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Thoughts in the Middle of a Career

Paul Kelly’s "Songs from the South"

 
Cover: April 2009
April 2009Medium length read
 

It can seem futile trying to chase down biographical material on Paul Kelly because, just as he's ducked the glare of mainstream pop stardom, his self-effacement and unease with his past have left the songs to sketch the details, a situation he probably feels comfortable with. The bones of the story are: he is born into a large Adelaide family in 1955; his father dies when Kelly is 13; he begins playing the guitar at 18; and, after a short time studying Arts at Flinders University, he starts to drift. So he's born and raised outside the cultural axis of Sydney and Melbourne, cities he'll live in during his adult life; and he comes late to the guitar, something which doesn't necessarily affect musical potential. In 1974 he's in Hobart, where he makes his first public appearance, performing the traditional folk song ‘Streets of Forbes' and Dylan's ‘Girl from the North Country'. It can be safely assumed, therefore, that no photos exist of Paul Kelly in satin pants, stacked boots and a glitter top cranking out Deep Purple or Alice Cooper, as most 19-year-olds with a guitar in their hands were doing at the time. And, finally, no matter how battering the winds must have been to send him to Tasmania, the choice of these two songs on debut shows a remarkable prescience on Kelly's part, in light of his subsequent career.

The next chapter of the biography - and it is astounding that no official version exists - would take in the mid-to-late-'70s Melbourne pub scene, where Kelly finds rock 'n' roll and songwriting (wine, women and song, you'd imagine), and a large cast of musicians and characters who play his music and inspire his songs. Out of this comes Paul Kelly and The Dots, who make two records, Talk (1981) and Manila (1982), for Mushroom - albums that Kelly quickly disowns. He loses his record deal, his band, and times must have turned tough enough for him to leave Melbourne and head to Sydney, arriving by early 1985. That journey is chronicled in ‘From St Kilda to Kings Cross', the opening track on Songs from the South: Volumes 1 & 2, a greatest-hits collection that pointedly has nothing on it recorded before Kelly turns 30. Behind him is a life lived on the rock 'n' roll margins; the price is sunken, watchful eyes and a gaunt face. Now come the great songs.

But first, let's meet the new band. On drums, there's Michael Barclay; bass, Jon Schofield; keyboards, Peter Bull; and on guitar, Steve Connolly. Over the next five years and five albums these musicians, known as The Coloured Girls and then The Messengers, are going to make a massive contribution to the music of Paul Kelly. Lead guitarists are easy to single out for praise, but Steve Connolly's playing is especially impressive, and the stellar stuff starts with three cuts from the breakthrough Gossip album (1986). The band will be robust companions to Kelly, taking the honesty and chops they learnt on the pub scene and dousing it with a '60s-influenced new-wave sound; in recording, it will grow bigger and shinier without losing its edge, a difficult task performed by the last member of the team, Alan Thorne. Kelly's luck holds - more likely, it is acumen - and Thorne produces four of the next five Kelly albums. Thorne's live-in-the-studio approach works beautifully for the band, creating a sound that will not only influence future roots-rock bands but, through its directness, sparkle and dedication to the song, will also come to be seen as particularly Australian. Ultimately, it means the records these people made together are timeless.

Once a great songwriter hits a groove, the first ten years are probably going be the most productive, if not the best. Volumes one and two of Songs from the South split at this divide, and while the years 1998 to 2008 are bountiful and well represented here, the character of Paul Kelly, the image of him that still lingers despite the passing years, stems from a fantastic run of pop and rock songs on the first volume, covering the period 1985 to 1997. That character - and it is unimportant how close it is to Kelly himself, although his lack of resemblance to the square-jawed lead singers of the day, from James Reyne through Mark Seymour, must have played a part - is appealing both for its comic value and its sharp-eyed take on modern inner-city romance. The Kelly of these gloriously crafted early songs is bemused (‘Look So Fine, Feel So Low'), hungry for love (‘Before Too Long'), foolish (‘Dumb Things'), regretful (‘Careless') and, on ‘Darling it Hurts' - surely the best song ever about having a sex-worker girlfriend with a drug habit ("In one hand and out the other") - hurt.

