Nice Work if You Can Get It

Nice Work if You Can Get It; Notes from a Musician’s Diary

By Don Franks (Steele Roberts, $19.99)

If you’ve ever wondered what it would be like to be a fly on the wall of the social functions of the rich and powerful but not be tainted by that experience, then Don Frank’s Notes are  whimsical retellings of being that musician. From playing for the Young Nats, to Piggy Muldoon’s birthday party at a high class Italian restaurant, even to the Police Association, Don has played for the lot.

Don has been a principled activist, trade unionist and communist in Wellington for over 40 years. I’ve seen Don play at countless demonstrations from big and small on a range of issues over the years. He’s part of a great tradition of militant musicians bringing song into the movement. He’s also part of a great tradition of jobbing musicians, bringing music to all sorts of venues.

In Notes, Don shares a different aspect of his private working life – one of a gigging musician. With understated humour, he shares experience and insights from “over two thousand gigs”. He explains that “these pages are about what happened at some of them.” There’s no attempt to create a grand narrative or sense of self here. Each chapter takes a song, a gig or a grand flop of a musical, and connects this to something significant for Don.

There are laugh-out-loud moments here like when Don finds himself unwittingly playing for the Police Association to cover for another musician who has pulled out at the last second. “It is a strange feeling to be stuck in a huge hall packed with police”, Don recollects. “You can sense the ironed blue uniforms even when they’re not being worn. Assumed authority hangs heavy in every molecule of the air”.

There’s a sense of an era gone in these pages too. Like when Don is playing at Il Casino, “a place where rich people went to show off their money”, a restaurant that no longer exists but once used to host the likes of Piggy Muldoon, Winston Peters and Jim Bolger. At one gig, Jim Bolger walked in with Paul Holmes. Paul Holmes “was the man and Bolger was like the new shy boy on his first day at primary school”, Don recalls.

In some sense, an era has gone for an ex-Maoist like Don. The party machines in New Zealand that aligned themselves with China or Russia as workers’ states are no longer. The working class movement is a shadow of its former self. Don recollects after one gig that “the Soviet Communist Party finally tossed in the towel and an era was over”.

To give some flavour of the book, here’s one of Don’s humorous observations:

“I hate to admit this, but it’s usually more fun providing dance music for rich people than left-wingers.

Rich people know how to party.

Young Nationals are highly trained party-goers: they practise it all the time and consequently get really good at it. A hall full of acting-up airheads whacked on vodka cocktails really gives you something to play off.

Lefties are more inclined to sit around at social functions earnestly debating how to change the world. They’re less likely to dance and more likely to complain that the music’s too loud.”

This is a book that will raise plenty of laughs but it has an underlying sadness too. It’s describing a world that is gone. Pokie machines and iPods are cheaper moneymakers than musicians and the social and political world that Don was formed in is no longer around. The musicians don’t have a union going, and there are fewer opportunities for live music in restaurants, bars and clubs.

Don’t imagine, however, that you’ll end up like the Hank Williams song and end up ‘so lonesome you could cry.’ This is a charming memoir from a veteran of our movement. It raises a smile.

You can buy Don’s book direct from the publishers here.