ReadingRoom literary editor Steve Braunias begins his Book of the Week feature with this review of Shayne Carter’s autobiography Dead People I Have Known. Carter is at the Auckland Writers’ Festival tonight.
Downtown Dunedin is a narrow hallway, a tightly packed suitcase, one long Cuba Mall without the stupid fountains but the same kind of gauntlet. No one can take three steps without seeing an ex, a cousin or aunt, a wretch from school, a dear friend, and so it was that I sauntered down lower Stuart Street last weekend on the way to interview rock star turned author Shayne Carter onstage at the writers festival – and ran into him as he came out of a shop. Actually my first order of business was to have fish dinner at the Best Café. I have always loved this place with its slices of white bread and its blue cod hauled shivering out of cold waters. I heard later that it was also painter Ralph Hotere’s favourite joint and it was nice to imagine that hirsute genius sitting there with black visions swimming in his head.
“Come and have dinner with me,” I said to Shayne. “We’ve bags of time. Our thing isn’t on till 9pm.”
“No, they got that wrong,” he said. “They sent an email today saying it’s on at 6pm.”
It was now just after five and I instantly felt a terrible sadness that I would have to miss out on my fish dinner. The poignant moment on a darkening autumn afternoon in one of the most beautiful and romantic cities in the world was replaced by the panic of realising I would have to race back to my hotel, shower, put on a suit, get to the venue for the 5.30pm soundcheck – oh and prepare a question line for our hour-long session. But no fears for steady men and in any case I was on fairly intimate terms with the subject of our interview: his very funny, very powerful and very honest autobiography Dead People I Have Known.
He sent me the first draft of the book in June last year. He later very generously credited me with giving him good advice when he went back to the manuscript and wrote a second draft. I didn’t really offer much guidance and neither did I need to because it was a fantastic first draft. One of the few things I took issue with was that he quoted from rave reviews that the music press gave his band Straitjacket Fits. I emailed, “Please cut back/in some cases entirely kill some of the various glowing reviews. The autobiographies of Tom Scott and Roger Hall both do that and made me want to punch them in the face.”
When he finished his second draft, he emailed, “I’ve dropped 30 thousand words, untangled the sentences and linked up the themes. That whole opening story makes sense to me now… the freaks in a sea of straights. I’m glad I got fear and alcohol in sentence two too.” He meant the opening story about having to go onstage to collect a lifetime achievement award in music from Helen Clark while losing his mind on E and just after being told that his girlfriend was having an affair with someone in New York. The person who told him asked if he knew; I remember the thrill in reading his next sentence, because it gave immediate notice that he’d found his writing voice in Dead People I Have Known, got the tone and humour, his quintessential Shayneness, absolutely right: “No, I knew none of that, but it was annoying now that I did.”
He sent the second draft to various publishers and accepted the offer from Victoria University Press – Penguin and Auckland University Press were also very keen to get their mitts on it – and set to work with his editor Ashleigh Young. Shayne Carter and Ashleigh Young: now that’s a brilliant collaboration. I loved the first draft but the finished book is even better and the whole opening section about his childhood is in itself a bit of a literary masterpiece. “Very Frame!”, I emailed him last June; he’d devoured Janet Frame’s great autobiographies, and the influence is clear. The first 100 or so pages are the best writing in the book and stack up with the best writing of New Zealand childhood ever published.
He grew up in Brockville, in Dunedin, to parents who both drank too much and filled the household with love, misery, grief. “Brockville smelt of stew”, he writes. “It was the first to get the snow. Its park offered a slide that didn’t slide and a creaking roundabout. Young men with half-moustaches fixed cars that sat like broken shells on front lawns.”
That’s simply amazing writing. It’s all throughout Dead People I Have Known. Sometimes it’s the images; he writes about the “optimistic smell of citrus”. The sentences are strong and lean. He’s not a semi-colon writer, and doesn’t go for parenthesis, dashes, italics or any of those old wheezes dear to the hearts of over-writers such as myself; he strips it back, and he has a very satisfying way, even a kind of musical way, of knowing exactly when to place a full stop. His sentences often read like lyrics. And so the craft is high standard but deeper and more enduring than skill is the intensity he brings to Dead People I Have Known. It’s a confessional, of sorts, but more so it’s a confrontation: he faces up to himself and his life, his music, his relationships, his failings, his drinking, his lost years, his strange, defiant, fragile, brooding, comical, loyal, determined character.
And so it’s a record of a lifetime in music and a refusal to compromise. And it’s about a lot of dead people he has known. The centre of the book goes quiet when he tells of the tragic death of his friend Wayne Elsey. These are harrowing pages. I felt the chill linger over the next 50, 60, 70 pages, as he writes of Elsey’s death provoking him, in a sense, to form Straitjacket Fits and make great records.
We first met after the band broke up and before he formed Dimmer. He claims in his book that I thought to myself, “Yuck, there’s Shayne Carter.” But this is defamatory. I’ve never said “Yuck” in my life. I thought to myself, “Ugh, there’s Shayne Carter.” Yuck is mild; ugh expresses the kind of fear and horror that Shayne inspired in many people during his long reign as the sneering king of New Zealand rock music. Shayne spoke his mind. Shayne was cutting. Shayne was honest. All those qualities are evident in Dead People I Have Known. When she was editing the book, Ashleigh Young told me how much she loved it, and said with much delight: “It’s so impolite.”
Drunk, Shayne was the baddest man in the whole damned town. He could be boorish, an asshole, plain mean. But it makes for wildly entertaining reading, and so much of Dead People I Have Known is just really funny. He had them laughing in the audience last weekend at the Dunedin Writers Festival. He had them laughing later that night, too, when the book was launched at the Captain Cook. It was quite a scene upstairs at that famous old rock’n’roll pub. The carpet was so sticky that it was like adhesive. There was John Collie, the Straitjacket Fits drummer who probably saved Shayne’s life on the terrible night that Wayne Elsey was killed on a train. There was Martin Phillipps, who I was able to make good a promise when I interviewed him last month, and presented him with a CD of David Crosby’s classic 1971 solo album. There was Francisca Griffin and Lesley Paris from girl-band Look Blue Go Purple. Dunedin rock royalty; and they were there to honour Shayne, who has given it his all as a musician, ripped out his heart, searched for the ecstatic, rocked hard – and has now done all those things as an author.
Dead People I Have Known, by Shayne Carter (Victoria University Press, $38)
Shayne Carter appears onstage at the Auckland Writers Festival, chaired by John Campbell, on Saturday night at 8:45.