Ray Columbus: The Modfather

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RAY COLUMBUS: THE MOD­FATHER – THE LIFE AND TIMES OF A ROCK ’N’ ROLL PIONEER, by Ray Columbus with Margie Thomson (Penguin).

He never took drugs and when he found groupies in his hotel bed he called security. For a rock’n’roll memoir, that doesn’t sound too promising. Yet Ray Columbus: The Modfather is the most engaging and entertaining book of its kind I’ve read since Keith Richards’s Life.

In some ways, it is the stand­ard tale of triumph over adversity. Columbus grows up in the working class Christ­church suburb of Woolston, one of seven children, with an alcoholic, absconding Cath­o­lic father and a loving long-­suffering mother. He is short and a show-off. As a child, he tap dances competitively and loves the attention. Learning to entertain is his survival strategy in a frequently hostile world. As he hits his teens, he is drawn to the new rebellious, colourful culture of rock’n’roll. There are wonderful moments of absurdity that might be a Monty Python skit transposed to 1950s New Zealand. “I don’t want to be Commissioner of Inland Revenue,” he tells an early employer. “I want to be Elvis.”

Through an account of his teenage years, the book builds towards the brief but tumultuous period between 1963 and 1965 when, as singer, frontman and manager of Ray Columbus and the Invaders, he has the top rock band in New Zealand. His signature song, She’s a Mod, conquers the charts both here and in Australia and he tours with the Rolling Stones and Roy Orbison.

In spite of his self-styled image as Mr Clean, Columbus revels in his occasionally lurid recollections. One revelation is that Orbison – generally known for his sombre demeanour – kept a saxophone player in his retinue for what appears to have been his private amusement. Superfluous on stage, the saxophonist demonstrates his true talent back at the motel when, on cue, he emerges from his room, naked and dancing, with a piece of burning newspaper between his buttocks. Orbison is hysterical.

Inevitably, the four-and-a-half decades that follow are an anticlimax. The Invaders split and Columbus discovers America, but insinuations that he could have been a Monkee or part of a group with David Crosby (Crosby, Stills and Columbus?) are unconvincing. He returns to New Zealand and light-entertainment television.

Still, he emerges as a man with few, if any, regrets. “It’s a small population we live among,” he writes towards the end of the book. “To survive you’ve either got to have a special resilience or armour.” Columbus clearly has both.

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