Together Alone: The Story of the Finn Brothers
By Jeff Apter (Random House, 2010) $42 Buy@Fishpond
Jeff Apter is an Aussie music journo with the requisite credentials (music editor at Australian Rolling Stone and writer for GQ and Vogue) who has penned several biographies on artists as diverse as The Red Hot Chili Peppers, The Cure, Jeff Buckley and Silverchair.
He’s also written one about Whangarei’s Keith Urban, perhaps suggesting that Kiwis-purloined-by-Oz could become a genre in its own right. Will we see Dragon and Shihad bios next? I jest, but in regards to Together Alone, the immediate question is: why? Mike Chunn’s first-hand account of Split Enz in Stranger Than Fiction and Chris Bourke’s benchmark biography of Crowded House, Something So Strong—both acknowledged by Apter as reference material—already document the bands and their dynamics (which naturally centre on the brothers).
What stones are left to upturn about the trans-Tasman treasures that we haven’t already heard? Plenty, according to Apter’s prologue. Despite the “worthy volumes” and “millions of words” written about the Finns that he used for his own research, Apter still asserts that the personal story of Tim and Neil hasn’t been properly documented and that this is a “massive injustice”.
Clearly it’s not an injustice felt by the Finns themselves, who played no part in this book. For that matter, and by Apter’s own admittance, the “key players” also refused to talk. Neil and Tim’s ‘voices’ ultimately come from previously given interviews, the aforementioned biographies, Radio New Zealand’s Enzology documentary and various press releases (including one written by Apter himself on behalf of EMI—and he is not short of mentioning his personal, if peripheral, connection to the Finns via press ops and gigs over the years). Despite Apter’s enthusiasm and fandom for all things Finn, it’s the ‘investigative journalism’ tone that ultimately lets this book down.
It doesn’t help that the publishers haven’t exactly splashed out on production, nor would it seem, on a subeditor, picture editor or researcher. An Enz band photo from 1977 identifies Malcolm Green as Emlyn Crowther—not an easy mistake to make given they look nothing alike. Former Crowded House manager Grant Thomas is named as an Australian when he’s originally from Martinborough and first met Neil when Thomas was managing a hotel in Invercargill.
Among the small selection of photos, there’s one of Tim and wife Marie Azcona but their children are instead posed in another photo with Uncle Neil and Aunty Sharon. Neil and Sharon’s kids are limited to a picture of Liam backstage with his dad and uncle with nary a sign of Elroy. Perhaps more discourteous still is that no one could be bothered to source a picture of their mother, Mary Finn, given her guiding (although there is a charming snap of Tim with his father Dick). Subediting also falls down with the lack of an index, although we are treated to a full list of references and a “selected” discography.
However, these are potentially minor gripes that don’t stop the overall flow of the book. Roughly two-thirds of the book is devoted to the Enzographical, followed by a whistle-stop journey through the Crowdies and various post-Enz/House outputs that takes all of 100 pages, finishing up at Neil’s decision to re-group Crowded House for what became the Time On Earth album.
Apter does a proficient job of assembling the events and interviews into a cohesive chronological sequence, but joins the dots with irrelevant filler. Granted, cultural and political events of the time provide a certain context, but detailing that future All Blacks attended the same school as the brothers, that David Lange among others studied at Auckland University just like Tim (Lange graduated when Tim was still a lad in short pants) or that “Waiata was (sic) a Maori term for ‘celebratory song’” is hardly revelatory or even necessary.
Even more grating is the dubious commentary peppered throughout. For example: “In his early twenties Liam [Finn] would sport a bushman’s beard, the type of facial hair not seen on a Finn since Tim’s uni days.” Added to such banalities is some idle conjecture: “Tim would credit Marie as ‘executive producer’, no less, for 2008’s The Conversation, proof that the Finn spouses wielded some power behind the scenes.” Worse, Apter uses lyrics from the Finn canon to add more colour to facts but this perfunctory device detracts more than it illuminates.
There’s no questioning Apter’s music industry knowledge, but Together Alone never quite rises above a staid inventory of facts and quotes joined with journalistic license.
Perhaps Tim and Neil don’t get as much exposure in Australia these days as they do here, but the majority of this book will be overly familiar for most Kiwis. It may be a must-have for Enz/Crowdie/Finn obsessives but not as much as, say, Crowded House’s new album Intriguer.