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Of all the millions of words written by Roy Colbert that could be used by an obituary writer trying to assess, and summarise, a quite remarkable life, the following are the ones that jumped out at me from our files:
“There is an opposite of Imposter Syndrome that I have cannily called Unimposter Syndrome. I have this condition. I have surged through life in the constant belief that the glass is not only full but spilling out all over my shoes.
“I have infinite confidence I can achieve anything. Unimposter Syndrome cannot comprehend failure; where others see hubris and stupidity, I see only a metamorphical mantelpiece of trophies.”
Roy wrote these memorable lines in November, 2008 and they are a great example of his boundless creativity, as well as being a defiant declaration that despite the endless challenges to his health, endured from his childhood, he would let nothing interfere with a quiet determination to enjoy his life and to and to make it meaningful. And this he continued to do right until he ran out of flight, succumbing on July 20, aged 68, to the many carried ailments which had constantly dogged him, especially in his latter years.
Those previous quotes come from the early days of his brilliant and hugely popular tenure as the “Dazed and Confused” weekly columnist in the Otago Daily Times, in a piece headed ‘Ploughing on unbowed by glaring inadequacies”. No doubt the column would have arrived at the ODT by email with a note attached, as they usually did, explaining that he had just invented a work or a phrase or two and tasking, politely, for some sub-editorial leniency, beneficence even.
An rarely, if ever, were these requests declined because we knew this inspirational flair for constantly breaking down the barriers of literacy convention was just one of the many things that set Roy apart from his columnist peers. And why his readers loved him so.
Yet you could not find Roy puffing out his puny chest and claiming any credit for such things. His self-deprecation as a writer was as legendry as the man himself. His undoubted talents were for others to comment on.
People like Grahame Sydney, the Central Otago painter and photographer, who spoke so movingly at Roy’s funeral and who provided an insight into his friend’s quiet reluctance to push himself forward. “He wrote to me once that ‘when I am talking to you or (Brian) Turner my ego is as big as Everest, but mostly I am the little man behind the pillar. I love it there.’ How different in his written persona, which was all confidence, fluency, invention, and wheelbarrows of bullshit.”
The “little man behind the pillar” was born to Molly and Cyril Colbert on June 28, 1949 in Dunedin, a city where he lived for all his 68 years and from where he had no desire to leave, ever. Dunedin was his place in the world.
This fact was cemented later in life when he would be dubbed the “Godfather of the Dunedin Sound”, an acknowledgement of his hugely influential role in the development of, and the world-wide acclaim for, that special genre of music spearheaded by The Clean, The Chills, the Verlaines, Chris Knox et al.
As a youngster Roy had three passions – writing, music and sport – and he would make his indelible mark in each. For music he gained a childhood influence from is maternal grandfather C.Roy Spackman, who lived with his family for a time and who taught him how to play the piano.
In a 2015 column Roy described his grandfather as an “organist and choirmaster at Knox Church, music teacher at both Otago Boys’ and Otago Girls’ High Schools, composer, violinist, teacher, all sorts of musical things”, who had done his bachelor of music degree late in life. Roy’s love of music, given a retro rocket boost as a teen when he discovered Jerry Lee Lewis and rock’n’roll, would soon spill over in to his writing and also provide him with a regular income as the owner of the legendary Records Records outlet in Stuart St, just above the Octagon.
He wrote about those early musically journalistic ways several times, including this hilarious account in the already quoted “Unimposter Syndrome” column:
“After university, which I spent at Critic learning how to type fast with two fingers, I developed a music-writing career. The Dunedin Evening Star sent me to interview the touring band Racey, who has told us ‘Some Girls Do’. “I met them with neither research nor questions, because I knew all about music. They and their manager set upon me like wild dogs, claiming I was the embodiment of all the music writers who laughed at them in England. I duly informed my readers Racey were idiots, and continued my music writing at the paper until it closed in 1979.”
At that stage Roy was also a cricket writer for the Evening Star, under the pseudonym “Leg Break”, while for his “Pop” music column he was known as “Double Track”.
