When Gary Steel interviewed Graham Brazier in 2010, death was the thematic link throughout the conversation. That interview is exclusively published here in full, for the first time, and Steel offers his thoughts on one of our greatest rock icons now that he’s gone.
I GOT TO interview Graham Brazier three times. The first was in 1987 for RTR Countdown magazine when he was promoting Brazier, his second solo album, which spent a meagre week on the national top 50 chart. I remember almost nothing about that interview, and neither did Brazier when I met him again 23 years later. My second, more memorable encounter with Brazier was in 2010, for an article I was writing for Sunday magazine that I dubbed ‘Beautiful Losers’: a piece that I hoped would lead to a book about the many great New Zealand singer-songwriters/musicians who have led troubled and financially unrewarding lives. The last time was a group chat with Brazier and the other members of Hello Sailor for Metro, around their 2012 comeback album.
I didn’t know him well, but Graham Brazier made you feel like you did, and the last two times I met him he was so candid about the dramas going on in his life, and was so personable with it, that I felt it would be easy to become woven into the complex social fabric of his world. I suspect that Brazier’s affability was greatly enhanced by his drinking.
I had been a fan of Hello Sailor as a teenager. I was never particularly taken by their drug mythology, which of course eclipsed their musical achievements because it was so news and gossip-worthy. What I loved was the fact that they made two of the best Kiwi-made albums of the ‘70s – albums packed full of great home grown songs, and albums that actually sounded good when New Zealand albums seldom did. (Kudos to Ian Morris, RIP). Even though their music style wasn’t really my thing, I loved Hello Sailor – their braggadocio, the quality of the writing (and several complementary writers in one band!) and especially Brazier’s assured baritone voice. I know it’s a cliché that Brazier was asked to join the post-Jim Morrison version of The Doors (see below for the amended version of that story), but Brazier did have a startlingly Morrison-like sense of drama in those days.
To me, Brazier was a deeply flawed artist and a deeply flawed human being. We all are. I don’t quite accept the way so many of the tributes following his death on September 4 have smoothed over those flaws. I was particularly disappointed with Paul Little’s tribute in the Herald On Sunday. I’ve got huge respect and admiration for Little as a writer and gutsy independent publisher, but according to him, Brazier was a “gentle giant.” Brazier was certainly capable of being a gentle man, but from my perspective, drugs and booze fucked him up, and inevitably, fucked up some of the people around him. In 2013, he was convicted of domestic assault, something glossed over by the glowing tributes and obituaries. I was approached by one of his alleged victims, his former partner, and her descriptions of his assault on her (and subsequent threats) were chilling. I’m not suggesting that Brazier was an inherently violent person, but we all have the potential for violence within us, but anyone in the thrall to the bottle as much as Brazier was is going to risk having things get out of hand.
I found Brazier to be an amenable if knowingly provocative interviewee who could whip off a casual profundity with one sentence and a carefully formulated bland cliché with the next. Unlike many artists, he showed at least some interest in those who were interviewing him, but at the same time, he had a healthy ego. Ultimately, I found him a pain to deal with. At the conclusion of my first interview, he rang me several times with additional thoughts and second thoughts, and threatened to set the heavies on me if I wrote a piece that he found offensive. He hated my piece, it turned out, but we made up when I interviewed him again in 2012. He found some reason to hate my Metro piece as well, theoretically because of a minor factual error. We ended up having a long phone conversation, however, and by the end of it he was complimenting me on a “great piece” and inviting me over to the bookshop to hang out. I was surprised when mutual friends told me that he had told them that I should watch out the next time we came across each other. Maybe he didn’t like reading in print that he was drunk on the job, although it was glaringly obvious, and during the 2010 interview below, I watched him down a succession of cans of Bourbon and Coke on a sunny Sunday afternoon out the back of his bookshop in Dominion Rd.
He shouldn’t have minded. I wasn’t judging him, just reporting. And after all, one of his favourite authors was Charles Bukowski, the great literary drunk, the guy who was never ever sober. I’m sure that like Bukowski and many poets and authors and musicians before him, Brazier felt that the consumption of drugs and booze was a way to kick the pricks that control the real world.
“The longer you’re alive the more garbage you collect. Live fast die young and don’t collect so much garbage.”
