DEAD PEOPLE I HAVE KNOWN
Shayne Carter (Victoria University Press, $40 – releases May 9)
Reviewed by Kiran Dass
"I prefer the prejudice of memory," writes Dunedin-based musician Shayne Carter in his autobiography. He goes on to quote Janet Frame; "The thing which prompts you to sit down and write must be something that haunts you."
Whether it's people (dead or alive) or incidents, Carter has taken the fragments in life that have haunted him and spun them into this reflective work and it's an absolute ripper. Packed with insight, brimming with lead breaks, girls, barbs as sharp as his idiosyncratic southpaw guitar playing, juicy bon mots and lots of snark, it's a wild roller ride. Part One is entitled "Nya nya nya", which sets the tone nicely.
But he's always been bold with words. Look at his band names: Sparkling Whine, Bored Games, Doublehappys, even Straitjacket Fits. Dead People I Have Known is a striking book about music, community, family, identity, popular culture and place - in particular growing up in 1970s Dunedin - a city that has produced a staggering amount of excellent music but is also hemmed in by the hills, a place back then he describes of conservatism and with a deep-set propensity for violence. Carter writes of one early gig where he stayed on stage for 20 minutes after the show ended because a group of tough Bodgies were waiting for him at the door. "Weirdly, they didn't just drag me off the stage. I guess that space is sacrosanct," he remembers dryly.
Carter gets the odd delicious dig in and airs a few grievances. Ex-partners might not want to read it but there is also a strong sense of friendship and community in this book. When money is needed for Carter's father's headstone, people rally around to play a benefit gig in a show of communal DIY spirit.
I lost count of the dead people Carter has known. There's at least 17 that I can remember, including his parents who are compelling and complex music-loving characters written about with a beautiful honesty. There's also his Bored Games and Doublehappys bandmate Wayne Elsey, who tragically died in a train accident aged 21. Carter writes about that incident and its effects with a kind of dazed-but-forensic memory; it's heartbreaking.
There's self-deprecation and bone-dry cynical humour but Carter is a lovely writer. The detail of growing up eating tomato sandwiches, making friends and discovering a love of music in the working-class Dunedin suburb Brockville are evocative and there's a real sense that beyond any rock 'n' roll swagger, antics and artifice, it was really just a bunch of nerds making music.
When punk rock finally hit New Zealand, Carter and friends were standing by. He writes that the only mistake you can make in rock 'n' roll is being too careful about it. Pitch-perfect and fascinating is his commentary about his craft and songwriting. There's just the right amount of technical detail and illuminating backstory that activate his songs in a new light.
From winning his first award (Youngest Person at Dance) aged 5 to his first performance through a microphone (Form 2 at intermediate "when I'd bored an entire assembly brainless with a racing commentary that I'd slaved over for a week") and the bNet New Zealand Music Awards where he won the bNet Lifetime Achievement Award, Carter charts the evolution of his musical career, detailing all the twists and turns of exploring new sonic directions.
I loved the infectious and insightful way he writes about the music he loves; Sly and the Family Stone, Al Green, Marvin Gaye. And the way he writes about the music he doesn't love is just as good. He is often very funny and there are many genuine laugh-out-loud moments. He describes David Bowie's Space Oddity as "an alien lament song sung in a Rovers Return accent."
Carter remains mindful of the grubby punk origins that have shaped him. When his music was performed by the Dunedin Symphony Orchestra at the Dunedin Town Hall, he notes, "It was ironic to have our music given a standing ovation in the Town Hall, when as kids it got us beaten up in the street. That's the respectability of age, and time proving you were right."
Dead People I Have Known is sharp, moving and tender. Carter has backbone. He writes with a staunch self-awareness and alongside the successful moments doesn't shy away from revealing the awkward, embarrassing and low points. It's compelling, smart and immersive and I couldn't put it down.
• Shayne Carter appears at the Auckland Writers Festival in conversation with John Campbell on Saturday, May 18 at the ASB Theatre, Aotea Centre.
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