An ’80s superstar finally finds success and solace in a solo career.
In a lot of ways, Colin Hay is just lucky to still be around. Like, above ground.
It’s an all-too-familiar story, fodder for “Behind The Music” that often has a tragic last chapter. After a meteoric rise as the frontman of immensely popular Australian ’80s rock band Men At Work — yes, I bet you still can’t get “Who Can It Be Now” and “Land Down Under” out of your head — Hay and his mates took their rocket as far as it would fly, and then everything pretty much stopped. The band disintegrated (they reunited a couple of times but then it all stopped again) and Hay went into a spiral of sorts, trying to deal with both his own demons and really just what to do next. Many weaker souls may have succumbed to it all–the addiction, the rampant uncertainty, all of it. Not Hay.
“I didn’t die. Not yet,” the engaging and sharp-witted Hay told me during a stop on his current tour. “I mean, we all get to that point. There were some moments there where it could happen, it happens to a lot of people, it’s not intentional but if you make money and you have success, it buys you time. And then if you couple that with some addicted proclivity, then you can really make a mess of yourself and not realize it until it’s too late. And I think that was one of the things that I’m glad about, that I really spotted the fact that I was in trouble, you know, before anybody else, and tried to kind of not get to the point where I was at the point of no return.”
Almost 40 years after his band went away and he began his next journey, Colin Hay, 62, is doing just fine, thank you. He has used superior songwriting and playing, a still very strong voice and a wry sense of humor to craft a damn good life after MAW. He’s recorded 12 critically acclaimed solo records, including 2015’s excellent Next Year People, he sells out most of his gigs (which are often just him and a guitar), and largely through a combination of sheer talent and word of mouth, has garnered a loyal following and good success. He plays two sold-out shows at one of his strongholds, The Birchmere, on November 12 and 13.
But rediscovering his path was something that didn’t come easy and took a while to catch.
“There’s a lot of people in this situation, I think, where you kind of peak early, or you have a huge moment in your life, which in my case was playing with Men at Work,” Hay told me. “And then you think that’s gonna be the rest of your life from that point on. Then that goes away, and then, OK, there’s a long life ahead, so what do you do? In my case, it felt like a walk in the wilderness for a couple of years. It was just really trying to find an audience more than anything else. So you would go out and tour, and play to nobody for quite a long time. I was on my own for 13 years without any kind of infrastructure behind me except my own.”
But luckily for Hay, he was good enough and kept at it long enough, and was able to garner his next audience.
“There’s some kind of foothold now where you get on this path,” Hay said, “and then people tell other people, and friends tell friends and friends come along, and what I’m doing seems to have some resonance with people. Somehow using the creative process to be some kind of salvation seems to be a great thing for people, you know. If you can let that be, it’s transformative in many ways. It’s not big revelations and huge spiritual awakenings as much as aw, wow, this is working.”
In addition to his well-received new record, Hay is also the subject of an acclaimed new documentary, “Colin Hay: Waiting For My Real Life” which debuted at the Melbourne International Film Festival. It was a way for the filmmakers to both tell the story of a life arc such as Hay’s and also give him a well-deserved publicity push. So did anything surprise him during the filming process, any personal revelations come out that he didn’t expect?
“I don’t know about surprising myself, but I sometimes get amazed at how many bad decisions I seem to have made over the years, you know?” Hay said amidst his characteristically hearty laugh. “How at the time it seemed like a great idea, or it seemed like you were really making the right decision, and it was just so far off the mark.”
Colin Hay seems to have figured out how to survive the potential danger of an early peak. He’s simply used his deep bank of talents to stay afloat, and ultimately, to thrive. And he greatly appreciates the people who have come along with him on his travels.
“That’s one of the great things about keeping going. I mean, you can really only keep going if people let you, and they’re prepared to go with you on whatever journey you’re on, you know. I mean you can’t really go out and play if there’s no one to play to. The audiences have been increasing over the years, so it has a very, um, what’s the word, organic feeling to it, and has a lot of strength and is quite nourishing in some way. So yeah, it’s good. I feel good.”
Colin Hay’s two shows at The Birchmere are sold out. For info on upcoming shows there, click here.
Steve Houk writes about local and national music luminaries for WashingtonLife.com and his own blog at midliferocker.com. He is also lead singer for the successful Northern Virginia classic rock cover bands Second Wind and Heywoodja plus a Rolling Stones cover band and other local rock ensembles.