Readings Monthly October 2010 5
Paul Kelly: Naked in the street
Michael Green interviews Paul Kelly about How to Make Gravy (Hamish Hamilton, HB, Normally $49.95, Our price $39.95) didn’t set out to write a memoir. I just used the songs as a jumping-off point to write in a different way. Love Never Runs On Time had one little mention of bad coffee in it, so I thought I’d write about the struggle to get a good coffee on the road.’ He strove for his writing to be ‘companionable’ – and it is. It’s the kind of book you read with a smile on your face. You get up to make a cup of tea, and notice you’re still smiling, and humming too, and pondering some dusty escapade from your childhood. Or you might be contemplating one of Kelly’s lists.
A few days before I was scheduled to interview Paul Kelly, I happened to be in Newcastle, watching a singer-songwriter night in a quiet bar. A rangy looking man stood up and performed a halting, anguished cover of Kelly’s song How to Make Gravy. In the lyrics, a man calls his brother from jail, just before Christmas. He passes on his gravy recipe, together with an extra serving of regret. It’s the kind of taut, empathetic storytelling for which Kelly has been acclaimed throughout a career spanning 30 years’ and two-dozen albums and soundtracks. Now he’s added a ‘mongrel memoir’ to his catalogue – also called How to Make Gravy. ‘The title suits the way the book mixes things up,’ he explains, on the phone from his St Kilda home. ‘You’re cooking a roast, and you throw in a bit of this and that, and you make gravy. That’s what writing the book felt like to me: it was a by-product of something else.’ In 2004, when the Spiegeltent first arrived in Melbourne, Kelly performed a series of special shows. Over four nights, he sang 100 of his songs in alphabetical order, and leavened the one-man act with a selection of stories. Audiences gobbled it up, and he later toured the format around Australia and overseas. How to Make Gravy follows the same A-to-Z structure. Each chapter contains the lyrics to a song, together with an anecdote. The result is something like a big, snug patchwork quilt, in which Kelly has stitched stories about his family history and song-writing, together with pop music lore, literary references, band travel yarns, and hard-won life experience. There are even occasional puzzles. ‘I wrote it in sequence, starting with the letter A. Some stories I had for a while, but generally, when I sat down I didn’t know what I was going to write. It was only when I got to the Ds or Es that I had the confidence to say, “I think I’m writing a book”,’ Kelly says, sounding surprised he ever got through it. ‘I
The book is full of them: from Good Smells (Bakeries at dawn, Onions frying …), to They Don’t Make Names Like This Any More (Frank Necessary, Earl Scruggs …). ‘I’ve been a bit of a lister,’ he says. ‘I like list poems. Walt Whitman is the obvious example – the poet who lists. A few of my list poems snuck into the book, like ‘Reasons To Wear Black’ (Roy Orbison, Johnny Cash …). And I would often use lists to get me started writing.’ In one sense the whole book is a list, an extended tribute to Kelly’s many collaborators and to his eclectic sources of inspiration, both musically and intellectually. The ‘Index Of People and Bands’ runs to eight pages of tiny type, and includes poets, playwrights, authors and activists, as well as musicians. ‘I’ve always seen myself as a collaborative writer,’ he says. ‘I’ve relied on other musicians to realise my songs – I don’t write bass lines or guitar riffs. Then there’s the invisible collaboration, which is the books read and the music listened to. And there was always letterwriting with friends and family.’ As the chapters roll on, Kelly reflects on friends who’ve influenced him and those who’ve died, on aging and the passing of time. In the chapter corresponding to the song Winter Coat, he describes listening to a Frank Sinatra album in the dark on the night Ol’ Blue Eyes died. After surrendering to an overwhelming sense of loss and fading possibility, he emerged ‘refreshed by tears … and glad somehow to be sad’. ‘Looking at the book at the end, I realised that it’s all about time, death and getting old. You get over 50 and you can’t help it,’ he laughs. In any case, for him, the subject isn’t wholly grim. ‘No one can do anything about loss. But you can be attuned to it, respond to it, and derive some joy from it, because it’s part of life.’ Back at the singer-songwriter night in Newcastle, when the rangy singer sat down after performing the heart-rending cover, a punter approached him, bearing compliments: ‘Great song choice man – I love Paul Kelly. He’s a
voice for the nation.’ ‘Yeah,’ the singer replied. ‘Everybody loves him.’As I listened in, I could scarcely believe my good fortune. But, of course, when I tell Kelly the story, he has none of it. ‘Oh, well, I think you tend to hear about it more often when people like you than when they don’t,’ he says humbly, after stifling an awkward cough. He does, however, admit to nerves about the way people will respond to How to Make Gravy. ‘My CDs are fiction,’ he says. ‘This is like standing naked in the street.’ Michael Green is a freelance journalist (The Age, The Big Issue) and a Paul Kelly fan.
