October 2010

Arts & Letters

‘How to Make Gravy’ by Paul Kelly

By Linda Jaivin
'How to Make Gravy' by Paul Kelly, Penguin, 576pp; $49.95

From little things, big things grow: asked to perform four nights in a row at The Famous Spiegeltent in Melbourne in 2004, singer–songwriter Paul Kelly came up with a novel idea. Over the four nights, he would play 100 of his songs in alphabetical order and tell stories to go with the songs. It worked out so well, he toured the performance. The performance inspired a CD collection, and that led to How to Make Gravy.

The book, in Kelly’s words, is a “mongrel beast”. There are anecdotal meditations on such varied topics as the nature of song-writing, his struggle with heroin, child-rearing and the Gary Puckett song cycle (really – and funny). There are tour diaries as he travels from the ‘Cities of Texas’ to ‘Every Fucking City’ and beyond. There are lists, of songs about shoes, for example, or reasons to wear black (which includes “Looks particularly good with a gold guitar”). He quotes from John Donne, Don Bradman, The Chills, the Bible, Ovid. He offers panegyrics on Frank Sinatra, cricket, lazy afternoons in bed when ‘Randwick Bells’ are ringing and even, unless I am completely misreading the lyrics of ‘Glory Be to God’ (“On my knees before her splendour, oh glory be to God!”), cunnilingus. He talks about the gigs when the magic happens, and when it doesn’t – how, when everyone else is hollering for the Oils or talking up the back, you just have to “sing to the shy Goths”.

Kelly yarns about his life, his work and his obsessions with low-key, self-deprecating humour. How to Make Gravy is full of revelations but it is no kiss-and-tell: he might follow an aching love song with nothing more explanatory than a Shakespearean sonnet. Themes to which the book returns time and again include family, God and country. Country means a lot to Kelly, both the musical form and the land. Aboriginal land rights and justice is a particular passion for the co-author of such resonant hits as ‘Treaty’ (written with Mandawuy Yunupingu) and ‘From Little Things, Big Things Grow’ (with Kev Carmody). Country is an inclusive concept: the song ‘I Guess I Get A Little Emotional Sometimes’ was Kelly’s response to the mandatory detention of asylum seekers; he writes poignantly about visiting Baxter Detention Centre.

Kelly takes us into the studio and into his writing process, sharing his thoughts and fears about the accidental, serendipitous nature of creativity. I think many artists will be comforted by the fact that even this prolific and accomplished Australian musical icon suffers anxiety about whether he could be doing more, doing better. But here’s a funny thing. For a writer so talented and so literate – whose references span Dickens and Donne, Whitman and Winton – he does throw up the odd clanger. They can come in the shape of slightly overworked biblical diction, grandiloquent metaphor or simply words such as ‘hipster’, which, misjudged, carry a whiff of dag. If Kelly’s a dag, though, he has to be the coolest one around. How to Make Gravy is a delight. ‘Won’t You Come Around?’

Linda Jaivin

Linda Jaivin is an author and translator of Chinese. Her books include Eat Me, The Infernal Optimist and A Most Immoral Woman. Her most recent works are the novel The Empress Lover and the Quarterly Essay ‘Found in Translation’.

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