In 1970 Roy ventured into the retail world when he and his then girlfriend Janet Lum opened a shop, almost accidentally, in the spare room of their upstairs flat in Stuart St, selling records on 50c commission, love beads, posters, cigarette papers and fudge “until the health department hear about it”. Eventually the shop was moved downstairs and called Records Records, selling second second-hand vinyl, tapes etc. It was an inspired move and led to the outlet becoming something of a mecca for aspiring musicians and music fans alike, who visited in their thousands, hundreds of thousands probably, for the next 35 years.
Typically Roy described it thus: “I …. Opened a music store with a knowledge of retailing that would barely cover the eyeball of an ant. The store began with no name, no phone, no advertising, no sign and no money. That is survived 35 years is Unimposter Syndrome in its very finest form.”
As his family tells it, Records Records was Roy’s dream job: “He was surrounded by records. He got to talk to people who loved music every day. And he could write about music, about sport and about people.” Significantly, in the 1980s, he also became the Dunedin distributor for Flying Nun, which specialized in the Dunedin Sound. Roy was the biggest fan of these young bands and just so proud that their music was coming out of his city.
Fast forward to the year 2004, when he was diagnosed with renal failure, and then 2005, which became a pivotal one for Roy and his family. Firstly, on March 11, readers of the ODT learned the owner of Records Records was back in Dunedin after a kidney transplant operation in Christchurch, the life-saving organ having been donated by his sister Julienne James. Such a drastic move was the result of Roy’s lifelong battle with diabetes, first diagnosed when he was 12 and of course he wrote about that too, in a typically ironic way in a “Best day of my life” column in the ODT in 2011. The best day because he knew the condition would excuse him from compulsory military training, something that “terrorized my every waking minute”. As he explained “…. diabetes was gold. I couldn’t believe my luck. The doctors at Wakari Hospital would have laughed incredulously over morning tea when they heard about the boy who smiled when told he had diabetes and would have to inject himself every day for the rest of his life”.
Roy went on to relate how that “lucky” day (October 21 1961) would also lead to him meeting through table tennis, his future wife Christine, and also developed his love of writing, by replying to all the get-well cards he got from his classmates, describing how much fun macabre hospital life could be. “Black humour. It was the first creative thing I ever wrote. I had no interest in writing at 12 – and here we are now, 50 years on, still writing, and still writing about disease. Some people just never grow up.” But the kidney transplant would not only save his life, it would also change his lifestyle forever. It left him with no immune system and a daily routine of ingesting 26 pills a day, so 26 is nothing”), three injections, blood tests and regular check-ups at Dunedin Hospital.
And so a couple of months later, on May 16, Roy announced he was selling Records Records; the self-confessed “hoarder” of about 8000 vinyl albums and thousands of CDs, tapes, videos, DVDs, magazines and books was going to concentrate more on his writing. “We’ve broken every single retailing rule. What the so-called business experts recommended to do, we did the opposite, but have lasted longer than any other small Dunedin business. It’s quite interesting,” he proudly told the ODT.
This change of direction, combined with his ongoing health issues, did not mean Roy was taking life a little easier though. Demand for his writing skills was always high, his articles appearing in, among others, Rolling Stone, The Listener, Sunday Star Times, and The Cut golf magazine. But then came a switch to a more mainstream media with the creation of his “Dazed and Confused” column in the ODT. This arose through his friendship with the newspaper’s then assistant editor and “Smoko” columnist Simon Cunliffe, who thought a Colbert-penned column would be a fine and diverting addition to its opinion pages. But, as he recalled recently, it wasn’t easy convincing Roy to try a weekly column. Roy’s first contribution, as far as I can tell speared on September 4, 2008 headed “A rash of online diagnoses”, in which he wrote, hilariously about trying to ascertain the cause of a bad headache by googling everything from shingles to cellulitis.
