Sometimes things just seem too goddamn depressing to write about.
Depression was my first reaction when I got the call on Sunday night that Ritchie Pickett had died. It was a call that all of us – Ritchie’s friends over the years – had been expecting, and when it finally came all I felt was depressed.
But I think we’d already done our grieving by then, after clinging for half a decade to the hope that Ritchie would miraculously pull through again, throw off the chains of alcohol-fuelled demons and climb the hill back to become the old Ritchie we knew and loved – playing, recording, writing, sharp and ferociously intelligent, king of the one-liners, laughing and partying like in the old days.
But the old days had gone, and I think Ritchie knew that too. It’s been like watching a slow-motion car crash going on for years, but now it’s over.
I don’t know how you’re supposed to react at times like this. Ritchie was always a larger-than-life personality in a country where being larger-than-life is not encouraged.
Do you say: “At least Ritchie never compromised, refusing to change and clean up his act, living his life by his own rules right to the end?”
Or do you say: “What a waste, what a useless waste, that for years now Ritchie has been a sick shadow of himself, unable to play properly, write songs, function in a regular way and fully enjoy the life he so loved?”
It’s been almost five years since the emergency benefit gig at the King’s Arms in Auckland, when everyone was trying to raise money to get Ritchie a new piano. (Did he really sell the old one to buy booze, or is that yet another urban myth in the continuing legend? It hardly matters either way.) We were all worried he might die at any moment and shocked by how ill he looked. His health was so bad he could barely stand, let alone play, but he still had a bottle of Steinlager in his hand all day. And nothing ever really got any better.
It’s easy to say that this bit of writing, intended as my tiny homage to a friend, should be a celebration of Ritchie’s life, not a gloomy wallow in recent travails. It probably should be. But right now not a lot of time has passed and I’m still feeling a bit pissed off at the old Ritchie for not coming back.
Because when that Ritchie was here, and he was on, he was really something. Ritchie stomped the terra and strode the stage like the Great Ones. He could pound out rock ‘n’ roll piano rhythms that would leave your pulse racing and your chest breathless. He could sing a country ballad that would rip your heart out. And he was New Zealand’s funniest musician to ever rule a microphone.
Ritchie lived in Tauranga for a long time until relocating to the Waikato in the early 90s. He played with so many guys here that it’s hard to know where to start.
There had been Ritchie Pickett and the Inlaws, notable because it was one of the few bands Ritchie recorded with and actually released the recordings (he was notorious for continually making demos that would be declared ‘not finished’ and be quietly shelved). Gone For Water, despite production issues, is a genuine classic of Kiwi country rock and features the guitar of a young Kevin Coleman, later to re-emerge as Hard To Handle bass player.
In Tauranga there were numerous incarnations of a band he called The Jones Boys, most featuring bassist Chris Gunn. He and Ritchie made a mighty team on stage, each seeming to enhance the other’s not inconsiderable presence.
Ewan Laycock played with them. Paul Higgins played with them. Lewis Baker, Joe Puriri, Simon Elton, Graham Clark, Paul Sanders, John Michaelz, on and on. There was also The Disturbance, an ambitious ‘supergroup’ featuring John Terry, Grant Winterburn, Derek Jacombs, Damian Forlong, James Fleming and others.
Everyone played with Ritchie, and everyone learnt from him: his stagecraft, his presence, his musical knowledge, his attitude, good and bad. You bought the ticket and you took the ride; there were few dull moments.
So goodbye Ritchie, from me and all the others in Tauranga whose lives you messed with. It was fun. I’d do it again in a heartbeat. And I know they kept you that place by Hank William’s side...