Sunday, May 13, 2012

Sunday Spotlight: Colin Hay

While Colin Hay might not be a household name, chances are good that you've heard him singing "Who Can it Be Now?" or "Down Under" with the Australian '80s band Men at Work, or singing "Overkill" on the TV show Scrubs. When I discovered Hay's 2009 solo album American Sunshine at the height of my Men at Work kick two years ago, I quickly learned that Hay has been recording new music all this time...and making concert appearances within a reasonable driving distance of where I live.

Yes, that's my signed copy of the Colin Hay album "Gathering Mercury." There's a wonderful story behind it.

One to which I could never do justice in writing.

The basic story is hardly overwhelming: I bought tickets for me and my wife to see Colin Hay in concert, we drove to the concert, we watched the concert, and we stood in line at the merchandise table after the concert to meet the performer and get his autograph. Embellish a little, add a few esoteric details, slip in an endorsement to pick up one of his albums, and I've got myself a post. Easy enough if I'm telling my story of the concert; not so easy if the concert isn't really a concert, and if my story really isn't my story.

This wasn't a concert; this was an evening with Colin Hay. The man let us into his life, told us some jokes, and shared insightful, personal, and tragic stories about his family, friends, and career. Also, he played music for us. He was somewhere between storyteller and stand-up comedian; somewhere between artist and acquaintance. What he shared with us in words and music could be conveyed in writing, but it's the kind of tale that's better suited to a conversation--and even then, the humor and emotional punch of Hay's stories would almost certainly be diminished when being recounted by anyone else.

Hay talked about his childhood in Scotland, his family's relocation to Australia, and the alcoholism that consumed his life until moving to California. He talked about how much he cherished his father, his hero who rescued him from bullies and bonded with him over Beatles records. His father, who was killed in his first head-on car crash. He talked about Greg Ham, the saxophonist for Men at Work, who had just passed away. Hay was unable to attend the funeral--he was on the other side of the world, playing a concert for us that same night.

As a tribute to his friend and colleague, Hay performed a rendition of "Who Can it Be Now?" on acoustic guitar. He took a moment to explain how it the song originally intended for acoustic guitar, without the signature blazing saxophone. He played the first few notes...and stopped to point out how much the acoustic version sounds like an ominous music cue from Masterpiece Theater.

He talked about how Men at Work were never much of a drinking band. Like many bands, however, they occasionally wrote songs under the influence of mind-altering drugs. Which explains why the original version of "Down by the Sea" was four hours and 24 minutes long.

He relayed a story that was told to him by one of his fans, which has permanently altered the way he thinks of one of his songs. The fan had gone swimming at a beach, singing to himself Hay's song "Beautiful World." He was singing, "My my my, it's a beautiful world / I like swimming in the sea" and then got bit by a shark.

Another fan at one concert requested that Hay play the song about the goats. You know--"goats appear and fade away."

Prior to forming Men at Work, Hay did indeed own a goat--but that was long before the band appeared. (That part cracked me up.) At least, he claims he and his lazy friends purchased a goat to trim their lawn for them--as my wife pointed out, he himself sings in the song "Wayfaring Sons,"

I traveled home with good stories
I build them up through time
They'll all become a pack of lies
When I'm beyond my prime

And then there was that time Paul McCartney invited himself over for dinner.

Whether entirely true, completely fabricated, or just dressed up a bit, after two hours of these stories, I felt like I understood Colin Hay better than I understand some people I've known for years. The honesty, sincerity, and comedic delivery were every bit as valuable as the music we came to hear.

And the music was pretty darn good.

Verb shift: present tense, go!

My wife and I are among the first in line to meet Colin Hay after the performance. After meeting Wil Wheaton and Bill Amend at PAX East 2010, I am ready to not make a total fool of myself, but prepared for that inevitably happening anyhow.

The queue starts a few feet away from the merchandise table and continues to grow as it hugs the wall and begins to wrap down the stairs. Colin Hay emerges out of nowhere, and heads in the general direction of the merchandise table, where there's plenty of room for him...except there's already this line of people leading to an open space in front of the table. So, he stands in front of the table, off to the side of the room, more like a party guest than a celebrity.

The person in front of us gushes about Hay's music and asks for a photo together. Just observing for a few moments, it seems that either Hay is a little uncomfortable around enthusiastic fans, or else unsure of exactly how this meet-and-greet is supposed to work. I'm up next, and I introduce myself, and ask whether he'd be willing to sign my Mercury Rising CD (I actually have two CDs in hand, and he also signs the second one without prompting or hesitation, which was cool). While he's signing, I politely, calmly, and concisely express how I came across his music and how meaningful it's been over the last two years, and I shake his hand before I step aside. Just a nice, pleasant meeting.

My wife comes up and throws her arms open, asking, "Can I get a hug?"

"C'mere, babe!" he says with a grin, and hugs her.

I'm fairly certain he's not uncomfortable around enthusiastic fans after all.

That's the story, or as much of it as I've put into writing, anyhow.


Kevin O said...

We saw him for the 4th time a couple nights ago in Orlando. You did about as good a job as anyone could telling the story but you are absolutely correct. The show needs to be seen to understand. One of my favorite nights out and I'm looking forward to his next visit.

Flashman85 said...

Excellent! Glad to know another person who's been a part of that great experience.

pat battle said...

I've seen him three times. Great write-up. It is hard to describe the experience, and I have a hard time explaining it to friends who can't understand why I'd want to see that Men at Work guy. The other trips were with other like-minded friends/fans, but, on the last concert, I took my wife with, and she now understands. I'll go see him any time he comes to town without fail. Even if I hear the McCartney story every damn time, I still laugh out loud. He's a treasure...