One Tree Hill: A conversation with Scruff

The cuttings of Scruff’s extraordinary life are stuffed into a fat, brown leather wallet, along with his personal documents, references, some photos and books. Anything that’s been written about Scruff, by anyone, at any time over the past few decades, is in this file. His personal library.

It’s so full the zip barely closes. It has that musty smell that comes with age and being stored in damp places. And on its cover are the faded bumper stickers of his political rallies, fundraising campaigns, and favourite radio stations.

The cuttings themselves show Scruff stocky and muscular; Scruff wiry and wired; Scruff with and without tattoos; Scruff running for mayor; Scruff walking for justice; Scruff exhibiting photos or bouncing in clubs.

They build a mosaic of a man who fits no mould, and who seems to have spent his whole life avoiding labels, rules, expectations, even the strictures of love and relationship.

He is described, by different writers and at differing stages of his life, as a bikie transvestite (for wearing his daughter’s hand-me-downs), as a schizophrenic and psychotic, as a roadie, a bouncer, a bodyguard, a beneficiary, a photographer, artist, actor, and friend to the stars.

There are stories about his pet pig, Newton, and about his bull terrier, Brindle. Stories about his violence and his jail time, about fire dancing, the occult, about drugs, vegetarianism, and totems.

And there are stories about Bowie. About the Eurythmics. About Bono and Dave Dobbin and Tim Finn. 

For 30 years Scruff has courted the limelight, attracted intrigue, wonder, fear, and loathing. 

Over the last 15 years of his life, many of his stories have been represented in tattoos across his skull, leaving him looking more fearsome than he did before.

And to a large degree the look reflects the reality. This son of a Huntly coal miner discovered early in life that he feared nothing and that violence came naturally. He lost the fingers of his right hand in an accident at the Minginui Timber Mill when he was 16, and if the cuttings tell it right this set him on a nihilistic path—heroin use and institutionalisation, criminal activity and self-abuse. 

According to the mythology, even criminals feared him. If you needed something doing that no one else would do, you got Scruff to do it.

If it wasn’t for Greg Carroll, a roadie who would become a member of the U2 crew and who introduced Scruff to music and to the music industry in the 80s, he would have self-destructed. Carroll was killed in a motorbike accident in Dublin in 1986, and he inspired the US song One Tree Hill. Scruff credits Carroll with saving his life.

Being saved was a constant conversational refrain when I spent an afternoon with Scruff a couple of years before his death. He wasn’t one to reflect on the past, and didn’t think much about the future either. In fact, it was all about the present, and the moment, for Scruff. But a diagnosis of serious cancer, coinciding with a season of homelessness, made him more inclined to think about the turning points in his life. It also coincided with our paths crossing.

He was 64 at the time. Peter Ralph had gone by the name Scruff since childhood. His older brother was Big Scruff, and Peter was Little Scruff — for a time. One day he just assumed the Scruff mantle, and in most of the cuttings in his wallet, Scruff was the only name he was known by.

His illness had mobilised friends to raise support. There was talk of a concert in his honour, and a photo exhibition, which would showcase his singular photographic talents, and raise dollars towards his treatment, and a vehicle.

It didn’t take me long to discover why people, including some of the legends of rock’n’roll, had taken Scruff to heart. Brutally honest, he refused to play by convention and his transparency was refreshingly compelling. He was soft-spoken, almost gentle, and despite his colourful career, and at that time his life-threatening illness, he didn’t fish for sympathy or respect.

But the magnitude of his cancer battle regularly intruded on our conversation. Scruff was in constant pain, and the reality of his situation weighed heavily on him. It was hard not to talk about hopelessness with someone who had celebrated nihilism so much throughout his life. But with Scruff, hopelessness just wasn’t a feature of his landscape. 

But I asked him about the future.

‘I’m not worried about it,’ Scruff said. ‘I’m not worried about the cancer, I’m worried about the chemotherapy and stuff like that. You can end up needing a liver transplant, a kidney transplant, or there’s the burning of the skin. 

