in, he points to some stones his mum painted white which are sitting beside a picket fence. They are still there 30 years later but the paint is fainter now.

The community values she helped plant inside Adam are still blooming. Her garden, in the form of his kind, community spirit, is still brightening up our city on grey days.

For more than seven years Adam has been telling our stories and documenting our city's history through song.

The Sit In is just another way Adam is trying to help our city heal. Like our city, his arm is injured but in recovery mode.

"The common denominator between all these people I talk to is the never-ending tug of war between the bad times and the good, and the idea that in the face of deep loss we always find something true, something to hold our backs straight on the way back up, something deeper to give away and share."

 - Stuff

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