Whatever. Graham Brazier didn’t like me much. I liked him, but it’s insulting to ignore his flaws. They just make him real. To me, he will always be one of our larger than life characters. And I know that his addictions probably scared away investors in his career but I still think, like other great New Zealand artist/musicians, he should have been more famous and a whole lot richer. And fuck, what’s with the fact that hardly any of his solo albums, or those with Hello Sailor, are even in print? Is this how we thank our rock Gods?
I’ve been planning to publish the 2010 interview transcript below for quite some time. Most of it has never seen the light of day before. It’s not a perfect interview, and he’s guzzling down the booze the whole time, but Brazier’s character does come through in it – his generous qualities, a certain kind of egocentrism that’s laced with self-deprecation. There are some great observations, and I felt it particularly appropriate for it to see the light of day so soon after his passing given the theme that runs right through the transcript: death.
Graham Brazier – I’ve been going through quite a bit of shit with a lawyer.
Gary Steel – When I first rang you the other day you were freaking out about that. Is that going to work out alright?
Graham – They’ll have to. Everything being in a trust. What she’s done is she’s tried to lock it down, she’s one trustee and I’m the other, but she can’t take what isn’t hers. I’ve got other lawyers… probably have to go to court but…
Gary – So somebody’s trying to take it?
Graham – Well I sold my house in Grey Lynn, which was beautiful, I didn’t want to sell it, but I sold it to pay a small amount of money back to the lawyer, like 60 grand, and get some money to keep my mother in a rest home, she’s 96 now. And what the lawyer did was took all the money from the sale. Take the 60 thousand dollars, that was okay. Took it all, and went to Bali. And I’ve been fighting to try and get it back ever since. I’ve got three other lawyers on it. It’s driving me mad. Just absolutely… if you don’t deserve to, who can be robbed of half a million dollars.
Gary – It’s fucking intolerable that kind of stuff, eh?
Graham – Well, it’s been going on since December last year. Unbelievable.
Gary – It’s more than a punch in the guts really, isn’t it?
Graham – Hopefully it’ll be okay. I don’t think she’ll survive the fact of having to go to court, because she’s got no… there’s no real… Trust law is very complex, and she’s just trying to sort of… she thought she might be able to fluke us out of it.
Gary – And old people tend to worry.
Graham – No Mum’s fine, she doesn’t give a shit. She left it all to me. Good on her, God bless her.
Gary – She’s pretty healthy?
Graham – Yeah, she’s good. Well not mobile enough to live here… They won’t let me bring her home, because I looked after her for two years, but because of the stairs they wouldn’t let her stay here, which is incredible. Saying if she had a fall down the stairs I’d be culpable.
Gary – You must have strong genes in the family – you can look forward to a long life yourself.
Graham – I don’t want to. It’ll pass.
Gary – It sounded like a bad scenario when I talked to you the other day but…
Graham – Things have moved on since then. The thing is she knows how to play the game and she’s just playing it out. It’s like some fucking amateur gunslinger trying to face Billy The Kid, facing the fastest gun in the west who has forgotten to load his gun. That’s me, I forgot to load my gun.
Gary – On Friday night you played a gig in Howick. What was that all about?
Graham – Oh just a… I play with a bunch of Polynesian boys called Empty Room. I was just doing a guest spot. They’re very good, very good, they’re all Tahitian, Samoan… just a covers band really, but very good musicians. So I did that, then I’m going to Taupo to play a private party on Wednesday. But Hello Sailor’s half way through an album that we were going to release this year but probably won’t come out till next year. But you don’t release albums anymore. It’s just a question of, you’ve got the songs recorded but how do you get them, download them… it’s all different. That’s why playing live has come back to such a… Chrissie Hynde said to me, gave me some huge statistic about the Best Of The Pretenders. Volume one had sold so many million copies in America alone and Volume 2 had sold… like a 50th of that worldwide, but we supported them in Auckland and they were going off to play in Dubai, Bulgaria… if you want to get into that thing of constant traveling, I dunno.
Gary – Do you still enjoy performing?
Graham – Yeah I just don’t like getting there, that’s all.
Gary – You don’t like travelling.
Graham – No. Well we went to Christchurch a couple of weeks ago and I did The Who support, Tom Jones, in the last six months or so.
Gary – And you did that solo or with the band?
Graham – No with the band, Hello Sailor.
