19 May 2018

Bernie Griffen's near death experiences lead to latest album

From Saturday Morning, 11:40 am on 19 May 2018

With music that has variously been described as 'southern gothic', 'swamp folk' and 'psychedelic country', songwriter Bernie Griffen is an iconic figure in the local scene. He and partner Kirsten Warner speak to Kim Hill about the near death experience that led to the recording of their latest album Doors Wide Open. 

Kim Hill: Now, this album, came about as far as I can gather, by accident. You were on route to a holiday in Europe, and, it wasn't your brain that exploded on the plane, Bernie, but -

Bernie: Me heart -

Your heart, and your lungs. And so you got stuck in Australia instead of a holiday in Europe, is that correct?

Bernie: Well, we were on our way to do some shows in Europe, and we were gonna do about 18 or 20 shows in England and Germany, so it was quite exciting, and -

Oh, you were all booked, and everything?

Yeah, yeah -

I thought you were off on holiday.

No. I don't even know what that means, "Off on holiday," brings up ideas of sitting by the seashore or something. Anyway, that's what we did, and I got sick on the plane. We were on a Chinese plane, heading towards -

Bernie Griffen

Bernie Griffen Photo: Michael Flynn

Kirsten: Guangzhou

And what happened?

And that's the last thing I remember.

What, you lapsed into unconsciousness?

Yeah. The person who looked after me was this woman, here. She had to deal with the Australian police and the federal...

But you don't remember any of that?

No I don't, I don't remember. I don't even remember sitting down in my seat in Auckland.

Wow. And so what happened, 'cause -

Kirsten: Within half an hour, he was just not really present, and he stood up and wandered off. I didn't know that we would survive this trip, they're such tiny seats, and he's so huge, and he was sort of crouched forward. He was just not there, he wandered off, he tried to get into first class.

As we all do.

Yes, we do.

That's perfectly normal behavior.

He headed back to the bathroom, and I stood outside, and after 20 minutes, I suddenly went, "God help us, you've gotta get him out of there," and this big burly Chinese steward, he must've been from the North, 'cause he was really big, and he pushed the door. He seemed to break the door, and pull Bernie out. And luckily -

'Cause the door opens inwards?

I think it was even a concertina, or something, he knew how to get it open.

So, he was unconscious, and then they asked if there was a doctor on the plane, and luckily there was, a New Zealand doctor and a New Zealand nurse. And he said, 'You'll have to turn the plane around, because he won't live 'til China.' So they did.

Seriously? You must've been beside yourself.

It's about the third or fourth run-through I've had of this, so, I just go -

What, he's constantly having near-death experiences?

I think I've been through two or three, so I just go, 'If he dies, he dies.'

Oh! okay. Moments of honesty. Spectacular. They turned the plane around -

They did indeed.

And he went in to hospital in Brisbane.


Bernie: Oh, they were fantastic, weren't they? 

So, when did you come to, Bernie?

Maybe four days later. My son was there, and I thought, "What's he doing in China?"

So you thought you got to China?

I thought, "What's he doing in China, my son?"

So, when did you realize that he wasn't going to die?

Kirsten: Because he was intubated, and the doctors had said, 'Bring your children over, 'cause we may not be able to get him breathing again,' so after about five days, when my son was there, they decided to see if he would breathe. And then, he did breathe, so I knew that he'd be alright. Well, three weeks or so in hospital, and good week in intensive care, that was -

What was wrong with you?

I had pneumonia, 'cause my lungs aren't very good, I've got emphysema, so I -

Have you got emphysema because you had asthma so badly as a child?

No, 'cause I smoked.

Well, that too. But, both, I imagine, have weakened your lungs 

As I entered my 60s, I ended up with emphysema. It was self-inflicted, really.

So, how does that afflict you on a day-to-day basis?

Makes it very difficult to do anything that's strenuous.

You don't go jogging, then?

No, I reinvented myself as folksinger so I could sit down.

Related: Bernie Griffen's Mixtape 

Fair enough.The album, then, was in your head anyway, obviously you don't go, "Here we are, stuck in Australia, let's do an album, chaps."

A lot of it was in my head, yeah. I suppose probably eight of the ten songs I'd been muckin' around with for a while, and I wrote two of them in Australia.

