Before Rachael King was an author and a puller-together of literary festivals, she was a bass player in a heap of bands. At the start, she was a schoolgirl rocking in the Battling Strings, opening for the Chills and other 1980s Flying Nun bands, including Straitjacket Fits. Reading Shayne Carter’s memoir Dead People I Have Known got her thinking.
There was a power failure the night the Straitjacket Fits played in Auckland for the first time. I was there at the Gluepot, and Look Blue Go Purple were playing first. While everything went black and the guitars and keyboard cut out immediately, Lesley Paris’s drums pounded on for a few more seconds, as if the momentum of the song was too great to hold her back. We all gathered at the pub windows to watch Ponsonby swimming in darkness, strangers together in strangeness.
Then the lights returned — did LBGP finished their set or were they out of time? — and the Straitjacket Fits came on. I don’t remember specifics, just a palpable feeling in the room of excitement at the power and charisma emanating from the stage. My grandmother’s gold watch slipped off my wrist that night, onto the sticky Gluepot floor. I found it when the bell rang and the lights blared at 11pm. To this day, the hands still read ten to eleven. Granny’s watch, slaughtered by ‘She Speeds’.
That was also when I first met Shayne Carter, in a flat in Herne Bay simply known as ‘Ardmore Road’, where I was introduced to the pleasures of whisky, sitting around shooting the shit, and Pee Wee’s Big Adventure, which was on high rotate.
Shayne writes about that weekend in Dead People I Have Known. The flat was populated by members of various bands — Goblin Mix, the Bird Nest Roys and others, including my bandmate and friend Dave Saunders — and ‘a whole new squadron of girls’. I guess I was one of those girls, though I didn’t live there. It was 1987; I was 16, still a schoolgirl, and took the bus home on Sunday afternoon to my comfortable family home on the North Shore. I couldn’t believe how lucky I was to hang out with the bands I’d crushed on, how kind and welcoming they all were to a kid from Birkenhead, who showed up on the doorstep every weekend with $10 in her pocket. Once, I went home with a black eye, after a drunk guy with green hair had tossed an empty vodka bottle aside and my face got in the way.
I was a teenage bassist in a rock band. My band Battling Strings was so young we were a novelty: the kid brothers and sister of the scene. We were looked on less as a support band and more as a mascot, and as such opened for shows at the Gluepot, the Windsor Castle, the Rising Sun and various other long-forgotten venues and pubs, despite being three or four years below the legal drinking age.
There’s a clip on YouTube of the Battling Strings. I’m wearing a shiny blue vintage dress, with bright red, messy hair and flushed cheeks. There’s an enthusiastic crowd at the Auckland University ‘caff’, and Andy Moore plays the whole song with a cigarette hanging out of his mouth. Dave wears a 60s button-up shirt with massive collars and a hippy waistcoat, and Mike Shepherd flicks the long fringe of a suspiciously mullet-like hairdo out of his eyes as he drums.
Most of our songs, derivative of the older bands, were 2 to 3 minute-long three-chord anthems. We opened for the Bird Nest Roys and Goblin Mix, for the Chills, the Screaming Blue Messiahs, and, when they came back to Auckland for the second time, the Straitjacket Fits, downstairs in a tiny sweaty club on Lorne Street. It felt as though the dripping ceiling was only a foot above us as we played. We kept our heads down, intent on our instruments, sometimes our backs to the audience. The hotter it was, the easier it was to play, because sweaty fingers slide over bass strings better than cold ones. We were in our own world when we played, loud, and I’d glance up occasionally to see faces lit by the stage lights or silhouettes standing by the bar.
Once, we were invited to play at Russell Brown’s leaving party at the Rising Sun, when I was still just 15. For years after, I thought it had been his birthday party, because someone offered me cake. I have a sweet tooth and have always been greedy so I ate two pieces. It was strangely textured, but also delicious. Later, when we played, I remember thinking how drunk I felt even though I’d only had one beer. I ended up in a swirl in a corner somewhere, making out with the singer from fellow teen band Crunchy Something.
Police regularly turned up on those nights to scour for underage drinkers. They would emerge out of the gloom in their white helmets, do a turn around the room and leave. So long as I hung back without hiding, and kept my mouth shut on my braces, I would get away with it, probably because I was tall and knew I looked older than I was.
Maybe that’s why around that time, I discovered I wasn’t being looked on as a kid any more. Men in bands started showing an interest in me, men in their 20s, who probably should have known better. I kissed one bass player out on tour, and his bandmate was so pissed off about it, that it hadn’t been him, that he hit my head with a kitchen cupboard door in Palmerston North.
