Sunday, June 13, 2010

Tim Wilson on Sam Hunt

The 13th in this occasional series of reprints from Quote Unquote the magazine is from the first issue, June 1993, and is a profile of the poet Sam Hunt (be-gonged in the 2010 Queen’s Birthday honours list) by Tim Wilson. Yes, that chap from the telly, whose first novel, Their Faces Were Shining, is due in October from VUP. He/we won a Commonwealth Media Prize for this story.

Money quote:
Hunt often seems a bit like St. Paul: all things to all people. In New Zealand he says his favourite poets include Tim and Neil Finn. When in Australia, he talks glowingly about Paul Kelly and Joe Camilleri, again local musicians. Hunt once told Zealandia that he often considered being a priest. At the time he probably drank enough to qualify.
Here is the original intro:
Drunk, disorderly and quite possibly debauched, Sam Hunt won an ardent following for both himself and his poetry as he performed in pubs and halls nationwide through the 70s and 80s. Now he’s sober and selling bread in a TV commercial. Has the people’s poet sold out? If so, what’s the going rate for a national icon? And what, TIM WILSON wonders, becalms a legend most?
And here is the story:

Crumpie touting Toyotas; Bruno Lawrence pushing Peanut Slabs; Gary McCormick going gaga for Mitre 10. There’s a pattern emerging. Crumpie, Bruno and Gary – characters, outsiders, communicators. Finally, representing Vogel bread and the Endeavour challenge: come on down, Sam Hunt.
You don’t have to be Alison Holst to work out this recipe. Take one good keen man. Isolate him. A good keen man alone, if you like. Let him do his own thing. It might be huntin’, shootin’ and fishin’. It might be trawling State Highway One in a large and powerful car. Add tall tales about drinking, seducing vicars’ wives and/or the attempted seduction of everyone’s wives. Toss in a dash of social comment.
Wait a decade or two then scrub the “alone” bit. New Zealand’s just too small.
You now have a good keen man with “cut-through”. This is what advertising people say when they mean noticeability. Dave Henderson, creator of the Vogel bread Kiwi Legends campaign, says that Sam Hunt had more cut-through than fel¬low legend the late Sir Robert Muldoon. In his next ad Hunt wished Grant Dalton’s yacht bon voyage: “Good luck, God speed, you’re on your way.” Even now people shout it at him as he walks down the street.
Everyone you know, it seems, has a Sam Hunt story, even if it’s just a sighting, like the time he was seen at the top of Whakapapa ski field two years ago, the only individual on the piste to wear black jeans and lace-up gumboots. I have two – I swear they’re true.
I first saw Sam Hunt perform with Gary McCormick on a Sunday afternoon at Wanganui’s Sarjeant Art Gallery. My parents were duly scandalised. “They’re so coarse,” shrieked my grandmother. As a bland teenager caught in a provincial town, I felt this was just what the doctor had ordered. A posse of schoolgirls in the audience, their uniforms identifying them as coming from Nga Tawa College, an expensive private school at nearby Marton, seemed to feel the same way.
Cut to a stretch of road just out of Waikanae. I was hitchhiking. To my surprise a late-model Commodore stopped. Those winklepicker boots, my driver explained, were why he had picked me up. His friend Sam Hunt wore boots like that. I replied that he couldn’t be very well off, financially. My driver nearly went off the road. “Don’t you believe it,” he chortled, “he’s a very smart cookie. He’s loaded.” I sat very quietly after that. Poets should be eccentric. But prosperous, smart cookies?
If you enjoyed that contradiction, Hunt has a few more: the vulnerable bodgie, the public performer who cherishes solitude, the poet who seems to dislike as much poetry as he likes, the non-conformist who is lionised… Talk to Hunt for a while and a further contradiction is evident: his poems may be short but his speech is long. Questions deserving a quick answer do get one; eventually. He quotes Pablo Neruda, Ezra Pound, Seamus Heaney and himself. His puns are often very funny. He must be a lazy journalist’s dream date. Not only is he quotable; golly is he friendly. After five minutes of conversing you feel as if you want to, if not have his babies, then perhaps volunteer that your sister do so.
This side of him is what galvanises the television appearances. Politicians and Paul Holmes apart, most faces on the small screen tend to be smooth-skinned, young and shallow. Hunt is not and it’s nice to have a bit of rough. His directors, Costa Botes of 1989’s Catching The Tide and Keith Hunter of 1992’s Great New Zealand River Journeys, attest to Hunt’s credibility: “People wouldn’t leave him alone,” says Botes., “They knew him. They knew the name of his dog.”
“He clearly has a persona in outback New Zealand,” Hunter adds, “which is a very popular one.”
Don’t forget suburbia. “Sam has a great rapport with middle New Zealand. He’s been stumping middle New Zealand for years,” says River Journeys producer George Andrews. Hunt’s father was a barrister, which puts him well above the halfway mark, class-wise. It shows. Botes, himself impeccably soft-spoken, describes Hunt’s flawless manners and sense of protocol with admiration.
