Dead People I Have Known
Victoria University Press, $40.00,
Rock odysseys can start in obscure places. Shayne Carter’s began in Brockville, a state-housing suburb of Dunedin, a city at the southern end of a country that to most of the world is little known, even more so in the 1970s when Carter was starting out. But whereas rock heroes normally wind up somewhere very different from where they began, Carter returned to Dunedin to write this memoir and, throughout the book, Dunedin never feels all that far away, even after its protagonist has been swept up into the mythical world of rock stardom. There is a late passage in which he finds himself again “stranded in Dunedin, where I signed up to the dole only weeks after being driven in a limousine to the Conan O’Brien show in Manhattan.”
This sense of high-stakes snakes and ladders helps give the book its exciting giddiness. Mostly, though, the dynamics come from the writing itself. Being able to write great songs is no guarantee of great prose, as turgid tomes by Morrissey and Neil Young attest, but Carter assembles sentences with the same mix of precision and wild energy with which he makes music.
“Gavin fluked a chord, and our practice crashed to a standstill,” he writes of an early rehearsal with his first band. “Gavin never found that chord again. It was like it floated out of the Elseys’ garage and off down the Kaikorai stream.” Lines like these could almost be song lyrics, but, even more, they resemble Carter’s guitar riffs: artfully chosen phrases slammed into tough and effective shapes, giving the illusion that this is just the way they happened to fall. There are softer, sweeter passages, too. He recalls, as a child, helping out in a fruit and vegetable store: “I remember the dust on the potatoes I bagged, the crunch of decent apples, the optimistic scent of citrus.”
Some of Carter’s best writing concerns matters other than music, and the first quarter of the book is barely about music at all. It’s the story of a part-Māori kid growing up on the edges of poverty in a complicated dysfunctional family in an almost entirely Pākehā community. He remembers the rare teachers who were kind; most had already written him off before they met him. He depicts a brutal New Zealand (dangerous, divided and depressed), and it makes you wonder about all the other young Shaynes who never find the means of expression or escape.
From the moment he discovers punk rock (“I’d heard rumours of a new musical movement where bands vomited over their audience or bonked each other on stage”), it is clear that this will be his salvation: a way of releasing his rage, and perhaps cheating his circumstances. Though he never states it bluntly, he shows us through these episodes why music matters so much to him. Not that music turns out to be any kind of safe haven. Carter really has known a lot of dead people, and while the title encompasses more than just casualties of the music business, rock’s attrition rate seems peculiarly high. Among the deaths he records, the most vivid and shocking, because he was there, is that of his early musical partner Wayne Elsey. The accident that took Elsey’s life sits horribly and significantly at the centre of the book. But quieter memorials to both Carter’s parents, as well as to a number of other friends and colleagues, are equally moving.
That said, the book is also funny. Along with music, Carter has a strong, albeit dark, sense of humour that has clearly been crucial to his survival. “Designer drugs were for designer cities, so the Dunedin versions were nasty and improvised,” he says, summing up the DIY drug scene that hit Dunedin hard in the 1980s. “A friend once drank formaldehyde mixed with soda then lay on a lounge floor foaming from the mouth while we stepped around him.”
As for his own stardom, Carter presents it as innate, a superpower he was born with, “a flame to shoot from my fingers”. “Being a rock star was never difficult like much of my life was. It was like opening my veins and watching the blood course through.” Yet, oddly, it is only when discussing the rise and fall of Straitjacket Fits, the nearest Carter ever came to realising stardom on a global scale, that his writing loses some of its vividness. Does the shadow of unfulfilled expectations that hangs over this period make it hard to summon the energy and wit that drives the rest of the book? You can feel his passion return when he discusses the various Dimmer projects that followed the Straitjackets’ demise, even though these took place against a background of uncertainty and depression, with record executives suggesting he consider doing something else with his life. But, as Carter explains, being a musician has never been a question of selling or playing to millions, he is simply doing what he was born to do.
Drugs, rock’n’roll … what have we forgotten? Sex, of course, and to Carter the connection between sex and music is unambiguous: “There has never been a better way of showing off to the opposite sex than rocking particularly hard.”
He chronicles some of the ways his romantic life has informed his music, though, despite some pithy characterisations (“she had an engaging laugh, a knowing half-chuckle that came from deep in her breast”), few of his inamoratas are given names, and none develop into major characters. When he refers to “my girlfriend”, you need to flick back a few pages to work out which girlfriend he is talking about. At one point, he ruefully concedes that his relationships generally last between two and four years, “and then I leave, or I make them leave, because no matter where I am, it’s never enough.”
He’s less conflicted when describing music and fellow musicians: Ladi6 and her “voice with a woodfire crackle”; Shihad making “a noise like a fascist death squad marching into Poland”; the young Martin Phillipps sounding “like he had been driven all around Otago Peninsula while recovering from dental drugs.”
But he saves the most intimate descriptions for his own work. “One Breath At A Time”, a track from Dimmer’s album There My Dear, is “eerily abandoned, with its edges curled by sex”, while he hears “Drop You Off”, the opening track on I Believe You Are A Star as “a whisper, a series of shadowy threats”. “Sad Guy”, the instrumental that closes the same album, “finds its own way, and is better for having no map, so it wanders around, a bit lost, a sad guy finding a new path to fail on.” In these moments, it is as though Shayne Carter had to write this book simply because he knew no one else was listening closely enough.
Nick Bollinger is a Wellington writer, broadcaster and musician.