Gary – So the band’s still together.
[Bukowski’s] actually writing as a philosopher, the visionary flood of alcohol. What he’s saying is 100 percent pure. It’s not written for the intellectual, but it is highly intellectual.”
Graham – It’s still very much a working unit. We’re quite picky about what work we do. Well I’m not but the other guys are.
Gary – And it’s broken up by other pressing stuff like legal disagreements and people’s busy lives. Things seem to get so much more complicated as you get older, don’t they?
Graham – Yeah I wonder why that is?
Gary – I guess you just push through the crap when you’re younger.
Graham – Well when you’re younger… The longer you live the more shit you accumulate, you know, whether it’s freckles or bad debts. I dunno. The longer you’re alive the more garbage you collect. Live fast die young and don’t collect so much garbage. I firmly believe that everybody should, if they’re in agreeance [sic] with it, at the age of 75 should just roll over and… people should only be able to legally live until they’re 75. Well, in the 14th century people only lived to be 30 or 40. There should be a statute on how long people can live, and I am definitely… I want my mother to live forever, but I’m definitely pro euthanasia, without a doubt, definitely, because the most expendable commodity we have on earth is human beings.
Gary – You don’t think as you get older you should accumulate wisdom?
Graham – I’m being wise when I say that voluntary euthanasia and… I mean if people are still completely and absolutely mobile and have all their faculties and they’re 100, sure that’s going to happen lots, people living to be a hundred. I mean, people are going to be older and older and older with every decade, and the middle group aren’t there. There’s going to be basically just babies, or the middle group say 30s, like 20s to 30s to 40s won’t be there, and a whole lot of people that are basically into senility. But animals shouldn’t be put down. Dogs should not be put down.
Gary – Have you got a dog?
Graham – I did have. I’m still getting over her being euthanised, because some rotten taxi driver ran over her. No, I’m actually just talking a lot of crap, it’s just how I’m feeling today. I mean, society’s not equipped to look after the elderly properly. If society was equipped to look after the old people properly… and children. How come there’s so many fucking children in this country get killed before they reach the age of four or five? By negligible parents. So both ends of the spectrum need serious investigation in my mind. But I do believe that if somebody is lying in a bed with their family standing around coming in day after day watching them like leak away with some terminal illness, they should be able to sign a piece of paper and go ‘goodnight nurse’.
Gary – Have you read Peter Singer’s stuff about that?
Graham – No.
Gary – He’s an Australian ethicist.
Graham – I’m very choosy now about what I read, but I’m sure Charles Bukowski’s got a lot to say about it.
Gary – I heard that you were a bit of a Bukowski fan.
Graham – Mm.
“You should have the luxury, when your time has come, of saying yes, I’ve had enough, I’d like to go now.”
Gary – Is that because you relate to him, or to how he writes?
Graham – I love his writing. It’s so pure, and nonpolysyllabic, and it’s not written like ‘I’m an intellectual, look at how clever I am’. I read some people’s blog sites and I almost vomit. Because he went straight from the street, his poetry’s pure, completely pure. He’s like Francis Thompson. One of the greatest English poets, who was found in the gutter by a priest with all these scraps of paper, with all these wonderful poems. Shane McGowan stole a line from him: ‘I fled him, down the nights and down the days; I fled him , down the arches of the years.’ Bukowski’s like that. And this priest took him to a monastery, cleaned him up, and he became one of the most widely read poets in England of that century. And Bukowski’s like that: some guy believed in him, took a punt on him, and he’s one of the most widely published American poets of his time.
Gary – I love the fact that he worked for the Post Office for all those years.
Graham – He only wrote three novels. I’ve got a complete collection of his books but…
Gary – I might be wrong but I seem to remember that back in the ‘70s his books were just small editions.
Gary – I just remember these slim books that almost looked like they were hand made.
Graham – If you see a whole set, they’ve got the most beautiful binding, they’re all pastel, and they’re all recycled paper, and they’re made to be collected, they’re not made to be handled. But I’ve got some English versions too, which are done through Virgin Publishing, and they’re just like normal paperbacks, but Black Sparrow Press versions of Bukowski are actually not meant to be handled with grubby fingers, because they have pastel covers, very delicate, and it’s imperative to keep them in pristine condition, not some book that you go ‘here, read this’. It’s ‘here, read this but put on these latex gloves.’
