Farewell Peter Gutteridge

Peter Gutteridge, outside his house, Opoho early 1989 – Detail of a portrait by Gerald O'Brien

Peter Gutteridge, outside his house, Opoho, Dunedin early 1989 – Detail of a portrait by Gerald O’Brien

Today, Peter Gutteridge died.

Overwhelmingly, my thoughts are with his family and friends, who will be in immense pain. For those of us, who are from Dunedin, and grew up with his music, it’s also a terribly sad day. His loss is almost more than can be properly put into words. It’s like the city itself is mourning.

Dunedin is a funny place. With its statue of Robbie Burns in the centre, and its anachronistic castle on the hill – a city built on romantic poetry and stoic follies, shaped by a coastline of almost baroque drama. Perhaps it was destined to cultivate that peculiar, angry gothic soul that is so derided by our more northerly cousins. A city like ours, feeds off grand narratives, and grand narratives need larger-than-life characters. And Peter was one.

When I was growing up in Dunedin, he was one of the keepers of the Dunedin sound, a giant of the scene, and a merchant of noise in Snapper. But he was more than that. He somehow embodied a story Dunedin told about itself; of grit and grime, of demons and possession, of beauty and bravado, of vulnerability and destruction. It was a tale of the frailty of existence and the subsequent need to live life to its limits. In a city that weaves drama and mythology around itself to keep out the bitter winter cold, he fair haunted the city, daring it to be more … visceral.

I was lucky enough to see Peter play many times, with The Clean, with Snapper, by himself, and in the makeshift ensembles that Dunedin frequently produced in the 1990s. Bands with no names, and nights seared onto the memories of the handful of people who were there. Snapper shows around this time were nothing short of excoriating. For reasons that defy spatial logistics or PA mechanics, they always seemed to play their best at The Crown, rather than the Empire, or any of the better equipped venues in Dunedin. And when they played, what an event it was. Snapper’s well known tunes, Buddy, Death and Weirdness in the Surfing Zone, Eyes that Shine, Hang On (“five minutes of hovering hypnotic menace”), and all the gorgeous songs from the underrated Shotgun Blossom, always struck a chord. (I mean the guy wrote Point That Thing Somewhere Else, for god’s sake. When he was 17).
But it was the less structured pieces that always blew me away. Orchestrations of pink, white and brown noise, that you somehow inhabited, rather than listened to.
As James Woods has said, he made music to disappear to.

A lot is going to be written about Peter’s ability to summon up vast oceans of noise, and rightly so. He made a generation of us a little bit deaf, and we’ll always have a perverse fondness for him for that. But the thing about Peter is that he also had the capacity to craft music of such fierce gentleness, it was almost difficult to listen to. There are two passages of music that always come to mind when I think of him.

The first is Gentle Hour. I’m not sure I can summon the words to explain what I love so much about this piece. So maybe just listen to it.

 

And the other, is this:

 

When I first encountered this, I was certain I had experienced it firsthand. Walking down the main street of Dunedin, mildly distracted by the pre-Christmas sales, and thinking for the umpeenth time in the chill of the afternoon, how Summer seems to come so much later every year. And then being assailed by this – utterly exquisite – moment.

When I watch this, I’m reminded of two things. The first is Cleave 03 (Transmission, Vision of the Sleeping Poet) by Cerith Wyn Evans, a World War II searchlight sending a seven-mile beam of light into the night sky over Venice, flashing intermittently in morse code. It seemed, for all the world, to be a second moon, which blinked. It is one of the most stunning artistic experiences I’ve ever had, made so by its interruption of the sublime into reality.

And the second is this:

 

from one to many by Yvette Mattern, scored by Charlemagne Palestine – something I was lucky enough to have a hand in. It was seven horizontal laser beams reaching across West Berlin to East Berlin, in the snow, signifying the twentieth anniversary of reunification. Again, what made this piece special was its unexpected appearance in the landscape – an eruption of the sublime into the every day.

These might seem like odd comparisons to make with the sight of Peter standing on a street in Dunedin, in scruffy clothes, playing a bashed up old guitar. But that’s what Peter’s impromptu appearance that day was, to me: an elegiac intrusion into the humdrum banality of Dunedin’s early Summer.

It’s hard to fathom Dunedin without Peter Gutteridge. Some people shape a city just by being. And he was one of those souls.

I’ll miss him very much. I think we all will.

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