April 2013


Paul Kelly’s wild years

By Richard Guilliatt
© Greg Noakes / gregnoakes.com

© Greg Noakes / gregnoakes.com

Leaps and bounds

The pub is a squat, redbrick pre-Federation pile squeezed between the old houses lining a quiet street in Richmond, just east of Melbourne’s glowing office towers. The bands play in a room out the back, past the front bar where the old-timers drink, through to a narrow doorway where a chalkboard announces the night’s attraction and someone stands behind a booth collecting your five bucks (it’s 1979), before you step through the door into a corridor filled with a familiar fug of cigarette smoke and stale beer, the wall on your left thumping to the muffled throb of a live band. At the end you drop down a couple of steps to a long room packed tight with a younger crowd – a lot of black leather and hennaed hair – and a bar at the back where you head first before turning to check the band.

They’re jammed tight between the PA stacks on a small stage – a bass player so tall his head looks like it’s skirting the ceiling, a guitar player stage left with a Beatles mop playing a Strat left-handed, another guitarist across the other side wearing a sleeveless T-shirt and wielding a Gibson Firebird. Between them is the singer, a skinny guy with a head of black curls framing a pale face and a bent nose; he’s wearing a white T-shirt and black jeans, singing with his eyes closed, one arm outstretched and the other resting on the body of the Fender Telecaster slung around his neck, so that only when he moves the arm to hit a chord on the guitar do you see the four-word slogan on his shirt:




Paul Kelly. The surname is Irish but the guy looks Italian with those dark, hooded eyes. His Telecaster makes it three electric guitars on stage, and a roaring sound when the band’s at full throttle with that drummer kicking them along. The song seems to be called ‘Recognition’, with a swaggering open-chord riff cribbed from the Stones and a lyric about a philanderer who finds himself lying beside one woman while thinking about another. “Recognition! In the strangest places.” It’s a good line for a chorus. “Recognition! Mixing up these faces.” Well, the rhyme is clunky, but, what the hell, the band rocks and the tune stays with you, and soon they’re into another one: some kind of white-boy rocksteady with funny lyrics about a guy who’s shocked his parents by dating an ethnic chick. Then comes a ballad, about a temptress from the wrong side of the tracks:

Cherry, in the middle of the back seat,
She’s cruising on down the street,

To set the night on fire

You’d have to say there’s a touch too much Springsteen in that line – in fact, the whole opening stanza might have arrived via New Jersey. But the tune is beautifully put together, from its pensive opening with the singer strumming D to G – a classic folk pattern – then suspending the chord just before the chorus, so that you hang on its simple two-note refrain before the full band kicks in to lift the song into a slow burn, then turn on the guitar fireworks for the coda. The songs keep coming; all of them originals, with hooks that dig in so deep you’d swear you heard them before. ‘Lowdown’, ‘Want You Back’, ‘Faster Than Light’, ‘I See Red’, ‘I Hate To Watch You Loving Him’. They end with a crowd-pleaser called ‘Only the Lonely Heart’, a hard-rocking three-chorder with a chorus that might have come from the Beatles’ songbook. The tune is still rattling around your head hours afterwards, along with vestigial flashes of those other songs and the dark little moments of poetry buried inside their melodies.

Paul Kelly and the Dots. Turns out they’ve got the residency, every Friday night at the Kingston Hotel. And Friday night rolls around fast, so before you know it you’re back there checking them out again, only down the front this time to hear those songs a little more closely.

Paul Kelly had already turned 30 by the time he finished recording Post, the album that would stake out his place as a great Australian songwriter. That was in 1985, and when Kelly compiled his first book of lyrics some years later, he chose Post as the chronological starting-point. His brief preface made no mention of the dozens of songs he had written and recorded in the first decade of his career, and a later edition of his collected lyrics likewise ignored those formative years. His 1997 greatest hits album, Songs from the South, included nothing from the two albums and EP he recorded while living in Melbourne between 1976 and 1983. In his memoir, How To Make Gravy, he glancingly acknowledged those early songs while repeating a line he’s said more than once – that he’d like to gather up all the copies of his first records and “bury them in a big hole”.

It’s the judgement of someone who sees the flaws of his apprentice years a little too acutely. All artists “grow up in public”, as Lou Reed once put it, but songwriters can find it harder than most to shake off the memory of their callow younger selves. Bad novels go out of print, bad paintings go into storage, but a bad song can live forever, its infelicitous phrases and hackneyed production recorded for posterity or (worst-case scenario) high-rotation airplay.

