Blossoming gardener still singing the blues in his last year touring

Celebrated bluesman Midge Marsden hasn’t lived in town for several years now but reckons he’s still a Raglan local at heart and that his occasional gigs at Raglan Club are like a “homecoming”.

“I feel I could come back here and retire,” he told the Chronicle on a fleeting visit at New Year during which he firmed up with local music promoter Tom McCormick a late-January concert at the club.

The gig’s of greater significance than usual because this veteran rhythm’n’blues artist’s New Year’s resolution is that 2016 will be his last year touring.

“I want to retire before the ointment wears off,” he laughs, borrowing an old Spike Milligan phrase.

It’s fitting that he’s kick-starting his final year in the music business in Raglan, Midge says, because he had a house here for 34 years and sold it recently only because most of his time’s now spent pursuing another passion – gardening.

“I got the bug,” he admits of his Auckland lifestyle the past five years or so. Midge – who says he’s now “60 several” – gardens at a retirement village in Green Bay. “I never thought I’d end up loving it as much as I do,” he concedes.

He particularly likes the native bush around the village and reckons he’s a dab hand now at things like how to prune, and when and where to plant flowers and shrubs. “Some of the residents sure know their plants and gardens,” he adds in admiration. “I’ve learnt a lot.”

And Midge still lives close to the water, in Onehunga on the west coast of the Manukau Harbour. “We’ve got a great new (artificially formed) beach there and it’s only a 10 minute walk for a swim, just like here,” he says.

He sees other parallels with Raglan, too, like the fact it has cafes, a jetty and a wharf where the cement boats used to come in. “It’s really neat.”

Midge has enjoyed a long and illustrious career in the New Zealand music industry. Highlights include being awarded an OBE a decade ago and being voted New Zealand Entertainer of the Year long before that. He’s also toured the US four times, encouraging artists there to tour and bring their blues music to New Zealand.

He may “feel like a Raglan resident” but Midge is originally from New Plymouth, where when he was “17ish” he joined a band called Bari and the Breakaways (later shortened to the Breakaways) which was New Zealand’s first full-time R&B group.  Later he formed the Country Flyers – one of the more popular country-rock bands of the 70s – then started performing under his own name.

His pre-Raglan life also included a 7-8 year stint in radio in Wellington, marriage and fatherhood. He has two children, one currently in Auckland and the other in London.

After several years performing in Australia during the late ’70s, Midge came to Raglan in 1980 at the encouragement of fellow musicians Sid Limbert and Dave Maybee who are still around today. He then bought his 1940s house in Rose Street, just above the building which recently morphed from the Marlin Bar into the Wharf Kitchen & Bar.

“It used to be tearooms, and before that a cabaret with dances on every Friday and Saturday night,” Midge reminisces of the site.

During the ’80s Midge and the legendary Raglan Mudsharks played rock’n’roll and blues to a packed bar at the Harbour View Hotel almost every second Monday night – a regular gig which became widely known as Mudshark Mondays.

That special time in Raglan’s musical history was captured on national television in 1987 when broadcaster Gary McCormick visited the town and “put it on the map”, says Midge, with his hour-long documentary ‘Raglan By the Sea’.

Midge reckons he’s loving being back in town for a bit this month, just ahead of doing one more national tour before retirement. “It’s just like I never left,” he adds of the familiar faces and places of old.

He has a loyal fan-base built up over four decades in the business as New Zealand’s best-known bluesman, and feels “totally humbled” by the hundreds of complimentary remarks on Facebook since announcing his final year on the road.

He’s also been playing in a duo for some years with his band’s guitarist, Chet O’Connell. The pair recently added renowned journalist and music enthusiast Phil Gifford to the mix for a show called ‘The Backstage Tapes: A Musical Journey’. “We’ll be doing more of these intimate theatre shows this year”, says Midge, after two sold-out performances in his hometown last year.

And he’s certainly open to the idea of returning to Raglan for gigs like the Mudshark Rescue Services Fundraiser of recent years which has benefitted locally the Westpac Air Ambulance, the Fire Brigade, Coastguard, the Surf Life Saving Club and St John Ambulance.

“I want to go out on a high note,” he adds of music retirement. “I’m not going to fully quit forever, but there’s other things I want to do including a lot more overseas travel and of course gardening.”

Edith Symes

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