That was the only aggression I encountered though – most of the attention was kind of sweet.I remember sitting on a deck at a Ponsonby party one night, while the two guitarists of a band both fought to put their arm around me and tell me how much they liked me. It baffled me, but I went with it. I’d never been the pretty one at school. Boys my own age certainly weren’t interested in me, and I wasn’t interested in them. For a small time, before I got a boyfriend and started spending my weekends elsewhere, I moved from crashing on the couch at Ardmore Road into one of the bedrooms. The occupant was 26, impossibly old.
I remember Shayne sinking into the couch that weekend, aloof and glamorous in a black leather jacket. He was from Dunedin, which I’d never been to, but which I knew to be the pinnacle of cool, where bands sprang from the sacred loam and made magic. Perhaps I read into him an air of darkness as well. I knew a vague version of what had happened to the Doublehappys, how the guitarist Wayne Elsey had been killed in an accident while larking about on a train, but the story, while relatively fresh then, was murky, and nobody asked for details. It was already taking its place as one of the great tragedies of New Zealand music mythology, helped along by the singular beauty of ‘Randolph’s Going Home’, the song Shayne wrote about Wayne with Peter Jefferies soon after.
One of the many strengths in Shayne’s book is his ability to nail a person with a few words. His portrait of Peter is affectionate but zeroes in on his idiosyncrasies, and those of his brother Graeme Jefferies, who I went on to play with in my next band, the Cakekitchen. He describes Graeme’s deep voice, 27 inch waist, and how he was someone who “stood too close to you, and when he said something an obscure amusement would play along his lips”, which was true. His brief portrait of a young Martin Phillipps is inspired: “He sounded like he’d been driven all around Otago Peninsula while recovering from dental drugs… with his heavy lidded eyes he was a stoned boy genius, out of it on comics, garage rock and full moons over water.”
I met Martin for the first time at the beginning of that same year, 1987, when I was working a summer job in a stationery shop in Three Lamps, Ponsonby. When I applied for the job I had tied my hair back neatly, and worn a 1960s cotton frock with respectable slip-on shoes. Once I had the job, I showed my true colours — shaggy hair flying, the same frock, but with old men’s pyjama bottoms underneath them, and scuffed suede desert boots. I was being paid less than three dollars an hour so I figured I should be myself while doing it. Martin came into the shop more than you would think anyone would need to go into a stationery shop, and he always seemed nervous but keen to chat. When I showed up at the Gluepot for our support slot for the Chills, he did a double-take, and kept saying what a coincidence it was to see me there, the girl from the stationery shop. At the time I had thought he’d offered us the gig because of our chats over the counter and that he must know who I was, but I guess I was wrong. Maybe I just reminded him of the girls back in Dunedin.
The music scene in those early days, as Shayne writes it, is dominated by boys and men. When he writes about his girlfriends, sometimes with self-pity and bitterness, sometimes with the heart of a Brontë, he is careful not to name them. I understand the urge to keep those details private for their sake, but the result is that women are quite abstract in the book. Shayne has played music with women over the years, but the few other names mentioned — Celia Mancini, Jane Dodd, the members of Look Blue Go Purple, Jay Clarkson — probably aren’t enough to dispel the idea that the Flying Nun scene was a boys’ club.
Shayne describes an early review he wrote for Critic, in which he called LBGP “annoyingly coy”, as “a little sexist… as if everyone should be up there flopping out their cocks.” He says he had a few things to learn from “the feminist wave going on around us. The movement in the eighties said a lot about equality and folk having the right to do what they chose with their bodies, about the objectification of people, about their duties in designated roles.”
There were a lot of women around, who I looked up to, whose style I emulated — strong, feminist women. But the men were feminists too. I feel fortunate that at such a formative age I was always treated as an equal, and in general women in the scene were rarely objectified — you only have to look at photos and videos from that time to see it’s true. It was before make-up artists and hairdressers became mandatory at New Zealand on Air funded video shoots, for the boys as well as the girls (as Shayne discovered with the video for ‘Bad Note for a Heart’). I wore no make up, didn’t shave anything, and nor was I expected to by the men around me.
And yet, as much as I feel women were so much a part of the scene, when I look back on all the tours I went on, with all my bands, from the late 80s to the mid-90s, and whom we toured the country with — Straitjacket Fits, Headless Chickens (pre-Fiona MacDonald), Bailter Space, Jean Paul Sartre Experience and others — I was always the only woman. Always. (I remember watching the Straitjacket Fits from backstage at the Carlton in Christchurch on one of those tours. It was the first time I’d seen a Flying Nun band treated with such adulation, by girls whose upturned faces gazed beatifically up at Shayne as he played. I sensed a seismic shift and took a photo as a record.)