While his directors and producer can’t heap enough praise on his writing skills, especially under pressure, other industry insiders aren’t as complimentary. “Working with Sam,” says one, “was the worst shoot I’ve ever been involved with.”
“It was the best and worst of times,” says another. If things don’t go well, apparently, Hunt can be vain, impatient and insecure. There is also the suggestion that his brain is an eensy-weensy bit fried by years of heavy living.
Like an old blues singer, Hunt has paid dues. They sit in his vocal chords, kept there by roll-your-own cigarettes. You know what he will call a spade. “Fuck off,” he spat at one point during our interview, declaiming the numerous unsolicited invitations to openings and launches that he receives. A pause. “Well, that sounds a bit arrogant.” Another pause. “But basically I mean fuck off.” He often seems careful of the effect he is having. His vowels are Oxbridge: naice and kaind.
Ask him, however, about whether he sees himself as part of the good keen man tradition, and he changes tack. “I don’t know about see myself; this suggesting, which I haven’t done, that you’ve worked out what sort of image you’re going to put out there. I don’t want to sound naive or simplistic, but I just go for the things I like.”
Consumers are different. They don’t always know what things they like. They need advertising or help, depending on your point of view. Colenso in Auckland has been helping New Zealanders with their point of view since 1969. Celebrated clients include: Dominion Breweries, Anchor Foods and the Woman’s Weekly. Dave Henderson, Colenso’s chief executive office/creative director, the man who penned the Vogel verses, knows what ads should do. “One big objective of advertising is to be noticed,” he says. “You often find in popularity polls that the same ad can be among the most popular and the most unpopular. Sam’s one of those guys who won’t be ignored.”
Henderson implies that Hunt felt doing the ad was like a death; at the outset anyway. “He was very apprehensive and worried about whether it was the right thing to do. He was very concerned about what he was going to say and how he was going to look.”
To his credit, and ironically to his everlasting cachet with advertising people, Hunt remains doubtful. “I’d love to do it without the ads. Doing my sort of ad is an awful compromise.”
So why did he do it? “All the money, all the bread I made on Vogel’s went straight to the Henderson branch of Te Tari Take, the Inland Revenue. I’ve got my taxes paid for the first time in six years.”
Hunt won’t say what the figure is. Henderson is equally reticent: “It’s not a huge amount. A fair amount for a market of this size; not megabucks, put it that way.”
What are megabucks, then – tens of thousands? “More than that if you wanted someone with an international profile.”
Hunt enjoyed his next commercial, done for the Endeavour challenge, “even though it wasn’t one of those highly paid numbers”. Enjoyment is, he knows, one rationalisation. There are others. “If you can live with it, OK. A lot of ads that I see people doing on television I’ve been asked to do, or programmes that come on the radio or television and you’ve been asked to go on them and, you think, No way!”
What separates the welcome from the Faustian? “Well, can you do it in terms of your own...”
If you can you sleep at night? “Well, I don’t sleep at night anyway. Can you sleep in the afternoon, y’know?” Hunt’s mind extends its hind legs and springs to the next lily pad. “I love that Verlaines album that they did a few years ago called 10 O’clock In The Afternoon. Great title. Good album, too.”
Sam Hunt may sometimes go, as Dave Henderson hinted, for tens of thousands. When the stimulation’s right, he just goes. Hunt saw the first draft of the script for the Endeavour challenge ad while seated in an Auckland recording studio, all the expensive tape machines set on pause. “I read it and it looked like someone had just had a birthday and taken their birthday card to heart. The final word was that I wasn’t doing it.” Hunt recorded his own verse to fit the 60-second space vacated by the original. “I did it first take,” he says, with some pride, “thumbs up, out of the studio, onto the plane and got the afternoon flight.”
Now and again, Sam doesn’t go at all. When he and Keith Hunter did a fact-find¬ing excursion for River Journeys they discovered that the Wanganui river locals were hopping mad with ECNZ, then called Electricorp, for diverting the head waters of the river to Taupo. At the time, Electricorp was a prospective sponsor of the show. Andrews remembers, “Sam came back from the reconnaissance very firm that he would not be able to continue with the programme if Electricorp were to sponsor it, as they were hoping to do. I had to chose between the two and it wasn’t very hard.”
The programme aired with Hunt standing on the edifice which does the diverting. “Looking around here,” he proclaimed, “you can’t help feeling that the hand of man has outstretched the hands of the gods.”
Some things, then, he won’t do. There have been some “generous offers” of corporate sponsorship for tours. Hunt rejected them on the grounds that “they were just hitchhiking”. He says he’s not in any great hurry to do more ads, although that’s not the same as swearing he’ll never do another.