Gary – Obviously you enjoy the form of Bukowski’s poetry, which is very direct and simple, not necessarily the ideas but the form. The way he boils things down in a very simple…
Graham – It’s sort of blue collar. It’s blue collar experience, but written in a very, very – without really knowing just how from almost a voyeuristic position he’s actually writing as a philosopher, the visionary flood of alcohol. [Note: Leonard Cohen line].He’s writing as a philosopher. Through a blue collar perspective, but to get really analytical about Bukowski’s poetry, what he’s saying is 100 percent pure, and he doesn’t pull any punches, and it’s not written for the intellectual, but it is highly intellectual.
Gary – It’s that sort of human authenticity that you like about it, that there’s no bullshit there, a guy who’s insisting on living a real experience.
Graham – Bukowski could really write about anything. Actually you should probably not put that shit about me being pro euthanasia because it might get me into some terrible trouble, but I do believe that people should have a choice. I don’t mind being quoted on this. I do believe that people should have the choice if they’re sick, or if they suffer daily from manic depression and they’ve actually had enough. If we are the only animals on the planet that have the ability to think, which everybody from Einstein to Isaac Asimov has said. We’re the only animals… Richard Attenborough, whatever. We’re the only animals on the planet that have the ability to think. And I don’t believe that, I believe that dogs have the ability to think. In a big way.
“I’d give my left testicle to see Townes Van Zandt now. I can’t, he’s dead.”
Gary – We reason, don’t we?
Graham – Reason. I’ve had enough, should be able to sign a piece of paper if we’re right minded, we’ve still got our faculties, I’ve had enough, and should be able to… Well it’s happening in Sweden, it’s happening in other countries of the world. People talk about human rights, you don’t have the luxury of being inducted into this world, saying yes, I want to be born, but you should have the luxury, when your time has come, of saying yes, I’ve had enough, I’d like to go now. At one end of it. If you go into a movie theatre you’re in there right, you’ve got the opportunity to walk out whenever you want. Life should be like that. It’s not a bad one, is it?
Gary – Not bad. I used to say I’d never sit down and watch a film and walk out on it, but I have to admit I’ve done it a few times. Especially since I moved to Helensville with the long drive home.
Graham – It’s a long way out and there’s only one road in, I know from playing the pub there. I played a bar up there quite a lot.
Gary – How are you feeling about life and career and all that stuff? Are things going swimmingly?
Graham – [long pause] Um… Yeah I, I… I guess I am. My favourite English poet had a book called The Toad [Toads, by Philip Larkin], why I can never remember his name I don’t know. He wrote, “They fuck you up your Mum and Dad, they don’t mean to but they do/ They fill you with all the faults they had/And add some extra just for you.” He was the only poet to have turned down the poet laureate, he was offered by John Betjeman, and he turned it down. And for that I really think he’s… I tend to agree with a lot of his… You can ask anybody at any given time are they happy with life, and depending on what’s happened to them in the last week, they’ll say ‘yeah life’s fantastic’ or ‘life’s a load of shit’, so it’s transitory, it never stays the same, and there’s no amount of money and no amount of poverty and no amount of sex and no amount of drugs or religion, that will actually make you truly happy. Happiness is fleeting. Happiness is what happened to you yesterday and you’re still getting over. But thank God we’ve got tomorrow, maybe, maybe, to look forward to… that’s why I think people should have the right if they’ve had enough to go. I give up doc.
Gary – So you’re a good old existentialist at heart.
Graham – Oh definitely, definitely. But I love playing music, I love playing and knowing at the end, people coming up saying I really enjoyed myself. That to me is a small reward. Music’s never been to me about… a monetary thing and it probably never will be if you put yourself in this country. But then I’ve played in America and other places and… what I do think’s cool is the amount of young bands now that are… When we first shipped out and went straight from New Zealand to America we were one of the only bands apart from the Maori show bands. They are owed a huge gift by all following New Zealand musicians, because they trod a path there, you know the Maori Hi-Fives, the bands that went to Thailand, the bands that went to Las Vegas. Kings Cross, and there were dozens of them. Those guys, and they were very professional, very good players. But I like the way that young bands now… I don’t know whether air travel’s cheaper or whether they have better management, but all the bands now, it’s nothing for them to go and travel through Europe. I can guarantee that they don’t come back with very much money but the fact that they do it is very good. But saying that is no different than the bands that come from Canada and come down here. Like I was amazed to find out that Towns Van Zandt came down here three times in the ‘80s. I’d give my left testicle to see Townes Van Zandt now. I can’t, he’s dead.
