Even in suit jackets and tidy shirts, the band looked mildly disreputable, like a gang in smart-casual mufti. An ageing gang, admittedly, but a gang nonetheless. You could tell they knew each other's secrets. Laws had been broken in each other's company and moral boundaries pushed. What happens on tour stays on tour, and all that. Like most gangs, they had shared appetites. Their eyes glittered as pretty waitresses wafted by with trays of booze.
Graham, Dave, Harry, Rick, and Paul. I recognised them from across the room through a codeine and alcohol haze, the result of an unsuccessful experiment to find the perfect balance between my back-pain medication and all that free champagne. The mixture of alcohol and opiates seemed entirely appropriate, however, because it was Hello Sailor, moving as a pack through Auckland Town Hall at last month's Silver Scrolls Awards.
Dave McArtney ambled over and said gidday. Still handsome and charismatic, I thought, and no doubt, so did he. Now in his early 60s, McArtney is the best preserved of these scurvy sea dogs. He may be eligible for his Grey Power card but you could still imagine him sliding into a pair of tight leather pants.
The others had weathered the decades with less success. Graham Brazier looked like he'd fallen into a bucket of botox, his skin glossy and tight, like an underwater creature that had crawled up onto dry land and dried in the sun. One of the other guys had dyed his greying hair an unfortunate rusty brown colour. Another was having a belated crack at that 60s-style mop-top/nerdy specs combo beloved of hipsters in their 20s.
McArtney had some news. Hello Sailor had just recorded Surrey Crescent Moon, their first album of new material in 17 years. Would I have a listen if the record company sent a copy down next week?
I would, I said, but it never showed up. In the end, I phoned him, anyway. What could he tell me about the new record? It was essentially "electric folk music", he said. There were songs about rejection, depression, the post- traumatic effects of war, the evils of P. There was a murder ballad set near K' Rd and even a song about pirates. Anyone who was interested could hear these new songs live, too, because Hello Sailor was heading off around the country on Tuesday, playing support on Dragon's 40th anniversary tour.
I put it to McArtney that Hello Sailor were New Zealand's answer to the Rolling Stones, in that they made shambly blues- based rock'n'roll, had a reprehensible drug-soaked past and had forsworn old codger pastimes such as lawn bowls to instead head boldly into their geriatric years still making a fearsome racket. Which, of course, made him Keith Richards, though McArtney is in conspicuously better nick. Has he had cosmetic surgery? "I might look all right on the outside but you should see my liver! Nah, mate, I just keep really active. I do a lot of skiing to keep fit."
Hush, now. Loose lips sink ships. Such unguarded blather about physical fitness could ruin this band's reputation as incorrigible wastrels. After all, history paints Hello Sailor as a gaggle of drunken junkie reprobates who staggered from the dangerous back-streets of pre-gentrification Ponsonby, conquering the nation with their 1977 debut album, a record that cross-bred rock, blues, country and calypso into a musical mongrel they dubbed "Ponsonby reggae". But success was short-lived. The band moved to Los Angeles and rapidly self-destructed after too much hedonistic partying, then limped across to Australia for one final drug-addled tour before calling it quits in 1980.
"That's pretty accurate. A lot of things went wrong for us," McArtney agreed. "We burned out and we ran out of money. But our legend's been greatly exaggerated. Some of us dabbled with hard drugs during the 70s but after we cleaned our act up, the reputation stuck. We've kept on playing together off and on over the years, and why not? I've never bought the idea that rock'n'roll's just a young man's game. You do need to know when to call it a day, though.
"I was looking at Keith Richards through binoculars when they played at Western Springs and boy, did he look out of it! Apparently he'd spent the whole day at the Stamford Plaza sitting beside the pool, drinking vodka. Now that, to me, is a little undignified, given that he was playing a big show that night. In my view, a man needs to be a little careful with how he presents himself."
- © Fairfax NZ News
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