Tuesday, March 29, 2005

Remembering Paul Hester...

This is a Guest Blog by my friend Clive Young. He talks about the death of musician Paul Hester.

It's Over

This morning, Pratt offered me a chance to guest-blog on his site about
Paul Hester's suicide over the weekend. For those who aren't familiar
with him, Hester was the drummer for Crowded House, the 80s-90s band from
Australia and New Zealand. In the US, they're best known for the somber ballad
"Don't Dream Its Over" which reached #2 on the Billboard charts, but overseas, they
were better known for happier tunes like "Weather With You."

More importantly, they were a phenomenal live band--not merely that
they were great musicians, but they were real, honest-to-God entertainers. If you
went to a CH show, you laughed your ass off, cheered, danced, shouted along
and more. Every show was completely different--the only certainty was that
it would be a raucous party.

While singer Neil Finn may have been the ringleader, he was always the
straight-man to Hester, who could be a nut on stage. Hester might start
singing his own song in the middle of a tune. Or start clucking like a chicken
while the band tuned up. Or announce that Finn sucked and draw someone out of the
crowd to sing. Or rip off all his clothes and throw them into the audience.

During TV interviews, he inevitably dominated the conversation with his quick
wit, and did whatever he wanted. When Jane Pauley chatted with them on the Today
show, he interrupted the interview to get a cameraman to take a photo of them
with Pauley. Instead of getting mad at losing control over her own show,
Pauley was nearly doubled over laughing. He was that kind of guy.

Crowded House underwent a number of renovations over the years, but the
classic (and best) line-up was the original trio with Finn, Hester and
bassist Nick Seymour. There was such a kinship between them onstage. When I saw them
with Paroo at the Beacon Theater in 1987, they played "This Is Massive," a
song Hester wrote when he and Finn were in Split Enz. Halfway through the
song, everything stopped dead; it just collapsed on stage. Paroo and I were
in the front row and looked at each other--WTF? Then Finn ran over and motioned for
Roo and I to get out of the way. We obliged, and he halfway jumped off the
stage, so that he had one foot on the stage and one on the armrest between our
chairs. Seymour came over and put his thumb on the low E-string of the guitar.
Then Hester sauntered over like the cock of the walk, jumped down into the
audience, stepped up to the guitar which was now even with his head, and began
banging the strings with his drum brushes. The PA exploded with a big SPLAAAANG as
Hester started beating the guitar faster and faster, and Finn and Seymour
changed chords--in essence, the entire band was playing that one guitar
together. When Crowded House were at their best, they were indeed one big guitar, an
astounding candy-colored machine playing perfect pop songs with
gorgeous abandon.

Talking with Paroo yesterday, we commiserated that Hester had hung
himself in Australia. She recalled spending time with him backstage at CBGB's in 1988 before a promo gig; even though she was obviously a starry-eyed fan, he
treated her like a long-lost friend. They had a smoke (that kind) and he showed her
the band's trademark painted jackets and stuff. When she left, he gave
her his drum brushes (!), offered her a big hug and said, "Yaw a very niiiyce gahll"
in his heavy New Zealand accent.

The other time they met was three years later at another New York promo
gig, held in a loft. Only the media and music industry bigwigs were invited
to the secret gig and it was close quarters. Paroo stood right next to the
makeshift stage that was built in front of some bookcases, and when no one was
looking, she put her tiny Walkman-sized tape recorder on the stage amongst
coiled-up cables where no one would see it. Well, no one but Hester. Halfway
through the set, he sprang up from his drumkit, bounded over to the recorder and
snatched it up. Holding it high over his head, he yelled out with a grin,
"BOOTLEG! WHO'S THA BOOTLEGGA?" Roo just about died and didn't say a word as
the entire room oohed and murmured. Hester turned around and took the recorder with him back to his drum kit.

And here's the kicker: He secretly turned the recorder back on, said
"Taysting one, two, three," into it, and put it on the bookshelf so
that it could record the rest of the show. Later, Roo got her recorder back, and
while the sound was awful, I've heard the tape and that moment is priceless.

So Hester was a mercurial guy, as you can see, and that can have a
downside to it. During Crowded House's 1994 American tour, his girlfriend was
expecting their first child. As the tour progressed, Hester got more and more
despondent, hopelessly homesick and unhappy. His antics were gone, and
onstage brooding had set in. The last time I saw the band, playing at Roseland, it was a joyless affair. Eventually he told Finn just before a gig in Atlanta
that he was quitting; after a marathon farewell show that night, he flew home. The
band finished the tour using opening act Sheryl Crow's drummer, but that
was basically the straw that broke the camel's back. There were a few songs
recorded for a fifth album, but they wound up on the band's greatest hits
compilation a few years later--and they didn't deserve to be in that company. Hester
rejoined for a final, free, farewell concert held outside the Sydney Opera House in
1996; hundreds of thousands of people showed up to say goodbye.

While apparently he'd had love problems in recent times, he'd
reportedly gotten over them and certainly his career as a TV host (started after
the demise of CH) was chugging along. One can only guess that the impulsiveness
that made a guy spontaneously get naked onstage could also make him hang himself
in a park using a dog leash.

At its heart, suicide is an angry, selfish act, but I'm finding it
hard to be mad at him, despite the fact that left behind two children ages 8 and
10, girlfriends, and of course, the people he rightfully had to answer to
the least, millions of fans.

I was surprised at how I took it because when Stuart
Adamson of Big Country (my favorite band until I discovered Crowded House)
hanged himself in a Hawaii hotel room a few years ago, I felt utterly
betrayed. I hadn't listened to their music in years (most of it wasn't that good in
retrospect), but Adamson's biggest hit centered around the phrase "Stay alive," so
it was infuriating that he couldn't take his own advice.

On the other hand, it almost seems inevitable that Hester, a
cut-and-dried atheist, would be comfortable with his own death. At every show on that 1987 tour where they all played the guitar, Hester led the band through a
song he'd written--one that they never recorded. It was called "Worms," and it
went something like this:

It takes a long, long time to die
It takes almost all your life
Took my granddad 50 years just to
Get it right

It takes a long, long time to snuff it
But why rush it
Took my granddad 50 years¦.

Some people never learn
But I'm not scared of worms
Think about the time we'll spend
Telling jokes six feet under.

I used to ruminate that someday, when the money got tight for everyone
involved or inspiration finally struck, the band would get back
together to fill the world with their effortless songs, charm and wit. Now that dream--like the rest of the ones that Crowded House was built on--is over.

Goodbye, Paul.

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