Dead People I Have Known

Dead People I Have Known

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When we crashed over the line two and a half minutes later, there was a short, disbelieving silence and I could feel my knee trembling behind its sarcastic ‘Disco’ patch. A song I’d written had just been played to the finish, and what’s more, it hadn’t sounded weak, or delusional—it had, in fact, kicked.

I backed down from the mic. Here was a new world of sound. Its sky was borderless, and its horizon curled off a previously flat earth. I’d been given a virtual super power and a flame to shoot from my fingers.

In Dead People I Have Known, the legendary New Zealand musician Shayne Carter tells the story of a life in music, taking us deep behind the scenes and songs of his riotous teenage bands Bored Games and the Doublehappys and his best-known bands Straitjacket Fits and Dimmer. He traces an intimate history of the Dunedin Sound—that distinctive jangly indie sound that emerged in the seventies, heavily influenced by punk—and the record label Flying Nun.

As well as the pop culture of the seventies, eighties and nineties, Carter writes candidly of the bleak and violent aspects of Dunedin, the city where he grew up and would later return. His childhood was shaped by violence and addiction, as well as love and music. Alongside the fellow musicians, friends and family who appear so vividly here, this book is peopled by neighbours, kids at school, people on the street, and the other passing characters who have stayed on in his memory.

We also learn of the other major force in Carter’s life: sport. Harness racing, wrestling, basketball and football have provided him with a similar solace, even escape, as music.

Dead People I Have Known is a frank, moving, often incredibly funny autobiography; the story of making a life as a musician over the last forty years in New Zealand, and a work of art in its own right.

'Sometimes profound. Sometimes utterly hilarious. I couldn't put this book down. A triumph.'—Jon Toogood

'Life life life. Music music music. Girls girls girls. Brilliant – funny, painful, reflective and raw.' —Emily Perkins.


Cover by Keely O'Shannessey.

From: Dead People I Have Known, by Shayne Carter

‘Nyah nyah nyah’

I’m in the town hall with my head in a pot full of serotonin. About me is the full scent of perfume, freshly pressed jackets, fear, alcohol. I have taken a pill, a very strong pill, and the first effect of it just dropped. My bandmates all wear baffled looks that probably mirror my own.

Half an hour ago we opened the show with two of our favourite tunes, and when our last chord died, it lifted skywards and stayed in the rafters like an old-school victory banner.

Straitjacket Fits are fresh from a tour where we’ve regrouped for a short reunion, and it’s our last stop tonight. We thought we should celebrate, naughtily, a bit illicitly—but back in our seats the wisdom of this may have died.

It’s the bNet New Zealand Music Awards, an evening to honour New Zealand’s edgiest musicians. Half of Auckland is here, turned out in their town hall gear.

There’s a roar. The Prime Minister has come out on the stage. Helen Clark is popular with loser musicians because she’s the Arts Minister, and she has been for six years. She seems to genuinely care about people no one else cares about.

She starts a speech that I’m too far off to hear, her voice low and buried, like a shovel. Slowly, key words wander in from the haze.

‘High school punk band ... Dunedin ... the Doublehappys ... Straitjacket Fits ...’

It is now apparent that her speech concerns me. There is no joy in this realisation, just an immense dread, brought on by the potent E.

‘And the bNet Lifetime Achievement Award goes to Shayne Carter,’ the Prime Minister says, confirming my fears.

The audience claps and starts to stand, and I stand too, like I’ve been sent to the gallows.

I set out on a lonely walk.

As I take the stairs to the podium, I risk a quick peek at the crowd and I can see that it goes back forever. People are peering down from the balcony.

The Prime Minister waits at the rostrum, clutching a statuette, and she wears a dark blue pant suit and red lipstick. She looks different in real life, but maybe that’s just me.

With no real plan, I charge across the stage. Best to get this over.

‘Heh heh heh,’ the PM says as I press her into my chest.

She takes a short step backwards and hands me my award, smoothing the front of her top.

