Five years ago, naïve would not begin to describe my position.
After growing up on the lost plains of the American heartland, living in New Zealand was a dream of mythic proportion. It seemed magic to be able to live on a pair of islands at the bottom of the world, so remote that few would ever visit. There was black sand and glaciers down its west coastline rather than endless rows of corn, and white sand and the South Pacific Ocean all down the east. You could eat by walking into the sea and picking up a paua, or a crayfish or three, rather being advised not to eat from Lake Michigan because its fish were filled with mercury. New Zealand had towns where everyone knew the names of the dolphins that would visit, and towns where there were too many dolphins to ever know.
Out of all of these places, the most romantic was Dunedin – the mystic South Island town with fog rising up from its hills like smoke. Some say Romantics are doomed to depression, for reality will never live up to their dreams. To paraphrase Emerson, my dreams were not met in Dunedin: they were transcended. Pilgrimages to that South Island town were generally reserved for those who loved all of its music. When I moved down, I had only heard about Peter Gutteridge.
At the time I had just turned 26, was finishing a novel about finding wild kids on an island at the end of the world and ran away from New York forever just to live it. One day on an assignment for a little music magazine, I ended up wandering around Wellington with Thought Creature kid Will Rattray for what ended up being a whole day. That night, as the sky turned to black, he invited me onto a tugboat and introduced me to the magic of Peter Gutteridge.
I had never heard anything quite like it. It was as if the sound crawled out in ropes, slithered around my heart and then tightened. It was a longing that was equal parts hypnotic and haunted. It had the knowledge that comes from sadness, yet still sounded fresh.
Peter Gutteridge started all the seminal Dunedin bands back in the eighties that had any kind of great sound to them. He is the one thread than ran between The Clean and The Chills, and then with Snapper surpassed all that. Although he had founded some of the boy’s favourite bands, Will didn’t know much else about him other than that he had a problem with addiction, and was still alive, somewhere in Dunedin, though it had been a long time since anyone had heard from him.
Both his story and his sound caught my attention. His prolific output 30 years ago seemed so at odds with his reclusive, unknown present. The South Island became a clanging that I couldn’t get out of my head.
A few weeks later the band invited me down South on tour with them.
"Peter Gutteridge!" Will howled to the black night sky outside the bar in Dunedin.
And his bassist groaned, "Not again."
In the coming weeks there was a show commemorating 30 years since The Chills first played that magically would feature none other than the reclusive Peter Gutteridge taking the stage. It seemed given the tales that the only way to ever find Peter Gutteridge was to show up. So I did.
What better thing could there be to do on a Friday night, than spontaneously getting on a ferry to move to the South Island? To make the show of a band reuniting for the first time in thirty years, even if you hardly know them? What you know, you love. You know it will be epic.
Every writer or farmer I had spoken to from Dunedin had this comfort in their voice, and they all said, like Verlaine calling Rimbaud to London, "Come, child. Come to Dunedin." An American girl working through her PhD in zoology that I only knew from letters opened her arms and home to me.
"Maybe I'll befriend Peter Gutteridge," I teased Will.
"Trust me," Will said. "You don’t want to befriend him.”
"Have you ever met him?"
"No," Will admitted. "I don't mean to crush your hopes or anything," he says before I leave. "But don't expect The Chills to get back together."
The late night ferry had trucks and cargo and train carriages. I drove on a midnight road until eight am, saw a sunrise on the water, and then suddenly was in Dunedin.
The windows of Coronation Hall streamed onto wooden floors the gray light of the overcast day.
"Now time for the surprise everyone knows about," Martin Phillipps said. And the original Chills took the stage. Except for one, that is.
"Peter..." Martin says. But there is nothing but silence. "Peter, it's time to play..."
No one is saying it, but everyone is thinking it. Here we go again. Martin can't find Peter Gutteridge.
But then, in the back! A flash of black and the wave of a wooden cane. The children cluttered on the floor make way. There was a polite smattering of applause as Peter takes the stage.
For the next ten minutes he plays with his amps while Martin attempts small talk to fill the gaps. The band waits. Then for two songs the band plays. Peter’s body is bent as if the guitar was the only thing to which he ever paid attention. Then in a flash they were gone again. It was an aligning of planets. It was an afternoon in Dunedin.
"What do you DO?" I whooped to Melanie, my new Zoology friend who I had roped into going. "It's like the day you see a solar eclipse. What do you do with the rest of your day, once you see an aligning of planets?”
I'm still staring off into space at the supermarket when she says, "Hey, isn't that Peter Gutteridge?"
