Michele Hewitson interview: Dave Dobbyn

By Michele Hewitson

Dave Dobbyn has sworn off alcohol but is addicted to sugar and gets his inspiration from God. And he's got a million stories. Photo / Dean Purcell
Dave Dobbyn has sworn off alcohol but is addicted to sugar and gets his inspiration from God. And he's got a million stories. Photo / Dean Purcell

If it's summer, it must mean Dave Dobbyn: on the road, playing little towns, with drunk punters slurring along merrily to Loyal. Summer in New Zealand is beaches and melting hokey-pokey ice cream and beer and Dave Dobbyn.

So we met on Thursday, a sodden, gusty sod of a day. The star, the icon, the legend arrived. You know what he looks like: a little fellow with a freckly, friendly face. He had a stinker of a cold. He had chosen the cafe because it had a courtyard where he could smoke his rollies. The rain was coming down in sheets. He is an optimist.

He was just back from another tour: Dubai, Singapore, London. Who on earth does he play to in Dubai? Expats. It's the same in Singapore, and in London. Is it homesickness that brings them? "Probably. I'm homesick all the time. Even when I'm at home ..." He means, "well, it's the love of your country. I think the love of who you are".

Which is a big part of the reason he loves the summer tours. Much later, I had to remind him: "The plug, Dave."

"Oh, yes, the plug!" And off he went, on another road trip, with another of his stories about what it used to be like being Dave Dobbyn: No money, a diet of beer and Moro bars and how "we thought we were the Rolling Stones". Which one did he think he was? "Keith Richards, probably."

He has always been an optimist, He was a funny little fellow with sticking out ears and ginger hair, mostly gone now. How ginger was it? He pretended to be offended. "Not very ginger. Just slightly strawberry blond." A giggle. "I still qualify as a ginga, don't I?" How little is he? He thought about 5ft 4in (162.5cm), but he's a tiny bit taller than me and about the same as the photographer (no wonder we all got on, it was like a coffee morning for Hobbits), so we settled on 5ft 5in. He said: "I don't know how that happened."

You wonder how he happened to become a performer. There is all of the above, which doesn't make him the least likely rocker ever, but he must be on the unlikely list. Also, he was an anxious child (he inherited his mother's disposition, he thinks) and an anxious and sometimes depressed adult who had panic attacks in airports. He's a sensitive chap, which does make sense. You couldn't write great songs if you were a knuckle head. He still finds balancing making space for the creative side with being public property difficult.

He long ago got over being up himself, he says. It's hard to imagine that he ever was, but Dave Dobbyn doesn't tell porkies so it must be true. Perhaps the more famous and loved you get, the less it goes to your head. He's certainly useless at plugs.

He doesn't need plugs. He's Dave Dobbyn, which is summer on the road and New Year's Eve at Waihi Beach. He's an icon, a legend. He's heard it all before. "It's a kind of code. It's obit talk." He says he was amazed to learn that newspapers pre-write obituaries for famous people. "I thought: 'What a hard world."' He is still a bit of an innocent; it's a big part of his appeal.

"We are all works in progress," he said. He's 54. "And I still feel like I'm 18. The body doesn't but the soul does." He says he likes being in his 50s because he can be a grumpy old man. He doesn't seem particularly grumpy - perhaps he's working on it - but you can see why he might want to be grumpy. It's hard work being nice. People ask him to do all sorts of odd things because he's so approachable. What's the maddest thing he's been asked to do? "Oh, anything from a trolley race in Wellsford ..." Would he do that? "No!" But it is somehow sweet that people would ask him, doesn't he think? "I'm very flattered."

He decides what to do by having "a word to the big fella". So God must be kept rather busy with Dobbyn banging away in his ear all day long. He is sometimes asked to do things which sound almost impossibly hard: Singing Welcome Home to a man he had never met, on what turned out to be the day before he died. That was a very kind thing to do but surely also rather strange. He didn't know the family. "I did after that."

He was once that guy who started - "accidentally" he says - the Queen St riot. He's respectable now. "Respectable?" he said. "That's interesting. What makes you say that?" I suppose it wasn't quite what you should say to a rock star, but he had been telling me about playing at the opening of the New Zealand memorial in Hyde Park. The Queen was there. It was very solemn. It was bloody freezing. He said he still had the "woolly blankets we got from the Queen". Did he mean he'd filched them? I think he did. What a rogue he is. So all right, perhaps he's not quite, or not quite yet, respectable. "Oh, I've probably just been around long enough."