People on the street outside the pub would tell me I was a good girlfriend for carrying my boyfriend’s guitar. Often when people not in the scene (the squares, as Shayne would say) heard I was in a band, they assumed I must be the singer. When I told them I played bass, they assumed it was for an ‘all girl band’, because surely I couldn’t be good enough to play with the blokes. Even then, I existed inside a feminist bubble. Most of the ‘women in rock’ celebrated in New Zealand were singers in commercial bands or solo artists. I’d love to see something around the alternative women in rock, the silent doers behind the bass, drums, guitars and keyboards.
I remember getting enraged one night in the early 2000s when a man in a bar asked me why there were so many female bass players. The question he should have been asking was: why are there so few women who play instruments in bands, that those who do, stick out? If there truly were as many women playing bass or drums, or guitars, anything other than singing, as there are men, then it wouldn’t even warrant a mention. I asked him to name ten bands with female bass players. He couldn’t. Let’s face it: most bass players are men.
Audioculture recently published photos from a precious archive of the late 80s Auckland music scene by Brian Murphy. Shayne is there, in the Station Hotel along with my boyfriend and bandmate at the time Robert Key, at a Skeptics gig. One of the photos is a posed shot of the Cakekitchen — Robert, me, and Graeme Jefferies. We all look bereft. I vaguely remember an instruction to “look sad”. In fact we were mostly a happy band, until we weren’t, at which point I left. I was 19, already feeling I’d had a lengthy rock career.
Graeme Jefferies has also written a memoir. In it, he misremembers the circumstances around the break-up of that first iteration of the band (he went on to keep playing under the Cakekitchen moniker, with musicians coming and going). I don’t know if he really believes that is what happened — that Robert and I broke up and things became awkward between us — or if he is deliberately fudging the truth, that Robert and I were still very much together, and I left because I found Graeme’s behaviour problematic. Robert left soon after, but we stayed together until he went overseas. And it made me think about who holds the power when it comes to collective memory: it’s always the person with the keyboard. Because their version of the truth is the one that goes out into the world. History written by the victors, sometimes by those with shaky memories, or sinister motives, or self-delusion.
As the title suggests, Shayne has lost a lot of people, to illness, and more tragically, to suicide, drugs, and misadventure. A pivotal moment in the book is the death of Wayne Elsey, on the train, that great core myth of New Zealand music. Shayne finally lays out the bare facts of what actually happened that night and its immediate aftermath. The scene is horrifying, but clear-eyed, almost clinical. For a reader, it is all the more gut-punching for its starkness. One of the best pieces of writing advice I ever received was to “describe the coffin not the grief”: don’t try and put into words the emotion attached to a scene. Just put yourself in that mindset and write what you see. How he managed to put himself back there so vividly I don’t know. The effect is devastating. ‘Randolph’s Going Home’ has taken on a whole new power, as, if you listen closely, it too lays out the bare facts.
The best thing about the book is Shayne’s ability to fully recreate a scene as if he is standing right there experiencing it, and we are standing there with him. Perhaps others will remember things differently, and Shayne is just the one who has written it down, and his version is now the truth. But he does seem to have the memory of an elephant. I asked him if he used his diaries to put things in place, establish timelines, but he burned them before he even started writing the book. The rest of us can only hope to remember even recent conversations with such clarity — these days, whenever I see Shayne, I always seem to say at least one thing to which he responds, “yeah, I remember you telling me that.”
He has said that after meeting his editor-to-be Ashleigh Young, at her suggestion, he set out to write an “impolite book”. But he has also written a compassionate, moving, dense, funny book, crediting Janet Frame with the inspiration to take haunting fragments of memory and turn them into art. The chapters about his family, and growing up in stew-smelling Brockville, are breath-taking, New Zealand Gothic at its best. When Kim Hill said to him in an interview recently, “you were an odd child,” his indignant response came: “I wasn’t odd, I was normal. The rest of the world was odd.” Lucky for us then, that he writes about the world’s oddities from his normal, clear-eyed perspective. Maybe all those years without alcohol have made him the perfect vessel to write a memoir, especially in the music world, where nobody can remember anything to contradict him.
Dead People I Have Known, by Shayne Carter (VUP, $40) is available at Unity Books.