Graham Reid | | 6 min read
Graham Brazier's house has a boisterous doorbell named Kitty, a large platinum retriever which barks enthusiastically on the first knock, bounces at you on entry and then - after we have made our way downstairs to the kitchen-cum-library - promptly falls asleep under the old wooden dining table.
Brazier's 102-year-old, double-brick terrace house at the top of Chinaman's Hill is a homely, one-dog, three-cat place and a bit bohemian.
On one wall is a signed Chris Knox cartoon from Real Groove: "Great Moments in Rock History - Graham Brazier joins the Doors". There's a black and white photo of him and fellow Hello Sailor-man Dave McArtney, at the dawn of time, a relief sculpture by his partner Syreeta, partially obscured by an iconic photo of him at the mike in Sailor days, and a pantry conspicuously bereft of food.
One of the bookcases is packed with first editions, rare collections and poetry: Charles Bukowski, Raymond Chandler, Henry Miller, Allen Ginsberg on the City Lights imprint, biographies of Brando and Lou Reed ...
There are barbells on the floor - Brazier, who turns 51 in May, is well-muscled - and a box of old vinyl under the stairs. Another is in the shed outside in the garden, deliberately overgrown to provide privacy from the Foodtown carpark.
Yes, "bohemian" is the adequate adjective. Before he moved here four years ago and brought his own expansive history this place had a colourful story of its own.
"Twice a bordello, once an opium den, three times a sly-grog shop, and once an illegal betting shop," he lists. "And it was a private hospice for rich people back in the 30s.
"I'm doing it up as I can afford it. I've had the plumbing done and a Samoan mate painted the roof."
Done on the cheap too. It's yellow.
"The cops must fly past and think someone has bad taste. 'Oh, it's Brazier's place, no wonder'," he laughs.
The excuse for visiting the garrulous and likeable Brazier - sometime Hello Sailor member and a solo artist for this past decade - is his new album East of Eden, which eases from folk-rock to the old Ponsonby-reggae shuffle, skiffle on Winter of Discontent ("Who does skiffle these days?") to straight-ahead rock, and a bluesy marriage of slide guitar and harmonica.
It's a "personal album" - hence Sailor boys McArtney and Harry Lyon are not in attendance in the otherwise stacked guest list - which pays homage to Syreeta (who took the impressive cover images), is replete with literary references, and includes a track entitled Mr Asia into which he amusingly writes himself.
No, the notorious Mr Asia didn't come to dinner ("Funny when he came to tea/didn't really look Chinese") and anybody who takes the final tongue-in-cheek couplet seriously is just a turkey. ("Now there's no more Mr Asia/give the job to Graham Brazier").
Brazier fires up another cigarette and with a hoarse laugh observes that in Australia notorious characters have songs written about them and our drug kingpin was deserving of a song, it's part of the folk tradition.
Elsewhere he nails a Fairweather Friend (you wouldn't want to be identified as the subject of Brazier's disaffection), and the title track takes its lead from the biblical passage which he quotes - "Not that I've turned religious!" - but also resonates with the John Steinbeck novel of the same name and the James Dean film.
It's a musically diverse album, and he feels forced to defend that.
"When Inside Out came out," he says, referring to his acclaimed solo album of 81, "I was accused of it being too diverse, that there was no thread to it. But shouldn't that be a good thing for a songwriter? This album is like that. It's a singer-songwriter album and little segments of life in a musical form."
And throughout Brazier turns a clever couplet from a cliche: "Let he without sin/buy the next whisky, buy the next gin".
Despite whatever wit and history he brings, Brazier's legend may have outstripped general interest in any new album. And he knows it.
"In America and England they've got adult contemporary - Bob Dylan, Tom Waits and Van Morrison. In New Zealand we've got adult contempt. You've got your use-by date. If you're over 28 - the cut-off for New Zealand Idol - it's, 'See you later'.
"But if you had someone do your plumbing would you get someone who has done it for six months or someone who's done it for 16 years? Or in my case 30 with Sailor, next year."
It's been a long creative haul for Brazier, who had a jug band at 15 and made his first public appearance at Nick Villard's club the Embers two years later.
"I got there and tried to play my song but halfway through got such bad stage fright I just ran. I didn't go near a stage again for six months."
Then it was Poles Apart, the Wynyard Tavern, Levi's Saloon ... and Hello Sailor (right), whose songs wrote themselves into people's lives. There was much rock'n'roll/drug messiness but Brazier delivered a Kiwi classic with Billy Bold from Inside Out, which became an air-punching song of defiance. He believes the song came from his ancestors.
"I had a dream and woke up with "Billy Bold" in my head. My dad, who had passed away, used to use it about a hard man, and I picked up the guitar, no pen and paper, and it just came. It was like channelling."
Penning or singing some of this country's classic songs hardly pays the bills. A Sailor royalty cheque might be $5000 a year and his solo gigs earn the equivalent of an unknown covers band. Sailor corporate gigs - about five a year - are good earners but otherwise the pickings are slim.
Brazier might be a beloved bad-boy, a reputation secured in Sailor during the decadent and drug-fuelled 70s, but he was always more than an impending casualty. He grew up above his mother Christina's famous second-hand bookshop on Dominion Rd and was fashioned by a childhood in which he would see R.A.K. Mason, Rex Fairburn, Kevin Ireland and other writers in the shop.
"They had a profound effect on me. There was something different about them and I wanted to be like them. They turned a switch inside me."
On the other side was his older brother who was in the British Merchant Navy. When he was in port the Glaswegian, Irish, Liverpudlian seamen with their exotic ear rings, tattoos, tailor-made Italian suits, winklepickers and swishback pompadours would adopt him as their mascot.
"In the 60s they looked like aliens and when they walked down the streets people's mouths would drop open. I used to go to parties with my brother and they'd buy me a hamburger and a Coke and I'd sit in the corner entranced.
"I once watched this woman dancing and she had a butterfly tattooed on her calf and stiletto heels and as she danced the butterfly moved. It was probably my first sexual experience but I didn't know it."
He tells how the sailors got him his own winklepickers and denims and of Star boys chasing him and calling him a poofter.
"One day I came down the road with about 10 of these pommie seaman and said, 'They're the guys who were chasing me' and they stood around the Star boys, saying, 'Are you pickin' on ma wee brutha? How 'bout pickin' on me?'
"The Star boys trembled."
Brazier is a well of anecdotes and rock.lit knowledge. An encounter with him is fascinating.
He is genuinely gladdened to hear his music has touched people.
"I'd love to think I'd left something behind. My dream is that after I'm gone some music teacher is going to get the kids to get up and sing Billy Bold."
So we talk of Baudelaire and bluesman Robert Johnson, he sings Brendan Behan's Kitty when explaining the dog's name and pulls out a first edition of Borstal Boy, impersonates William Burrough's creaking drawl, talks of Steinbeck's story Sweet Thursday and conjures images from Grapes of Wrath.
Graham Brazier is a former rock star who now sees himself as a folk singer and poet. He opens a cupboard and books of his poems - some complete, some mere fragments - literally tumble out. He has memorised large chunks of his favourite writers and quotes Denis Glover.
"I am an oddfish/A no-hoper/Amongst men a snapper/Amongst women a groper."
He has his own quatrain, not his best but he's working on it. From this survivor the last line is revealing.
"Fred Astaire could dance me out/ Baudelaire romance me out/Charlie Parker sure blows me out/All they can do is throw me out."