I was never a fan of Hello Sailor. I didn’t like the jerky, disrupted tempo of their most celebrated song, Gutter Black, and the lyrics made little sense. To me it was just a noise, but one that was annoyingly hard to ignore.That’s okay, though. Enough people loved Hello Sailor to make them one of the most popular New Zealand bands of the 1970s.
You can’t argue with that, although I do wonder whether both their popularity and significance have been overstated. Gutter Black only went to No. 16 on the chart. Blue Lady did marginally better, rising to No 13.I suspect the band was liked for a lot of reasons that didn’t necessarily have much to do with music. They personified a new urban cool that was fashionable in Auckland at the time. They had a raffish, subversive quality that made them attractive to a particular demographic.
They struck a pose that was particularly appealing because it was so markedly at variance with the politics of the time, when the authoritarian Robert Muldoon was at the height of his power. Hello Sailor wouldn’t have been on the top of Muldoon’s playlist. Brendan Dugan would have been more to his liking.Drug use was big among New Zealand musicians at that time and Hello Sailor were at the heart of that culture, which only served to enhance their appeal to the Ponsonby crowd.
So we come to the sad death of the band’s singer Graham Brazier, which has presented the media with another opportunity to cement the band’s place in New Zealand’s rock mythology.I say it’s a sad death because 63 is too young to die, and Brazier was obviously regarded with affection by many who knew him. He was undeniably talented too.
But does that really warrant a full page in my Saturday morning paper? I think not.The media treatment of Brazier’s death, at least that I’ve seen, has been predictably hagiographic. You had to read to the very end of the Fairfax obituary, for example, to learn that Brazier had convictions for assaulting two former partners, and even then it was mentioned only briefly.
It had to be included, because it’s a matter of public record, but it was played down because it’s inconveniently at odds with the Graham Brazier the obituary writer clearly wanted to portray.Drugs, alcohol, hard living, the “socialist” leanings that Brazier was apparently proud of – these are fine because they all line up with the standard media image of the debauched rock star. But bashing your partner is not the sort of behaviour fashionably liberal-minded people - the type of people who love Hello Sailor - approve of, so it’s relegated to a footnote. Let’s just pretend it didn’t happen.
Part of the problem is that the journalists who float around on the periphery of the music scene are enthralled by people like Brazier, just as some sports reporters are in awe of the All Blacks.They get a vicarious buzz just from knowing them. That’s illustrated by today’s piece in which Fairfax’s Grant Smithies lets us know he phoned Brazier to apologise for an article which apparently upset the singer.
I suspect Smithies was delighted by the fact that Brazier had reportedly threatened to give him “the bash” (a telling disclosure in itself, if it’s true). He wanted us all to know about it, because it suggests that what Smithies wrote mattered to Brazier; that his opinion counted. But why would you apologise for something you’d written unless (a) it either wasn’t accurate or sincerely meant in the first place, or (b) you were keen to ingratiate yourself with him?Smithies was clearly flattered that this “hard drinking junkie rock singer” spent half an hour on the phone to him. I’m sure Brazier would have seemed far less exciting had he not been a hard-drinking junkie. But the sad fact is that the hard living that so impresses journalists like Smithies is probably the reason why Brazier is dead at 63, and why his former bandmate Dave McArtney died two years ago at 62. That's a hell of a price to pay for media adulation.