Together Alone: The Story of the Finn Brothers
Pitt Street Gardens Sydney July 1979 Sydney's Pitt Street Gardens is not your typical rock-and-roll venue. The decor puts a whole new spin on the term lurid: a cheesy mirrorball hovers above the dance floor, and there's a sea of dark carpet to hide the stains of spilled drinks and worse, while its location – smack dab in the centre of Sydney's retail strip – made most serious music fans wary of the place. By its very nature, and location, this was a meat market, where over-dressed suburban Kevins and Sharlenes came together and commingled on the dance floor, ideally to the soundtrack of the Village People. It was not the kind of joint where you'd expect to catch a greasepaint-splattered, be-suited group of expat Kiwis. Yet there were enough 'real' music lovers assembled on this weeknight, me included, to check out the band that would soon become the hottest act either side of the Tasman. I was still a few months shy of legal drinking age, but when a buddy suggested, strongly, that we check out this 'weird' band that the cool crowd was raving about, I knew it was my duty to catch the next city-bound train. That was more than enough to entice me, a restless teenager living in humdrum suburbia, to scratch together the cover charge and, hopefully, talk my way past the security guy on the door. I was mad keen to check out the freak show.
Split Enz weren't totally new to me. I had heard some of their recent offerings on Sydney's left-of-the-dial radio station 2JJ, such as the tearaway rant 'I See Red' and the heady, giddy 'Give it a Whirl', among others, to know them well enough. But up until now I hadn't had the chance to see them in the flesh – not many rock shows of their theatrical bent included my neighbourhood in their tour schedule. Mine was more a 'beer and Chisel' kind of town, where the louder the band played, the better the response. I knew that the Enz weren't one of those bands, even if I wasn't completely sure what to expect. Tim Finn once wrote a song called 'Hard Act to Follow' and, though legend suggests it's a nod to Midnight Oil, he may well have been talking about Jimmy and the Boys, their wild opening act for the night. But once the Enz began to play it became apparent they were almost as visual a band as their opening act, and not just because of their garish bespoke suits and eye-popping light show. It was as if each member of the band had rubbed up against a live electrical wire: they crashed into one another while hurling themselves around the stage, their manic stares set just above the crowd's head, their wild hair and pancake make-up greasy and running within minutes. It was impossible to tell if they were laughing, crying or sneering. To me, the impact was as much physical as it was musical – and I had no doubt this band could play – as they caromed off each other like human pinballs. And out front stood Tim Finn, whose dark, towering quiff gave him an extra few inches over the rest of the band, and whose intense stare, ghost-white face dripping sweat, suggested a man who meant business.
I went away duly impressed. And within months the band's star began to shine its brightest, on the back of their most commercially sharp set, 1980's True Colours. I was now a fan and devoured the album as soon as it hit my local record store.Fast-forward 27 years to August 2006. I was again in the same room as Tim Finn, although we were now in a smart Kings Cross wine bar rather than some sleazy mid-town nightclub. I asked Tim about 1979 and he still remembered the show, not because it was a standout gig, but because it marked a huge turning point for the Enz, as they morphed from 2JJ favourites to 'the band' of 1980 – Countdown darlings, live must-sees and shifters of some serious units. Punters just couldn't get enough of Neil Finn's 'I Got You' and Tim's sadly beautiful ballad 'I Hope I Never'; both were huge hits and the album was an unstoppable commercial force. And in 1979 the Finns and their respectives had just moved to Sydney, so the Emerald City meant a lot to the brothers.
Now, in 2006, Tim was easing himself back into the mainstream after many years of enforced 'indiedom'. The passing of the years was reflected in Tim's shock of grey hair and lined face, but he was still handsome enough, albeit in a King Lear-ish kind of way. He was now regal rather than menacing; his gaze more benign than that of the 1979 pop star who admitted he was on an 'odyssey' with Split Enz.I was there to speak with Tim about this book – and reminisce a little. He was happy to speak with me, as we flashed back to that 1979 gig and caught up (our paths had intersected over the years through my stint at Rolling Stone and some mutual American acquaintances). Warily, I asked him how he would feel about me writing a book on the life and times of he and his brother Neil. "I'd be horrified," he only half-joked, worried what his two young children might make of his rock-and-roll life. Eventually, though, he gave my project his reluctant blessing and suggested we stay in touch. I went away satisfied. I'd been able to reminisce about a gig that I'd never quite been able to forget, and I'd had a surprisingly easy conversation about a book I genuinely wanted to write. Subsequently, however, Tim began to inch away from any involvement with the book, so I shelved the project, at least temporarily, and concentrated on other work. I was disappointed but not downcast; this book would eventually happen. It was a worthy, if daunting project. I'd set out to chart Tim and Neil's 30-plus years in music, both together and alone, with Split Enz and Crowded House and as significant, influential solo artists. Their musical lives reflected several decades of Australasian musical history – it was too good a book not to write, in fact. Sure, there had been worthy studies of Split Enz and Crowded House, and some fan club-only volumes, but I felt the real story lay in the brothers' lives, which had intertwined like the roots of some imposing New Zealand cabbage tree ever since their shared childhood in rural Te Awamutu. That's the story I set out to tell.By the end of 2008 I felt that the time was right to once again delve into the world of the Finns. During the intervening years I'd become their shadow: I'd attended numerous shows by both brothers, in venues large and small, and I'd sat in on record company listening sessions featuring Tim and Neil. I'd read millions of words and devoted endless hours to detailed research and listening. But yet again I met some resistance – in some cases stony silence – from the key players. Nonetheless I moved onwards, as I firmly believed – and still do – that it's a massive injustice that the brothers' musical odyssey hasn't been properly documented. As I review this manuscript, I'd like to think that I've done their lives and work justice, in the same way that Neil and Tim Finn have left a permanent impression on probably millions of listeners and admirers around the planet, both together and alone. c Jeff Apter 2010