Swagger of Thieves: Sex, drugs and Head Like A Hole's truth

NZIntFilmFestival/YouTube

Swagger of Thieves is screening as part of this year's New Zealand International Film Festival

The full story of notorious Wellington band Head Like a Hole has been told at last. Philip Matthews talks to film-maker Julian Boshier about the Mick and Keith of New Zealand rock. 

Christchurch, the late 1990s. Having played a triumphant gig in the Garden City, degenerate Wellington rock band Head Like a Hole were on the road south when music video director Julian Boshier​ had a great idea. 

Boshier had just directed the clip for the band's sex anthem Wet Rubber, immediately banned by TVNZ – "Which was good, because it got a buzz about it," he says. His task during the South Island tour was to shoot a clip for the song Comfortably Shagged, and he was thinking about a prison as a location. 

He had singer Nigel Beazley, known to everyone as Booga, and guitarist Nigel Regan in the car with him. At the time, the two Nigels were the band's most-committed drug takers and Boshier was learning about the country's heroin underground. 

"There is a network," Boshier says. "If you hook into the dealer in Timaru, that dealer will tell you where the next location is in Dunedin." 

Nigel "Booga" Beazley visits the grave of former Head Like a Hole and Shihad manager Gerald Dwyer.
Julian Boshier

Nigel "Booga" Beazley visits the grave of former Head Like a Hole and Shihad manager Gerald Dwyer.

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He remembers it was a Saturday morning when they pulled up to Rolleston Prison and drove straight into a drugs search. It sounds stupid in retrospect.

"There was billowing marijuana smoke pouring out of our car window because Nigel Regan was smoking a big joint in the back seat. They had all these syringes, all these drugs in their luggage."

Head Like a Hole guitarist Nigel Regan crowd surfs during a Wellington show.
Julian Boshier

Head Like a Hole guitarist Nigel Regan crowd surfs during a Wellington show.

The two Nigels were thrown into a police car and taken back to Christchurch. They were released a few hours' later. This classic rock and roll scene formed the amusing prologue to the Comfortably Shagged clip. 

And they still made the show in Dunedin that night, just a bit late: "They were supposed to be at the venue doing the sound check but they were too busy." 

Busy with what, though? As footage Boshier shot at the time shows, they had to go and score more heroin. Boshier put his confronting footage of Booga and Regan preparing and injecting heroin in some Dunedin dealer's kitchen and bathroom into his long-awaited and remarkably frank Head Like a Hole documentary Swagger of Thieves

Nigel Regan and Booga on stage at the Mountain Rock festival in the 1990s. Some venues were less than keen on the band ...
Supplied

Nigel Regan and Booga on stage at the Mountain Rock festival in the 1990s. Some venues were less than keen on the band playing naked.

The band collapsed about a year after that. Drugs obviously played a part. Regan had been siphoning funds from the band's bank account and, says former guitarist Tom Watson in the documentary, he and Booga "just whacked it up their arms". Former bass player Andrew Durno also talks about how "soul destroying" it was to have junkies in the band. 

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"I can understand the resentment," Boshier says. "Everyone was collectively working hard and earning money and Nigel Regan stole it."

Boshier started making his documentary when the band reunited in 2008 and Booga and Regan were on the methadone programme. They are the characters who drive a film that you could view as the on-again/off-again story of two rock fans who met at school and have struggled to keep their relationship alive ever since. There is a surprisingly touching moment when Regan says Booga never looks him in the eye on stage anymore. 

Film maker Julian Boshier is behind the camera with Head Like a Hole guitarist Nigel Regan, who is playing against type ...
Julian Boshier

Film maker Julian Boshier is behind the camera with Head Like a Hole guitarist Nigel Regan, who is playing against type by reading Jane Eyre in the tour van.

"[There is] this lingering undercurrent of resentment," Boshier says. "Sometimes they have an amazing gig and they're hugging each other and it's all great, but the following morning they could be stonewalling each other and ignoring each other. It's quite bizarre." 

