Time waits for no one. But it sure seems to walk a little slower when your plane is sitting on the runway and the person next to you is that guy – the one that reminds you a little bit too much of Ferris Bueller’s “lively” economics teacher.
Then there are those rare relationships that seem to suspend time. Those special friends that you might not see for five or ten years, but you can strike up a conversation with them so easily that it’s just like you last spoke to them yesterday – a friend like Colin Hay.
And it doesn’t matter how long it’s been since you spent some time with Colin, you will unquestionably want to spend some time catching up with him Wednesday night at Club Congress at 8 pm.
Because a Colin Hay concert is extraordinary.
We got to know Hay as the lively frontman for 80’s pop sensations, Men at Work. The band released their first album, Business as Usual, in 1982. The multiplatinum debut was at the top of the album charts for almost four months and produced consecutive No. 1 singles with “Who Can It Be Now” and “Down Under,” ultimately garnering them a Grammy Award as Best New Artist.
Although the band’s follow-up release Cargo also went platinum and resulted in the Top 10 singles “Overkill” and “It’s a Mistake,” their momentum faded with their third album.
Since then, Hay has put out a succession of outstanding solo records, including Going Somewhere, American Sunshine, and his most recent effort, 2011’s Gathering Mercury. Fans took note of Hay’s moving contribution to the 2004 Grammy-winning, platinum-selling Garden State Soundtrack, “I Just Don’t Think I’ll Ever Get Over You.”
The multi-talented artist has also spent some time producing and has even tried his hand at acting. Over the past decade he’s quietly acquainted himself with a younger generation of fans with guest appearances on “Scrubs,” “The Larry Sanders Show,” and “JAG.”
My “old friend” Colin was kind enough to chat with me about where he’s been and where he’s going in between shows on his current tour.
And like an old friend, we unfortunately seem to take the gifted musician for granted. After seeing Hay’s exceptional acoustic show several times, it’s one of life’s great mysteries to me that there aren’t 30,000 fans a night listening raptly. I asked him about the paradox.
“Well you know, the thing about it is, it always surprises me too,” he confessed. “I mean, I would love to play bigger venues. And to be honest with you, for probably twenty or twenty-five years, since I’ve been on my own, people like yourself have been saying exactly the same thing to me.”
“They say, ‘Oh, I wonder why you wouldn’t be playing larger venues. Well, I wonder that as well. Certain things are out of your control. It’s like trying to get songs on the radio or trying to get your albums noticed, because you know that you’re doing your best work.”
“And it’s both fulfilling and frustrating at the same time because you are doing your best work but to some degree it’s a relative secret, you know?”
Make no mistake, Hay’s earlier music was very good. But he is doing his best work. And like many of today’s gifted singer-songwriters, he gets lost in thefocus on bright lights, loud music, and big production.
“Music has to fit into people’s lives in many ways you know, so it’s really more of a question of just getting noticed. There’s so much product out there that a lot of it has to do with that fact. There was a lot of structure behind the old band and it was a very different set up from what it is now. This is much more of a cottage industry.”
“But at the same time, there are lots of people in the same position as me. They’re kind of thinking, ‘Well, there are a lot of people out there that would like this music but they don’t get to hear it’ or it gets lost in the maze of product that’s out there.”
“The example I always give is that – these sound like complaints and stuff but they’re not really, they’re just more observations than anything else – a guy called (producer) Bill Lawrence who created the show “Scrubs” came to see one of my shows a number of years ago.”
“And Bill Lawrence said to me – ‘cause he didn’t know anything about the record industry – ‘You know, this is a beautiful show.’ He said, ‘Why are these new songs…why do I not hear these songs on the radio?’”
“And I said, ‘Well, I have no real answer for that. I don’t know the answer to that question.’ He said, ‘Well, I’m gonna use a bunch of these songs on my television show and see if it makes a difference.’”
“And, that’s an example of one person who was in the position of power to do something and decided to do that and it made a huge difference. So, it’s not that people don’t respond if they actually hear the material. It’s a question of finding your audience and exposing them to the music.”
It’s one thing to have someone of his generation appreciate his music, but I asked Hay if it was particularly gratifying when a younger fan gets turned on to his timeless music.
“Well, yeah. It’s always good to have audiences, young or old. But it’s good when people for example would watch the show “Scrubs” and they would pick up on the music and come along to see the show. So, in the last eight years, I picked up a whole new generation of fans who come and see the show.”
“And it’s gratifying in a couple of different ways. One way is that you always like to think that what you’re writing and recording has something current about it. You’re just not writing for people of your own age or whatever. You’re just writing songs that people can pick up on no matter how old they are.”
“The other thing is that when you’re out playing live and you’re trying to actually stay somewhat contemporary – people of my age, I’m fifty-eight now. But people who are in their forties and fifties, they don’t really go out anymore. They’re at home. They can’t be bothered going out. So, you know, if you’re relying on that audience, it would be very difficult.”
“People like that just don’t go out anymore, unless it’s somebody like The Eagles play and you’ll have this huge audience of older people because they know what they’re gonna get. They go along and see The Eagles.”
“And if I was going out and it was called ‘Men At Work,’ well, then I’d have people go ‘Let’s go and see that show, Men At Work.’ Because they remember those songs and that’s what they know they’re gonna get. People like to go and see shows and they like to get what they expect.”
“But with my thing – the solo thing – it’s not there. It’s something that includes those Men At Work songs but it’s something which is different, so people get a little confused by that.”