Today, you can type “Paul Kelly” into YouTube and see him at 27 on Countdown, pale and skinny, wearing a black leather jacket and a sleepy-eyed smile as he mimes his way artlessly through ‘Alive and Well’, one of those early songs he’d rather forget. The tune’s chiming guitars and singsong rhythms date it indelibly as early ’80s Australian pop, and it sounds nothing at all like a hot and sweaty night at the Kingston Hotel. But listen a little closer and there’s a hint of what’s to come in the way the sweet melody coaxes you towards the bittersweet turn of the words, with their rueful hint of some self-inflicted disaster narrowly averted. It’s a good song, just maybe not a great one.

It’s true enough that, although Post has grown in stature in the 28 years since it was recorded, no one would champion Kelly’s first two albums, Talk and Manila, as forgotten masterpieces. It’s partly a story of circumstance, for they were made in a place and time where great bands routinely made lousy records. Melbourne in the 1970s boasted a home-grown live rock ’n’ roll scene that has never been replicated and was never really captured on record.

It began in the wash-up of the hippie era, when inner-city “head” bands ventured out to the newly built suburban beer-barns and invented a style of heavily amped stoner boogie that proved the perfect soundtrack to six hours of continuous drinking. Pub rock was born, and when Billy Thorpe and the Aztecs attracted a biblical gathering of more than 100,000 to the Myer Music Bowl in 1972, its ascendancy was confirmed. It was the kind of anarchic uprising that could perhaps only have happened in a state that had suffered continuous conservative rule since 1955.

In time the scene developed an idiosyncratic aesthetic, which valued original songs above all else; in an era when community radio barely existed and any record outside the Top 40 was fiendishly hard to find, the pub became the most convenient place to hear something new. By 1976, Melbourne throbbed to live bands seven nights a week. It was home to the country’s biggest band, Skyhooks, and the biggest independent record label and booking agency, Mushroom/Premier. Therein lay the rub, for in music-business terms it was a one-company town with only two recording studios of note. Budgets were tight and recording expertise was thin on the ground.

Pub rock reached its apex just as Paul Kelly arrived from Adelaide in 1977. A slew of new inner-city bands like Jo Jo Zep and the Falcons, the Sports, the Relaxed Mechanics and the Autodrifters were retooling American R’n’B into something sharper, hipper and more sardonic. The Carlton scene just north of the city – home of the libertarian Left, radical feminism and experimental theatre – harboured darker and more cerebral bands like Bleeding Hearts and Stiletto. The first punk singles from London and New York had landed, inspiration for semi-competent young snotheads to form bands like the Negatives, the Boys Next Door and JAB.

On a given night you might find the 19-year-old Nick Cave throwing David Bowie poses out front of the Boys Next Door at the Tiger Lounge in Richmond, while 40 kilometres across town, Cold Chisel was whipping a crowd of drunken yobs at Frankston’s Pier Hotel into a frenzy, and somewhere to the north Stephen Cummings and the Sports were playing to a bunch of apprentice gangsters at Bombay Rock.

It was a circuit that operated on the Nietzschean principle that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger: a band like Jo Jo Zep and the Falcons honed a stage show that hit like a runaway locomotive, with a walloping drummer, a bass player built like a lumberjack, two guitarists in sharp threads, a six-foot-three tenor sax player and Joe Camilleri out front in a three-piece seersucker suit, shucking and jiving, dropping to his knees and flipping the mic stand through rousing crowd-pleasers like ‘The Girl across the Street (Just Turned 18)’.

For a neophyte 22-year-old folk-singer from Adelaide via Tasmania, it would surely have been a sink-or-swim experience. Helen Garner captured the scene in all its grungy sexual allure in ‘Did He Pay?’, a short story about an unnamed guitar player who drifts from house to house between gigs, living on his charm, a feckless opportunist transformed on stage into “an angel stretched tight … veiled in an ethereal mist of silvery-blue light and cigarette smoke”.

The character reminded some – physically at least – of Martin Armiger, the Bleeding Hearts’ guitarist with whom Kelly formed his first band, the High Rise Bombers. Armiger cropped his blond locks short, wore granny glasses and wrote driving rock ’n’ roll songs – ‘Drug Life’, ‘Gaze of the Damned’, ‘Emptiness of Life’ – which cast an amused eye over the druggy underbelly of Marvellous Melbourne. The High Rise Bombers featured a floating line-up of Carlton alumni that included three guitars, up to five horns and one too many leaders. Told they were destined to be big, Kelly is said to have retorted: “We can’t get much bigger – there’s already eight of us.”

