Dead People I Have Known by Shayne Carter (Victoria University Press, 2019), 408pp, $40
Not many memoirs sit on my shelves because most people’s lives are boring. Shayne Carter’s life has not been boring.
Probably best known for Straitjacket Fits and Dimmer, Carter has also played and guested in so many other bands he’s deeply woven into the soundtrack of this nation. Dead People I Have Known, though, is much more than just an autobiography and an account of the alternative music scene. Sure, Shayne Carter, child and rock star, is front and centre as he should be. But the book is like a Venn diagram of insightful and often humorous personal revelation, an insider’s view of the Dunedin rock scene as the fast-beating young heart of New Zealand music, and of an upbringing in a household reeking with booze, domestic violence, psychiatric dismay – and love.
Carter’s mother and father met at a party in the 1960s. Peter, handsome with Māori features (‘you didn’t see that often around here’), was 20. Erica, aged just 17, ‘was blond, petite and attractive, with blue eyes, high cheekbones, and a sensual curl to her mouth that hinted she knew more than she really did’. Peter was the first man she slept with, and Shayne was the result. This was scandalous for the time as she lived at a girls’ home, after having being farmed out to various foster families in the region following separation from her sisters at the age of five. Peter, also adopted, had been born in a house for unwed mothers. A year before meeting his mother, his father had got another girl pregnant; she was 15.
Peter and Erica ran away to Christchurch, a city Carter doesn’t much like. ‘The couple played folk nights together, at a popular coffee house in town, and adopted new identities. Erica called herself Ricci, and Peter became Jimmi, groovy new names of symmetry and solidarity.’ The family soon moved back to Dunedin, to a housing estate in the city’s west. ‘Brockville was one of Dunedin’s highest points and the first to get the snow … no-nonsense, and no one poked up their head. It was home to workers from the wool mills and freezing works in the [Kaikorai] valley, as well as immigrants, the elderly, solo mums and crims. A handful of Māori and Islander families formed a huddle against the overwhelming whiteness around them.’
Carter likes to think his early childhood was idyllic, cocooned in warmth and generosity, remembering being on his mother’s lap and his father doing funny voices and magic tricks. (The book is dedicated to his parents and his stepfather, Tony.) But he also recalls noisy parties, frequent visitors, and his father disappearing a few times, including spending time in prison for breaking into a barber’s shop. Once, his mother ran off to another city with another man, and his Aunt Nat looked after him. She was direct and funny, he writes, though her mental illness worsened over time. Other family members spent time in psychiatric hospitals, including his maternal grandmother, her husband having beaten his family and worse.
You get the picture – although it takes a while to do so. The book’s not written in a rigidly sequential style; rather, it groups events and related moments, often jumping back and forth in time. There are no chapters, just three sections. Facts that would seem important in a standard biography, such as names, dates, familial connections, are sometimes only mentioned in passing. It’s told as if a storyteller is narrating as he sorts through old photographs. Carter knows this. As he says, you can read the basic facts on Wikipedia.
Young Shayne wrote his first song at nine, a Donny Osmond tribute to a girl, though he won his first award when he was five – Youngest Person at Dance. It was his first time being appraised by an audience of strangers, something he clearly came to enjoy.
It was 1970 and a monumental summer. The seasons still came cleanly demarcated and they always ran to time. The temperature hit about 32 degrees every day, and the tar on the roads around the Alexandra Motor Camp melted and set again at night. A large clock with white hands sat redundantly on the slopes above the lodge.
The book is studded with lines like these, which reveal not only people and events but Carter’s own character.
It was shortly after leaving home that I developed a habit of crying about one thing when I really meant to cry about another.
He only stopped booting me in the face when Vicky started shouting. It was never the same between me and her after that.
When I turned thirteen on the seventh of the seventh, seventy-seven, my numbers lined up to protect me.
My mother was once hit on by Howard Morrison, who asked her back to his room for a cup of tea.
German shepherds had their own special stance, with one rear leg bent, like they were ready to attack a civil rights protestor.