Gary – I guess those guys were on a touring circuit that…
Graham – And he could do it by himself, he didn’t need…
Gary – When you guys packed up and went to America it was…
Graham – Huge. It was a big… bring the family, as John Hiatt said.
Gary – You were really the first NZ band to do that.
Graham – Well apart from the show bands, yeah.
“Happiness is fleeting. Happiness is what happened to you yesterday. But thank God we’ve got tomorrow, maybe, maybe, to look forward to…”
Gary – Why didn’t you join the Doors?
Graham – Oh it was only a short… only to do a set of collegiate gigs. When American Prayer was released, they had a lot of old home footage of Jim staggering around and doing crazy stuff on Santa Monica beach and Venice, and reading his poetry, and the first half of the show was to be that, and the poems read from American Prayer even though Jim wasn’t there, with ambient music from the rest of the band, and then the second half was to be the hits, and that’s what they wanted me to do, to sing ‘Light My Fire’ and ‘People Are Strange’, blah blah blah. It was something like 18 to 23 collegiate gigs round California, San Francisco, down to Southern California. But I would have left the other guys without any work, so I didn’t desert the sinking ship, so to speak. Very bad analogies. Probably loyalties. I had this socialistic stamp of loyalty in my genealogy from my socialist father.
Gary – The one time I saw Hello Sailor and I think you played the St James theatre or somewhere like that. I was only 18 or something at the time. I couldn’t get over – for every one guy there were probably 50 girls, young girls. It had that sense of almost teen phenomenon about it at that stage.
Graham – Damn, see the problem that lights cause, I didn’t see any of that. Light shining in my eyes, I didn’t see any of that.
Gary – Come on, I heard about the groupies.
Graham – I’ll have to track down that light man and give him a jolly good piece of what’s left of my mind.
Gary – It’s interesting to think of the band in the way that John Dix describes the group as being slightly more mature than some of the bands that were around at the time.
Graham – We really are more mature than some of the bands that are around now. Another reason for the album not coming out this year is that next year is our 35th anniversary.
Gary – Oh right!
Graham – But haven’t you guys been broken up for years? Everybody thinks that because we don’t go out and do national tours, but we do spot play at events that are kept quite, not secret but a little more clandestine than…
Gary – It’s not corporatised in the way that you’d get with like, Tim Fin going on a winery tour with Bic Runga and Dave Dobbyn.
Graham – No not like that. We just go with Tom Jones.
Gary – Those guys, Tim Finn and whatnot, are New Zealand rock royalty, and it’s quite clear to anyone who’s into NZ rock that you belong in there…
Graham – Oh what a lovely thing to say, thank you man, Gary isn’t it? Thank you, that is really kind, that’s one of the nicest things… it’s been quite a while.
“I’ve actually played 52 funerals and never charged a cent for any of them, and they’re for friends, parents and friends who have passed away.”
Gary – The question is why aren’t you riding the gravy train like those guys?
Graham – Um… I had quite a few offers to play in Australia, but because of my Mum, I didn’t want to be too far, she’s just up the road you know. So I don’t want to be too far away from her and… But if there’s people still playing at 70 like Leonard Cohen, not that I’m putting myself in the same category as them but… Leonard Cohen and Tom Jones and people like that. There’s lots of time. I think that’s one of the best things that’s happened in the last two decades, is actually respect for, even though I’m saying that people should roll up their sleeve and die happily when they’re at a certain age… I think the respect for older musicians for longevity, rather than being just an overnight sensation, a pop phenomenon, the journeymen in the music industry. The public have a lot more respect for them than they ever would have 20 years ago. ‘Oh those old buggers!’ – that sort of attitude’s dying. Which is quite cool.
Gary – Also when you guys were big the punk rock thing came along and that was an era of people being really disrespectful.
Graham – Yeah well that came with the territory. I went and saw the Sex Pistols when John Lydon had a gut five times fatter than mine and was balding and I thought ‘okay’, and he was probably the same age as me and hold on, you know.
