Colin Hay was destined for a life in song, and the world remains tuned to his circular journey.
I MET Colin Hay of Men at Work in 1983 but he doesn’t recall and I wouldn’t expect him to. It was at a dinner party at my brother’s house in Acland Street. I was 16 and living in New Zealand and Hay was one of the biggest pop stars in the world. Who Can It Be Now? and Down Under were already massive hits in the US. The year 1983 was a famous one for the band: it was when they had the top album and single in the US and Britain. No Australians had done that before.
The dinner party seemed good but what would I know, I was young and naive. My brother Peter had hooked up with Tory, who worked for Men at Work’s management; that was the connection. There were a lot of things going on that night I was not privy to.
”They were high times,” Hay says. ”I felt like Superman. We won and we had won big-time. It doesn’t really get any bigger than what happened to Men at Work in terms of success.”
They sat me beside him at the table for dinner – the kid on holiday and the international pop star – and there’s a photo but that’s about it. I thought his 1983 haircut was very cool. It was cropped back then. He must have been photographed a million times that year. His lazy eye freaked me out; misaligned eyes, hard to know which one to look at.
Nearly 30 years later, same same. His hair is a fantastic creature these days, wild and slicked back. The eyes have the same disconcerting effect, like a cartoon beaver looking every which way but straight ahead. His shirt today is voluminous and unbuttoned. He walks into Fitzrovia late, wet with sweat, an iPod in. He has a flourish about him. He looks like a carnival pirate.
Turns out he was lost. Hay has a place near St Kilda Beach he bought off the plan five years ago. He mistakenly thought Fitzrovia was down the beach end of the street but it’s not; it’s up towards the junction.
The waiter runs through things. Fitzrovia has separate, concise menus for breakfast/lunch and then dinner with a nice, simple wine list and excellent beers. It’s an easy place to be in. Not a lot of fuss. The steak sandwich, the waiter says, ”is the most amazing you will ever have in your life”. In the end we both opt for the same dish, an Asian salad with chilli prawns and calamari ”with lots of lemongrass and galangal”, the waiter says. On the side we order polenta chips (fantastic) and sauteed spinach.
Hay doesn’t drink these days. He struggled with alcohol in the ’80s and ’90s and into the new millennium, so he has a sparkling water. I drink a couple of Hawthorn Brewing Co pilseners.
He asks me where I’m from, I say ”Christchurch in New Zealand but I live in McKinnon” and he says his brother lives in Christchurch. His sister, a financial planner, lives in Melbourne.
Hay’s father, Jim, died three years ago. He forms the backbone of our conversation over lunch. Usually, there’s a lot to say about one’s father. Jim Hay was an important figure in Colin’s life; he brought his family by boat from Scotland to Melbourne in 1967 (when Colin was 14) and they settled in Beaumaris.
”He was a piano tuner,” Hay says, ”but before that he was a singer and a dancer on stage, in Glasgow. Great singer, great dancer. He could tap, he could ballroom, he could do all the steps of the day.
”The last image I have of my father was down in Brighton … in Church Street. I went into a bookshop to look at some books and he stood outside holding my jacket and I looked out to see where he was and he saw me looking and he did a wee dance, danced a wee jig. That’s my last memory of him – dancing. He was 87. A lovely man. He was very honest. He was compassionate and hard-working, a very capable person. When I was growing up I always felt very safe.”
Hay’s mother, Isabella, 87, lives in Sandringham now, in what he calls an ”aged-care resort”. She sounds like an absolute beauty, too. This is how he describes her: ”My mother is a star. My mother is a movie actress who was never in films.”
She is the reason he and wife Cecilia Noel, a Peruvian singer once dubbed ”the Latin Tina Turner”, come back to Melbourne every three or so months. Colin and Cecilia live in Topanga Canyon in Los Angeles, Neil Young’s ’70s hangout. He has a recording studio in the basement, a record label called Lazy Eye and a vibrant touring schedule through the US singing new songs and old Men at Work ones. He likes to intercut his songs at gigs with lots of talk. ”I endeavour to entertain the folk,” he says. ”I wouldn’t call it stand-up but it’s stories and it usually has some kind of theme.”
Hay says his life is a good one. The LA house, the St Kilda apartment, the studio, the Peruvian wife. He has suffered through the turmoil around the lawsuit successfully taken by Larrikin Music, which claimed the rights to mega-single Down Underover a copyright infringement and he has popped out the other side. He describes the sorry saga as a ”negative experience for all involved”.
With regard to his friend and former bandmate Greg Ham, who died alone in April 2012 after the court decision – which centred around Ham’s flute riff – was delivered, Hay says: ”He was very depressed about it and felt very bad about playing the line that caused the litigation.”
Hay is what I would call Zen. ”We set up a circle and we put things out into the world and they come back,” he says at one point, during chatter about his music career, which has gone full circle from small audiences to huge ones and back to small ones again. ”Why am I doing this?” he asks. ”Is this just a habit?”
Hay has decided he is doing what he was destined to do. He talks like this a lot of the time. Destiny, fate, cycles. ”I think when someone is born, they already know all the answers,” he says. ”You have arrived. You have always known.”
I ask if he is Buddhist.
”No,” he says. ”If I was going to pick a religion to have some semblance of belief in, it would be Buddhism. But, no, I am not a Buddhist.” Yet he treasures small transcendental moments and he appreciates the fact that playing music for strangers gives him plenty of them. He tells me about a soundcheck recently for a show before 500 people in a theatre in Washington DC.
”The sound guys were there, the bar staff. It was a simple moment. I started playing a song and suddenly I felt this charge and I thought to myself, ‘I am exactly where I should be. My feet are connected to the ground. My hands are in the sky. I am plugged in.”’
■ Colin Hay plays the Athenaeum Theatre on February 16 and other dates throughout Victoria. www.duetgroup.com