Significantly, this column did not have a logo/name. “Yes,” said Simon, “I think perhaps Roy wanted to try out and see how he felt about it. It took a while for him to come round to the idea, but I was delighted when he did: he was a genuinely original writer, and one deeply rooted in the Dunedin community.” Three or four columns later Roy was signed up as a regular, agreeing to the title suggestion of “Dazed and Confused”, taken from a Led Zeppelin song from the band’s eponymous first album released in 1969. Roy, incidentally, told writer Amanda Mills he had once attended a Led Zeppelin concert after-party in Auckland where he met, briefly singer Robert Plant, and later wrote about them for Rolling Stone, after the band had boycotted the magazine for a bad review. But ask anyone who has tried it and they will tell you writing a weekly column is not the jog in the park some readers think it is.
So, to have done so for nearly nine years and to still keep it witty, irreverent, original and utterly engaging, even about the most mundane topics, required enormous discipline and intellect. As modest as he was, Roy knew that his column meant so much to so many people every week and he would always file it to the ODT well ahead of deadline, even right until the end, when he could no longer type, dictating the words, Christine, from his sick bed. He so wanted his last column to be something super special, unforgettable; perhaps another behind the scenes revelation from a prestigious dinner party or an expose from one of the many rational thinkers whose company he seemed to keep continually.
But no, it was about something as potentially mundane as trimming the holly hedge at his Less St home. Yet he still managed to transform it into a laugh-fest, revealing that because “we are not a tall family”, the end result was a hedge of an “odd final shape, only when viewed sideways. But show me a man who looks at a hedge sideways, and I will show you a very stupid man”.
Newspaper column-writing aside, Roy achieved much in his final years, notably his pivotal contribution to “Tally Ho, a Southern Sinfonia convert which filled the town hall in February, 2015. This was a tribute to the Dunedin Sound, featuring such performers as Graeme Downes, Martin Phillipps, David Kilgour, Shayne Carter and Anna Leese. Such was its success Roy and Graeme were planning a new version of the concert to be held in November. It will still proceed poignantly, as a memorial to Roy. Significant, too that in 2015 Roy was named as one of the “17 most influential citizens in Dunedin’s 170 year history”, according to a feature in this newspaper.
Earlier this year Roy was involved in the Fringe Festival production of “Anything Could Happen; Strange Echoes of the Dunedin Sound”, which was based on his Records Records outlet.
So 2100 words into this barely-adequate tribute, what have I left out? Answer: a huge amount. If you were present at his farewell on July 26, and heard details of his busy and energized life story being related by more than a dozen speakers over two laughter-filled, emotional hours, then you will understand the enormity of trying to squeeze it all into this piece.
I wish I could have found more room to cover, at length his fascination, nay obsession, with sports, especially cricket, basketball, golf and table tennis, for the hilarity of his many holidays with family and friends in the much-loved “crib”, the former Ida Valley Railway Hotel and the notorious darts battles for the “Bastards’ Shield”, for this seminal work on the 1996 triple CD “… But I Can Write Songs Okay, and latterly, for his winning ventures into the world of racehorse ownership.
But instead, I will end by acknowledging the people who meant the most to Roy, his wife Christine, whom he married in January, 1975, their children, Shannon and Jesse, grandchildren, Rowan and Jude, his brother, Barry and sister, Julienne, and the wider circle of the Colbert clan, the in-laws and the outlaws, so to speak. They are the ones who willingly shared Roy with the rest of the world. Yet, they also knew first-hand the courage and unrelenting positivity he showed every day, despite recurring medical challenges, still maintaining his indestructible sense of humour and an immeasurable love for his family.
Perhaps Grahame Sydney put it best when in his tribute, he observed: “This miniature Lomu in black added so much colour, this modest man behind the pillar made a difference to so many other lives.”
But, if it’s OK with Grahame, I’d quite like Roy to have the last word: “At 21, I could have gone to San Francisco, making sure I wore some flowers in my hair and, as a diabetic, probably turned into an avocado and changed my name to Angel Eyeball. “But, grounded by this lucky disease I stayed here and stayed alive. All this from just one day. Phew.”
Thank you to the Otago Daily Times for the use of this article.