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January 3, 2009 by Tara Brabazon

I danced my way to Aotearoa/New Zealand. Ten years ago, I travelled to my first 'real' academic job. Resident in Wellington, I revelled in the freedom of being anonymous in a city. All of us at some point in our lives should move to a city where we know no one, and reinvent ourselves. It is frightening and empowering to live alone in a new place and walk the streets knowing that no one recognizes you or knows your name.

I lie. I did not land in Wellington completely alone. Through my childhood and adolescence, New Zealand music had taught me a sonic geography. Split Enz and the Finn Brothers were my companions through early life. I loved Tim Finn with an emotional intensity that only juts out of thirteen year old girls. We never love as richly or purely as when we stare at the poster of an unobtainable man. That he was a New Zealander was important. He was (slightly) exotic, but different enough to be safely attractive to a convent-educated Australian girl.

While my adolescence was claimed by the Enz, my early adulthood would be framed by the Front Lawn and the Mutton Birds. These remarkable 'bands' — although The Front Lawn was far more than this label may suggest — sang of New Zealand in a way that narrated the spaces of the city. Don McGlashan and Harry Sinclair, although no replacement for my childhood obsession with the Enz, helped me grow up and learn that masculinity is far more complex than can be captured in a bedroom poster. They also prepared me for a darker and more intricate New Zealand, and gave me popular cultural maps of the cities in which I would live.

Resident in Wellington for a teaching year, I drove up to Auckland to see — typically — a performance by Crowded House. They were on the support card for REM. Interestingly, ten years later, I hold no memory of REM, but remember how odd it was seeing Crowded House without Paul Hester, who had 'left' the group at this stage, only to return for the final gig at the Sydney Opera House.

I felt that I knew Auckland even before I walked its streets. The Front Lawn had allowed me to hear this city before I entered it. I knew its geography and recognized its landmarks because of their songs. "Andy," from Songs from The Front Lawn, was the first track I have ever heard that made me cry. No music — no lyric — has ever moved me as much. Significantly, the song uses Takapuna Beach as memory place for childhood and a blistering critique of consumerism.

The second album, More Songs from the Front Lawn, was released in 1993, a year before I traveled to Wellington. The song "Queen Street" is like a sonic map of Auckland. It mentions the Civic Theatre and Smith & Caughey's. We can walk (through) this rhythm, summoning an emotional landscape through a city.

This street becomes the context for a complex, bourgeoning relationship. But Harry Sinclair's outstanding vocal grain suggests that — although starting well — this love affair would not have a happy ending.

Importantly the ending of this romance would not be told by The Front Lawn, but by Don McGlashan's next band, the Mutton Birds. Their first self-titled album included the greatest divorce song ever recorded. While "It started on Queens Street," the relationship ended in "a half-way house, half way down, Dominion Road."

Dominion Road, Auckland
Dominion Road, Auckland

While Queens Street is a fashionable shopping district in Auckland, Dominion Road is a sprawling, almost endless undulation of traffic lights, bitumen and business. It slices through Auckland's city. The stark, cold anonymity of urbanity is embodied by this Road, and is an effective marinade for the loss of love, expectations and hope.

When I did finally "come back home" — to poach the title of the first track of the first Front Lawn album — and returned to Australia, these New Zealand cities had changed me. The best of the travel morphs our bodies and memories. New Zealand made me a better person, a better teacher and a better writer. The lessons of that year still resonate each day of my life. Popular music allows us to remember — with rhythm and intensity — our earlier selves. We hear difference before we meet it. The soundscape prepares us for this journey.