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Posts tagged ‘Paul Kelly’

A little music for the weekend …

Three songs from my teenage years, a reminder of just how beautiful Jimmy Barnes was and a link to a post I wrote about Don Watson Walker and his memoir, Shots, back in the days of yore. Try watching the clip for ‘Cheap Wine’ and not knowing that light and palette as Australian.

Willy Vlautin, Lean on Pete and the literary song

Some of you may remember me waxing lyrical about Willy Vlautin’s new novel, Lean on Pete, a few weeks back. At the time I was planning to write a rather longer post about it, and about Willy’s fiction more generally, but before that could happen I was asked to review it, which put paid to the post.

Anyway – the review was in this weekend’s Australian, and you can read it on their website, but if you want the potted version, the book’s an absolute gem: gentle, shocking, sad and hopeful all at once.

What’s particularly fascinating about the book to me is the fact that Vlautin’s skills as a songwriter so obviously underpin the success of the fiction. You often hear songwriters like Paul Kelly being celebrated as storytellers, but in fact the qualities that lend Kelly’s songs their particular magic are quite different to those that underpin fiction. Partly this is a question of scale: even relatively brief fictional forms such as the short story dwarf the lyrical component of most songs, allowing them a degree of complexity songs are denied. But it’s also about the relative simplicity of song lyrics: whereas fiction tends to use narrative as a thread to explore the interior lives of characters, and more particularly the tensions, contradictions and discontinuities, songs usually shy away from these qualities, preferring to communicate feeling in a more direct manner (if you’re interested, I talked a bit about more these questions last year, in my post about Don Walker’s memoir, Shots).

What’s interesting about Vlautin’s songs is that they are, in some deep sense, highly literary creations. Despite the relative simplicity of their lyrics, their effect is usually dependent upon the manner in which what is being said and what we understand are at odds with each other. In my review I mention ‘The Boyfriends’, from We Used To Think The Freeway Sounded Like A River, and its narrator’s anguished cry of ‘I ain’t like that’ upon realising the child of the woman he has picked up in a bar has been watching them having sex, but many of Vlautin’s songs rely upon this sort of irony. What makes songs like ‘The Boyfriends’ (or indeed songs such as ‘$87 And A Guilty Conscience That Gets Worse The Longer I Go’ or ‘I Fell Into Painting Houses In Phoenix, Arizona’) so powerful is the fragility of their narrators’ self belief, and Vlautin’s keen eye for the deceptions that sustain it, and more importantly, the moments at which that belief finally – and painfully – gives way.

Last time I looked, Vlautin was listed as one of the guests at this year’s Sydney Writers’ Festival, where, amongst other things, he’s being interviewed by my old pal, Richard Fidler, but you can hear him reading from Lean on Pete in the video before (and yes, I know I’ve posted it before). And if you’re interested in the music, you’ll find a live version of ‘The Boyfriends’ beneath it, together with a video for ‘Capsized’, one of my favourite songs from my favourite Richmond Fontaine album, Thirteen Cities. Enjoy.





Do you realize?

yoshimiWho says Okies are backwards? Today’s Entertainment Weekly reports:

“Wonderfully weird rockers the Flaming Lips have been given their home state’s ultimate seal of approval: The song ‘Do You Realize’ (from the band’s 2002 opus Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots) has been named Oklahoma’s Official State Rock Song. (Its main state song remains Rogers & Hammerstein’s musical-theater behemoth ‘Oklahoma’; there are also sanctioned picks for folk, children, and country-western songs.)” (Read more)

Now from my point of view it sounds like a pretty sensible choice – if you were to make a shortlist of songs that make me happy every time I hear them the bittersweet ‘Do You Realize’ would be right at the top – but an officially sanctioned state song? I know the Americans have a long history of using popular music in a political context, but it still doesn’t sound very rock and roll to me.

But it did make me wonder. If the Australian Parliaments were to start choosing state songs, what would they be? Paul Kelly’s ‘Adelaide’? The Go-Betweens ‘Cattle and Cane’ or ‘The Streets of Your Town’? ‘From St Kilda to Kings Cross’? ‘Flame Trees’? And what would the dead hand of official approval mean for songs so deeply ingrained in the Australian consciousness? Would it rob them of their magic? Or would nobody even notice?

Anyway, here’s the Flaming Lips on Letterman:

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Don Walker’s Shots

shots-cover1On Wednesday 11 March I’m hosting a conversation with Don Walker at Gleebooks in Sydney. Don’s name may be unfamiliar to anyone from outside Australia, but to almost any Australian under the age of 50 his name will be immediately recognizable as one of the creative forces behind Cold Chisel.