Gary – It all comes out in the wash later on, doesn’t it?
Graham – As my mother said – she’s a very wise woman. Age is not necessarily a number, but a temper of the will. It’s a lovely expression. When I say that I’m pro euthanasia, only for people that are really sick, and they’re not… The only thing they can actually do is make the nuclear members of their family cry and… what are you going to do? When it gets to that point it’s horrible for everybody. I’m not really saying that everyone over a certain age should be… that’s what Johnny Rotten said, didn’t he? And he’s still doing shows probably as we speak. The only one who lived that legacy was Sid Vicious and I think he was used as a tool.
Gary – I read recently that best mates, Johnny Rotten and Keith Emerson from Emerson Lake & Palmer!
Graham – That’s a very weird combo, yeah. One of my dear friends is Paul Little, the author. I have friends in all sorts of strange quarters. Wendyl and I are dear friends too. Paul and I… lovely man. You’d go a long way to meet a nicer guy actually. Lovely man.
Gary – Most of us writers are cunts, but there are a few nice ones.
Graham – [laughs]. I was reviewing New Zealand poetry for Canvas magazine for 18 months so I must be a cunt too. Ha-ha-ha. I’ll join the club.
“I went and saw the Sex Pistols when John Lydon had a gut five times fatter than mine and was balding.”
Gary – I re-read a story that John [Dix] wrote about you for The Listener in 2004.
Graham – Oh John Dick. Fucking cunt [under his breath]. Can’t write. The only thing that he could write… If you re-read that Listener article, as I did years ago, all he talks about is how drunk he got and my dog. I loved him talking about my dog, that was beautiful, but…
Gary – There was a nice bit where he said he was mates with both of you but he preferred your Mum.
Graham – Well, so do I. [laughs] Touché to that.
Gary – One of the things he said was that you were worried that you’d given up your old habits and replaced them with cigarettes and alcohol.
Graham – No, what makes you think that?
Gary – The whole thing about, getting back to respect and where your place is in New Zealand rock and roll history… Do you think you’ve had the kudos you deserve? I suppose it’s a difficult question to answer, because no matter what you say it’ll sound wrong.
Graham – Yeah, I don’t really think about that. I’d like to think that the majority of what I’ve written, lyrically anyway, is honest. And I seem to have this huge, wherever I go, this huge ethnic population come up to me and say ‘hey you wrote that song ‘Billy Boy’, I love that song, every time I hear it…’ And that’s a great compliment, even though they get the name wrong, but you know what I mean. But I seem to have struck a chord there which is good, probably along with Tim Finn’s ‘Parihaka’. I’ve known Tim for a long time, Brian/Tim, known him for a long time. We just did some demos at Neil’s studio, and I never knew Neil Finn, at all, but one of his runners told me that after Paul Hester passed away with his two dogs watching, Neil brought the dogs back to New Zealand, and one of them passed away while it was in quarantine, and the other one’s happily living away upstairs, and when I heard that I went up to him and said ‘I don’t know you, and there’s no way we should even know each other, but what you did for those dogs’, and after that there was just this click of friendship. It’s funny sometimes what it takes to… not ingratiate yourself with someone but to give you something in common. Because I thought what a guy, what an amazing thing to do, what a truly beautiful thing to do. And even when I think about it now it brings me to tears, it’s such an amazing thing to do. That’s true friendship, it’s really cool. [Graham is tearing up at this point]. Like Godfather stuff, you know, what a Godfather is truly meant to do. If you become a Godfather and the father dies, you should take over care of those children. We’re replacing humans for dogs here but I went up to him and after that we just clicked, and it broke down years of not knowing the guy. All of a sudden we were like chums, and that was really nice, totally different opinion of the man, in all ways, than I did before. And my dog having recently died it really hit a nerve. [Voice is shaking]. And also Harry Hambolini [Michael “Harry” Harallambi], The Exponents drummer, who I never really knew, he read about it in the paper, and he rang up and we talked about it for two hours on the phone. ‘I understand if anything happened to our dogs I’d just die, I’d just die. Are you okay? Is there anything I can do?’ And I thought ‘wow!’
“Jazz players probably sit round and talk about semiquavers and scales and the key of F flat and things like that, but songwriters do tend to have favourite poems.”
Gary – I guess it’s the purity of love you have for animals.
