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Shayne Carter’s memoir is hilarious, harrowing and brutally honest

Darkly brilliant: Shayne Carter plays with Straitjacket Fits at the 2005 bNet NZ awards, where he  received a lifetime achievement gong. Photo/Getty Images

Russell Baillie reviews the veteran musician’s confessional autobiography Dead People I Have Known.

The cultural impact of the music that emerged from Dunedin in the 1980s has echoed in the decades since. Lately, they’ve been resounding more frequently. There’s the new Chills doco. Last month marked the third concert in the Tally Ho series with the Dunedin Symphony Orchestra backing songwriters of the era. There have been books such as 2016’s The Dunedin Sound: Some Disenchanted Evening by Ian Chapman and Flying Nun label founder Roger Shepherd’s In Love with These Times, as well as the earlier Positively George Street, the thoughtful account of the period by Matthew Bannister of Sneaky Feelings.

Now, it’s the turn of Shayne Carter and his Barry Crump-ishly titled autobiography Dead People I Have Known. This is no journey back to the good old days. It’s also far louder and deeper than just another echo of an era.

It is a riveting and often unflattering self-portrait delivered with disarming frankness. A vivid account of a guy who, in his Straitjacket Fits pomp, might have appeared to have it all – an original voice, talent to burn, charisma, sharp songs and cheekbones to match. But his book describes a life of an angry young man, conflicted indie artist, troubled soul and, occasionally, utter jerk.

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In 400 or so digressive, confessional pages, Carter tracks his inauspicious beginnings on the mean streets of the Dunedin suburb of Brockville, his music, his ambitions, his career, his on-off problems with alcohol and drugs, his indie stardom and where it’s all got him. It’s no misery memoir, despite the sadness implied in the title, and the affecting accounts of his often fraught relationships with his parents, who split when he was young.

Carter, long a sardonic presence on stage, is frequently dryly hilarious, especially when recounting his snotty early days as the Johnny Rotten-inspired singer in schoolboy punk band Bored Games, then finding his own voice and guitar style in the Double Happys. Or when he writes about being a round peg in a square hole in his only day job as a cadet reporter for Dunedin radio station 4X0 while moonlighting as a snarky reviewer for the University of Otago student rag and Rip It Up, where he honed the art of the withering one-liner. Or when describing his enthusiasm, usually while drunk, for rubbing people up the wrong way, whether they be audience members or various former members of Split Enz or their offspring.

There is confronting stuff about his past relationships and his occasionally Lothario-like behaviour. He writes candidly about how his looks and fame fuelled his love life, which eventually had a therapist describing him “as a collector of women”. He shows some discretion in not naming former partners, some well known in their own right, but Carter’s writing about the wreckage of relationships with some old flames can feel uncomfortably petulant.

Bored Games’ Wayne Elsey, left, and Carter in 1979. Photo/Jeff Harford

Still, he reveals that his song She Speeds was inspired by Miranda Harcourt. So, yes, there was a connection between the very 1980s Auckland soap opera Gloss, of which Harcourt was a star, and one of 1980s Dunedin’s greatest songs.

When it comes to Dialling a Prayer, the other classic track on Straitjacket Fits’ 1987 breakthrough EP, Life in One Chord, Carter makes a bold claim saying it “predated art-noise bands like Sonic Youth” – that’s despite the New York group’s debut album arriving four years earlier.

When it comes to the stuff he knows and loves (which extends to football and harness racing), the passages are erudite and infectious. There’s possibly another great book in Carter’s thoughts on the albums he holds dear, based on the tangents he makes here that send the memoir down some deep rabbit holes.

He’s eloquent, too, on the architecture of his best songs or recounting the transcendent feeling behind playing a Straitjacket Fits’ live show, where they could often shine brighter than on record.

His time in “the best guitar band in the world” (as said Melody Maker, he reminds us), where he became “New Zealand’s greatest, most natural rock star” (so said this very magazine), forms the second part of the three in this book.

Much of that section, entitled “Burn It Up”, will be familiar to those who followed the band at the time. Carter expresses an initial reluctance to go over the band’s eight-year history once again – and why, after signing to US major label Arista, they went from Next Big Things to couldabeens. He burnt his diaries of the period because they bored him. Still, his recollections of taking on the world while a fault line widened between him and the band’s other songwriter, Andrew Brough, evoke the band’s own momentum and swagger without resorting to a dull blow-by-blow account of the albums and tours.

The third section, “Getting What You Give”, discusses his musical reinvention in the post-Fits years as solo project Dimmer, and other musical excursions increasingly far from his rock beginnings.

The memoir’s first section, “Nyah nyah nyah”, roughly half the book, is the best. Beginning with his 1970s childhood, it ends in 1985 with the death of Wayne Elsey, his Double Happys bandmate. Elsey was killed as he and Carter, skylarking and stoned, stood on the outside steps of a carriage on an overnight Auckland-Wellington train. Carter’s account of the tragedy, the grief, the realisation he, too, could have been killed and the turning point it created in his life, is quietly heartbreaking.

So, too, is much of Dead People I Have Known, a work that grips in the way Carter’s best songs did. Like them, it’s full of noisy drama, unpredictable turns and bittersweet touches. Like many of them, it’s darkly brilliant.

DEAD PEOPLE I HAVE KNOWN, by Shayne Carter (Victoria University Press, $40)

Shayne Carter appears at the Dunedin Writers & Readers Festival on May 9, Auckland Writers Festival on May 18 and Word Christchurch on May 25.

This article was first published in the May 11, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.