The event is to promote Don’s first book, a memoir called Shots. In recent years there’s been a spate of memoirs by members of the iconic Australian bands of the 1980s – Rob Hirst of Midnight Oil published Willie’s Bar and Grill a few years ago, Mark Seymour’s take on his career with Hunters and Collectors, Thirteen Tonne Theory, was published last year, and Paul Kelly has a book coming out with Penguin later this year. Yet all of them are essentially accounts of the lives and times of the bands with which their authors are associated.

Shots is a quite different and much more ambitious proposition. Written in a free-flowing, impressionistic stream of consciousness, it deliberately downplays Don’s time with Cold Chisel. They – the band – are never mentioned by name, and even Jimmy Barnes is only ever identified as Jimmy.

Don Walker

Don Walker

This decision allows not only allows Shots to break free of the expectations usually associated with memoirs by musicians, but has the effect of emphasizing the fact that Don’s time with Cold Chisel, and in particular the period of their greatest success, was relatively brief. Reading the book I was struck by the realization that despite dominating the Australian music scene in a way no other band ever has, in fact there is only about three years between the release of their first really big album, East, in 1980, and the band’s breakup in 1983.

In place of lengthy reminiscences about life with the band, Don tries to give a portrait of the textures of a life as it is lived, spanning from his childhood in North Queensland and Grafton to his reunion with his daughter several years ago (indeed in many ways the book reads as a sort of gift of his life to his daughter, a process of documenting and recording the steps which brought him to his life with her, and his love for her), and taking in his failed career as a physicist, his many years as a struggling musician, and the sprawling disaster of Cold Chisel’s fame and the years that followed.

It’s a fascinating document, and not least because it’s so beautifully written. Don has managed to graft the spareness and vernacular rhythms of his songwriting to the larger narrative frame of the book with startling success, and there’s a swing and a tensile strength to the seemingly plainspoken prose it’s difficult not to admire. But it’s also fascinating as a kind of psychogeography, a mapping of places, and people.This is immediately apparent in the early sections, about growing up in Ayr and Grafton. But it’s in the chapters set in Adelaide, and later Sydney, where it really comes to life. Again and again the book very clearly captures the textures of life in Kings Cross in the 1970s, and of the spaces and secret worlds that moved within the Sydney of that time.

In a way this shouldn’t be surprising. Although I suspect their intelligence and precision has been somewhat obscured by years of FM radio play, the songs Don wrote for Cold Chisel are best seen as little word-pictures, depictions of people and places. Many – ‘Breakfast at Sweetheart’s’, or ‘Cheap Wine’, to name just two – are rooted in the demi-monde Don depicts so well in Shots, others, such as ‘Flame Trees’ are about the landscape of regional Australia. But at their best, all are remarkably successful, not just as songs, but as evocations of particular moments and lived realities which owe more than a little to Carver or Tobias Wolff. They’re not narrative in form, more impressionistic, prose poems of a sort, but they’re very effective nonetheless. Indeed for all that it is usually Paul Kelly who comes to mind when Australians talk about storytelling songwriters, Don does it just as well, if not better, precisely because he eschews the narrative devices that people celebrate in Kelly’s songs.

The interesting thing is that this sort of writing is not, as a rule, something Australians do well. With the not inconsiderable exception of Tim Winton’s recent work, our fiction, and in particular our short fiction, is not particualrly good at the sort of pared-back, realist writing which draws its integrity from its observation of regional lives that is seldom far away in American writing. This is partly because the economics of our industry militate against the short story as a form, and partly, presumably, because our population is essentially urban, but it is also at least in part a function of our sense that stories of ordinary Australian life are somehow lacking in ambition. Not for nothing have the most celebrated Australian writers of the last few decades been those who produce foundational narratives about the imaginary origins of Australia, whether in the highly-coloured vein of Peter Carey or in the more conventional vein of Kate Grenville. As the taste for this sort of capital “N” national literarure has dissipated in recent years this has begun to change, and writers as various as Malcolm Knox, Christos Tsiolkas and Steven Carroll have begin to write fiction which more deliberately situates itself in the lives of the city and the suburbs, but I suspect many still have trouble placing their work in a larger critical framework, precisely because it isn’t national literature in any meaningful sense.

But I digress. I’m embarassingly excited to be involved in this event, not least because Don’s songs have been such an important part of my life. I’m old enough to have seen Cold Chisel play live as a teenager. I picked a drunken Jimmy Barnes up off the floor at a gig at the Apollo Stadium in Adelaide in 1983 or 1984, which was the height of glamour to me then (I also remember a very different Jimmy roaming the dancefloors of Mardi Gras and Sleaze back in the 1990s, though that’s another story) and I still love many of their songs. But I’m also excited to be able to help Don promote the book, which is a genuinely impressive achievement.

More information about the Gleebooks event is available on the Gleebooks website. For information about events in Melbourne and elsewhere contact Readings or visit the Black Inc website.

Shots can be purchased from Gleebooks, Readings or bricks and mortar bookstores anywhere.

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