Hello Sailor were New Zealand’s most convincing rock stars. They acted like pirates, and managed to look menacing and foppish at the same time. It wasn’t a pose; it was a lifestyle. They lifted standards in performance, songwriting, and recording – and they behaved extremely badly. Emulating the music and hedonism of their heroes – The Rolling Stones, Iggy Pop and Lou Reed – they created their own genre of rock music in which Polynesian languor coexisted with the sinister possibilities of 1970s Ponsonby after hours.
It was a tough suburb; to avoid fights, Dave McArtney and singer Graham Brazier occasionally ran down Ponsonby Road. And it was a sinister era: Mr Asia’s introduction of heroin into New Zealand took recreational drug use to another, evil, level. What once seemed like experimental, risky fun turned into a lifelong curse for a generation of musicians. Acolytes from the bohemian underworld flocked, like moths to a bare bulb.
McArtney’s memoir is a romp – and a cautionary tale. Neil Finn told me that no outside writer can really capture what it is like to be in a band and, reading Gutter Black, many will be glad they were on the outside. Yes, the requisite trio of sex, drugs and rock’n’roll is on the menu, in all-you-can-eat quantities. But there is more going on here.
McArtney is an intelligent and literate observer of human behaviour. He writes with humour, irony and an eye for detail. Occasionally, his meandering use of metaphor has the flamboyance of a prog-rock guitar solo, but it’s forgivable due to McArtney’s charm and honesty. There’s no posturing. He enjoys telling stories and brings to them a literary awareness. At ease with himself, with a well-sharpened sense of the absurd, he doesn’t mind being the butt of his own jokes.
Hello Sailor ventured into uncharted waters, and hit the rocks often. They could be brilliant, but they were erratic. In the early 1980s, during a hiatus, one often heard a summary of their career: “They blew the big gigs.” After several reunions, they evolved into a semi-permanent self-tribute act that handled itself with dignity and gained renewed respect.
McArtney grew up in New Zealand in the 1950s, moving location several times because of his father Bruce, an old-school banker. (There is a poignant photo of them together, backstage c1979: Dave, earring prominent, is in a “new wave” shirt of neon colours and geometric patterns; Bruce is dressed in pastels for the 19th hole.) Even more than books and music, McArtney’s greatest joy was to be active. His sporting pursuits were solitary, but thrill-seeking; a love of surfing and skiing remained until the end of his life, and inspired some lyrical passages about the spiritual benefits of outdoor exercise.
Yet, as a member of the unholy trinity that was the front line of Hello Sailor – with Brazier and fellow guitarist Harry Lyon, a friend since childhood – McArtney was as passionate about partying hard as he was about music. They were good keen lads, well into middle-age. The only person who seems to have said “grow up” – and then with serene grace – was Brazier’s and McArtney’s wife, Donna Mills. Yes, wife. Mills was 18 when she met Brazier; she was already a champion athlete, and he was a super-fit dustman with a flair for imitating Charles Bukowski and writing left-wing sea shanties. They married but within a few years – at Brazier’s suggestion – Mills became McArtney’s lover and eventually his wife.
Mills was the band’s guardian angel, and deserves to have her image carved in wood at the prow of the Good Ship Sailor (the book includes many old band posters, which came from the design school of Seamen’s Tattoo; their artist was a drug addict, convicted dealer, and close friend nicknamed “Ratbladder”). McArtney needed a guardian angel because he had eight near-death experiences, and each one is described with poetic gratitude. When he was diagnosed with terminal cancer, he faced death with philosophical fortitude. The end came last year; McArtney was just 62. Never has a New Zealand musician been so deeply mourned by countless – and genuine – personal friends.
In 1978, having peaked in Ponsonby, the band decided to bypass Australia and go straight to the heart of the US music business: Los Angeles. At the time, the New Zealand dollar bought one greenback, and the band squandered every kind of capital as it embarked on a six-month party that involved a Fellini-esque cast of characters and a few brilliant, but erratic, concerts. In hindsight, McArtney admits the campaign was folly; seeing it as such at the time would have been impossible.
The LA experience is deservedly the centrepiece of the book; you can see McArtney’s wry smile as he tells the stories with a mix of pride and shame. But it is one episode among many in a picaresque rollercoaster. Equally well described are his growing obsessions as he came of age – music, surfing, drugs – during a period when the New Zealand establishment would have preferred its citizens in bed with Bournvita shortly after It’s in the Bag. It is heart-breaking to read how, as the first New Zealand law student busted for pot, McArtney returned by train to Auckland, and was met at the station by his father:
His face was grey, the pallor of a man beaten by circumstance. My job should have been to make him understand, but I didn’t. I couldn’t … I sank into a mire of self-loathing for what I had done to my poor father. No explanation.
That is about as close as McArtney gets to expressing regret, because he had a fondness for all the rogues he encountered, and a talent for capturing them in words. In the band’s earliest days, there were constant parties in a large rundown house that they shared with Dragon (a band whose levels of indulgence were an inspiration to Sailor): “Mandrax Mansion was infamous for its bouncing-off-the-wall parties and the extreme behaviour of its bohemian inhabitants.” Some of these ne’er-do-wells actually did very well, in art, film, music and literature; it was a macho scene that welcomed a “dysfunctional colony” of hookers, homosexuals and drag queens. Heroin was also part of the attraction.
McArtney describes his fellow band members with affection and perception: the mercurial Brazier, the relaxed but reliable Lyon, the accident-prone bassist Lisle Kinney, and the uncomplicated drummer Rick Ball. Another key player was the pianist/songwriter Paul Hewson, a genuine rock star with Dragon; only here does McArtney’s respect for a friend romanticise a wasted talent.
McArtney himself saw many sunrises in an altered state, but achieved a well-rounded life, rich with family, music, literature, sport and friendship. In his 40s, he finished his MA and found himself teaching – and skiing – in Germany, flitting back home to perform with the reformed Sailors. His perennial song “Gutter Black” – a hit in 1977, revived in the 2000s by Outrageous Fortune – brought a late-career bonus. It could be one of McArtney’s guiding mantras: he cut the cord with his mother, who patted him on the head and said, “Go to sea”. He had the adventures of a modern-day explorer, and eventually found time to write them.
Assisted by publisher and writer Finlay Macdonald, in the last few months of his life McArtney edited a dog-eared manuscript into a disciplined, engaging memoir. It is beautifully presented with archival and contemporary photos, and generous with visual ephemera. There won’t be another local rock star memoir like this one, because the music industry no longer sustains swashbuckling explorers.
Chris Bourke is the author of Crowded House: Something So Strong and Blue Smoke: the Lost Dawn of New Zealand Popular Music, 1918-1964.