The film also reminds us that they have been a formidable live band over the years. They took off fast, forming at the end of 1990 and getting their top 20 debut album, 13, out by 1992. Regan and former drummer Mark Hamill would play naked and that only helped the notoriety. They had rock-beast names: Booga, Datehole​, Tallbeast​, Hidee Beast. 

"We didn't want to be just another boring band," as Regan says. 

There was a sense of danger and, equally, a sense of humour. The film also shows that Booga can be one of the funniest front men in New Zealand. 

"He's got a sparkle in his eye," Boshier says. "He's the master of the soundbite and he looks good. He's quite compelling and a really easy guy to film." 

When the film catches up with Booga on the eve of the reunion, he is living in Otaki with his wife Tamzi​n and their twins and running a window-cleaning business. There are the confessions of a window cleaner: Booga complains about Shihad​, who came out of the same Wellington scene and have become respectable household names. 

Regan on the other hand reminds Boshier of one of his heroes, Keith Richards. "He has that 'I'm coping but I'm not quite coping' drawn, drug-addled, cool look." 

The pair even seem to Boshier to be the Mick and Keith of New Zealand rock. They bonded over records like the teenage Jagger and Richards – at a suburban train station for the Rolling Stones and at Anglican, private Rathkeale College, incongruously enough, for Head Like a Hole. 

Stones biographer Rich Cohen claims that Jagger and Richards are like a bitter married couple who fell out back in the 1980s and have never properly made up. Are Booga and Regan just as volatile?

"It's ongoing. There has just been a falling out between Nigel and Booga in the last few days. It stems from drug use. It alters people's personalities."  

There are plenty of drug casualties and washed-up, unreliable people in their wake. Boshier tracked down some very early live footage of the band during their naked, tribal phase to a pig farm in Raumati, but the woman who shot it wouldn't part with it. Another contact, Lane Husband, came through instead. 

Husband had been a friend of Gerald Dwyer, who could be worth a documentary in himself. Initially the frontman for legendary Wellington punk band Flesh D-Vice, he managed Shihad and Head Like a Hole, and took both bands to Poland and Germany for three months before dying of an overdose after the Big Day Out in 1996. 

But rather than scaring them off, Head Like a Hole's drug consumption only worsened after this early warning. Band members had dabbled when they were based in Germany. 

The humour in the story will have some viewers thinking of the rock parody This is Spinal Tap. Others will make an inevitable connection with Some Kind of Monster, which had rock band Metallica​ going into therapy.

But the film Dig!, about the rivalry between the Dandy Warhols and the Brian Jonestown Massacre, might be a better comparison. There is a similar self-destructiveness and rare access to the extremes of rock behaviour. 

And like the Brian Jonestown Massacre, Head Like a Hole could get a new lease of life after the documentary comes out. Boshier also thinks of a Canadian rock band called Anvil who had been marginally influential but forgotten before the hilarious documentary Anvil! The Story of Anvil

This is Boshier's first and only documentary and it was stressful, not only because of the personalities involved. There were problems like music licensing – he had to cut a piece about how the band took their name from a Nine Inch Nails song because of music industry issues. And there was the sheer amount of work. 

It was entirely self-funded – Boshier says he wanted to keep creative control. But there was more than a year of editing, two nights per week while Boshier does his film industry day job, before New Zealand International Film Festival director Bill Gosden​ gave him a deadline four months ago. It has been a race to the finish line ahead of the first festival screening at Auckland's the Civic on August 3. 

The band members and others have all seen it. Some will be there. Tamzin Beazley calls the film "brutal, but very truthful". What does Boshier think Booga and Regan will make of seeing their brazen drug taking on the big screen? 

He suspects it will only add to their mythology, their debauched brand, their sense of danger. 

"They like the notoriety. They like being the bad boys." 

Swagger of Thieves (R16) will premiere at the Civic in Auckland on August 3. It plays at the Embassy in Wellington on August 9, the Light House in Petone on August 10 and Hoyts Northlands in Christchurch on August 11 and 12. Go to nziff.co.nz for more information. 

 - Stuff

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