Few bands had such a memorable presence as Split Enz; their edgy, catchy, unforgettable songs complimented by their unique performance style and and demeanour.
Mike Chunn was there at the very beginning of the Split Enz adventure, and his book provides a detailed and valuable record of how the group came into being. It is also a moving account of how undiagnosed mental illness drove him away from touring, and how he found other ways to stay close to music.
It may seem incongruous that a school where "(t)he main activity was keeping quiet" would provide the genesis of a band, but Chunn met Tim Finn at Sacred Heart College, Auckland, where silence and corporal punishment are described as the orders of the day, nearly every day.
At the same time, musical competitions provided some outlet for creativity, and some Brothers allowed for greater freedom; notably the one who took Chunn's class to see Easy Rider.
The early forming of bonds through music, some of which survive in Chunn's life today, makes for entertaining reading.
The magic of a band coming together and performing, the "energy in the room, the invisible, deep energy that turns songs from ideas into a fierce reality" is evoked brilliantly in this book.
What exactly makes that magic? Chunn provides no formula, but he describes both the craft and the codes of being in a band (or bands) brilliantly.
The strange world of the bass player is partially revealed. Moments of musical creativity are contrasted with the sometimes sordid realities of life on the road, whether in the US, Rotorua, or at the Mustang car owners' bash in Goulburn, Australia.
The onset of crippling anxiety and panic attacks that eventually drove Chunn away from the life of touring with Split Enz, and his later band called Citizen Band, are described in agonising detail.
Chunn hides his pain and relies on tranquillisers to dull it for many years. He doesn't talk openly about his experiences to other band members, his father (a doctor), or to a psychiatrist he sees once.
His first diagnosis of agoraphobia seems to have come from reading a magazine article, and it becomes clear that attacks are triggered by leaving Auckland.
Chunn's continued involvement in the music industry after he is forced to give up the peripatetic life of a touring band member provides another level of interest to the book; he works hard at APRA to ensure that songwriters receive their dues.
He also campaigns to ensure that New Zealand songs are played more. Under his (and others') watch, the number of New Zealand songs played on radio increases from under three per cent to nearly twenty per cent, which is a remarkable achievement.
Chunn also encourages songwriting amongst young New Zealanders, through the Play It Strange initiative, introducing competitions for school students.
He endeavours to have songwriting included as a subject for senior students, and this eventually happens.
While lacking the tingling magic of the descriptions of live performance, these efforts to see that a new generation gets the chance to link words and music in 'shared celebration' are fascinating in their detailed descriptions of politics and persistence.
Extracts from students' entries add greatly to this section of the book.
As a story of how Chunn found pathways to keep his connections with music and musicians strong after experiencing many years of anxiety and panic attacks, A Sharp Left Turn is both moving and quietly inspiring.
This, and the early coming together of Split Enz, are the highlights of the memoir, which is full of references to musicians (and the occasional actor or politician) both very famous, and comparatively unknown.
The work also shows touches on the social changes in New Zealand over the years, but it is the story of Mike Chunn's life-long engagement with the art form that he loves that will stick with the reader for a very long time.
It will bring a special joy to anyone who has ever hummed the tune of a Split Enz tune to themselves, but that is not a prerequisite for enjoyment of this engaging book.
- Penelope Cottier is a poet in Canberra, who writes as PS Cottier
- A Sharp Left Turn: Notes on a life in music, from Split Enz to Play It Strange, by Mike Chunn. Allen & Unwin. $39.99.