We had to stay up north for about a month after I got out of hospital, so I could go back and do some appointments at the hospital, and in that time we decided that we were gonna go to Melbourne.

Where you've lived before.

Yeah, where I have lived before, and we rented a house out for four-and-a-half months, while we were gonna be in Europe, and -

So you couldn't go home?

Well, we could've gone home, but we just decided to go down to Melbourne and play some music, basically. And that's what we did, and we lived in East Brunswick, in Lygon Street, which is a really cool place, and started playing. Kirsten started doing poetry at the local poetry nights, and I started singing songs at the local open-mics, and -

Kirsten: There's heaps of them in Melbourne.

And so you can just turn up and sing?


You don't get paid for it, presumably?


But from that, we could book a few shows. We were there long enough to be able to book in advance, and to play some shows. And that was good. 

And I thought if I could find a good producer, we could make a record while we're there, so we didn't waste our time, while we were away. In Brunswick, they have, what are they called, the Brunswick Old Time String Orchestra?

We joined them, and they have one really good player, and then there's probably 20 people who can't play so well. And the guy comes in once a fortnight at the local school, and everybody sits around and plays fiddle, and teaches bass, and harmonica, and mandolin, and all the different instruments, and just tries to get better amongst themselves. It's a really amazing thing, community music, in Melbourne.

Bernie Griffen and Kirsten Warner

Bernie Griffen and Kirsten Warner Photo: supplied

Related: Bernie Griffen and the Thin Men live on RNZ playing songs 

I'd like to hear "I Fell Out of the Sky," but first of all I'd like to hear the story behind it.

Well, this is one of my most sad stories. We were driving down from Burleigh Heads, about 30 kilometers down the coast on the motorway, to go to an art exhibition, I think we'd been invited to. The guy in front of me just swerved, and I swerved with 'im, and on my left I saw a young girl on the road. And, she was dead, she'd been hit by somebody. It's weird. I decided to keep going, there were lots of cars on the side of the road.

So nothing you could do.

Nothing I could do.

That's a shocking thing. So, that just stays in your mind -

Oh, it just stayed in my stomach for days and days and weeks. She's about the same age as my daughter, and she walked out into the traffic, and committed suicide. How old was she, Kirsten?

Kirsten: She was about 15, we worked it out later, we knew people who knew her. And it's a big motorway, that's not just driving down the road, that's the main, what's it called, the Hume Highway, or something? It's a big road, and it was really scary, she just passes within inches of the car. And all day, there'd been bush fires, you know how they happen in Australia, and there were flames right down beside the road, at the bottom where we were living. It was really a strange day.

It sounds an apocalyptic day.

Yeah, it was.

Tell me about the video for "My Brain Exploded," which people may have seen on YouTube, featuring Michael Parmenter.

Well, I was sittin' down talkin' to Matt Palmer, who's a pretty well-known artist and director in his own right, who's a friend of mine. One day, we were talking about the song, and I said, "We need a video," and he'd been talking about making a video with me for quite a while. He liked 'My Brain Exploded,' and he said, "Oh, I could do a samba video, a swinging kind of video to it." And we talked awhile, and we ended up thinking, "Oh, it would be great to make a tango."

So, when Matt said, "Okay, let's make it," 'cause he lives in Australia and he was gonna be here for a few days making an ad, and he would have a cameraman with him, so that's what we did. And on the day, all these people turned up to help, and we made it out at Glen Eden, Diana Dane, who's the female dancer in it, she brought along Michael Parmenter.

And they tangoed.

They tangoed. She wanted to get her hands on 'im.

Kirsten: Well, the thing with tango is an experienced dancer, and Michael is too, he tangos, he's done a lot of dancing in Berlin, he told me this, and he's just taken up swing dancing, as well. He's our beautiful leading choreographer, he loves the social dancing. For women, it's hard to get enough good partners, so she was thrilled. But she just said, "Oh, I'll bring a guy, I'll bring a partner," and then we found out it was him.

That's very serendipitous, then, isn't it?


Kirsten, do you write lyrics? 'Cause, you're a poet, as well.

A couple of songs, I've done that. 'I Fell Out of the Sky' is a joint effort, I definitely wrote quite a lot of that. And on the last album, there was a song called 'The Circus Song', which I wrote the lyrics for, as well. It's not quite the same voice, I know there'll be a time when I can, but songwriting and poetry's actually really different, and it doesn't come that naturally to me.

