What Harry Said

This research, if that isn’t too portentous a word, into the life of my friend Harry Graves, took place sporadically during the last decade or so in Australia and New Zealand. It was random and serendipitous, but one of the things I thought I’d do while in Auckland this year was to try to track Harry down again and find out the ‘real’ story.

I rang a mutual friend who lives on Waikehe Island—the oldest of the many extinct volcanoes on the Tamaki Isthmus—and asked her if she knew where he was. She said he lived out in the Waitakeres, the range of hills to the west of the city, themselves the remains of the second oldest and by far the largest of Auckland’s volcanoes. He has no phone, she said, or if he did she didn’t know the number; and no street address either. But she had visited him once and gave me directions as to how to get there.

It took me a while but I found the place in the end, perched up in the bush looking west over Karekare, the black sand beach where the opening scenes of The Piano were shot. The house was eccentric and charming, clearly home-made, built in a series of connected modular sections climbing up the steep section, with many curious little balconies, all made of timber weathered to a silvery sheen by the incessant winds of that wild coast. But there was nobody home. I peered through the window and saw a room set up as a home studio: piano, guitars, amps, mikes, recording equipment and so on, disposed as if part of a work in progress. What to do? I wrote Harry a short note, with my cell phone number, and suggested he give me a call; but he never did.

However, not long after this abortive visit, late one night as I was walking home along K Road, outside the Pink Pussycat I saw a sleek grey car pull up, with a sleek, grey-suited man at the wheel: that bullet head, that cropped hair, those faded eyes which did not want to look into mine. Harry said he was in a hurry, he had business to attend to, there was no time to talk. Come on, Harry, I said, we go back years. Surely you can spare me half an hour. He looked at his watch, looked up and down the street, looked at the red door of the Pink Pussycat, looked at his watch—a Rolex—again, sighed and said Alright.

We went to a coffee bar further down K Road called Brasil. It seemed appropriate. Harry had a short black while I had a Cascade. I was smoking Wee Willems but he said he didn’t smoke or drink anymore. Or take drugs. He seemed preoccupied, evasive, almost ... sad. He said he didn’t want to talk about the past, but agreed to answer a few questions. I asked, he gave his answers. Here they are:

He got the scar on his head when a piece of masonry from the Berlin Wall flew out and hit him during the celebration of its demolition.

He has never read any Wittgenstein.

Yes, he did once know some people from the Mr Asia syndicate and had I seen that one of them, name of Miles, had just been found dead in Bali? Another, name of Beri, died in a Christchurch jail a few years ago.

He once did own a copy of Robert Lowell’s Imitations and it could be the one that Ray has in Sydney. The annotations were part of an attempt to translate the poems back to the language in which they were first written. He said he thought his version of Le Bateau Ivre and some of his Villon pieces were better than the originals.

He never wrote any songs for Nick Cave, or gave him any words. The only song he could think of that he might have had an influence on was The Weeping Song. He and Nick were driving through the barrio of Rio when he, Harry, said something to the effect that the sound of the barrio was the sound of people weeping. He thought Nick might have picked up on that.

He still has his songbook and his current project, when he gets time away from his business interests, which are considerable, was to record a definitive version of every one of his songs for posterity. Including Dolores and Everything’s Everything. He would let me know when the cd(s) came out. I don't expect that he will.

The dog was a pure blood dingo, he had to put her down because her howling upset the neighbours. Her name was Azaria.

Afterwards I walked with him back up towards the Pink Pussycat. We barely spoke. Outside, he shook my hand and gave me a quick, almost apologetic look. Don’t tell anyone, will you, mate? he said, then turned and went inside.

Harry Graves is not his real name

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