“If anything, you have to spend a lot more time and effort in convincing people to come along and once they do, you win because they hear the songs they want to hear and also they hear other songs that usually pleasantly surprise.”
Fortunately for Hay, pleasantly surprised fans spread the musical word far and wide. And that word is “Go!”
Hay’s albums often deal with serious matters, but they’re ultimately hopeful, a fact that he suggests may have something to do with his “Scottish mentality” – dealing with darkness by making light of it. Does he feel that his endlessly hopeful message has garnered a stronger response over the last few years as people have been grappling with so much uncertainty?
“Well, I think it’s always been there. Even with the old band, there was a similar feeling in the songs. Which I think may go some way toward the fact that the songs are – a lot of them anyway – are still around. Because there was a lot more in them then a lot of people first gave credit to.”
“When we were young, I would say in the sixties for example, you wanted the world to change. And you felt that it could, if we could get out of Vietnam – if we could stop the craziness of nuclear proliferation and so forth. And maybe people would have some kind of change of consciousness, you know?”
“And then you had all the darkness of the Kennedy assassination and Martin Luther King getting killed. And then all of a sudden you realize, this is a really serious war and it’s gonna be a long bloody one.”
“I think a lot of younger people are wandering around and they’re thinking, ‘Well, the same problems exist,’ but I don’t think that they see any hope anymore. Like you see a future and you think, ‘Oh, yeah well, things are bad but they’ll probably get better.’ I don’t think people see that anymore.”
“I get a lot of letters from guys who are fighting for their country. And I have amazing amount of empathy for people who are in the armed forces and have to go off to different countries and put their lives on the line.”
“They listen to my music and they might listen to the song “Waiting For My Real Life Begin” and they write to me about it. They think, ‘If I can just make it home, then my life’s gonna start.’ And you know, sometimes it does and sometimes it doesn’t. But I think that’s a natural state, no matter how bleak things are, to look for some light at the end of the tunnel, you know?”
Hay’s most recent album Gathering Mercury is an immediate instance of resilience when things seem hopeless. He wrote the songs for the record shortly after the death of his dearly loved father. The experience must have been affectingly therapeutic for him.
“Yeah. And it wasn’t even a conscious thing. I wasn’t thinking to myself, ‘Well, I’m goin’ into it so I can exorcise it in a therapeutic way. It came after wards when I realized that it was a release – and yes, indeed it is an amazing thing to be able to do.”
“No matter whether I was trying to avoid it or not – there were songs on the record which were not directed by the death of my father – but it was still the context of everything. And it was like channeling something.”
“The injustice of the universe is that we have to lose people who we love at some point, we go ourselves and how do we feel about that – the fear, the terror of that – that effects us all in different ways.”
“The strongest thing that I can remember that whole time was it was a selfish thing for me, because I could sit in the studio and work on songs and think about my father and it brought him back to life. You know, it wasn’t like he was dead anymore. It was like he was right there with me every step of the way. Whether it was in my imagination or not, it doesn’t matter.”
Hay’s acoustic show is at once exhilarating and mesmerizing, filled with nuance and nearness. As a listener, my strong preference is the more intimate experience. Hay simply loves to play.
“I like them both. I mean, I love playing a solo acoustic show because you’re filling up big space with something which is a stringed instrument and a voice. And you can make those two elements sound huge and there’s nothing else to, in a sense, dilute that. So it’s a very concentrated thing.”
“But I love playing in a band as well. If you have the right ingredients, then you can have a pretty magical experience with that as well. I love playing with a band because it’s loud and raucous. You plug in and it’s just fantastic fun you know. But I think my first love is standing up there singing with an acoustic guitar.”
“People tend to like the acoustic show. They tend to kind of wanna share an experience with someone as intimately as you can, you know. It tends to be a more memorable experience but I like both.”
Hay is one of those rare experienced artists that still continue to evolve musically and produce meaningful work. Of course, some of his fans prefer his earlier work, some prefer his later work, and others are just grateful that Hay is on the planet. Hay approaches his music pragmatically.
“No, I don’t have a preference. Ultimately, the headline usually has to do with “Down Under” and Men At Work. It doesn’t matter even now if you say Colin Hay is best known for his work – you know, Grammy award winning, multiplatinum selling artist, Men At Work.”
“So, you know, you can’t compete with yourself. I mean, I look at that and I think ‘Well, I don’t separate it.’ It’s not another entity. That’s me as well so, it’s not like I’m in competition with myself.”
“I know I did that and I know I was part of that and I know what I’m doing lately is gathering strength. And it’s arguably better work, although I would say a song like “Overkill” or “Down Under” are up there with anything I’ve done since.”
“On a realistic level, you want to be known for the latest things you’re doing as well because it’s equally as important. But you’re not really in control of that, you know.”
“I think about all the people that I’ve played to and I think about all the shows that I’ve done in the last ten or fifteen years and people who come up to me after the show or people who come along to the shows. I’m there to give people a good night out and I take that very seriously and that gives me a lot of nourishment.”
“And I think the main point is that when I was dropped by a major record label, all I really had was my ability to perform and to entertain people – and so I try to do that. And so, in a lot of ways, that’s what gave me a lot of affirmation over the years was people coming along to see my show and believing in me.”
“I feel like a traveling salesman in a way you know, because I go from town to town. But it’s not like people slam the door in my face and tell me to take my ****ing vacuum cleaner and shove it. They applaud and they you on your way feeling good about yourself, you know?”
The most amazing thing about a Colin Hay show is that the crowd always leaves feeling better about themselves.
And you can take that to the bank…