Graham – It is. It’s unconditional. It’s totally unconditional. I suppose it’s the same for children. But those two people. A good philosopher would have something to say about that, and I’m not a philosopher, but it was really cool, especially Harry Hambolini, who’s a real tough guy. I believe he’s Albanian. He once had to go to court for having taken out a whole rugby team single-handedly. They called someone in the band a poofter and he went out and knocked them all over in the carpark. Or so the story goes. But he was just so genuine, and Harry and I just clicked. We spoke for a good hour, hour-and-a-half. I can’t wait until I can see the guy, thank him for that.
Gary – Of all the Kiwi rock bands, outside of the ones you’re associated with, which do you feel the closest connections with?
Graham – Well, Marc Hunter… When Hello Sailor had it’s only true hiatus after Sweetwaters in 1981, I went back and lived in Australia for four years, and wrote a couple of songs for Marc Hunter, one of which is on his Fiji Bitter album, and Paul Hewson spent the last two weeks of his life staying with my mother and I, so those guys I have a big emotional connection… and musical. Marc was one of the great singers, and Paul was one of the great melodists/pianists/songwriters. A little neglected I think, a little overlooked, here, maybe not in Australia. I have so many friends in the music industry. I’m very good friends with Bob Orr the poet, I get a lot of poets coming into the shop. As my mother did, so it’s just a continuation… the cycle continues, you know? Quite often I’d rather talk to a writer or a poet than I would a musician.
Gary – I guess musicians who have a genuine interest in literature are not that thick on the ground.
Graham – Well, most people think ‘he’s in a rock band he must be thick’, but it’s not really… there’s a lot of people that will drop names like urban confetti of authors and philosophers like Jung and Nietzsche, but lyricists, songwriters, somewhere along the line it crosses over into poetry, good lyrics crossover into poetry. Modern poetry, urban poetry, I don’t know what you would call it, but there is a definite link. Whereas jazz players probably sit round and talk about semiquavers and scales and the key of F flat and things like that, but songwriters do tend to have favourite poems.
Gary – I should let you go soon.
Graham – No-no, look I’m cool bro, I’m cool. God knows I held you up, but yesterday I was in no condition.
Gary – No I understand, I’m feeling dead in the head today, for no reason in particular. Probably deadline blues.
“I can tell by my handwriting when I’m excited about a line. A font can’t tell you when you were excited, can it?”
Graham – I hope I haven’t held you up on your deadline. I know what it’s like because I did write for 18 months, reviewing poetry, and that was sort of like… Read the book, great, find my favourite poems, analyse them, take quotes, do comparisons. But then when it came to using the computer, that was the hard bit. Because I’m a bit of a Luddite. I found it easier to give somebody 40 bucks to do it for me.
Gary – I miss the days of using old fashioned typewriters.
Graham – I still use a pen and paper. I never had the luxury of going to journalism school or Manhire’s courses or anything like that, but I can tell by my handwriting when I’m excited about a line. Well that must mean something because my handwriting’s changed from quite slow and purposeful to almost unintelligible scribble, because my brain’s working faster than my hand can, so I’ll go back over that bit, the line and come back to it, and know that for some reason that meant something. Which you can’t really do that in typeface. A font can’t tell you when you were excited, can it?
Gary – With the old-fashioned typewriters, if you pressed really hard on a letter it came up looking more bold, create an emphasis, but I’m at my best when I’ve completely forgotten about a deadline, and just pretend I’m doing it for myself. But if I can picture some editor waiting for it at 8am the next morning, then suddenly the whole thing starts to feel like I’ve got this leaden heart about it all.
Graham – When I was doing the poetry reviews, I found deadlines quite good, because if I didn’t have a deadline, I kept putting it off and it never got done.
Gary – Is Landfall still going?
Graham – Yeah, I’ve got an almost complete collection going back to 1947. And a lot of people don’t know but Denis Glover and Charles Brasch, that was the start of Caxton Press, when they started Landfall. What was to, eventually… they were the embryonic stages of Caxton Press. I don’t know if somebody bought them out but…
Gary – You just reminded me, I meant to ask you about… you’ve done a record of poetry?
