Book Review: Gutter Black, a Memoir, by Dave McArtney

Available from all good bookstores. cv_gutter_black

The accolades for this book have been quick and well-deserved. After all, the Lord and heir of Mandrax Mansion is held in high esteem. In the early days, McArtney’s flat at 87 St Mary’s Bay Rd, Ponsonby was infamously party central and playground to ‘…the Kerouacs and the Brandos of the New Zealand counterculture’. Notably it was where the name, Hello Sailor (a painted message of welcome to party goers of all denominations) originated. In three delightful paragraphs he describes how each of the three friends (Harry Lyon, Graham Brazier and himself) ‘…turned on, tuned in and dropped out’. ‘Blue Lady’ was born there – Brazier’s ode to a particular syringe favoured by opiate junkies. ‘The state of the heart in three notes, falling into the arms of that big fat warm F major seventh chord’ writes McArtney.

I first remember hearing a tape cassette of Hello Sailor at a beach house in Mt Maunganui during the New Year’s break. As an impressionable 13-year-old picking his way through the war-zone debris of post-New Year’s jubilations on the beach at the Mount, their album provided the perfect soundtrack. The songs bit like Edgar Allan Poe and rocked like a drunken small town mechanic.
Dave McArtney (right) was both the people’s poet and his own literary mentor.
Almost from the first page McArtney’s style sees him spinning  yarns, while veiling them in a thin gauze of academia. He loves to compare, for example, the fictional reality of Janet Frame’s Oamaru with his own early memories of the place. Son of a bank manager, McArtney moved towns many times but it was his time at Victoria University in Wellington that seems to have cemented his love of the written word. I wondered how much, like Nick Cave for example, McArtney wanted to create a truly critical work, as opposed to deeply satisfactory, widely appreciated music.

Unlike fellow bandmates, Graham Brazier (the rebel-outsider), Harry Lyon (the implacable rock) McArtney was always the gentleman and unfailingly polite and civilized. He had a passion for surfing and skiing that rubbed up against the clichés of hard drugs, hard music and a free love in the 70’s. Ever the perfect gentleman, it was no surprise that when Hello Sailor were inducted into the New Zealand Music Hall of Fame in 2011, Brazier took the crowd accolades, whilst Lyon and McArtney graciously stood to the side, satisfied in their own minds. But what remains is a tale told well of this iconic band, a tale as tall as it is short. And indeed Gutter Black is that, and more. Alas, his death in April 2013, following the completion of his manuscript denied us the opportunity to probe and interview further.

He writes with a slight nostalgic tear in eye about all those grubby bars, clubs, their notorious Mandrax Mansion and a temporary home in Hollywood Hills. And in later breaths there are furiously imagistic portraits of a near death OD and an on-stage electrocution.

I floated. I . . . I? What was I now? … What followed was an awareness, a sensation, of something happening. A vivid picture, a transferral, a journey, of flowing, suspended in a river of light, over a swaying field of golden corn. Joyfully warm, sunshine-bright, yellow corn. Music, an underwater symphony, breathed gently some eternal themes . . .

1977_Hello_SailorYou can imagine the explosion of gasping as he comes back round after Graham Brazier administers CPR. It’s all too real.

And there are plenty more moments, too, whether it be Hello Sailor on stage or the inevitable drug spiral, money wars and all the other evils that bands encounter and eventually bond over.

McArtney was a rare man in the 70’s/80’s rock world – modest and civil, as these pages attest. I doubt few of his peers would have been through all that he did, study and finish a Masters degree in music, and live to enjoy the love and respect of family, friends and strangers alike.

The most moving part is late in the script, an epilogue written by McArtney’s wife Donna who closes with clarity and frankness.

Gutter Black is a great rock’n’roll story. It’s another side of our historical landscape, too. It confirms New Zealand in the 70’s and 80’s was more than Rainbow Warrior and Vietnam Headlines; of gritty, wide collars and shoulder pads; paisley wallpaper; Kingswoods dragging on the sands; of mullet haircuts and girlfriends called ‘Shazza’. This book may still be a little raw, given McArtney never had the chance to re-read and re-edit but if you trust instincts over form then it’s the perfect account.

Reviewed by Tim Gruar

Gutter Black
by Dave McArtney
Published by HarperCollins NZ
ISBN 9781775540397


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