Colin Hogg on Sam Hunt: He's the brightest person I've ever met but he's funny as a flea.
Sam rings. It's a Sunday afternoon. I'm in Wellington, he's in a bottle.
"Several bottles from the sound of it, and today he's a mean drunk, seemingly determined to upset me."
The opening lines in a chapter of Colin Hogg's candid new book Sam Hunt: Off the Road preface a tiff that threatens to derail his semi-biography of New Zealand's legendary poet. The project is rescued however, and the 30-year bond between the pair – a central theme of the book – smoothed over with a new poem from the "national treasure".
It's felt like Sunday all day not Saturday at all – went to pick up the paper, picked up yesterday's trash. You remind me: yesterday was Friday 13th... so today must be Saturday, eh? What I'd like to know is how did it end up this way? when was it we got lost, when the thickest fog in memory came down? But, Saturday it is, my sweet, until you lay your next punch. Which will make it Monday.
Hogg – who thinks it's sweet to be called 'my sweet', though not quite so sweet to be called a thug – suspected they'd have a few spats" with Off the Road, a kind of sequel to his 1989 Angel Gear: On the Road with Sam Hunt.
"The first one I didn't really know him, so the book was about finding out about him," says Hogg of Angel Gear, an exploration of Hunt's life story interwoven with a poetry-reading road trip through the North Island. "This one's about knowing [him], and when you know each other - you know that sparks could fly. And also it's very brave of him letting me write a book like this coz, it's brutally honest in places."
Hogg was wondering whether he might entice his mate away from solitude in his home tucked away on the edge of Kaipara Harbour and into another adventure on the road. But Hunt, 72, who for five decades transfixed audiences at pubs, clubs, schools and halls up and down Aotearoa with the beauty of his poems and power of his performance – the arm outstretched, the foot tapping, that distinctive voice – has lost the will to travel.
"It was like the highway had lost its magic," he reveals in the aptly-named Off the Road. "And I didn't want to be there anymore."
Instead, Hogg journeyed from Wellington and down a dead-end country road to Hunt's house for at-times booze-infused catch-ups, the tape-recorder rolling as they mused and reminisced about life. The result – part-conversation, part story-telling – is wild and whimsical, insightful and sometimes heart-breaking. It can also be confronting.
"I'm sure there are people who will tell me when this book's published what an a***hole I am," Hunt discloses in Off the Road.
Hogg isn't worried the book – which references sex, drugs, self-destruction and endurance - might be too raw or revealing.
"Both of us are very pleased with the way it's come out," he says. "And we stand by it. "And, I want to give the finger to academia too a bit, so does he," the acclaimed writer and documentary maker says. "This is sort of for the people in a way - he's a folk hero."
Hogg noticed how people were drawn to Hunt when he first watched him perform at Auckland's Gluepot pub in the '80s. Hunt's ability on and off stage to recite countless poems, his own and others, line for line with a recall so powerful it has been studied at university, "just blows people away".
"There's a very thin line between performer and person. He actually is the real deal".
Hogg road-managed Hunt's tour for Angel Gear, excerpts from which are scattered through Off the Road to give perspective in the new book – "it's a bit then and now". He shared the ride with Hunt and his beloved dog Minstrel in the poet's classic Chevrolet Impala - "the passenger door wouldn't open to get out of the bloody car".
"I felt I was on the road with the best guide in the world," Hogg says. "He had stories about everything, half the trees we drove past had names. He taught me how to see the country properly. Not to drive too fast and be curious about side roads."
The pair forged a friendship which "never ended and it's always been active". They phone each other almost daily.
"We have similar senses of humour, we make each other laugh," Hogg says. "I think when we are together we just sort of feel like we're a world unto our own slightly."
He hopes Off the Road shows "male friendship is a lot more complex and interesting than some people like to suggest".
"We're not afraid of affection. And we do talk about stuff."
Their conversations in Off the Road, along with numerous poems – some written just for the book – and photographs, afford a unique new insight into the private side of one of this country's most public people, a "cultural icon".
From the boy who didn't speak till he was four – "then he never stopped", adds Hogg. To the eight-year-old who recited a poem "which has a line in it about Jesus being a loner" to his Catholic convent class on Auckland's North Shore. To the youth who stayed over at a relative's who shared his home with a horse and used his bath to make wine. And wagged college to watch Ingmar Bergman flicks at the movie theatre – seeing one, Wild Strawberries, 14 times.
Of loves lost and living alone.
"I live with a muse," Hunt writes. "And I've been pretty faithful to the muse. In fact, it's broken up a lot of other relationships in my life."
Of a contemplation of the inevitable end of the road – something Hogg, 68, doesn't want to consider. Losing his friend, "he's more like a brother now", would "be quite a blow".
"Because he stands there as a sort of a lighthouse out on the stormy sea. He's the one who lives in more extremes than me - 'oh but Sam, he drank four bottles of wine, I only drank…' So when he's gone I'll be an extreme case and I don't like the thought of that very much."
It will be "a terrible loss" for New Zealand too, Hogg says. Hunt "lives in our consciousness" through his vast collection of poems but "he's only the real deal in flesh". Off the Road is about catching the "spirit" of the man around whom there is an element of mythology, "to make people feel like they're in the room with him sometimes".
"There are sad sides to him. There's inner softness that people wouldn't really be aware of. He's very complicated.
"His brain power's extraordinary. He's very, very sharp and intuitive.
"He's the brightest person I've ever met but he's also funny as a flea."
While Hunt may be off the road, he is still prolifically producing his "road songs" (poems), regularly belting them out through a microphone to possibly bemused wildlife around his rural residence.
Contemplating his legacy, Hunt says in Off the Road he wants it to be "Tell the story. Tell it true. Charm it like crazy."
Already It may sound pathetic but if I went missing would anybody notice? The situation is you're not missing, technically, until somebody else notices – which is how it is and is as it will be – said he. As for me – I'm missing you, already.
• Sam Hunt: Off the Road, By Colin Hogg (HarperCollins $49.99)