And in front of us, sure enough, it is. At the self check-out, swaying in front of the screen just like he swayed in front of his amps.
"Go talk to him," Melanie demanded.
"No." I freeze. "I can't."
"YES. YOU. CAN.” She shoved me towards him.
"Not until he's finished," I insist. As he turns to walk away, I say, "Excuse me, are you Peter?"
The man turns. “Yes, I am.”
“Hi.” My smile is expansive. “I was just at your show. It was awesome!”
"Oh, thanks!" He smiles. "I'm glad you thought so."
"Oh, the band was just bitching at me in the car." He gestures to the parking lot. "Saying I took too long getting going."
"You're in the right," I said. For he reminded me of Will, exactly, when he did that. "It's not a fucking soundcheck," someone in the crowd yelled in Christchurch before a Thought Creature gig. Sheesh. "Are you going to play again anytime soon?"
"Oh yeah," he says. "But solo stuff that I do with friends."
"I'm a writer," I tell him. "I'd love to check out what you're doing and maybe do something on it."
Peter smiles. "Yeah, all right! Who do you write for?"
"Groove Guide mostly. Some other places. I've just called the Otago Daily Times. I – think I moved down here?"
In my American accent he may have detected a whiff of international world that still took an interest in him, because he invited me over to his house. Problems with his leg kept him homebound these days, he said.
After a couple weeks I agreed to take Pete out to Port Chalmers for a Die! Die! Die! Gig. It’s midnight by the time my shift finishes.
This time a light is on as I walk up to his porch. It bodes well. I knock.
Rat-a-tat-tat. I try again.
After about ten seconds I hear something. Here we go, I think. He's finally going to answer it.
The door opens. “The band took the stage twenty minutes ago, Hannah,” he says.
“Are we still going to go?”
“I think...” He shakes his head. “I think I ought to stay at home.”
It's midnight and we are facing each other on his porch. "Well..." I shift from foot to foot. "Are you just going to go to sleep?"
He looked at me with mild surprise, then down at the ground while he thought for a moment. Then he sighed, as if to say to himself, What the hell. "Come in," he conceded. "Come in for a bit."
And so it began.
Pete made us coffee and tea; we rarely drank wine, but it was Merlot when we did. He liked my novel; I loved his music. We had a shared aesthetic, as well as a shared sense of time that at times others interpreted as flakiness. We were both wild Romantics. He loved the South Island and hated the thought that it was being destroyed by corporations. Despite the wounds he wore from past dalliances, he was a handsome man. He had a particular soft spot for cats.
Reality was quite different from the shambolic legends that preceded him, of guns and reunion gigs ruined by overdoses. Those who look and think ‘junkie’ are looking at the wrong thing.
There were so many who knew and loved him. Pete was hooked into his local community. He always went to the same dairy. He knew those people, and they knew where to find him. He hung out with children and took them seriously. He taught them music. Pete wasn’t a recluse. He just didn’t waste his time going out. He only went out when it was related to his passion.
He was a mentor. An idol. A friend.
I wanted to learn how to unlock the mystery of creating beautiful music. And Pete showed it to me. He taught me that it entailed nothing fancy: stay at home, surround yourself with instruments, when it comes to how you spend your time, be selective.
Pete lived simply. He had no landline, computer, or access to the internet at his home, nor much interest in any of that. He wasn’t concerned with commercial crap. He had time for a lost soul with no direction.
Pete was surrounded by music. He would thrust his hands on the piano in his house as he ambled past to show me the funny things the sound was doing. And the piano soared. There was nothing in the darkness but the whites of my eyes, the most beautiful melody, and a smile crawling up my face like the cat that got the cream.
Pete was pure. His words had a sweetness and a beauty.
One night the car broke down after we got lost on the scenic route to Chicks. Pete was interested in gazing at the stars, while I turned the ignition over and over again in a panic. “Breathe,” Pete insisted.
We huddled in doorways smoking joints outside Chicks. I wrap my arms around myself to keep warm. Pete hands me his jacket.
“Such a gentleman,” I said.
“Nah,” he demurred. “I'm just used to Dunedin.” He's got three more layers on under it.
“One of my first big purchases now that I have a job is going to be an amazing full-length winter coat.” I pull his jacket around me as if it’s double-breasted.
“That's the good thing about Dunedin!” Peter cried. “You can get into winter fashions.”
Time ticked by. We were getting our shit together, him and I.
Pete longed to get off methadone and return to making music.
I kept an eye out for used organs at op shops after he told me his was broken. When I found one, I drove him out to examine it, then drove him back after he bought it.
