How did I meet Karen Nunis Blackstone? In the late 1980s the Blues Gang had a rambling old house in Titiwangsa and Karen lived next door. She sang a couple of Janis Joplin songs and sounded just like her. I couldn’t believe the power of the voice coming out of that exquisite but frail-looking songbird. She couldn’t have been more than 16 (but in fact was 21).
Turns out I knew Karen’s dad, Larry D’ Vincent – best-known among the St Paul’s Hill painters of Malacca, and he could really sing the blues after a few drinks. He wore a beret at all times and had a brief unhappy affair with surrealism. Larry was a larger-than-life Kerouac-type character. Maybe someday someone will make a movie about Karen’s dad.
Or, better yet, Karen’s mum, Mabel Barr, who raised three talented kids, mostly through sheer perseverance. They could all sing and draw, and they all had a certain magic about them. Maybe they escaped from an Isabel Allende novel. I had a copy of Eva Luna that featured Karen Nunis on the cover. In any case, the gazelle-like beauty that adorned Ms. Allende’s book looked so much like Karen I photographed it and sent her a print.
Karen was always drawing and singing and writing strange little stories to amuse herself and her siblings, Virginia and Leo. One day I was introduced to an American guy named Brad Blackstone, who taught English and wrote Zen poems on the side. Karen’s svengali boyfriend is now her husband, business manager and producer. He calls himself “Daddy Peet” and tells fabulous tales of acid adventures with Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters. Another character out of a novel, maybe a Tom Robbins novel. Daddy Peet married Karen and whisked her off to Japan where he taught at an American university. They now have two beautiful offspring: one a lovely angel child named Billie Blue (age 4) and the other a lovingly produced newborn album on their own Songbird label. Give Me Sanity it’s called, and that’s what most of the songs are about.
With Daddy Peet’s encouragement, Karen kept at her drawing and painting and within a few years developed an elegant, magical surrealist style of her own which successfully fulfills artistic as well as commercial criteria. Rumor has it that Bob Dylan bought one of Karen’s paintings at an exhibition Daddy Peet arranged for her in California. Besides having had many shows in Japan, Karen has exhibited several times in Kuala Lumpur and her work has invariably been warmly received and well patronized.
Before she left for Akita, Japan, to be with Daddy Peet, Karen sent me a bunch of words she thought could be set to music. I fiddled around with the lyrics for a while and told Karen I thought they had real potential, but it would be great if she learnt to play the guitar herself and came up with tunes for her own songs. Well, she did, and now she composes together with Daddy Peet, a beat poet born out of time, who plays the blues harp at all of Karen’s gigs and on Sanity.
The album features 12 sparsely arranged tracks favoring Karen’s strong, throaty voice and savvy, sophisticated lyrics. The album is inspired by and in memory of Leo Christopher Nunis, Karen’s kid brother, who was stabbed to death by a deranged neighborhood vagabond. At 22, good-looking Leo was happily married to a sweet English girl and was getting real funky on the guitar. He played me a few of the songs he was working on, and they sounded really promising. His passing was a senseless, tragic bereavement that stunned everyone who knew the Nunis family. Karen’s sister Virginia – who’s been singing on the hotel circuit – does a couple of backing vocals on Give Me Sanity.
In late 1999 Karen, Daddy Peet and Billie Blue were in KL for 8 weeks. I only saw them once, over a delicious meal prepared by Mabel Barr. Billie Blue charmed and amazed me with her precocity. She looks like Karen in miniature but has her daddy’s prominent forehead. None of them had gained an ounce in weight, which is always a good sign. They were all psyched up to sequester themselves at FAT Productions with ace engineer Al Tutin and cut themselves an hour’s worth of good music. Karen played me her demo cassette and asked who they should rope in on bass. Well, in this town three names immediately come to mind when you’re talking bass: Andy Peterson, David Yee, and Tommasso Cecere. They called in the crazy Italiano, who lugged his double bass down to the studio. How about drums? Three names that sprang to mind were Zahid Ahmad, Jerry Felix, and Gary Gideon. Gary wound up on the album credits. One afternoon I called Mabel’s house and a Japanese guy picked up the phone. It was Yuki Kasai, Karen’s regular guitar player in Akita, who had flown in for the recording. The next time I phoned, Mabel announced that Karen, Daddy Peet and Billie Blue had returned to Akita. The recording was more or less done but they still had some loose ends to tie up. Drat! I’d missed them by a few hours.
In July 2000 Karen emailed me with the exciting news: FINALLY her album was ready, liner notes, nifty packaging, press kit and all. Could she send me a CD and, er, would I review it? Well, having heard her demo I knew it was safe to say yes. Karen couldn’t possibly do anything badly anyway. There was only one problem: As someone who has watched Karen Nunis Blackstone grow up and flower as an artist and a singer, I’d find it hard to give her the full measure of praise she truly deserves. An unmitigated wholehearted rave review would sound too much like avuncular pride. But it’s a risk I’m perfectly happy to take.
Karen Nunis Blackstone is possibly the most charismatic and talented individual I know, and I’m pleased to think she regards me as an old friend. As if it weren’t enough that she can paint and sing so beautifully, she’s also been blessed with this maddeningly demure sex appeal. Mabel Barr, you have every right to play the role of Proud Mama. And, Larry – wherever you are, whatever you’re up to – you just have to be grateful your genetic potential has been so magnificently fulfilled.
23 July 2000
[First published in The Star, July or August 2000]