Graham – No, I did the Tuwhare album, Hone Tuwhare’s poem ‘Friend’, and I contributed a cutlet to the Baxter thing. But they were years apart, different projects… I see Rob Tuwhare who’s starting to write, and write really bloody well actually. Hone’s son, comes in here a lot. And they’ve actually adopted me into the Whanau because of that one song. They play it all the time on National Radio which is heartwarming. Especially because I lined up a whole lot of musicians to do that on the Monday, and then the session got cancelled to the Thursday, and then on Thursday somebody’s uncle had died and someone else was out of town on tour and I ended up doing the whole thing by myself, playing the guitars and… and it actually turned out very well. If you ever see the documentary of Tuwhare’s… It’s called The Return Home, he picks that song out, goes ‘I like this one’.
“If death is a new beginning, it shouldn’t be mourned for, it should be a celebration of what’s gone before and what’s to come. If there is anything, I’m not sure, I’ll tell you when I get to the other side.”
Gary – Do you still feel like the bad boy of New Zealand rock and roll?
Graham – Well I keep getting accused… No, I don’t do anything wrong. I’m sort of a bit like a Mother Teresa around here.
Gary – The second part of your life is paying penance for the first part of it?
Graham – It could be. You reap what you sow. I’m not in any hurry to sort of… to do anything. I haven’t got this massive urge to do this next album, or do this project. I do want to do a book of poetry, because I’ve got hundreds of poems, I was writing poetry before I ever wrote a song. And I’ve got some good ideas for short stories and stuff like that, but that’s something I can leave for a little while yet. Until I go bald, or grey, or… You know what I mean.
Gary – So many great writers don’t write…
Graham – Until the later part of their life. That’s something that’s actually, like the last part of the birthday cake that you keep in the freezer for that special occasion. I do write poetry all the time. I’ve got this thing that I do. I challenge people to give me three words, and from those three words I write them a poem. I do it for funerals and… Having said what I said before about euthanasia and all that, I’ve actually played 52 funerals and never charged a cent for any of them, and they’re for friends, parents and friends who have passed away. I don’t do it because it’s macabre or dealing in this Nosferatu, drink the last drop of blood from the coffin. I do it as a genuine sentiment. And there’s a lot of people around that will say ‘Oh Graham Brazier, he played at my uncle’s funeral’. And I always moan about it, not another, oh God… and then afterwards, after I’ve done it, I get a feeling of sort of worth, not financial worth, but… it makes me feel a little bit, not holy, I’ve done something, I’ve put something back, I’ve helped somebody, I’ve done something for a family… And they’re hard, they’re really hard, because people are just waiting to burst into tears, and if you run with that, you feel like if they start you’ll go with them and the whole thing will just turn into a weeping session, you know. Really hard to steel yourself and get through that song. A friend of mine that was one of the heads of Amnesty International in the human rights commission, who died in Zimbabwe of a heart attack, only 60, I played at his funeral, with Don McGlashan. We didn’t play together, but… Don and I both knew this guy through human rights, and that was incredible, it was one of the best, I can’t really call it a show, but there were Samoan choirs, there were African drummers, there were Hindi bell dancers… every nationality, this guy had touched so many people, and when it came my turn to play I thought how do I watch that? But just sitting and watching that, this guy had done so much for so many people. And he was Islamic. Well he was Palestinian, Australian, had a business along the road and had known my mother forever, and they’d become very good friends. And that was just incredible, I’m sure that Don would say the same thing. The people that were there, the people… as they were coming in, it was like a United Nations meeting. Wow.
Gary – I suppose it’s like that New Orleans thing where it’s more like a party.
Graham – Yeah, a celebration. Life… you shouldn’t have to mourn somebody’s passing, because they’ve had their life, you should celebrate what has gone before, which is their life. If death is a new beginning, it shouldn’t be mourned for, it shouldn’t start on this mournful note, it should be a celebration of what’s gone before and what’s to come. If there is anything, I’m not sure, I’ll tell you when I get to the other side.
After I turn off the tape recorder, Graham pulls up his sleeves to reveal the aging scars of numerous intravenous needles. “It’s a miracle I never got AIDS”, he says.
+ Graham Brazier’s funeral takes place at St Matthew-in-the City, this Thursday at 1pm. The service will be conducted by former Radio With Pictures host Karyn Hay.
+ There’s a Givealittle campaign here to pay for funeral costs and help with what has now become a tribute concert later this month, which takes place on the 18th at the Powerstation.