An at turns moving and bizarre account of a pop star's troubled life, author and music manager Simon Grigg recounts the life of OMC's frontman Pauly Fuemana.
How Bizarre: Pauly Fuemana and the Song That Stormed the WorldPublisher: Awa Press
Length: 255 pages
Author: Simon Grigg
Publication date: 2015-10
It was one of the most exasperating songs of 1995, but it left an indelible mark in one-hit-wonder history. “How Bizarre” signalled the arrival of OMC, a pop band from New Zealand that married the influences of Kiwi pop, hip-hop and some Latin sounds to create what they had hoped was a diverse and multi-ethnic package. It certainly caught on with audiences, first in the band’s homeland and then worldwide. Soon the band found itself playing along with the likes of the Spice Girls, who were also just beginning to enjoy their monstrous share of success back then.
How Bizarre is the story of the relationship between band leader Pauly Fuemana and his manager Simon Grigg, the author of this memoir. Grigg chronicles Fuemana’s success from his time playing in various little bands-that-could to his eventual rise to stardom. A sense of loss permeates Grigg’s account, as Fuemana passed away from an autoimmune disease in 2010. Grigg relates both the joys and hardships of managing the success of a band on the rise and offers a harrowing perspective on the personal struggles of Fuemana, who seemed at a loss when it came to dealing with industry demands.
How Bizarre manages the feat of reporting a life’s story at a distance at once respectful and close enough to illustrate the deep-seated emotions that came with Fuemana’s success. Of both Niuean and Māori descent, the singer spent his early days moving from job to job and finding himself among various social groups (artistic and otherwise). His history is admittedly dodgy; from the start Grigg establishes Fuemana’s past an utter mystery and the singer’s supplied details do not easily come into focus. Fuemana was either a car salesman or a hitman and he’d supposedly been involved in a series of crimes, including the robbery of a fast-food outlet.
Since much of the singer’s trajectory seems to be the result of pure happenstance, his entrance into the music industry seems precarious at best. Fuemana would first cut his teeth on a few bands experimenting with the new wave of dance music that had hit New Zealand shores back in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. Grigg describes what would be the consistently arduous task of trying to take Fuemana under his wing after having discovered him during the author’s stint as a club manager in Auckland.
What makes Grigg’s story incredibly fascinating is his unflinching look into Fuemana’s life; he regards his troubled relationship with the singer with both compassion and skepticism. Fuemana was, by the author’s account, an incredibly difficult man at times and prone to violent outbursts. At many points in the book, Grigg alludes to possible psychological issues in the singer which caused much static in his working and personal relationships. In a particularly unnerving incident, Fuemana threatens Grigg with violence during a press junket and later, inexplicably, accuses both a music journalist and Crowded House frontman, Neil Finn, of paedophilia. The singer’s spending habits are also worryingly related – from recklessly buying expensive but shoddy cars to hotel rooms filled with call girls. Grigg depicts a brash but frightened young man with careful and studied measure, choosing his words always with compassion and empathy.
Fuemana’s unending issues with racism also provide an angle which reveals possible motives for his moody, sometimes foul, behaviour. In an astonishing recount of the singer’s press rounds in Australia, Grigg divulges a most disturbing moment in which a radio jockey asks if Fuemana styles his hair with sheep excrement, claiming that such is the practice of Māori people, before dissolving into a fit of laughter live on-air. It’s tersely written, yet underneath there's the knowing sadness of Fuemana’s interminable struggles with discrimination.
As “How Bizarre” begins climbing the charts (even without the presence of a full album), the singer’s antics begin escalating into far more precarious areas of mistrust and doubt. Working beyond his duties as a manager, Grigg undertakes the role of caregiver, providing Fuemana with the one thing the singer doesn’t understand he needs most: a genuine friend. Grigg draws a frustrating trajectory that sees the singer’s unadulterated happiness with his musical success marred by the surrounding strife which seems self-created. At many points, Grigg is a helpless observer, doing his best to intervene in the most inopportune moments.
When a full album is eventually released, the band and Grigg have much difficulty pushing for further singles that match the success of “How Bizarre”. As the band’s status slowly devolves, the shift into Fuemana’s later life reveals the onslaught of his illness. Grigg describes an awkward reunion in which the singer is on shoot for a video; his illness has caused him so much pain that his physical movements are compromised (Fuemana has difficulty lip-syncing along to the track for the video shoot).
Grigg reveals in an afterward that the book was never intended to be published and that he imagined a private memoir as a way to put into focus many of the unresolved feelings he’s had toward his most impressionable friend. How Bizarre is definitely about Fuemana’s music and the nefarious trappings of the recording industry. But Grigg also articulates an unheard music, the kind expressed only through an underlying voice of grief.