‘Congratulations, Shayne,’ she says.

‘Thanks, Helen,’ I reply, as casually as I can.

I turn to face the mob.

‘Thanks,’ I say, and my thanks slaps back.

‘I wasn’t expecting this, so thanks,’ I go, repeating myself.

This is the whole of my speech.

The Prime Minister makes small chit-chat as we walk backstage, but I don’t listen because I’m busy plotting an escape route, any escape route, one that is as fast as possible.

I’m now aware of the two men hovering around us in understated suits, both of them blending with the walls. Wires curl up from their collars and into white plastic pieces in their ears, and when I catch the eye of one of them he gives me a lift of his eyebrow as if to say, ‘Tied one on, eh matey?’

This is my cue to run. I touch the Prime Minister gently on the elbow. ‘I’m feeling a bit overwhelmed, Helen. I think I’m going to have to go away and compose myself.’

Without waiting for her response, I turn and stride off down the hall.

The drama with the Prime Minister set the tone for the rest of that night. I bounced around stupidly from one drama to another. I went to the foyer at the interval—I don’t why—where I was spotted by a woman who was drinking at the bar. She lurched right over. No time for pleasantries.

Did I know my girlfriend was having an affair in New York, and that she’d already moved in with her new lover?

No, I knew none of that, but it was annoying now that I did.

The woman went on.

Perhaps I should give her my number, so she could pass on any more news?

I stumbled back into the hall and repeated all of this to my bandmates. They were curious and empathetic, as people on E often are.

‘Why would she tell you that right now?’ said John, which was a fair enough question.

The show resumed, but I was slumped in my chair, my new award—a piece of red plastic in the shape of a B—on the sticky floor beneath me. I heard my girlfriend’s name being read out through the PA for the benefit of me and all the other people here who loved her too. She’d been nominated for the Female Fox, one of those jokey bNet categories that tonight had lost any humour. I’d been nominated for the Male Fox award too, not that it mattered now.

‘And the winner is Kirsten Morrell from Goldenhorse,’ the compère said, to my relief.

I’d been so wrapped up in this that I barely noticed when, a few moments later, I was announced as the Male Fox. The New Zealand Herald criticised the win, blaming it on the public vote and the sally of middle-aged women who’d been roused from some sexless torpor to give it to Shayne P one last time—or something like that. I snatched the award anyway, thanking my parents and genetics. I hoped news of this was winging its way to America.

The victory was brief. Afterwards I sat in my seat, stoned and bereft, torturing myself with the activities at an unknown address in New York.

Mercifully, the ceremony ended. I needed to be home now and preferably unconscious. I was standing outside in the drizzle, trying to hail a cab, when a woman of dark, fine beauty came down the path towards me. She was married, she said, by way of introduction, but she’d like to have an affair with me, probably now, and what did I think of that?

I thought it was the sanest thing I’d heard all day.

I gave her my address, and she was waiting by my gate when my cab pulled up, and then we kissed. Her lips were like the rain, soft and otherworldly, but the hold of them couldn’t last.

Doubt crept in. I pulled back, made another excuse, but the woman didn’t seem flustered—maybe she had her own doubts too.

‘That’s okay,’ was all she said, and she seemed to evaporate as quickly as she’d arrived, leaving me with her number, a trace of musk, and the soft crimson bruise of her lipstick.

I never saw her again.

I did see Helen Clark again, at another reception a matter of days later.

‘Hi Helen,’ I said as I shook her hand. ‘The last time I saw you we were having a hug at the town hall.’

‘Oh yes, yes, yes,’ she said, but too quickly, not knowing who I was.

The security guy with her remembered though, and he gave me the same lift of the eyebrow he’d given me at the bNet Awards.

‘Tied one on, eh matey?’ his eyebrow seemed to say.

I sank back into the throng, feeling miffed and a bit embarrassed. The PM moved on, into another sea of faces she’d be hard pressed to recall.

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Tags: Biography