(First published in The Dominion Post and The Press, September 18.)
They farewelled Graham Brazier at St Matthew’s Church in Auckland last week.Affectionate tributes were paid. Clearly, the former singer from the Auckland band Hello Sailor was loved and admired.
Karyn Hay of Radio with Pictures fame led the proceedings. Journalists noted the presence of Dave Dobbyn, Jordan Luck, Hammond Gamble, Susan Wood and former Auckland mayor Les Mills, who used to be Brazier’s father-in-law.The full church was evidence that Brazier was important to a lot of people. Not all of us will be similarly honoured when we die.
But I do wonder about the media attention devoted to his death. 3 News devoted one and a half minutes to the funeral service, an honour not granted to many.Effusive obituaries and newspaper columns were written. Some of those who paid tribute to Brazier seemed eager to show they had a personal connection with him, as if hoping that some of the glory attached to being an Auckland rock hero of the 1970s might rub off on them.
The fact that Brazier had convictions for assaulting two of his partners was barely mentioned. It was inconveniently at odds with the eulogies that described him as a gentle, polite and literate man.This is not meant as an attack on Brazier, whom I never met. We are all imperfect human beings. Rather, I’m curious about who the media choose to honour, and why.
The established view among the New Zealand rock music priesthood is that Hello Sailor occupy a uniquely hallowed place in Kiwi pop culture. But do they?They were world-famous in Auckland – or to be more specific, Ponsonby. They captured the spirit of a particular Auckland scene at a particular time.
I believe both their popularity and significance have been overstated. Gutter Black, their signature song, went no higher than 15 on the New Zealand pop chart – not bad, but it hardly qualifies for the anthem status bestowed on it. Blue Lady did only marginally better.Admittedly, chart success isn’t the only determinant of a song’s greatness, but popular taste surely must count for something.
I suspect Hello Sailor were 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 conservative and autocratic Robert Muldoon, who was then at the height of his power.
But how good were they? They went to America and failed. I’ve heard it suggested that the reason they never cracked the LA scene was that they were too busy partying and doing drugs.I don’t buy that. Plenty of rock bands have led notoriously debauched and drug-saturated lives while continuing to record hit songs. I think the truth is that Hello Sailor weren’t as good as their fans thought they were.
The members of another New Zealand band of that time, Dragon, led even wilder lives than Hello Sailor, but still managed to have a string of hits in Australia, including a No 1, and once cracked the Billboard Hot 100 in the US.But Hello Sailor were lionised by writers, journalists, DJs and the culture commissars in a way that Dragon never were. It was a very cliquey Auckland phenomenon, and remains so.
One factor that enhanced the Hello Sailor legend was that drug use was big among New Zealand musicians at that time and the band was at the heart of that culture. Blue Lady was a drug song.Some music journalists are strangely enthralled by dissolute rock singers and write about their flawed lives as if they are worthy of emulation. But what’s admirable about alcohol or drug addiction that wrecks people’s lives?
Only two weeks ago I saw a documentary about Amy Winehouse, in which a uniquely talented woman disintegrated in front of our eyes. Not an edifying spectacle.Now Brazier is dead at 63. His close friend and bandmate Dave McArtney died two years ago at 62.
Both had been heroin users. In the eyes of some of their admirers, this enhanced their mystique. But you can’t help wondering whether both might still be alive if they hadn’t conformed to the archetype of the hard-living, junkie rock star that some journalists seem so keen to glamorise.