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April/May 2014

by Richard Thorne

Book Review: Dave McArtney – Gutter Black

by Richard Thorne

Book Review: Dave McArtney – Gutter Black

Gutter Black – A Memoir
By Dave McArtney
Published by Harper Collins, rrp $50

Having worked on it for well over a decade, Dave McArtney delivered the completed manuscript for this book just weeks before his tragic death last year, aged 62.

NZ Musician was lucky enough to be granted permission to publish an excerpt in our following June/July 2013 issue. Covering some of the earliest days of Hello Sailor, it seemed a fitting tribute to a man who had touched the lives of a huge number of fellow musicians, and will have given readers a taste of his smart, personable and engaging writing style.

While not shying from the uglier (mostly drug-related) aspects of his own life, McArtney manages to neatly balance tales of himself with those of the band, making this both a personal, and a bluntly honest Hello Sailor memoir. Reaching the closing chapter of this neatly presented 300-page book, I was tempted to immediately turn back to the front and start all over again. Peppered regularly with photos, lyrics and Hello Sailor artwork, it had been such a rollicking and enjoyable read.

A brief prologue serves to give introduction to the Hepatitis C virus, and admission that he ‘…could be the next Sailor on the gurney-ride’. If not strictly a premonition, it certainly seems fair to say that McArtney anticipated death. In younger days he had flirted closely with it several times, twice revived with CPR, very nearly crushed on a building site, a coke OD and more. His (quite famous) electrocution on stage in a Queen St nightclub in late April 1976 is wonderfully painted – right down to his transferral towards the other side, until desperate CPR and the kiss of life from Graham Brazier dragged him back.

Born in Oamaru in 1951, it was just 12 years later, at Milford Primary in Auckland, that he met Harry Lyon, who was to become a Sailor band mate and lifelong friend. Music was, of course, the catalyst. McArtney had just started learning drums and Lyon owned a red guitar (a Watkins Rapier).

It was in Wellington, while studying for a law degree, that he had his first brush with death. Some boxing fell from a crane, hitting him across the shoulders and slamming him into a wheelbarrow – bringing with it a chipped tooth and a new realisation.

‘Life as a songwriter beckoned. For better or for worse, the wealth of the imagination would be my goal.’

He was 17. He bought a guitar and started to focus on playing blues chords. Harry Lyon gets to introduce the next stage of McArtney’s life, back in Auckland at the beginning of the ’70s.

‘I remember Dave telling me one night he’d met a guy called Graham Brazier who wrote songs that were “pretty cool… kind’a simple but catchy”.”

Their flat at 87 St Mary’s Bay Rd, Ponsonby was to become infamously known as ‘Mandrax Mansion’, 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 ‘…turned on, tuned in and dropped out’.

Blue Lady was born there, to Brazier, a poem 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.

With the undoubted help of publisher Finlay Macdonald, and the contributing musician/songwriter mates, Dave McArtney has provided a truly entertaining and valuable social history of an  important, formative band, and period, in Kiwi music. It’s a highly recommended (repeat) read.