A few months later, a new song called Untitled No. 12 debuted on Radio One.
I would visit Pete after my shifts at the chocolate factory. Dunedin was about proving to myself that I could do anything with my hands and be happy. It's only when you've been doing things with your hands and not your mind for months on end with no breaks in sight that you know what your feelings about it are really like.
On our way to the supermarket we passed a girl sitting at the bus stop bench with a plaid jacket and a pure white Samoyed next to her.
“So cool,” I purred.
Pete was less impressed. “It’s a lot of work for an image,” he said.
"Having a dog is not about image," I insisted. "It's a lifestyle... that signifies... after all the rolling around, I've found a place where I finally want to stay."
Dunedin was hard, and I learned the financial lessons that my middle-class father tried to teach through proverbs but could only be learned in a factory. At the end of a year I took a job in Christchurch, just four hours drive north on the 1, for double the salary.
A few months later Pete came up for a gig. I took him back to my flat in Ilam for an apologetically drab dinner of spaghetti bolognaise before his set. Pete crowed when he saw my cat in the backseat of my car, "It's been a long time since I've seen that cat!"
His gig at the darkroom was magic. Before I left I made sure he had a place to sleep. “I’ll see you soon,” I promised as I left him.
Two years passed before our paths crossed again. At last I was planning to visit. That weekend I came down for his funeral instead.
My fiancé looked over at my tear-stained eyes and sighed. “Ah, Pete,” he said. “Breaking girls’ hearts to the very end.”
My white dog and I rode the long road back down to Dunedin. Pete never got to meet him.
Tributes flooded in from Rolling Stone, Billboard, Pitchfork and The Guardian, but they only rehashed the facts of Pete’s early days as a young musician. An absence of knowledge about the past perpetuates myths. The thought that I hadn’t seen Pete in years when his house was always empty was heart-wrenching.
At the record store in North East Valley, one of his friends smiled wry. “Pete had a different girl for every occasion."
“Good!” I cried.
The owner looked up the valley towards Pete’s house. “You know, I’ve never been there,” he mused.
I stared. “I spent more time there than anywhere.” Visiting Pete was Dunedin to me.
At his funeral, there were hundreds crying. I felt that in the sea of faces, there must have been so many people with whom Peter had that one on one relationship. There were so many enchanted with Peter’s bright and curious personality, his intense presence. So many people all together, feeling so lonely.
There was comfort in the feeling that the space he had made for me in his life was quickly filled when I left. Still, there was the knawing feeling of not having spent enough time with him.
I had so much regret for things I didn’t get to do with Pete. I never got to help him tell his story. I didn’t get to conduct an interview with him, on the record, for his archives, full of love and respect. But I did get to keep him company.
Friends shared stories of mementos they had. One had a blue scarf that Pete had given them. Another had insisted Peter sign a Snapper record, and Pete did, though he begrudged it. But I had nothing like that. There were no remnants from our road trips and nights out and conversations. He loaned me Sandra Bell’s Dreams of Falling on cassette, with his name scrawled over another scratched out on the back. There were a pair of blue and yellow rugby socks that Pete gave me when I was cold in his house one night. That was about it.
In its place I found new ways to spend time with Pete. He taught me to lean on my strengths and forget about the rest. He taught me that being a homebody isn’t something “to get over” or find the energy to escape. It is a way of being that allowed ample room for you to stretch out and unapologetically roll around with your favourite things. He reminded me that a year, or even a chance encounter can change your life… but only if you let it.
I find him now by taking the time to take music seriously, by striving to heal my body while being drawn to forces that threaten to destroy it, and by becoming a regular presence in my community, at once accessible and hidden. I am with Peter when I strive to leave a few things behind of beauty that my friends and family could spend time with when they miss me.
It would be unfair to tether myself to Peter now, in his death, when all we had was one gorgeous year. But I could collate a few things, and provide some academic context around the man so few knew, yet enchanted so many. In place of the autobiography I hoped to ghost write for him, I started work on a thesis that grants him his rightful place in New Zealand’s music history, to replace the fact that so many reduced him to one word. Addict.
I have given long and hard thought to what would be outside the bounds of our friendship to write. Certainly Peter wanted to be remembered. All rock stars do. Certainly there was a flicker of that in his decision to give the young American writer his phone number in 2010. It would always be personal for me. Because I felt like I didn’t have enough time with him. It’s a heartbreaking admission. By sharing his story, perhaps I can put some permanence in his magic, rather than it fading into the abyss. And others too can spend a bit more time with him.
But I will not write about what was said in his home after he invited me inside. That’s Peter’s, and that’s mine.