February 2010

The Nation Reviewed

Strutting & fretting

By Paul Kelly
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

In show business, you’re generally either the main act or the warm-up. Over 35 years, I’ve been both. A good show needs different and complementary parts. And someone always has to go on first.

Opening can be a sweet gig: your price is fixed, your set is short and you don’t have the responsibility of filling the venue. You strut and fret your half-hour or 40 minutes upon the stage and fire your best shots. Sometimes you get over, sometimes you don’t – but either way you finish work early. You’re free to stick around and watch the main act, or head out into the night.

It’s not always easy, though. Supporting American bands in the ’80s here and overseas was often challenging. Many appeared to follow a philosophy best summed up as: “We hold this truth to be self-evident, that all have the unalienable right to pursue and flaunt success. When you’re on top, show it.” This flaunting was usually enforced by martinet road crews, who wouldn’t move their masters’ gear one inch to accommodate ours, who taped up most of the lighting-board, and who set sound limits for us so far below those of the main act that when they came on they sonically blew us away.

Not all were like that, of course. There were those who treated their openers with respect, mindful of the advice Allen Toussaint gave in song: “The same people you misuse on your way up / You might meet up / On your way down.” But this didn’t always mean your troubles were over. Midnight Oil or Cold Chisel or The Angels might have afforded you the honour of selecting you to play before them, you may have got a brief sound-check and their crew may even have pushed amps back a few feet to give you some room, but their audiences were a whole other class of beast. “Oils! Oils! Oils!” or “Chisel! Chisel! Chisel!” the whole room would chant, psyching you to crack and flee the stage so their heroes could take over. Up the front at The Angels gigs, scary-looking young men with shaved heads and missing teeth would needle you relentlessly during each song, intoning in low voices, just audible, “Fuck off, fuck off, fuck off …”

In 1995 I toured Europe as a solo support for Joe Jackson. Everything was going beautifully in France, Spain and Germany, the audiences paying attention and responding warmly. I was brimming with confidence when I walked on stage in Rome. Why, I was a quarter Italian. The crowd members were very noisy as they came in. They’ll settle in a minute, I thought, and announced myself – “Buona sera. Mi chiamo Paul Kelly. Vengo di Australia.”  No response. No one turned a head. OK, start singing then. But as I sang the noise got louder. In every other European country I’d played, the audience had been mostly seated and ready when I played, while those who came in late took their seats quietly. But here people were calling to each other across the rows. I couldn’t be sure what they were saying, despite five years of high school Latin, but in my head the translation went something like this …

Hello, hello, where are you sitting? I’m sitting over here. How’ve you been? Good, that’s good. I’ve been fine. Hey, there’s Giuseppe. Hi Giuseppe. We’re over here. Ciao! Ciao! Kiss, kiss. I’ve got a big sandwich here. Do you want some? It’s huge. It’s plenty. Here, take some. No? Pass it to Carla. Carla, bella! Kiss, kiss. Ciao! You didn’t tell me you were coming. Oh, is this your seat? I thought it was my seat. Finish the sandwich. No, no, it’s too much for me. I can see Vittorio over there. I’m going to say hello. Hey Vittorio, would you believe it, I was in the wrong seat but it turns out it was Carla’s seat. Crazy, huh? Ciao. Kiss, kiss. I almost didn’t make it, the trains are all fucked up. Hey, what’s in your sandwich? Oh, Grazie, grazie.

… and so on, getting louder as I sang gamely on. I could see the big clock by the monitor desk; I swear it wasn’t moving. But everybody out there was. They all seemed to be friends who hadn’t seen each other in a long, long time. I dropped a song and finished early, cutting my losses. My “Arriverderci” was swallowed up by the cacophony. As I slunk off stage, a couple of shy-smiling goths up the front clapped.

Touring with Leonard Cohen in the summer of 2008–09 was about as good as it gets being a support act. There were ten concerts in all, half outdoors at wineries and half in big entertainment centres in the cities. My nephew, Dan, played guitar and sang with me as I performed my 30- to 45-minute sets. Everywhere we went, the crowds gave us a big lift. Leonard slipped side of stage a couple of times to listen to us play. And watching him perform each night was like a cross between attending a master class and going to church.

One night in the Hunter Valley, as I was halfway through singing ‘Everything’s Turning To White’, a flock of seven snowy egrets flew across the sky above the huge crowd – large birds, radiant in the setting sun as they carefully stroked their way back to their nesting grounds. Golden days.

You never know what’s around the corner, though. As Leonard himself says, “The older I get, the surer I am that I’m not running the show.”

The wheel keeps on turning. I once opened for Ani DiFranco in Madrid. The venue was a rowdy rock club filled mostly with loud-talking ex-pat Americans. It was one of those nights where you’re singing and thinking to yourself, What the fuck am I doing here? Who talked me into this? One of those nights where you have to square your shoulders, take a deep breath and say to yourself:

Sing to the people listening. They’re out there. They just don’t make as much noise as the people talking.

Sing to the shy goths.

Paul Kelly

Paul Kelly is an Australian musician. His books include the memoir How To Make Gravy and the poetry anthology Love Is Strong as Death.


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