Schuba’s, Chicago, IL • October 1, 2000
What you should know about Chris Knox: He is, in some way, shape or form, responsible for just about every interesting sound you’ve ever heard come out New Zealand. The Enemy and Toy Love, the first bands that Knox played in, were an inspiration to many, many bands that followed on the New Zealand scene, and as that scene reached its height in the late 1980s, Chris was always in the thick of it, recording his own stuff and pairing up with Alec Bathgate to work on the long-running Tall Dwarfs projects and producing, engineering and acting as mid-wife to a whole slew of up-and coming NZ acts.
Another thing you should know about Chris Knox: He is a complete anomaly in the rock world. Chris, I believe, has not one bone of pretension in his 48-year-old body, and is the least self-conscious performer I have ever seen take a stage. In an old beer hall on a gorgeous early autumn night in Chicago, Chris bumbled around just before his show in front of about seventy-five people, setting up his equipment; a headset with a mike, his guitar, and a drum machine. He was dressed like one of my friend’s beer-guzzling, older, ‘Nam vet brothers in a sleeveless, faded black T-shirt, faded black shorts that were way above the knees, and flip-flops. A fashion disaster, to be sure. He explained to the audience what he was doing with the drum machine, and as he fumbled around with that, he mentioned that he wouldn’t even be in Chicago if it weren’t for a friend’s wedding that took place in the area the night before. He was supposed to be back home by now, but figured since he was here and there was time and people to play for…why not?
I was lucky enough to get my hands on a video compilation of NZ bands back in the late eighties called In Love With These Times, and that was what originally turned me on to Chris Knox. The Tall Dwarfs clip that was featured on the tape was “Turning Brown and Torn in Two,” a sad, quiet song that, through all of its obvious pain, still had a ray of hope shining through it in the form of Chris’ lyrics, his inflection used to convey his message, and in the artwork he drew for the clip. Hope is a common theme in the great body of his work, and I’ve learned to listen to his songs with the same sort of consideration I would have for an older brother’s advice. He’s seen dark times, and those times have made him wise. His wisdom enables him to perform a song like “Pulse,” which he explained is a song about his father’s last moments, when he stood at his mother’s side and felt for the pulse behind his father’s ear, his last remaining vital sign. He was able to do this with such a gentle touch, without making anyone feel sad or sorry for him. Instead, it was his invitation to share in an important moment, a moment of finality, and an invitation to live life fully… because the fate his father met is the same fate we all will meet one day. It’s important to note that Chris never ever comes out and says things like “Carpe Diem!” This is a man totally without an agenda. These things all come out in his songs and in his demeanor. As he was a little ways into “Pulse,” a man next to me had the misfortune of having a cell phone go off in his fanny pack, which, for whatever reason, was hanging over his crotch. The ring was very, very slight, but Chris heard it, and he smiled and rolled his eyes. The poor man with the cell phone was frantically trying to locate the thing and Chris turned and said, with a smile, “C’mon man, this is a poignant song…,” and everyone laughed. As the man continued to feel around in his fanny-pack Chris asked him if the cell phone wasn’t the only thing going off down there. That’s how he handles things. No rock-star “I’m an artist, damn it” pretension, he gets up onstage, plays his wonderful songs, sings with that amazingly flexible, emotional voice… and he is loved dearly for it.
Chris alternated between playing and storytelling for about two hours, and he treated the crowd like we were all old friends. For the grand finale, he brought a girl up onstage, handed her the guitar, showed her the chords, then got a guy up there to join her on vocals. Chris let them do the last song so he could go into the crowd and dance with everyone… and he practically did. Once the song was finished, he apologized for not having any copies of his new disc Beat on hand to sell, but he offered to draw pictures for a dollar. I asked him to draw me one of his pictures from “Turning Brown and Torn in Two”. He drew me one of the TVs, the one that said “Here’s Your TV Back,” and I went away feeling like a happy little kid.