What is different about it to you? I mean, if you've got the muse -

I think actually, although you can contradict this, because -

I suppose it's like you're on two tracks with music, is that ... with poetry you just need to think about the words.

Yes, that's definitely one element, and two, poetry is more abstract and crafted, and songs seem simpler. Having said that, of course, people like Bob Dylan and Nick Cave don't write simply. So there'll be a day when I can do both, but I think that songwriting has a different rhythm and voice to it.

It's a bit of melody and rhythm, songwriting, and poetry's about words and delivery.

And meaning.

Bernie Griffin and Kirsten Warner

Bernie Griffin and Kirsten Warner Photo: supplied

You didn't make your first album until how old?

Shut up -

No, but I mean it's a good thing -


But it's an impressive thing -

I mean, that's quite a late starter, isn't it?

I know you're busy, earlier.

You said once, that music saved your life. And I'm wondering whether music also messed you up before it saved your life.

It did mess me up, for sure. I was quite a confident young man, and in my early teens and mid-teens, and I don't know what happens, but somehow around 17 I just went nuts. I was terrified of -

You mean nuts nuts?

Well, yeah.

Things changed, I suddenly felt like I wasn't as good as the other musicians around the place. So I stopped playing and started using heroin, and that's about 1968.

That sounds like, I don't know, was it -

The thing about it was that I couldn't stand the way that I felt when I played music, because it becomes ... what I've discovered, since I've been doing it recently, is that I had to keep going with music to be successful with it, because you do feel exposed [inaudible 00:30:13] other people when your playing music. It was that feeling that I couldn't stand, and I had to kind of keep playing 'til I grew a skin over that feeling, if you know what I mean. 

Was it bad, that you grew a skin, or that you stopped minding being naked?

Yes, that's it.


Well, stopped minding being naked. And, understand, because the nakedness also produces the great feelings that you get of success, and if you do a good show. If I do a good show, I can't necessarily talk to somebody afterwards, but I feel good, I know I've connected with people in the audience.

Which you can't do if you've got a lot of armour on.

No, you can't, and you can't do it if you don't play the guitar, or sing songs like I do, so if I keep on doing it ... what's happened to me now, since I've been doing it, I started playing again in '93, and I was about five years sober, clean in those days, and I just kept going, just kept on going, kept on going, and The Grifters started up in 2011 or 2010 -

And then you got involved in the Gunslinger's Ball organizing that 

It's been the process, and the radio show that I do on 95bFM, it's all locked together, and the way my life is. I've been bloody lucky, really.

What did you find attractive, about this man, when you first met him, and this was before he cleaned his act up.

Kirsten: He was wild and dangerous, just what I liked.

Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear, oh dear Did you set about changing him?


No? Well, that's unusual.

Too much fun.

No, well, he had fun and I worried and managed and carried on. We had a lot of fun along the way, but I didn't try and change him, I ended up leaving. After seven years I had to sort of save my own life, and I had a baby, and I had to leave. And, I sought help, because of the effects of addiction, and actually by me leaving and Bernard had, actually another part of his emphysema is he had a bad accident and he was burned badly, and I'm sure his lungs are badly scarred from the fire. So that was the end of his drug use, really, and -

Was the burning associated with the drug use?

Yes, absolutely, he was stoned and he threw petrol on a fire and it burned back at him. He was a human torch.So when I say I've been through this...

I know what you're saying now, thank you.

Bernie: the great Bernie 

Kirsten: I call him "Third Degree."

Was this your first child, you two?


Yeah, he's 31.

Did that wake you up, Bernie?


Being a father.

Yeah, it did. I just think, when Kirsten and I separated, it was really hard. I didn't want that at all, and I certainly didn't want to be separated from my son and my partner. So, I just went and did what I had to do to make it work, and in that process, it worked for me.


It's been great. That's nearly 30 years, now.

Good on you. Do you feel safe now? I imagine in the early years you don't quite feel safe, and you don't quite feel safe, maybe Kirsten didn't feel safe. Do you feel safe now?

Oh, reasonably.

Kirsten: Oh, certainly safe nothing for granted, it's a daily reprieve, but safe, basically, from the drugs.

Bernie Griffen

Bernie Griffen Photo: supplied