He's a terrible giggler which an entirely grown up and respectable person might not be. He uses giggles the way some people use full stops. This - and that smiley face of his - is no doubt why people think they know him. He's an open book. He'll talk to anyone. He doesn't much enjoy the drunks but he was one, so he knows what it's like to be a bore.

He says he wasn't really an alkie, he'd just get to 9.30pm and abracadabra, he'd turned into a bore. So he stopped drinking. He's now addicted to sugar in his coffee - "don't look" he said as he dumped in about a tablespoon's worth - the New York Times cryptic crossword, reading the Bible for "Inspiration, comfort, ripping yarns". He took up God, although he was always a Christian. He says he's a Christian socialist. He didn't run away from God; he ran away from the Catholic Church. "I ran for my life. And I think it is always a good thing to do: To run away from big institutions. I'm attracted to the spirit of true Christianity, which is usually quiet and, you know, just wrapped around the community ... Rather than spouting from the pulpit or edicts from Rome about what you can wear on your John Thomas."

Well! Really! I didn't see there was any call for that sort of talk. Not from Dave Dobbyn. He apologised, but I felt he wasn't a bit sorry. It may have been the giggling that gave him away.

See how hard it is being an icon? You can't even make a mildly rude joke. And you have to be nice. He tried to convince me he hasn't always been an angel. He can give people "death stares". He said: "I made a couple of back-up singers cry." Oh, he did not. "I did." If not for the fact that we all know Dave Dobbyn doesn't tell porkies, I'd be inclined to dismiss this as pure fantasy. But we must believe him. So, he's a monster. "Yeah. Only momentarily. A nanosecond of monstrousness."

He had spent some more time trying to persuade me that he'd been a terrible fellow in his youth. He broke a bloke's wrist once. Oh, he did not. He did. It began as a rolled-up newspaper fight that got out of control. So there you are. Don't mess with Dobbyn. I think he would have quite liked to have been able to tell me he had groupies, but the truth won out. (And I'm sure he did, but not in that way.) But he says he was never any good at one-night stands because he was "terrified of women" before he met his wife, Anneliesje. He rather ruined his "I was a bad boy, sort of" back story by saying: "I'm nice." And that he knows this because he's been married for 28 years and his children - a daughter, 18, and a 16-year-old son - "don't hate me."

The downside, you'd think, of being so loved is that people are always telling him things. (How they get a word in remains something of a mystery.) After his shows he goes out the front and meets people and has his photo taken with them and they tell him their life stories. He says you'd be mad to go out the back and back to the hotel. There are CDs and songbooks to sell. "And you get a lot of neat people and they go back and tell their friends: 'It was a great show and he came out afterwards ..."' He may be nice but he's not silly, you know.

He is public property, he said, and he doesn't mind it, it's lovely, of course, because it is lovely being loved. But imagine having to be in a good mood all the time. He says he is mostly in a good mood these days but he snapped, about six months ago, at a corporate gig when people were holding up their iPhones and videoing him. He shouted. "I was pretty ungracious." Goodness. Why was he? "I was just in a bad mood." He didn't charge for the gig.

Is that a shocking story? Probably, because he has to be Dave Dobbyn all the time. Which is what? He had his picture taken and we looked at the picture. It was of a little fella with a nice freckly face and funny ears. I said, a bit later: What is your image? He giggled and said, "I've never figured out what that was." You can ask him that now, but years ago, it was a question that would have hurt him, quite badly. He was once, years ago, in Sydney, given "a big dressing down from an American guy who came to Sony. [His record company.] And he basically told me I didn't have anything. I had no story. My stuff was not very good." What did he do? "I just left." Did he cry? "Oh probably." Well, you would, wouldn't you? What a silly, horrible man because: Imagine saying Dave Dobbyn had no story.

He has a million stories, all good, all windy, like country roads. I had some questions but none of them got asked. He is a kind and generous soul.

He said: "Sometimes you get a sore face from smiling." But it's worth it, of course, because he makes people smile in return and that, as that silly record company man should have known, is worth more than any manufactured image.

* The plug. For The Greatest Hits Summer Tour dates, go to www.davedobbyn.co.nz

- NZ Herald

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