Here's a verse from another song of this period, ‘To Her Door', from Under the Sun (1987): "They got married early, never had no money / Then when he got laid off they really hit the skids / He started up his drinking, then they started fighting / He took it pretty badly, she took both the kids." There is an empathy here that doesn't seem forced, and an eye for detail that is surely one of the finest qualities of Kelly's writing. It's there again in one of his best-known images, a Silver Top bringing the protagonist swinging through the streets, back to his wife. ‘To Her Door' has a happy ending; many of the banished men in Kelly's songs don't get a second chance, or have such an easy ride home. ‘How to Make Gravy' is sung from jail, where a prisoner on the phone to a family member passes on his grief and his gravy recipe for a family Christmas he knows he can't attend. ‘If I Could Start Today Again' is even more poignant: the comforting confinement of a family or relationship is suddenly burst by an unnamed "thing" the singer has done; he yearns to turn back time, to be taken back. And it isn't only in Kelly's imagined worlds that men get into trouble and have to plead their case. Taking Raymond Carver's short story ‘So Much Water So Close to Home', he masterfully condenses the tale of men on a fishing trip who find the body of a murdered girl in a river and then fish on for two days, before bringing the corpse home to an appalled female narrator. Love songs aren't immune, either: in ‘Winter Coat', the singer draws memories from an old coat bought with an ex-lover; he is alone, in exile, "freezing up in these cold, cold hills".

It wasn't only pop and rock songs that Paul Kelly offered on his first run of successful albums. ‘Bradman' was a surprise: a seven-minute-plus take on The Don's career was not exactly typical material for a popular songwriter in the late '80s. But it was for Paul Kelly, who was brave enough to take on a story the size of Bradman's and attempt to bridge the gap between the traditional ballad and the rolling melodies of his own songwriting. It's a huge endeavour, like trying to squeeze World War II into an hour-and-a-half movie, and some of the writing is a little creaky ("And at the age of 19 he was playing for the state / From Adelaide to Brisbane the runs did not abate"). But the exit, when Kelly realises he is in fact writing a 20-minute song, is graceful: "So let the part tell the whole."

The other debt to repay is to Bob Dylan, who is central to Kelly's songwriting. ‘Girl from the North Country' was a reasonable place for Kelly to start a lifelong infatuation with Dylan's work. The early songs of the '60s, with their soft-strummed chords and young man's yearning for social justice and love, are seductive, and a natural fit for Kelly and a thousand other singer-songwriters. On ‘From Little Things Big Things Grow' (1991), written with Kev Carmody, the melody of Dylan's ‘The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll' is given an opening line reworked from ‘The Times They Are a-Changin'' - "Gather round people, let me tell you a story" - to recount the long fight of the Aboriginal stockman Vincent Lingiari for equal wages and land rights. ‘From Little Things' is more successful than ‘Bradman', neater and better crafted, and shows Kelly swiftly honing the skills of a fine balladeer and storyteller. Further lessons no doubt came from watching Dylan grow from the early protest songs, through the great '70s songs, to the late-period Time Out of Mind tales of lost love and passing time.

The break with the group comes in 1991, when The Messengers are disbanded and Kelly goes solo. In day-to-day life, this would mean upheavals and life changes for the musicians, Kelly included; on a greatest-hits compilation, it's just one track rolling into the next. But you can hear it: how the grit and muscle of ‘Pouring Petrol on a Burning Man' (1990) gives way to the breezy and relaxed ‘Love Never Runs on Time', from Wanted Man (1994), with the Bull sisters on backing vocals, and Peter Luscombe and Bill McDonald starting their long tenure on drums and bass. Kelly becomes a Melbourne recording artist, a move that allows him to pursue his career as rock performer and writer, while allowing him to dive into the musical subcultures that have festered in the city in unending cycles since the mid '70s. So, well into his forties, Kelly stretches out into collaborations, working with different groups and musicians to make the bluegrass- and country-influenced albums Smoke (1999) and Foggy Highway (2005); a self-titled, rootsy-groove record under the moniker Professor Ratbaggy (1999); and a brittle surf­-spy guitar album recorded with his resident group under the name Stardust Five (2006).

