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Gary Harvey: Living near the sea an inspiration for music

Flagstaff Team

Sweet home Narrow Neck… Gary Harvey lives near the beach, but travels to wherever friends and music take him

Lockdown might have put live entertainment on hold, but neither a pandemic nor a personal health scare will stop veteran musician Gary Harvey from following a passion that began in 60s Devonport. Helen Vause reports.

Gary Harvey has seen it all with live audiences in his six decades of singing and playing guitar. But he’s never seen the punters told to stay home before.

Not that the lockdown stopped this veteran singer-songwriter from making music at home in Narrow Neck, ever confident that the good times would roll round again soon.

The irrepressible Harvey is probably one of New Zealand’s longest-standing live performers. He’s played all over the place in a string of bands with names that reflected the southern rock and blues music they made. He’s played in the UK and the southern USA, and in his heyday he led bands onto big stages to open for some touring big names.

In more recent times, he’s been a solo acoustic act playing gigs closer to home – down at the Esplanade Hotel – when the lights went out on him, and the rest of us, for a while. And as it turned out, the enforced break came for Harvey at exactly the right time.

A small heart attack had temporarily stopped the 73-year-old in his tracks, and when the Flagstaff caught up with him, some of the conversation was by phone from North Shore Hospital.

Ever cheerful, he was out of there in days with a few repairs and mighty relieved to have headed off a health scare.

Trouble had struck in early March, well before lockdown, for fitness freak Harvey.

“I was getting up Queen Street to the recording studio and I didn’t feel great. I was absolutely buggered and breathless when I got there. I realised there was something wrong then.”

Temporarily knocked out, and with the added worry of being sole carer for his 97-year-old mother Mary, Harvey was all too aware they were a vulnerable household.

But he remained pretty philosophical in the first week of lockdown.

“Ah well, see how it goes. I’m not too worried. I’m a great believer in fate,” he said, in the sort of voice that goes with his music, the demeanour and the greying mane.

Back on his feet he’s in fighting form with a return to gigs in his sights.

Lockdown canned performances scheduled for the Far North and as far south as Dunedin.

No worries, it will come back, says Harvey, though he’s realistic about pulling the audiences these days – pandemics aside.

“The audiences you can expect are just nothing like they used to be. I’ve noticed a big difference in people’s patterns over the decades. People aren’t going out to live music in bars as much as they used to, for various reasons. The lure of the big screen in the living room is one factor. And the smoking ban halved audiences overnight.”

He has no reason to give up though. “I’ve got friends all over the country. If I want to see someone, I just organise a gig and hit the road.”

Harvey’s a local boy, with roots that go well back. His grandparents bought the house at 26A Queens Pde, where he was born in the late 1940s. His father, Burt Harvey, was the long-time barman at the Masonic Hotel and, unsurprisingly, was known to all in town.

“Man, that was quite a funeral Dad had,” chuckles Harvey.

Young Harvey went to Devonport Primary School and Takapuna Grammar. By his early teens, he had well and truly got the music bug. From the way life panned out from there, you could blame much of it on the gyrating form and inimitable sound of Elvis Presley.

“I couldn’t get enough of it and went to all his movies. And I thought, that’s me, that’s what I want to do.”

Unlike many star-struck kids of the time, he started seriously working on his dream.

By the time he was 15, Harvey could play guitar well enough to catch the attention of some local musicians, not much older than him.

“Get yourself a bass guitar,” they told him. So he did, and became one of The Cavemen, a band of mostly local boys that played the Shore youth clubs, parties and school dances in the early 60s, and sometimes went further across the city. Harvey reckons they were Devonport’s first band.

Harvey quit school at 15 and began a mechanic’s apprenticeship in Takapuna. But he was playing up a storm at nights and weekends.

Before he was 20 years old, he took off for the frenzy and promise of the booming music scene in late-60s London.

There, he got work and made music, sometimes playing and mixing it with the big names, hanging out with the likes of Led Zeppelin and The Pretty Things and turning down a chance to join Supertramp.

“They were fantastic times,” recalls Harvey.

But after marrying an English girl, he brought her to New Zealand to crack back into the Kiwi music scene of the early 70s.

The couple settled in Beach Haven. They had two daughters and Harvey, although he couldn’t afford to give up the day job, threw himself into live music in the city.

One of his many bands, Red House Rockers, may have been his heyday in the mid-90s, says Harvey. They belted out Texas-style blues rock three to four nights a week, on stage all over the country, and made good money for the times. Then there came the Rippers, Rattlesnake Shake and the Gary Harvey Band.

Top musicians came and went and over the years – Harvey has played with more than he can remember – with a sound evolving over time, ranging from boogie to hard rock.

In his music, you can hear the southern-rock sounds from his long affinity with the US and countless trips to play and jam with musicians in the Southern States. During lockdown he collaborated on new music with a guitarist in those parts.

“Once I get inspiration – I’m away. The only rule is there are no rules.”

Long-time music critic Graham Reid has written of the “old blues rocker” Harvey that he is “the real deal and he’s in it for the music and not much reward… it’s the kind of music people love to hear in bars, but radio and TV people don’t have a clue about.”

Harvey laughs when he talks about how his eclectic music has evolved.

“Along with the Elvis influence, I had an early obsession with cowboys and then a great liking for Texas. So that’s been a big influence.”

Where does his original stuff come from?

“My mind is like a junkyard. There is just so much stuff in there. Once I get inspiration – I’m away. The only rule is there are no rules.” Harvey has had a steady output of albums, with the influences clear in the song titles – Outlaws, Bad Water, Whiskey Train, Preacher Man, Bootleg Boogie.

The last album from the Gary Harvey Band, about five years ago, was Ghost Dance. Harvey was tickled by the reviews, especially one from a London-based music magazine Fireworks, after the album had a whirl on radio in the UK.

“Juicy, feisty blues rock… a good companion for a ride down a dusty American highway,” the magazine’s reviewer wrote in 2015.

“At the time I thought I could now die happy,” chuckles Harvey.

But the guy who just keeps on going ain’t done yet. He’s thinking about some more solo gigs in Devonport, but he’s also wondering about getting on the road again. Maybe another band?

“There’s plenty of gigs ahead,” says Harvey. “The boys can always be rustled up to get it all together again.”

This article originally appeared in the 11 September 2020 edition of the Flagstaff. Read online here.

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