The songs were the problem: Paul Kelly and the Dots, circa 1980 © Greg Noakes / gregnoakes.com

Thus the Dots – his band, playing his songs. On a good night they were a white-hot amalgam of ’60s classicism and ’70s edge; you could hear Dylan and Lou Reed and maybe even Phil Spector in there, but also trace elements of the New York new wave and British ska and punk. They played solidly for three years and developed a rep so big that when their first album was finally released in 1981, the disappointment was palpable. Talk sounded thin and unconvincing; the guitars were cleaned up, the vocals were reedy and hollow, the cheesy touches of synthetic strings and girly choruses added nothing. The sheer firepower of the band got the songs over on stage, but on record their flaws were magnified. Kelly had hurt his back before the recording session and sang most of his vocals lying down. “The songs were the problem,” was his assessment in How To Make Gravy. “And the flailing singer.”

And maybe something else. Because the next album, which came out soon after, seemed to confirm the rumours that had begun to follow its creator around. It was an altogether darker and more claustrophobic work whose mise en scène was established in the words of its opening song, ‘Forbidden Street’:

Here below in the land of stealth
Far away from a land called health

Intrigue is all I breathe
Thy will be done! Thy kingdom come!
On Forbidden Street

Melbourne and heroin were made for each other. “Winter was a bad time in that town,” as Helen Garner wrote. “Streets got longer and greyer, and it was simply not possible to manage without some sort of warmth.” The underground filmmaker Bert Deling nailed it even more unnervingly in his 1975 film Pure Shit, which blurred the line between fiction and verité by drawing its cast from Carlton’s heroin-dabbling bohemia, filming them as needle slid into vein. Banned on its release and reviled by the Herald as “evil”, Pure Shit’s grainy, lingering shots of the playwright Phil Motherwell and actor Gary Waddell tying off in grotty bathrooms or sharing needles with their on-screen girlfriends can still provoke a visceral shiver nearly four decades later.

Yet Deling’s film was nothing if not funny, a black-humoured caper about a bunch of hapless losers crisscrossing Melbourne in a beat-up Holden, hunting for a taste. In that sense it reflected the perverse innocence of a time when shooting up still seemed a low-risk recreation and a statement of nonconformity, before AIDS and hep C put paid to those illusions.

Of course, anyone who stuck a needle in their arm in 1977 could hardly be ignorant of the pitfalls: Lou Reed had laid them out chapter and verse a decade earlier in ‘Heroin’ and ‘I’m Waiting for the Man’. Yet Reed himself projected a junkie-cool persona that was more seductive than any cautionary note his lyrics might sound. You had to gasp at his audacity when he whipped out a syringe on stage and pretended to shoot up, mid-song; arriving in Australia for the first time in 1974, looking yellow and skeletal, he drawled his way through an airport press conference in which he casually agreed with a television reporter that, yes, he was an occasional transvestite who spent his money on drugs.

The rock mags were awash with such thrilling junkie transgressors. There was Iggy Pop, topless on the cover of Raw Power, an androgynous Adonis making music of wild intensity. And there was Keith Richards, eyes hidden behind Ray-Bans as he posed for a famous photograph in the customs section of Seattle airport, leaning insouciantly next to a sign that read “PATIENCE PLEASE … A DRUG-FREE AMERICA COMES FIRST!” That was a keeper, a poster for the bedroom wall, a joke we were all in on. It was like wearing a T-shirt that said “DRUGS ARE FOR MUGS”.

Heroin promised euphoria, but without the dippy utopian-ism that hallucinogens had promised and failed to deliver. It became, as both Nick Cave and Paul Kelly would later put it, the drug of choice. It was cheap and it was easy to get. You really could buy it over the counter from the friendly Greek guy at certain takeaway food joints in St Kilda, as Luke Davies portrayed in his novel Candy. You could track its spread by the advancing dissolution of the bands you saw on Friday and Saturday nights. In three years, Cave was transformed from pimply art-punk to wild-eyed, stiff-haired caterwauling freak, shrieking about bats, insects, blood and giiiiirrls. Smack opened the door to a more dangerous, more enticing world.

That was the context for ‘Forbidden Street’, a song whose wayward protagonist wanders alone at night through some unnamed city, his feet “just above the ground” as he soaks up the sweet smell of the trash. It was the not-so-hidden meaning of ‘Clean This House’, a droll little ska romp with a sting in the tail. (“Get that shit off the table / Before you get unable / Too much junk on your stairs / Too much junk everywhere”)

The cover of Talk had an epigraph from Baudelaire, the French Romantic poet and opium addict, but Manila moved closer to a darker truth, with its tribute song to the doomed comic Lenny Bruce and its cover shot of the band lolling in an Asian bar surrounded by girls.

