At a recent job interview, I was asked to describe my interests. I was quick to list my passions for the outdoors, design, and education, but failed to mention music. I suppose I thought it pointless to tell someone that I love music. Who doesn’t love music? It’s like saying you’re a big fan of breathing and sunshine.
Still, I think music has had a profound influence on my life. Certain musicians have articulated aspects of the shared human condition so eloquently that they’ve shaped my perspective. Last night, at the historic Crystal Ballroom in downtown Portland, Kim and I had the privilege of attending a concert of one such artist: Mr. Colin Hay.
Born in Scotland and transplanted to Australia in his formative years, Hay became the lead singer for the band Men @ Work. With the group, he penned “Down Under”, a song recognized around the world, and an anthem for Australia still beloved throughout the British Commonwealth. Before you laugh at me for claiming the artist who wrote one hit song (with one of the most ridiculous music videos of all time) as one of my favorites, I suggest listening to a few of his more recent albums. Hay’s career trajectory followed those of many popular 80s rock bands. Dissention and drug use derailed his band, and as a solo artist, his songs were either widely panned or ignored. By 1991, he was dropped by MCA records and left unsure of what to do with the rest of his life at age 38.
Unable to abandon music, Hay transitioned from rock to an acoustic guitar, gave up drugs and drinking, and continued to write and perform despite relative anonymity in his new life in California. Today Hay is experiencing a mini renaissance that began with a very unlikely source. A young actor and writer by the name Zach Braff (the goofball protagonists from TV’s Scrubs) included one of Hay’s songs on the soundtrack to his movie, Garden State. The album, highlighted by the stirring and heartfelt “I Don’t Think I’ll Ever Get Over You”, went platinum. After hearing it, I accompanied thousands of college students in scouring iTunes for more of Hay’s unique sound.
Colin Hay’s songs resonate with me, and I suspect with his other fans, for a couple of reasons. First, his raspy, powerful voice, which blends Scottish and Australian accents, is incredibly unique. Second, Hay’s lyrics convey themes of self-conflict and uncertainty are as universal as they are personal. At one time or another, we’ve all felt the anxiety of not knowing what will happen next. It’s both exciting and terrifying. The song “Overkill” alludes to the mind’s tendency to wrestle with the implications of past decisions and the unforeseeable consequences of future ones. What Hay calls “overkill”, my father likes to call “analysis paralysis”.
As a twenty-five year old who just quit a good job in a middle of a recession and moved across the country because of a vague sense of restlessness, I can identify with the fear of the unknown. I often find myself wondering when it will all fall together for me. Grad school? Career change? Travel? It feels like these options are jockeying for position in my life’s master plan. This uncertainty causes to inaction, which in turn leads to unease. The song, “Waiting for my Real Life to Begin”, written when Hay was at a crossroads after experiencing success as an early age, speaks to these feelings in a way I find strangely comforting.
By revealing his fears, as he does in early hits like “Who can it Be Now” (paranoia), and “Down Under” (looking for solidarity in strange places), Hay confides in his audience and assures us that we’re not alone in being scared from time to time. In his later work, Hay seems to arrive at peace through appreciation for life’s simple wonders. In “Beautiful World”, he explains describes how moments of quiet introspection, like swimming in the ocean or making a cup of tea can still offer a dose of calm and levity in an otherwise crazy world. For me, spending last night watching Hay’s intimate performance at the Crystal Ballroom was one of those rare moments. Watching an old man performing art born from a lifetime of questions was reassuring to a young man wondering which of a hundred paths to travel next.
I left the show feeling both grateful and serene. After all, I have Kim by my side to help navigate my life’s ups and downs, whatever they may be. I’m making a home in a city bursting with artistic expression. I live in world filled with beautiful music. To borrow a line from Colin, for now, that’s good enough for me.