TODD PRUZAN

MENTAL CHICKENS

HOW A PUNK-HEAVY SOUND TRACK FOR AN OBSCURE NEW ZEALISH ART FILM BECAME AN ELEGY FOR A LOST FRIEND.

DISCUSSED: Radical-Centrist Maori Activists, The Chills, The Two Most Freaked-Out People in New York, Flying Nun Records, Deaf Rock Fans, Ulster Bricklayers, My Bloody Valentine, Straitjacket Fits, Tortoise, Shoegazer Swirl, The Jean-Paul Sartre Experience, The Jesus Lizard, The Mekons, ’60s Ska, Lo-fi Kingston Pop, A Pharmaceutical Luncheon

Why on earth was I reading about Winston Peters? Who was Winston Peters to me? This gadfly I’d never heard of, this radical-centrist Maori activist politician hustling for issues I’d never encountered, half a world away? And I mean that literally, by the way: there are 8,153 miles of land and ocean between my old apartment on Roscoe Street in Chicago and Peters’s home district of Tauranga, on the Bay of Plenty in northern New Zealand. A nation so discreet that mid-1990s reports of a brewing race war, replete with terrorist threats and car attacks and fears that a spark could ignite a full-on antipodean Belfast, barely surfaced in the northern hemisphere. But I’d seen an article, somewhere, and the unlikeliness of it all made Winston Peters a great talking point, I thought, if I should happen to encounter a Kiwi at a party.

At this particular party, in December 1997, there were two. Scott and Nomi, both redheads with rare accents of jumbled vowels, stood on the wood-frame back landing, pausing to catch their breath in mid-retreat from a couple of years in high-finance London—and, it emerged, a couple of years as a couple. They were on a long layover, visiting friends before returning to Auckland, and they were amicable enough, chatting together over their plastic cups. Wouldn’t they be floored that some dude in Chicago, in dumb, thick America, could be interested in the ins and outs of their homeland? I had my card—I played it: “So, um, hey. What’s this Winston Peters guy all about?”

I understood my mistake instantly. Both faces scrunched, both heads reared backward. Scott sighed, then nodded. “Ahhh… Winston Peters.” Obligingly, he offered a brief Petersology, but clearly he wasn’t so much impressed as unsettled. Lesson learned: coming to a party armed with quiz-night insignifica doesn’t mean you should necessarily lock and load. If I’d been the one interloping at an Auckland house party—Hey, that alderman of yours in Chicago, Bobby Rush: bit of a bomb-thrower, is he?—I might have inadvertently sprayed my host with a mouthful of Steinlager.

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Todd Pruzan is a New York writer and editor. His book The Clumsiest People in Europe came out in 2005, and the essay in this issue, “Mental Chickens,” will be published in June in the anthology Heavy Rotation: Twenty Writers on the Albums That Changed Their Lives (Harper Perennial).

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