The Sound of Lake Ngototo, New Zealand

Lake Ngototo

I camped at Lake Ngototo last night, a spot just out of Te Awamutu. After so long in my Covid apartment bunker in Auckland it was great to be outside again. After a beautiful sunset over the lake and surrounding farmland, I was in the bivvy early as the cold of the evening set in.

Sometime in the night I was woken by the sound of a car. It pulled up nearby, the engine was switched off, and the stereo cranked up. Some bloke was doing an acoustic cover of Soundgarden’s Black Hole Sun. I remembered it was Friday night, and assumed the Lake must be a favourite spot for Te Awamutu kids to hang out. As I listened it took me back to the early 90s.

I have to say that on the whole, a lot of the bands getting airplay at this time left me cold. I remember being shitted off with ‘grunge’ (a term that has become increasingly cringy with age) fans, as people gushed over Nirvana and Alice in Chains whilst completely forgetting they had been playing their parents’ Elton John records a week before. I was once asked if Rage Against The Machine was too heavy for me. It pissed me off as I had been into metal, hard rock and punk for years, and I resented the Johnny Come Latelys. I know that’s stupid but I was stupid. Stupid, young, and tribal.

The kids, parked up lakeside, belted out the lyrics whole-heartedly, and I’m relieved to report they were pretty good singers too. I wondered who the vocalist on the recording was. He had a powerful voice and great range (I checked later – it turned out it was actually Chris Cornell, the lead singer of Soundgarden). I rolled over in the bivvy and my mind wandered back to seeing live bands in the 90s.

The Hoodoo Gurus dumping the clutch on their heavy-duty-transmission rhythm section and thundering through ‘Kinky’ and ‘Crank’-era sets. The Powder Monkeys having the curtain close on them mid-song by the stage manager when they refused to stop the encores coming. Wayne Kramer kicking out what Henry Rollins termed the ‘heavy ordinance jams’ whilst touring his 90s triumph ‘The Hard Stuff’. The theatre and madness of This Is Serious Mum. The Offspring throwing boogie boards from the stage to encourage crowd surfing. Jimi Hocking’s humour and high-octane guitar at Spectre 7 gigs. Midnight Oil playing manic two-hour plus sets before their slide into near brand-ruining mediocrity. The all-encompassing soundscape of The Church. Getting backstage with The Angels because the security guards thought the girls I was with were hot. Watching Perkins prowl the stage fronting The Cruel Sea. Kent Steedman crushing his wah pedal with The Celebate Rifles and The Deniz Tek Goup. Being too amped to sleep after getting home from seeing Radio Birdman.

Big bands in big venues. Small bands in the back rooms of decrepit pubs. Broken glass and crushed cans underfoot. Stepping sweat-soaked into the street after gigs with the whooping crowd and nearly freezing to death in the Melbourne winter. Boot prints on my t-shirt from the mosh pit. The strange paradox of leaving a hard rock show surrounded by bikers and mullets as pale young men in spandex shorts arrived for a gay dance party scheduled after the gig.

The song on the car stereo ended and the kids hooted and yelled. Not long after the engine started and the car rumbled away. Lake Ngototo was quiet again save for the occasional squarks and honks of the waterbirds. For now, the Covid pandemic has killed the music scene, and as I drifted off to sleep I wondered how long it would be before I would see a live band again.

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