Saturday, July 31, 2010

Together Alone: The Story of the Finn Brothers by Jeff Apter

Release Date (Australia): 1 June 2010
Rating: 7/10

The hits of Neil and Tim Finn read like a checklist of recent pop history. And to think it all began in sleepy, rural Te Awamutu, New Zealand, where Brian Timothy Finn fell in love with The Beatles, an obsession that would also work its way into his younger brother Neil’s DNA. Based on interviews, critical analysis, extensive research, and the author’s 30+ years of following the Finns, Together Alone is the first biography written about the Finn brothers. This is a story of breakthroughs, breakdowns, sibling rivalry and respect – and some of the best pop songs this side of Lennon and McCartney.

I have been listening to Tim and Neil Finn, in some form or another, for my entire life. My mother is from New Zealand and her influence on this love of mine from such an early age is undeniable – she has been listening to them since the late 1970s. The earliest song I ever remember loving by anyone is “History Never Repeats” by Split Enz. Crowded House, the most famous incarnation of their music, formed the year I was born. I was 12 years old the first time I saw Neil Finn live; it was my second live concert and is a large part of the reason I fell in love with live music. Seeing Neil perform live (and he wasn’t even my favourite - Tim was, is, and always will be) blew my mind. As a child with a hearing loss, I still loved music so much but it had to be loud, which wasn’t always possible without bothering other people. Sometimes listening to music could be a struggle and required concentration. I couldn’t understand the lyrics or hear the individual instruments within a song unless the volume was high. Live music never posed this issue for me: it was always loud. I loved seeing live bands at 12 and still love it beyond almost anything 13 years later. I love that feeling in your heart like your whole body can feel the music. Tim and Neil Finn are a large part behind my early development of a love for music in general. Their songs are still among the most beautiful songs I have heard and Tim Finn, especially circa Split Enz, is one of the most inventive, creative and original songwriters I have ever had the pleasure of listening to.

I read a biography Jeff Apter wrote about Silverchair years ago, despite never being a significant fan of Silverchair. But I loved Apter’s biography: it was written intelligently and with just the right amount of distance and personality. He wrote considerately of Daniel Johns' illnesses and the struggle of those young kids learning to cope with such sudden, incredible fame. This book, as well as his biography of Dave Grohl, really made me respect Jeff Apter as a biographer, which is a difficult thing to do successfully. I was therefore intrigued when I heard he was releasing a book on the Finn brothers. I know far too much about Tim and Neil to be deemed healthy, hence I wasn’t sure how much reading a biography would give me in terms of new information. I was also apprehensive because a lot of people can make it all about Neil – and make Tim look somewhat irrelevant – simply because Neil was the 'successful' one to reach fame in the United States, especially with Crowded House.

“I was endlessly fascinated by music, partly by looking at it through Tim’s eyes, because he was six years older than me and what he was doing seemed incredibly evolved.”

I needn’t have worried. Apter wrote beautifully and carefully of the entire story of the brothers – from family days in Te Awamutu to the early days of Split Enz, from the success of Split Enz after Neil joined to the eventual disbanding of the band, from Tim’s solo career and formation of Crowded House, from Tim joining Crowded House to the end of the band, and the joining of the brothers in the two Finn Brothers projects. He discussed the ups and downs of the brothers' relationship carefully and without bias.

Most importantly to me, Apter wrote of Crowded House drummer, Paul Hester’s suicide with dignity and respect: briefly discussing the aftermath on a personal level for Paul’s family, but largely concentrating on the Royal Albert Hall shows the Finns were scheduled to play the days after his death, with Nick Seymour flying in to join them. These shows meant a lot to the musicians and the fans alike, in a sharing of the grief felt after the shock that Paul was gone and that someone so lovable and funny had decided to leave this world in such a way.

When the curtain rose, a row of three mic stands had been set up in the middle of the stage, along with a solitary snare drum, a nod to the usual Crowded House set-up for “Sister Madly” and a very obvious tribute to Hester.

I have read a lot of music biographies, many of them not very good, but to anyone that has an interest in Tim Finn, Neil Finn, Crowded House or Split Enz, this is a perfect introduction to two men from a tiny town in New Zealand who have created some of the most beautiful pop songs in existence (and worn some of the craziest outfits in existence, too).


  1. Introduction? Yes. Biography? No.

    There is precious little in the book that a half dedicated fan hasn't already read or heard elsewhere - much of it is a rehash and some of that he manages to get wrong. What new information he has is laregely unsubstantiated, and he totally wasted the opportunity to create something unique in glossing over the post-Enz and Crodies (mark I) parts of the brothers' lives and careers.

  2. I partly agree with you, which is why I said it is a good introduction for people that are not Finn fantatics. I probably should have written that most avid Finn fans wouldn't like it because there's a lack of new information, but I enjoyed reading it myself despite knowing basically everything already.

    I liked the fact that the early days were focused on more than post-Enz and CH, because most "half dedicated" fans know the later years of their careers really well. To each their own, I guess. I'm still glad someone finally wrote a book about them, which is a hard thing to do.

  3. I bought Neil Finn's lyrics book - I love it. I am seeing Crowded House again soon!
    Thank you for the comment on my blog about the woman who befriended the woman with the cleft palate. Since receiving other viewpoints from people such as you, my opinion has changed from a soft, not wanting to offend approach to a harder one. The woman has actually replied too - her comment is quite defensive!

  4. I'm seeing Crowded House again soon, too! Yay.

    Yeah, I saw her reply. At first I didn't think what she said originally was so bad, but the more I thought about it the more it annoyed me. Maybe I get too easily annoyed by things like this after so many years of dealing with rudeness etc, but it just seemed to like a weird and rather dumb question to ask. I could understand someone saying, "Do you mind people asking you what is wrong with your face?" or something like that, which people have asked me before. But asking how to approach us? It seems very odd to me. It's like asking how would you approach someone of a different race or culture - as a human being, with respect. Seems kind of obvious to me.

    I must say, you seem a lot more patient than me! I admire that so much about you.