Why it's always a good hair day for Michael Bolton
The legendary '90s crooner talks about fame, Miley and that bouncy bouffant
Almost 20 years have elapsed since Michael Bolton said farewell to his shoulder-length curls and still those golden locks cast a shadow. We meet at the Shelbourne Hotel and it's like there are three of us in the room: singer, interviewer and the ghost of that bouncy bouffant.
Back when he was ratcheting up gazillion-selling hits such as 'Time, Love and Tenderness' and 'Soul Provider', his was rock's most recognisable, and lampooned, haircut (it put Bono's mullet in the ha'penny place).
There are apocryphal tales of journalists being instructed not to mention 'The Hair' under any account. As I bring it up, however, Bolton (61) smiles and plunges into an anecdote. He delivers it with visible relish, as if, in talking about the hair, he evokes the memory of a dear departed friend who will always be alive to him.
"Around about 95-96, I decided I needed a change," he says. "Getting my hair cut was a big deal – quite traumatic. Once it was gone, I knew I couldn't simply grow it back. My manager and my assistant sort of talked me into it – they said 'we'll get the guy who cuts Brad Pitt and Tom Cruise's hair to do it'. It was a pretty nice haircut, though quite tight, if I may say. And I didn't look like Brad Pitt or Tom Cruise afterwards."
Within hours he received a sense of the shockwaves he had unleashed. "I was in the studio the next day and there was this telex machine – hey, do you remember those? – and it was printing out the headlines. The first was about smog somewhere, the next something to do with the economy and, number three, Michael Bolton cuts his hair. It was like a sitcom. I couldn't stop laughing."
He may see the funny side. Nevertheless, at the zenith of his popularity there was little comedic about Bolton's attachment to his Samson look. As his career went supernova in the late 80s, his silly frizzes arguably acted as a drag on his advancement: when people suggested there was a special place in soft-rock purgatory for the singer, exhibit A was always the hair.
The histrionic singing, the big, silly Celine Dion arrangements – all of it was outshone by his follicular excesses. He shrugs. He could have visited a barber any time he chose. Maybe his record company would have preferred it that way. But it would have felt like quitting.
"I grew my hair long after seeing the Beatles and The Rolling Stones on TV. Me and my brother had long hair and would get into fights over it. You'd walk down the street and someone would shout and chances are you'd shout back. To have long hair in those days, you needed to be prepared to fight."
To his millions of fans, Bolton remains The Voice: a singer of uncommon power and sophistication. To the rest of the world, he will always be the king of naff – a purveyor of melodramatic power ballads that bash you into submission with their terrifying choruses and sanctimonious lyrics.
Yet, face to face, he might be the least showbizzy multi-platinum artist (he sold 50 million records in the 90s alone) you've ever met. He is quiet and thoughtful, almost shy. Above all, he is reflexively suspicious of the spotlight.
In Ireland to promote a brace of comeback concerts at The Olympia, Dublin, the only thing it seems Michael Bolton doesn't want to talk about is Michael Bolton.
Foremost on his mind is the plight of young pop stars, whom he feels are ill-served by the industry. Several weeks ago, he pointed out that modern pop stars are required to be increasingly attention-seeking, and it was interpreted as a diss against Miley Cyrus.
Actually, he clarifies, he was getting at something rather more nuanced. "For the sake of accuracy, I want to make it clear that I didn't go negative on Miley," he says. "She, like Gaga, was born into an era where, to stand out, you have to stand out – you need to be distinguishable.
"I think artists like those and Katy Perry are smart enough to lock their sound down first. If you don't have hit records, image doesn't matter. After that, they carve out their image. We forget, but they are young and chances are what they do to set themselves apart is going to be shocking to us. Because it took me so long to make it, I have huge respect for hard-working artists. I see a work ethic and cut them some slack."
This brings us to a key part of the Bolton story: the hard-scrabble upbringing. While synonymous with a sort of jet-set soft rock, he truly did come up the sketchy side of the street, raised on food stamps in a tough neighbourhood of New Haven, Connecticut.
Maybe that's why, when success came at the relatively late age of 34, he gripped tight and refused to let go.
"Sony Records worked us hard. It was a golden age for that label in many ways – they had me and Mariah Carey and Springsteen.
"Me and Mariah, especially, really carried that company for some of its glory days.
"That was fine with me. I'd been signed aged 16, didn't have a hit for 18 years. I wanted to be sure my kids were okay financially."
MICHAEL BOLTON PLAYS DUBLIN'S OLYMPIA TONIGHT AND TOMORROW.