‘For 30 years, I’ve tried to get my body back up again, from all the drugs. Now, I won’t even go near pills, or a needle or anything like that. I was never into health or sports, but I’ve got into it now. After 30 years it’s just gonna go — bang!’

When our talk shifted to mortality, it wasn’t death that scared Scruff, it was the limitations he was already experiencing — he wanted to live and work as fast as he could, even, or especially, through his sickness.

‘I don’t like it. I don’t like it at all. I go to a concert or festival and I see roadies working — and it started the older I got. I go over to lift a box and some of them run over and say “It’s all right”. But I’m not dead yet — just because I’m 60something. But they are really polite, they are just being nice. But I’ll tell you when I’m dead. 

‘A lot of older people don’t like to stop working, because they’ve worked for so long. But when you get to a certain age, you could become a risk, you’ve got to realise that. But I don’t think in that way at all, I just think that I’m still young, I can still do better than any of the others. Just get out of my way!’

The last concert Scruff covered as a roadie was Coldplay at Mt Smart Stadium. Over the years he had worked for some of the best and the biggest bands, but always in NZ. His criminal record stopped him from travelling overseas, which he said was his one regret.

‘I believe I could have made it anywhere else in the world, because I was given a lot of tours. And if I had gone, I wouldn’t have come back. I’ve never been overseas because of my past. I couldn’t even go to Australia.’

On his criminal past, two themes emerged: Scruff wanted to change but discovered that he couldn’t; and yet he was never quite as bad as he thought.

‘I used to argue with people for a long time that I’d changed. And then I started to realise that no, I haven’t changed. I can maybe speak a lot better, maybe do a lot more things. But I’ve still got that rage in me. And that’s why I can’t settle down. It’s like, I don’t want to ever stop — and that’s when age comes into it. I don’t believe in old, I don’t believe in the word old, because once you believe in the word old you go down, and next minute you’re in a home. Like I said, I do have that rage, and sometimes I still can be a little bit frightened of myself. Because I can still be pretty dangerous if I want to be. I sort of have to learn to live with that one. I manage it, it’s like depression.’

And yet, something steered Scruff away from his nihilistic lifestyle. Greg, music, a community of musicians. Who knows? But he became a vegetarian, embraced spirituality, tried to look after his body, and turned away from crime.

‘I found out that I wasn’t as tough as I thought I was. If you’re going to be a criminal, like a good one, you can’t have friends. You can’t be soft. You’ve got to be hard and that’s it, simple as that. And because of the things that I wanted to do, I couldn’t have friends. No one could even come near me, no women, no nothing, because they were danger. Because the police used to use women. So everyone had to be pushed aside. When I was using, I started not actually liking it. I found out that I have a weak side. So all of a sudden this weak side started appearing and it really annoyed me and I used to try to fight it. But all of a sudden I was looking at crystals, at healers. I started mixing with different people and then, suddenly, realised I wasn’t that tough after all, I couldn’t do these other things that I wanted to do. When I started hurting people I started questioning myself. I just started changing.’

For the few weeks leading up to our chat, Scruff slept in the open in a local park, bedding down beside a bench without even a blanket.

He’d been hospitalised several times because of the intensity of the pain, and he was doing what he could to prepare his body for the chemicals to come.

He expected the physical reaction to his treatment to be severe, and predicted a time of great suffering.

Nevertheless, he was making plans for what he did best — put on a show. Not just any show, but the biggest show seen in NZ — 1200 bands playing non-stop for four weeks.

In the meantime, whether he got to drive a Bentley around NZ, as he hoped one day to do, or whether he remained homeless, Scruff said he would always be content.

‘I’ve learned from music to drink Dom Pérignon and cognac — you know what I mean?’ Scruff said. ‘I got spoiled. 

‘But on the other side, I can live in the gutter with the pigs. It doesn’t really matter.’