The passing of Ritchie Pickett has generated an avalanche of stories about one of New Zealand’s most colourful musical characters.

Born in Morrinsville, Ritchie first rose to prominence in the bands Snuff and Think in the 1970s. He went on to have a series of bands including the Jones Boys, The Inlaws (with whom he recorded the acclaimed album Gone For Water in 1984) and latterly The Rattler (the Cambridge based band with whom he released the prophetically titled album The Leaving in 2009). His long career trajectory also featured short -lived project bands which Ritchie baptised with outrageous names such as The Denise Blogdon Typing Pool , The Riddled Liver Band and Driftnet and the Dolphin Burgers ( political correctness didn’t figure in Ritchie’s world – he admonished me  once about jazz saying that major sevenths and augmenteds were “homo chords”). He rose to national prominence as a country star when he became a regular guest on the weekly prime time TV show That’s Country during the 1980s.

From his middle years Ritchie never really strayed far from Tauranga and the Waikato. In the late 1980s I was living in Hamilton and formed a band with him called the Ryan-Pickett Band. It was unusual for two piano players to form a band but we both went for the idea (Ritchie trumpeted that we could be the “Ferrante and Teicher of country rock music”). We were resident at the St Armand Hotel – a small boutique hotel on The Strand in Tauranga with a grand piano perched upstairs on a small stage.  Ritchie would range and rage between piano and guitar, earbashing the audience between songs and leading the band on hell-bent nights and mayhem which usually segued into crazed early morning jams and hotel room parties while the sun came up over Tauranga Moana.

If Leonard Cohen is a “poet of the boudoir” then Ritchie was a “poet of the bar room”.  Off stage, in the comparative sobriety of daylight, working with Ritchie was a master class in song writing. He would invite me over to his Tauranga home where he had two upright pianos adjacent to each other in a corner of his lounge. We would each sit at a piano with a bottle of wine opened on a table between us. These sessions routinely descended into the worlds of black humour and the profane. But underneath it all Ritchie was a master of words, generous with his ideas and a fire starter when it came to creativity.

Ritchie could set any room alight with his barrel house great-balls-of -fire style of piano playing. He also literally set a few pianos on fire in his career. He once returned my prized Yamaha CP70 electric grand to me with whole -length cigarette burns on the bottom four white keys. Another time a borrowed keyboard slid out of the back window of a car while he careered home after a gig in Hamilton.

But as well as being a hell raiser Ritchie was a voracious reader, a scholar and a thespian – he was well versed in the arts and New Zealand natural and literary history. His lyrics were peppered with cryptic messages and literary conceits referencing anyone from Shakespeare and Kerouac to Baxter and Sargeson. He laid all of this intelligent lyricism over classic melodies which were simple and often beautifully tender – listen to Nadine and you hear Ritchie’s brilliance as a lyricist with a masterful sense of prosody and harmony.

Ritchie Pickett has left a trail of broken hearts and broken pianos. Part Hank Williams, part Monty Python  and  part Oscar Wilde he has also left us some magnificent songs, some rich memories and some of the best one-liners ever uttered over a midnight microphone on any gig, in any bar, anywhere. Beyond the blue haze of myth and provincial legend (there was a lot of smoke and a few mirrors), lies the authentic story of an unsung genius  - a New Zealand songwriter relentless and uncompromising in his search for the truth.  And another bar....