Author(s): Shayne Carter
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.
From the first lines in Shayne Carter’s music memoir, Dead People I Have Known, you are hooked. You are immediately asked to come along for the ride — no preamble or polite introduction. Carter draws you in with his writing — the words leap off the page. Carter, frontman for well-known bands Bored Games, Double Happys, Straight Jacket Fits and Dimmer, takes us on a revealing tour from his childhood in Dunedin, through his musical development and various bands, to his later creative obsessions. Expecting a band-to-band, blow-by-blow account, it is a pleasant surprise to find a mix of chronological autobiography, commentary and creative contemplation. The music industry Carter talks about revolves around the Flying Nun phenomena and the branches that grew from this. The scene that circled around this was one of remarkable change and this memoir gives us a very personal view of this — a window — a wonderfully narrow frame that reveals a personal creative journey and reverberates something about growing up and pushing out in New Zealand, and into the world. While the book is particular in its look at a corner (a rather large corner, mind you) of the New Zealand music scene, and for fans this will be delightful, it is also many other things. It’s about growing up in small-town New Zealand — an experience which many of us share. Carter’s childhood was not a walk in the park. Here is the rough edge of precarity and the burden of alcohol and aggression — and also the flawed but human love and connection between family. Here you also see the results of cultural alienation and loss of language and connection with community. It reveals, through Carter’s own life and attitudes, the changing nature of our culture — what was relevant and okay in the 1970s, and how we have matured in our behaviours in regard to race and gender (although saying that, I did notice that the male musician colleagues are mentioned in full while some of the female band colleagues are quite often only ‘Jane’ — so still a way to go). It is also a fascinating look at what it means and feels like to be a creative obsessive — pushing towards perfection despite — and because of — addiction, oblivion, isolation and just plain pissing people off. For Shayne Carter has what many lead men have — an ego. Carter has an incredible belief in himself and also on the flip side, a doubtfulness or some such emotion, borne out of his rise up and his ride to the bottom. A bottom that is precarious and feels like it still beckons. Carter has a passion for his creative practice and he has applied this passion to Dead People I have Known. It feels like there are no brakes, but in fact, it is a well thought-out and superbly reflective book.
Shortlisted for the Ockham NZ Book Awards - General Non-Fiction Award 2020