Volume two, covering the decade from 1998, suggests it took Kelly some time to mould a band that would inspire and do justice to his rock and pop songs. There were false starts, with ‘Love Is the Law' sounding cluttered and one or two other songs sounding too comfortable. The arrival of guitar players Dan Kelly (Paul's nephew) and Dan Luscombe seems to have bought a rush of blood. ‘Won't You Come Around' and ‘Gunnamatta', from Ways & Means (2004), leap out with force; the rhythm section of Luscombe and McDonald gallops to keep up, and a sound is forged. It continues on ‘God Told Me To', from Stolen Apples (2007), and the previously unreleased ‘Thoughts in the Middle of the Night'. This band has lasted three albums with Kelly, and you suspect he has finally found a group that can merit comparison to The Messengers. It is a different beast - more contemporary, more boom and reverb - but in essence it does the same thing: puts fire under the songwriter and makes his up-tempo songs sting.

The other highlight of volume two - and it strongly dictates the flavour of the second disc - is a loose group of songs that have nothing more in common with each other than that they tend to be more story-oriented. They're an odd bunch, and can lead you to believe that the further Kelly gets away from himself, and the more outrageous he is, the better he can be. But then, who wants to end up a comedy songwriter? Although he did have an album called Comedy (1991) ... In any case, ‘Shane Warne' is great: "Each time he came in to bat or bowl / He believed in his powers of total control / Even when he was not in the peak of condition." It's in a calypso style, with guitar, clarinet and congas. ‘Every Fucking City' is the hilarious tale of a bickering couple and missed rendezvous set against the backdrop of Europe's capitals; besides being an exercise in split-second observation and delivery, it's a gentle nip at love songs and how relationships tend to end more in farce and anger than in tears. ‘The Oldest Story in the Book' and ‘They Thought I Was Asleep' are refinements of the Kelly book of narrative songwriting: gentle, melodic, packed with detail yet cut with economy. And ‘If I Could Start Today Again' may just be the best thing he has ever written.

None of these songs would be as good or as pleasurable if Kelly wasn't the singer he is. It is - and you sense his often unenthusiastic self-appraisals are to blame - his most overlooked talent. His singing can be so in sync with a song's action and character that you forget to notice its quality. It rolls off his tongue; there are no growls or yelps, or strange ticks, or Americanisms, or faux-Pommy bits; he hasn't fallen into the horrible trap of so many old and new folk singers who sound like they've just stepped off the boat at Botany Bay, circa 1800. In fact, Kelly doesn't seem to be interested in authenticity at all - it just comes naturally to him, and it reaches further because of that, to the campfires and the bush, the suburbs and suburban pub, and the inner-city sophisticates. His voice - sly and warm, laconic and sometimes frail - may be the closest thing we have to a national one.

The first response of a musician on hearing Paul Kelly is often to head to the guitar or piano and work out how his songs go. They invite you to do that because they sound easy and approachable. Most of the tracks on Songs from the South are like that. Then you think: If the songs are so simple and the ideas behind them so clear, why aren't more people writing like Paul Kelly and sounding as good as he does? And the answer to that is: "They got married early, never had no money / Then when he got laid off they really hit the skids / He started up his drinking, then they started fighting ..."

About the author Robert Forster

Robert Forster is a singer-songwriter and co-founder of The Go-Betweens. His collection of music criticism, The 10 Rules of Rock and Roll, was published in 2009.