Gutter Black: A Memoir, by Dave McArtney, (Harper Collins, 2014), 320 pp., $44.99
On the giant speaker cabinet perched precariously on the mezzanine level amidst the debris of Bruce Moose’s renovations was painted ‘Goodbye Dove’. The other one, at the entrance to the party floor of Mandrax mansion, read ‘Hello Sailor’.
It was Ray Goodwin, the guitarist from Dragon, who told me one day in 1975 or thereabouts: ‘I know a couple of blokes who have some really good songs coming along.’ These blokes, whom I did not actually meet for quite a while, were Dave McArtney and Graham Brazier, most of the front line of one of the best, and best-loved, rock bands ever to emerge in Aotearoa.
Editor Findlay MacDonald has made a very good job indeed of ensuring that Dave’s book moves well, holds your attention and deals with some interesting but personal biography – and not just Dave’s, because there are two personalities at the centre of this narrative: Dave McArtney, and the band Hello Sailor – Graham Brazier, Dave McArtney, Harry Lyon, Lisle Kinney and Ricky Ball – a music entity with a life of its own. As a group, Hello Sailor was unique in this country, and I can say that with authority, because I watched them for decades in a huge spread of locations and conditions, not to mention moods. For my money, they have not been excelled. There have been other major achievers, of course, but they have been in different genres. You could call me a reluctant, even jaundiced, fan, and I never much engaged with some of their music, but yes, I saw some great performances.
And I do mean GREAT, world class. I know I am not alone in that view. The very best rock bands are usually examples of the whole exceeding the sum of the parts. Which is not to say I always enjoyed them, either. Sometimes they were not terrific. Sometimes I was just impatient for them to get off stage so I could get on. Nor were they my friends – more like rivals – but I knew them slightly, and we kept it cordial. That changed over time, and I did eventually regret that I hadn’t got to know Dave a lot better, because we had more than one interest in common. Also, I would like to put it on the record that he was generous with assistance during my last jail term.
The narrative of a band’s early days is one I knew fairly well, so there weren’t too many surprises. But if you have spent your whole life in bands, success stories have a vicarious and sustaining charm – and that still works for me. Dave was a surfie who became a skier, and both sensations stand as metaphors for the adrenalised ascent in a rock band’s trajectory through thrills, fame, compromised celebrity and decline.
I first met them in Hamilton where our bands – I was with Rough Justice in those days – were playing at different venues, but their lighting technician was an old friend of mine and he took me to meet them. They seemed likely lads, although they had virtually no profile at the time. That was to change quickly.
Although it’s never dull, the compelling part of Dave’s narrative is the American trip, I think, because it is exotic as well as chaotic. I wasn’t particularly interested, but even I couldn’t help but hear how much druggery was going down over there. People love to talk, and Auckland was not such a big place back then.
The late 1970s was a time when a lot of people took a range of drugs more or less casually and more or less carelessly, myself among them, but personally I never could hack the harpoon, as some of us called the hypodermic syringe. Nor did I take narcotics as such – that is, opiates – so I can’t claim the deepest of insights into where and how Hello Sailor slipped up. But a lot of good performers have failed to break into the US market, and it seems that Hello Sailor did actually get quite close.
Of course, being drug-affected has not ruined every career you can think of. I would love to be present the day a record company accountant demands that Keith Richard be drug-tested before he drives his guitar.
Radio Hauraki, top of the dial, still dominated radio in Aotearoa New Zealand at that time, and they were keen to play ’Sailor, very. Although we (the very Wellington-centric people in my band, and their ilk, at the time) thought of them as very much an Auckland thing, they convinced the whole country soon enough.
Hello Sailor’s first album was a triumph, and like the live band, came along at precisely the time the Auckland market was primed for it. Engineer Ian Morris and producer Rob Aicken, and lots of time and enthusiasm, were key ingredients. Especially important, I would suggest, was the time factor. You don’t want to be in a hurry when you’re recording. Or listening to the cash register in your head ringing up the hundreds of dollars a session, when some of those sessions are going to be wasted.
But your first recording success may be very hard to maintain. Especially perhaps if your first two singles get flogged and flogged and flogged, so that even people who support airplay and like the band a bit finally get driven to that unignorable threshold, the point where they don’t particularly mind if they never hear that record again.
And another thing: it doesn’t matter how good you are, big-budget recording is the devil’s playground. Everything can go wrong.
Not that everything went wrong for the live band. I was at a festival called Mountain Rock, some time in the 1990s, and Hello Sailor played – in the middle of a downpour. Heavy rain was blowing horizontally directly into the stage, protected from the weather though it was designed to be. Even with the most professional electrical safeguards, it takes quite a lot of gumption to play in the rain, especially considering Dave’s earlier brush with electrical death. They were in top form at Mountain Rock, never better, I think – and for me it would have to be among the very best shows of the many I have seen.
Telling the story, Dave deals with disillusion and disappointment with stoic reserve, and never sounds sorry for himself or in the least big-headed. It’s impossible, I would think, to write a memoir without leaving quite a lot of your personality on the pages. The nice bloke I knew is the nice bloke you get.
I know some readers have found the short contributory passages by Dave Dobbyn and Dave’s widow, Donna, somewhat incongruous, but they didn’t jar on me – quite the contrary. Harry Lyon’s contribution is concise and apposite. Graham has a poem in his foreword that is characteristic, evocative, and I liked it, even if I didn’t really get it. In the long run, the compensations of family life and eventually academe would appear to have been plenty enough. Dave was pretty crook for quite a while but he kept playing well, and there is an undercurrent of calm resignation in the winding-up of the memoir.
Dave’s writing is, well, variable, sometimes very good, sometimes not to my taste. Using ‘arvo’ for ‘afternoon’ is a step too far into textese, it seems to me, if you value the integrity of our language – and don’t give me that ‘language has to move with the times’ garbage. Okay, maybe it does, but not that fast.
There will be major nostalgia here for many, I think. The profusion of photos, posters and memorabilia tell the balance of this rock ‘n’ roll story, and just as well, because not all of ’Sailor’s still large and loyal following are great readers. Those who engage mainly with the pictures should be happy. So, yes, it would make a good present.
RICK BRYANT is a singer and currently performs with the Jive Bombers, The Black Soap Boys, Jubilation and The Windy City Strugglers. His records are available through Red Rocks Records or from nzblues.com.