His wife thinks he's keeping out of trouble, pinned to the couch' />
Sir Howard Morrison shouldn't be talking about it. In fact, he shouldn't be here.
His wife thinks he's keeping out of trouble, pinned to the couch by the sharp words she threw at him this morning. "Please honey," she asked, "do you think you could just stay at home today?'
But Sir Howard couldn't. Like a 70-year-old truant, he waited until his wife left, hopped into his Toyota Hilux and snuck out. "She doesn't know I'm doing this interview," says Sir Howard. "She'd kill me."
It's been a dramatic week for the entertainer. Last Friday, Sir Howard was asked by a journalist for his opinion on NZ Idol finalist Rosita Vai. He gave it. The Samoan soulstress, he commented, was too overweight for a future in the entertainment industry.
And with those words, all hell broke loose. Hate mail arrived at the Morrison's Ohinemutu home. Talkback reverberated with calls about a fallen idol. How dare Sir Howard comment about a woman's weight (and on the eve of the biggest night of her life). Sir Howard's label, BMG, rapped him on the knuckles while the BMG boss cried out: senility!
The most reproached grandfather in the country looks a little funereal, black-and-blue in turtleneck and pants, slightly weary, a little, well, pissed off.
Never before has he felt so embattled. "When reporters rang me to talk about it, I could feel the daggers through the phone. The vitriolic response of the anti-Morrison brigade was ferocious," says Sir Howard.
He knows he shouldn't have said it. He has said sorry, and he looks like he means it.
"[Legendary UK rock-and-roller] Joe Brown used to say, 'Do a lot of good things and they'll remember you. Make a couple of cock-ups and they'll never forget you'. This one has been my worst. But how many times do I have to say I'm sorry?" Fifty years in the limelight has turned the Rotorua local into public property.
His life has been documented, celebrated, televised and written about over the last half-century perhaps more than any other Kiwi entertainer.
He looks good for 70. The eyes are not so much white as tea-stained, the hearing a little unpredictable. The face is strong, but when he glances sideways to think, the lines deepen and vulnerability leaks out. But the voice, he says, is "better than ever".
Seventy years young, and Sir Howard the Entertainer is still smoking along. Although he's given up the smoking. For a long time, at least until he was 30, he didn't smoke or drink. The fag habit gave him a bypass, he reckons. Now he's just a wino, he jokes.
He relaxes more. Age has made him impatient, he says. It hasn't affected his memory though. He remembers well the first night the Howard Morrison Quartet performed in Auckland in 1955. They were paid five guineas - one each, and one for the band's Morris Minor. Those things, he says, you don't forget.
Nor has age stolen any of that infamous Morrison confidence. On greeting, Sir Howard produced a clutch of leaflets about his life. One, headed Milestones of a Great Career, has been carefully updated by Sir Howard in blue biro. He refers to himself as Sir Howard when he answers the phone.
But there's a humble Howard in there too. Several times he mentions his recent appearance at the 2005 Tui Music Awards when he met rock band The D4. "They knew who I was. They came up and shook my hand. It was a real buzz."
And then, a touch of the old knight: "I mean, I know I'm good, but they're just not my audience."
Morrison, says friend and relative Monty Morrison - the clan numbers in its hundreds - is something of a kaumatua for his family. He's well-respected, and certainly not approaching senility. "Even if he were eccentric, don't you earn the right to be as you get older?" asks Monty.
Friend and colleague, guitarist and manager Gray Bartlett says: "Howard's one of New Zealand's most remarkable entertainers and people. I know he would not have said it [the weight comments] with any malicious intent at all."
Surely, says Bartlett, no matter how old he gets, the knight should be respected.
Steady on, laughs Sir Howard. There's at least another tour left in him, he says. "I want to go back to the Hokitikas and the Westports and the Greymouths. I owe a lot to this country."
And yet this country has, at times, been hard on him. Newspapers had a field day over Morrison's performance at an Apec foreign ministers' meeting. His Chinglish accent and jokes about Maori cannibalism were deemed more cringe than comedy.
He has been criticised for lamenting the state of the music industry and, almost every year, the state of the nation's race relations. "Race relations are still a shambles. Biculturalism is in a vacuum. We are still in wet nappies, there's no maturity, no basic common sense," he says. And so, on Father's Day this year, he took out a full-page advertisement in this paper.
"Turn to your neighbour, Pakeha, Maori, Pacific Islander or any other origin, and ask: 'What can we do together to make our country a nation to celebrate?'," the advertisement asked.
On the right, a smiling Sir Howard. A rainbow - a multi-coloured symbol of hope - and a photo of his disabled granddaughter, Kereana, at the bottom. Sir Howard designed it himself. He's very proud of it.
Generally, though, it turns out Sir Howard is more than a little bitter. "I just get angry. I get angry at procrastination. I get angry at people leaping on the call of the day. I get angry and I say things sometimes I shouldn't.
"The Maori in me isn't worth two bob unless I've got a challenge. When you get a mix of Scottish, Irish and Maori, that's a pretty overt cocktail."
And so Sir Howard was a bit angry when he passed judgement on Rosita Vai. The week earlier, he had watched a documentary on a Pacific Island guy who was 143kg. Sir Howard was impressed with his efforts to lose the flab. It was still on his mind when the local journalist sweetly asked Rotorua's kaumatua for comment.
"We've got our heads in the sand if we don't admit obesity is a real problem, and a heavy weight on our health system, and Maori and Pacific Islanders are at the forefront of this.
"I just wanted to say that she could be a role model to others. That was the message. People lost the message.
"But no matter what I say now, it's not going to justify what's happened, in a lot of people's minds."
He quotes Joe Brown again. And throws in a bit of Sinatra. Regrets, he's had a few. This latest will go down as his biggest.
- HERALD ON SUNDAY