Working Man: Colin Hay
“Thank you for making the good choice to come to City Winery tonight … instead of going to see some other fucker,” said Colin Hay, with a beaming and courtly smile at the end of his first song, the gorgeous “Beautiful World.” On a freezing Mardi Gras night at City Winery NYC, Hay was in the middle of a three-night sold-out stand that both repeated the past and reveled in the present.
Hay’s long first set consisted of him, his acoustic guitar, and stories and songs. The songs were elegant and spare, many of them new, and available now on Next Year People (Compass 2015). The stories were long and wide-ranging, personal and entertaining, evocative and funny: Hay is a born raconteur, as well as a unique songwriter and entirely distinctive singer.
“The first time I was in New York, I landed in a helicopter,” he remembered. “We were at number three on a Friday, and then we were on Saturday Night Live, and we were number one on the Monday.” The song, of course, was “Who Can It Be Now?,” and that weekend of October 23-24, 1982, didn’t seem so long ago for the many Men At Work fans in the house, who clapped approvingly, and nostalgically. Hay, however, didn’t seem nostalgic for a thing about his Grammy-winning glory days as lead singer and principal songwriter for the Australian band.
Men At Work won Best New Artist at the 1983 Grammys, and by 1985 had decided to disband (though they would reunite for a few years in the late ’90s). “My alias then was Colin James,” Hay said, shaking his head at the memory of so many nights being rushed from a performance to the – only partial – security of a hotel room. “It was just me and the minibar.” Hay, who was born in Scotland in 1953, moved to Australia as a teenager, but has lived in California since 1982 – and onstage, he gave drinking as one of the reasons. “Melbourne, Australia is a terrible place to stop – everyone gets hammered all the time. So I ran away to California. You’ve got a lot of time on your hands when you stop drinking. I wrote songs.” After sharing this moment with a quiet audience, Hay grinned, and waved an expansive hand. “So drink up! This next song’s got a labradoodle in it.” And he launched into Mr. Grogan.
Many of Hay’s songs feature the lonely, sometimes paranoid; the lovelorn; the aging. I hadn’t fully realized what a balladeer he is until I heard him in the intimacy of the Winery — just him and his guitar, the rich, gentle playing complimenting the piercing clarity of his voice, with its rolling Scottish accent quite intact after decades up Topanga Canyon. Even his conversations with the audience began to sound like a ballad, in their lilt and progression, telling a story. What would it be like to meet Bob Dylan, he mused. “I’d like to meet Bob. Not to write songs with him, maybe fixing a car.”
He then told the tale of a dream he’d had, in which his car broke down on the Pacific Coast Highway, and Dylan stopped to help. Hay made fun of his own talk sometimes: “It’s a blisterin’ pace I set, innit? People who do cocaine hate my fuckin’ show.” But one of the strengths of his show was that comfortable pace, the time for connection as well as retrospection. “I used to come to New York [in the 1990s] and play to 10 or 15 people. Now it’s built up to this heaving mass. I’ll be doing stadium rock when I’m 92. … Time. Where does it go?”
Hay, now 61, mentioned the arthritis in his wrist, “not great if you’re a guitar player,” and the happy feeling when you “emerge from the twilight” after a colonoscopy to hear the doctor say “your bum’s okay.” He had, for the most part, a sympathetic contemporary crowd, agewise, though young people were there, too – introduced to Hay by Zach Braff. Smiles Hay, “it’s all because of Scrubs.”
Shouting out coffee as “the only addiction I can still have,” Hay turned a lovely performance of “I Just Don’t Think I’ll Ever Get Over You.” The simple words belie the complex emotion of the song, the sadness, or sting, in the end of a verse:
I drink good coffee every morning
It comes from a place that’s far away;
And when I’m done, I feel like talking
Without you here, there is less to say.
Hay had the support of an excellent band, most of whose members play on Next Year People, for the last part of his show. San Miguel Perez shone, as did Charlie Paxson on drums. Cecilia Noël, who is Hay’s wife, provided her remarkable vocals, including the requisite fluty notes to make “Down Under” sound the way you remembered. Yes, he played the monster hits before evening’s end: “Who Can It Be Now?” and “Down Under,” and they hold up quite well today, 34 years after Business As Usual was first released in Australia. The eerie knocking on the door in “Who Can It Be Now?,” bringing trouble and perhaps institutionalization, still alarms. The chronicle of unsettled travels, from the strange lady who makes you nervous to the Vegemite sandwich and the den in Bombay, keep “Down Under” as distressing as it also is danceable: “You better run, you better take cover” indeed.
Hay ended the show with something new, dropping the lyric “God’s roaring drunk and out on the town” into the Mardi Gras crowd like a stone. And then a guy who’s sold tens of millions of records in this world, with multiple platinums on many continents, settled in to meet fans and sign his new album for a few hundred very happy people – and he looked just as happy himself.