Has the people’s bard sold out? Not yet, chorus the experts. “Sam Hunt hasn’t been milked,” states Keith Lewin. “He will be more valuable if he doesn’t say yes to everything. He’s not subject to trend. He’s a bit like Levis jeans. He’s just there.” Levis, coincidentally, is another of Lewin’s clients. Henderson agrees that he hasn’t been as commercialised as the retired-poet-turned-ordinary-bloke, Gary McCormick. “Sam is much closer to the essence of his creative self,” says Costa Botes. “I can’t see him drifting away from that. He is a poet and a very good one.”
What about some fresh verses, then? Hunt has become comparatively ubiquitous on the boob tube, yet less so in print. Making Tracks, a poetic greatest hits, ap¬peared in 1991. Thirty new poems surfaced in Angel Gear four years ago, but they’re not what the book will be best remembered for: rock journalist Colin Hogg’s description of two ageing men behaving like reptiles caused a predictable reaction from those who failed to see the funny side of voyeurism, substance abuse and other diversions. Hunt’s last book of new poetry was 1985’s Approaches To Paremata.
Hunt says a “combination of things” has caused the dearth of new published work. One of these is that he was dissatisfied with the poems. “By that I don’t mean writing a poem and looking at it and saying, No. You reassess a lot of stuff. You look at poems you’ve written and think, Oh no, fuck that. Said that before.”
He’s also not sure if the printed page is his medium. “For years I’ve received criticism, and I think quite justifiable criticism, that my poems work better when told.” Video, he believes, is much closer to the spirit of his work. And, one is tempted to add, the spirit of the age.
Hunt used to be one of the country’s most celebrated drunks. No interview with him was complete without the accompaniment of bottles being uncapped. It was one more nice convenient angle: the poet as a pisshead, especially in a nation where drunkenness is considered to be so much more than the measure of a man’s thirst.
Considering this, admittedly self-made, part of the Sam Hunt myth, his decision to stop drinking at the end of the 80s was a courageous one. Concert promoter Ian Magan, a friend of Hunt’s for 20 years, believes the sober Hunt is a better Hunt. “He’s got no one else to be responsible for. Often guys who are in that position do drink a lot. He decided that if he wanted to have a better life and a longer life, he’d have to stop. So he did.”
But the absence of marinade made a difference. “It had quite a bit to do with the silence in terms of making the poems public on the page,” Hunt says. “When you get drunk you can get sentimental, and a lot of that sentimental gush you look at and you think, No. I just felt like cutting off a lot of dead meat from the poems. I’d rather write one good poem than 10 mediocre ones.”
The 10-to-one ratio is one that many critics would agree on when assessing Hunt’s output. Perhaps some of this is, as Maurice Gee has observed, playing the man rather than the ball, but it’s difficult to avoid, especially when the man insists on being so securely affixed to the ball. Hunt professes not to care too much about the judgments of the literati. This is one more facet of the poet’s appeal, as Magan says: “He shoved his fingers at the arty-farty side of this country and said, ‘Up you.’ It was wonderful how he did that, not in any antagonistic or belligerent way [one does wonder what other way the shoving of the fingers can be taken] but ‘This is me; take me as I am and up you.’ l love him for that.”
Magan is not alone in his love. Shoving it to the arty-farties or the eggheads is a popular rallying point, often among the thick and artless. Hunt is the people’s poet now but, for a while at least, he was in¬volved in the literary scene. Denis Glover advised him not to get too respectable. James K. Baxter took time out from writing self-justifying verses to himself and wrote a self-justifying verse to the younger man called, appropriately, “Letter To Sam Hunt”. In 1975 Hunt was the Robert Burns Fellow at Otago University. He even served on the executive committee of the writer’s organisation PEN for four months. “It didn’t have anything to do with poems or songs,” he now says. “It was a whole social structure within the literary world. I don’t like it.”
Hunt allowed his PEN membership to lapse in 1977 and pointed the nose of his Valiant at a different route, one which led, via schools and public bars, to comfortable notoriety and advertisements. The accessories – the thumping great cars, heroic bouts of drinking, the winklepickers, the tight pants – are often distracting. Because they seem to interlock, it’s tempting to put them all together. See: sensitivity with a manly veneer, a bodgie poet.
Yet bodgies don’t rave about Kendrick Smithyman’s Auto/Biographies, they don’t remain slim and they don’t mess about in boats. Sam Hunt likes to be out of fashion, he says. Isn’t anti-fashion a fashion too? “Don’t worry about that,” he advises, “you’re starting to worry about images and how people perceive them.”
Hunt often seems a bit like St. Paul: all things to all people. In New Zealand he says his favourite poets include Tim and Neil Finn. When in Australia, he talks glowingly about Paul Kelly and Joe Camilleri, again local musicians. Hunt once told Zealandia that he often considered being a priest. At the time he probably drank enough to qualify.
Sometimes you think a little more unfamiliarity wouldn’t hurt. Hunt mentions a poem he’s been working on for two years called “Spirit Level”, which he describes as “the woman in me talking”. The woman inside Sam Hunt? Now that would be worth a listen.


Fergus said...

Great to have this back, Stephen. There's also today a new piece by Tim in "a religion magazine for people made anxious by churches"

Stephen Stratford said...

Thanks for the link, Fergus. That's a great piece and not just because it twice - twice! - quotes one of my favourite books, Norman Cohn's The Pursuit of the Millennium.

Phil said...

You beauty
Oh My