Voodoo Rocker

by Kiran Dass

Reprinted without permission FROM THE LISTENER ARCHIVE: ARTS & BOOKS August 23-29 2008 Vol 215 No 3563, but hey they might go under or get bought out by Fairfax or someone and now that it’s on here it’s as good as gold, safe as houses, and won’t go away…

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The Puddle’s George D Henderson has an almost shamanic knack for neatly concise pop songs.

The Chills’ Doledrums (1984) is a much celebrated dole day anthem, with Martin Phillipps’ almost lifeless and deadpan refrain “the benefits arrive and life goes on …” But there was another Dunedin band and Flying Nun label mate of The Chills who turned out a much better ode to dole day. The Puddle’s Thursday (1993) is a joyous pop gem. “My sweet little Thursday/I wouldn’t swap you for the rest of the year …”

“Well, as a Chills fan, I was kind of disappointed by Doledrums. And as a beneficiary, I thought it was sort of ungrateful,” says George D Henderson, singer/guitarist/ founder of the Puddle.

“I guess I didn’t share Marty’s work ethic. For me and my friends, dole day was the only day of the week we really lived. So I was trying to express that devil may take tomorrow and live for today ambience that I saw around me on Thursday nights in Dunedin.”

Formed in 1984 with the stellar line up of Henderson, Leslie Paris, Norma O’Malley and Peter Gutteridge, the Puddle have contributed an almost mythical and romantic legacy to New Zealand music.

On a bad night, they were a shambolic and broken spectacle. But on a good night, the band would be like a majestic rush of lightning right up the nervous system. While the Puddle’s sound is steeped in muddy, psyched out, sci fi cod metal and narcotic cool, the bottom line is always gleaming pop.

Henderson has an almost shamanic knack of writing neatly concise pop songs that are riddled with hooks and melodies. Spindly guitars are punctuated with jabs of wonky, scrunched up organ, brittle flute interjections and savvy lyrics sung in a proud Kiwi accent. But the real magic lies in Henderson’s innate ability to write songs you think you’ve heard before. They just instantly click.

Henderson’s history includes heroin addiction, crime and jail. Diagnosed with debilitating hepatitis C in 1991, which he has learned to manage successfully, there were even rumours that he had died.

“I never heard those rumours! But, of course, I’d be the last to know,” he says with a laugh.

I can confirm Henderson is very much alive. When I saw his reformed Puddle perform recently in Auckland, he played such a long and ferocious set (including a thundering and blissfully irony free cover of Smoke on the Water) that I had to sit down. The man is unstoppable.

Born in Edinburgh, Scotland, Henderson moved to Invercargill with his family when he was eight. Inspired by local band Watchdog, who played T Rex and David Bowie covers, he formed his own band with his younger brother, Ian, and Tweedsmuir Intermediate chum the late Lindsay Maitland.

“Did you ever see that television series Freaks and Geeks? That was us, man. We started as the geeks and grew into the freaks,” says Henderson, 50.

A bit of a rascal during his school years, he admits he would do anything for attention.

“One teacher said he didn’t know if I’d grow up to be a genius or a madman. For a long time I thought I’d have to choose.”

I first heard the Puddle via a dub of a dubbed cassette (minus track list, of course) of the Flying Nun classic Into the Moon (1992). I was 15. We listened to Slayer and Black Sabbath back then.

So, comparatively, the Puddle were like music from another planet. Produced by Alastair Galbraith, Into the Moon sounded like it had been recorded in the bottom of a tin can. Dusty and sprawling, there was still a heaviness about it that appealed. As did the thrillingly dangerous and volatile nature of Henderson’s songs, courtesy of the metallic edged and drugged up psychedelia.

Starting with opiated pot at 17, Henderson moved on to heroin (or as he says in Junk, the devil’s petrol) at 20, tripping on LSD in between.

“The drugs I took were historical counter culture landmarks. But it quickly got seedy: cough mixture, painkillers, diet pills and benzos. But opium was always the drug of choice because it was a romantic thing,” he says.

Henderson’s drug addiction contributed to a flirtation with crime. In 1990, he snuck into the science department of the University of Otago to steal ether. Though he cunningly wore a white lab coat, he was caught.

“Just before they grabbed me, I tipped the ether all over my clothes. That way, they couldn’t stop me getting off. The police took a picture of me wearing the lab coat, and it was posted all over the university.”

Because he was already on probation for a chemist burglary, Henderson was sent to Invercargill Prison in 1991 for three months. He says his time in prison blew away any remnants of his liberal youth.

“I decided to take the music seriously when I got out. To get the girls and so forth.”

Musically, the Puddle had more in common with post punk/soul popsters Orange Juice than the spikiness of The Fall, who were a favourite with sexless, stand back and impress me, black jersey bands in 1980s Dunedin. Henderson reckons that with your music you’ve got to get them between the legs as well as the ears.

“It sounds obvious now, not to mention crass. But I was never into the po faced thing of the Dunedin Sound. I wanted to shake people up. A lot of people came to our shows to dance, to hook up and to have fun.”

So, are the Puddle sexy music, then?

“Most rock music is kind of pre sexual, kind of ‘I wanna’, and it’s more meaningful to me to write about the consequences of getting your heart’s desire, or not,” says Henderson.

There’s a certain kind of knowing voodoo that runs through Henderson’s songs. He’s got spunk. He knows that the way women and men regard each other is one of life’s great mysteries, and that the pop song is the ideal vehicle to explore this.

“Well, that voodoo thing you mentioned is such a pleasure to play. You can be sure it’s that voodoo, not blood transfusions, keeping Keith Richards alive.”

The Puddle’s latest offering, No Love No Hate (Powertool), clearly shows Henderson still has that fire within him. Lyrical, garage rock, his songs are smart, sharp, and while there’s still that blissed out psychedelia, they’re more lucid than ever.

“Well, I’m not as filthy with drugs as I once was, put it that way. I have no idea how much longer I’ve got. I’m already old for a rock musician. Many of my peers are dead or out of action. But now life is fascinating and exciting without being too intimidating.”

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