Special Edition Box Set The special edition box set contains the book How To Make Gravy, the companion A-Z recordings (eight CDs of new live recordings of the songs that form the book's chapters) and a 64-page booklet of colour photographs. Was $125.00, Our Special Price $99.95. Available at all Readings shops and online.
with Chris Wallace-Crabbe THE REST ON THE FLIGHT: SELECTED POEMS Peter Porter A&U. HB. $35
Earlier this year, the Englishspeaking world lost that marvellous poet, Peter Porter. Now he is resurrected, for our delight, in The Rest on the Flight. Here is the marvellously witty, learned range of his sadnesses from more than half a century. The earliest poems are those of a smart immigrant in London, their worldly sparkle halfway between Carnaby Street and admen. ‘Death in the Pergola Tea-Rooms’ is such an early gem. Soon, though, he took on the Continent, at home with German music and Italian painting and weaving them into ‘the lying art’ of his poetry. Yet he was always recalling and reviving Australia, as his early Phar Lap poem told us. His writing, jokes and all, stood up to its knees in darkness, not only that of selfdoubt, but also of Auschwitz or the looming atomic bomb. He ranged on, fuelled by everything, hoping that ‘there is a shape to the world, more real / than time, more absolute than music.’ However, the loss of his first wife brought on a deeper darkness, and wonderful elegiac poems like ‘Non Piangere, Liu’. As Clive James writes in a stylish epilogue, Porter was well used to ‘believing that even his good luck must be bad luck in disguise’. The jaggedness and courteous eloquence were built on this, as we find in poems as different as ‘My Old Cat Dances’ and ‘Civilization and its Disney Contents’. The very titles signal his unique blend of sparkle and feeling. As an artist in language, Porter was an encyclopedia waltzing. Yet in one opening line he insisted that ‘We are all in it together’, quite persuasively. Genial quickness reigns everywhere in this book, likeness measured against contrast. Humans are found wanting, but we are still made most welcome by these richly civilised poems.
Chris Wallace-Crabbe’s latest collection is Telling a Hawke from a Handsaw (Carcanet, PB, $29.95).
Book of the Month THAT DEADMAN DANCE Kim Scott
Picador. PB. $32.99 Our special price $27.95 It’s been over ten years now since Kim Scott published his acclaimed second novel, Benang, which won (in a tie with Thea Astley) the Miles Franklin Award in 2000, making him the first indigenous writer to be so recognised. I wasn’t familiar with his earlier works, but that hasn’t affected my wonder and delight at this new book, which seems to unfold like a magical dream. Here is an attempt, and a marvellously realised one, to meld the experience of early colonial contact from the perspectives and in the voices of all of the participants: the Noongar of course, ancient Aboriginal custodians of this spectacular coast; the early settlers, predominantly convicts and their wardens, and those free men with what we might call the ‘colonial spirit’ of starting anew in ‘virgin’ lands; and the early whalers, who were indeed the initial reference point for the indigenous encounter with the Other. Scott begins his tale in the early 1830s, focusing on a fledgling colonial outpost not far from present-day Albany. His narrative follows both black and white, and is divided into several parts, proceeding linearly over more than a decade, but including as well a prequel of sorts back to the mid-1820s. It is a periscopic style that enables us to observe the shifting perspectives over time among all the participants, newcomer and traditional owner alike, as the ‘progress’ we know from our history books unfolds. The over-arching narrator is Bobby Wabalanginy, whose life story spans the duration of events under examination, and beyond. Indeed, Scott, in some gently ironic asides, looks forward to when Bobby is an old (and tragically isolated) elder, acting as a guide and nominal ‘Aborigine’ to tourists who now call this country their own. He remembers the old tales, but must be careful how he recounts them lest he should offend – some things he must mutter under his breath. So we have the tales of well-intentioned Dr Cross, ambitious Mr Chaise, the guard Killam and convict Skerry – each with their own vision of the bounty the country can afford – and Bobby’s people, fishermen and hunters. What starts as a tentative reconnaissance by both sides of knowledge and attitudes separates over the years into a more combative relationship. It’s hard to imagine we’ll ever again have an account of this period, fiction or non-fiction, with such veracity as this, particularly in terms of the psychological. For here we get absolutely convincing portraits of the attempts at understanding on both sides. But perhaps the particular historical tragedy, other than the ravages of disease, was that the active fascination that people such as the Noongar had for Western ways led them (as Scott notes in an afterword) to never suspect that they were putting their very identity on the line in their encounter with the white man, the ‘horizon people’. Scott’s enormous achievement then, in this fascinating and beautiful book, is to register that openness as it once existed, and, without judgement or didacticism, and only a quiet nod to the tragedy that was and continues to unfold, to give us a poetic and wise vision of what form our cultural life could still take today. Surely Kim Scott, with The Deadman Dance, has one hand on next year’s Miles? Martin Shaw is from Readings Carlton Extended review at www.readings.com.au
Interview with singer Paul Kelly about his new book, How to Make Gravy.