Between the Lines: Honey in the Whiskey

Hayden Donnell talks us through a song he wrote for his friend, musician Sam Prebble, who died last month.

Hayden Donnell talks us through a song he wrote for his friend, musician Sam Prebble, who died last month.

There's no honey in the whiskey anymore
That's alright, I know how much you hated the stuff

When I found out my friend Sam was dead, my first thought was of him in a rare moment of unbridled disgust. He was getting ready to play violin with us for a supporting gig at Leigh Sawmill Cafe. The headliners that night had a tradition of sipping honey-infused whiskey before they took the stage. Sam became quiet when he saw the bottle. He looked defensive, like he’d been forced into conversation with a racist uncle at a family gathering. "You don't like honey being in the whiskey, do you?" I asked. He gave a wry smile, and told me emphatically that it wasn't right.

As the news that he was carried away by some hidden current of sadness or illness sank in, I started to frame his words differently. Is it a sin to sweeten something bitter?

But maybe it should have been okay
For you to cover up the bitter taste

Remember that night we spent outside
Swinging a bottle up at the swirling sky
It wasn't long until our voices got lost

After the show, Sam and I scavenged a couple of bottles of wine from the bar and scaled the marooned boat in the Sawmill's backyard. We sang songs, swayed and talked about nothing until my throat was raw and I had to retreat to my bunk. I took a picture of him in the morning: dark glasses shutting out the light, a mock scowl on his face. He had a talent for turning hurt into humour: his biting observations delivered from a gentlemanly remove, his criticisms couched in self-deprecation. It seemed like he could quip his way through anything.

I thought: 'What should I have said?’’.

Now I keep wishing we had more time to talk

I guess the song was wrong
There's not light shining out of every hole
There's gaps where the muddy water gets in
And weighs you down until you start to sink

I grew up with people who believed there was meaning in everything: the guiding hand of God in cancer, car accidents and natural disasters. The good had to add up to more than the bad, even when it couldn't. Everything had to make sense, even when it didn't. Nothing could just be a tragedy. I remember screaming matches with a flatmate who believed the Boxing Day tsunami was divinely-ordained because a lot of mission work took place afterward. God’s plan wasn’t much comfort to someone who just drowned in their bedroom, I yelled.

There will be slivers of light that sneak through the cracks after Sam’s death. People will sing his songs, remember to appreciate the beauty around them, ask how their friends are doing more often. But none of that makes up for the conversations we’re not going to have, the tour stories we won’t get to tell or the time that we can’t spend together.

So there's no honey in the whiskey anymore
Nothing left for you to cover up
With a gambler’s smile and a drinker's joke

Sam was a rare phenomenon: a professional musician who left behind friends and well-wishers rather than broken hearts and bruised egos. He could turn a disaster into a great memory, a struggle into music. I would compare him to an old country song: scouring the rough parts of life and turning them into something beautiful. His boots were planted in the mud and his hands were lifted up to the heavens.

So you pack your bags and head on down the road

As with the characters in those songs, he earned everything he got. He hustled until his hands were sore and, somehow, he made it look easy. It must have been harder than any of us knew. But still, there isn’t a higher compliment to pay a person. He worked, and he worked, and by the time he was done, he had made something that will last.

On Sunday, friends will gather at The Wine Cellar to remember Sam Prebble and help raise funds for his family.

There will be music from The Eastern, Great North, Bernie Griffen, Steve Abel, The Bads, Reb Fountain, Dylan Storey, Brendan Turner, Dave Khan, Hopetoun Brown, Callum Gentleman, Tom Cunliffe, Scott J Mason, Rodney Fisher and more.

Entry by koha. Doors at 5.30pm.

Between the Lines is a series where songwriters take us into the writing room
Read (and listen) to the rest of the series here

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The Pantograph Punch publishes urgent and vital cultural commentary by the most exciting new voices in Aotearoa.

The Pantograph Punch publishes urgent and vital cultural commentary by the most exciting new voices in Aotearoa.

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