He acknowledges that music has been his saviour. ‘I wanted to play roaring, defiant rock music that made sense of the mess I was in. Thank Christ I had that outlet. If I hadn’t, there’s a good chance I’d be dead or locked up in the loony bin like some of my relatives.’
He usually forgets his fame, he writes: ‘It’s hard to believe you’re a rock star when the milk’s run out and the radio drones, and there’s a fresh mark on your neck.’ Yet music is the one thing he’s good at. ‘I could fill libraries with areas I’m useless at, like relationships, science, and every mechanical activity in the world.’
It’s one of the most honest, no-bullshit autobiographies I’ve read; candid memoirs, particularly in this country, are as rare as roasting hot Dunedin days once were. It seems necessary to wish that the book went through a thorough lawyering, and that he showed the manuscript to a few people, not least family members that are still alive. It describes the (alleged) antics of relations, friends, lovers, crushes, bandmates and bit-players known and unknown. There are accusations of sexual predation, childish public masturbation, a few digs at foes.
As a piece of writing it’s excellent. An insider account from a watcher and thinker right in the boiler room, an endless party of girls and highs and playing loud. The prose is sharp, in a singular, assured voice that vibrates with life and imagination. Elsewhere he has said that he spent months writing it before realising it didn’t sound like him. He wrote 150,000 words in five weeks, the way he talks – terse, with some swearing – and learned that writing was like music, in that you can trust it if it flows. He then had to take out 30,000 words.
At 388 pages plus index, it could have withstood a few more cuts. A few purple linking passages are forgiveable but there’s more detail towards the end about bands and contracts than I cared for. The photos are essential, lovingly grainy reminders of the time, though the publishers should have sought out a better copy of Roy Colbert blurry Listener column from 1982.
The title, for once, doesn’t oversell the book. People die, often from their own hand. I started noting page numbers – 64, 81, 98, 107, 126, 148 … two people die on page 263, and yet another dies on page 372. Death has surrounded Carter. Early losses include his Double Happys bandmate Wayne Elsey, who died in a train accident that nearly took Carter’s life as well (and inspired ‘Randolph’s Going Home’), yet the book is never maudlin. It’s often very funny.
He writes about his drinking, which he quit for 13 years, his depression, his obsessive behaviour. Such ruthless candour means the book is also a kind of apology. He pinches the bum of one famous singer, and at a party thinks about hitting on a well-known married author – ‘I thought so, so I probably did’. He’s rude to Sharon O’Neill, snarky to Jordan Luck, unkind to Martin Phillipps.
It is equally honest about the chances not taken and his instinctual bridling against commerciality. ‘I didn’t want to jangle like some Dunedin bands. I couldn’t stand the thought of being fey or polite, and being friendly was out of order. I still loathe music whose main purpose is to ingratiate itself, like the friendly chap down the pub. Being likeable is easy, and it’s the blandest thing to do. It’s easy to go straight past the likeable.’
Honesty has a flip-side, of course. One person’s frankness is another’s rudeness; confidence can be seen as arrogance; relentlessly going your own way can be construed as self-indulgence and even self-sabotage – a term he acknowledges. At times I found myself wondering what his friends and exes, his family and sometime bandmates thought about his latest drunken obnoxiousness. But then he clearly loves and respects them. Give me honest and talented any day over its opposite. Or disingenuous. Or mean-spirited, which he doesn’t appear to be, apart from in a few music reviews of rival bands. Forgiveable.
Dead People makes it clear that Carter is not just good at one thing. He’s a fine writer too, and a keen student of music. A musician’s life in NZ is rarely a smooth, lucrative one, so I hope Netflix buys the rights to the book and soundtracks a series with our best music. Or that somebody gives him a radio show. Ask him about music, history or craft. Or sport, racing, the Eighties, Neil Finn, the Bain shootings. Guaranteed there’d be no bullshit.
MARK BROATCH is a journalist, critic and the author of four books. He has been a Buddle Findlay Sargeson fellow and a resident at the Michael King Writers’ Centre.