The trouble was, the album sounded like crap. It had been recorded in the Philippines, apparently inside an aircraft hangar: the guitars clanged and echoed, the rhythm section was an indistinct throb. ‘Alive and Well’ was the first single and it stiffed.

The line-up of the Dots seemed never to settle; musicians came and went, performances got more ragged, and new songs were no longer heard. Six years of hard slog added up to a career in a mess, culminating in a mugging that left Kelly with his jaw broken.

Then, in 1984, word spread that he had done the unthinkable: moved to Sydney.

From St Kilda to Kings Cross is thirteen hours on a bus
I press my face against the glass
And watch the white lines rushing past
And all around me felt like all inside me
And my body left me and my soul went running

The opening lines of ‘From St Kilda to Kings Cross’, the first track on the 1985 album Post, were a kind of declaration: it was a song about exile and regret, perennial themes of folk music, yet rooted in the here and now of a contemporary Australian setting. Other songwriters had used local reference points before, as anyone who had heard Cold Chisel or Skyhooks (or Slim Dusty or Banjo Paterson) could tell you. But ‘From St Kilda to Kings Cross’ had the naturalistic lyrical detail of experience actually lived, dropping you instantly into a wholly realised world. The song’s 14 lines sketched a tale of its narrator leaving Melbourne for Sydney, swapping one seedy red-light district for another, arriving in soft rain to see the streets shining like a postcard, only to discover that “everything goes on just the same”. His grasping friends circle him with begging hands, and the closing verse finds him longing for the ragged palm trees and tired vistas of the home he’s just left. The closing line – “I’d give you all of Sydney Harbour / All that land and all that water / For that one sweet promenade” – was a wry provocation only an Australian could fully appreciate.

On Post, the songs were no longer set in a nameless urban milieu that could easily have been New York or London. The adolescent reveries of ‘Standing on the Street of Early Sorrows’ conjured a hot summer in the Adelaide suburbs; the narrator of ‘White Train’ rushed his bleeding junkie friend to Prince Henry’s Hospital in Sydney. The songs had a nakedly autobiographical quality, accentuated by the bare-bones backing of guitars and vocals, yet they were more layered and emotionally ambiguous. Sadness and anger, tenderness and bitter humour commingled in their lines.

‘Look So Fine, Feel So Low’ set melancholic lyrics to a cheerful tune, an old country music trick; ‘Incident on South Dowling’ was a gothic drug tragedy delivered as a jaunty hoedown with call-and-response singing; ‘Adelaide’ was a sing-along that took a swipe at the numbing boredom of the city of churches, yet its second verse evoked a 13-year-old boy’s stunned incomprehension at his father’s death with devastating candour (“I rang the bells / I never felt nothing at all”).

Maybe exile had been the spark for these new songs; maybe new collaborators had helped breathe life into them; or maybe their creator had just got his shit together. Whatever the reasons, on Post you could hear a writer discovering his own voice.

Two years later, I found myself on a tour bus travelling across the plains of western Texas with Paul Kelly and his band, the Coloured Girls. I’d been living in New York and a lot had happened in the interim. Post had broken Kelly’s songwriting drought and brought on a flood: its follow-up, Gossip, was a rich 24-song double album that had given Kelly his first Australian hit, ‘Before Too Long’, and helped him get a deal with A & M Records in the US. He’d already recorded a new album, Under the Sun. The songs were changing, becoming more character-driven. ‘Maralinga’ and ‘Bicentennial’ offered glimpses of Australia, its past and its present, through Aboriginal eyes. ‘To Her Door’ unfolded like a three-act drama: young guy marries his sweetheart, they have a couple of kids, he gets sacked from his job, hits the bottle, she walks, he goes through a year of rehab, begs her for one last chance, and in the final scene he’s sweating in the back seat of a Silver Top taxi as he pulls up outside her place.

Kelly had found a band to stick with and a musical blood brother in guitarist Steve Connolly, and the New York Times and Rolling Stone magazine were touting him as a talent to watch. He looked healthy and he was in a purple patch of writing. The stars finally seemed to be in alignment.

I met the band in Lubbock, home of such great Texan songwriters as Joe Ely, Butch Hancock and Jimmie Dale Gilmore. It was a city of 180,000 people then, out on the state’s north-western plains, one of dozens of college towns the band had played over the previous few months. The tour had already taken them across the US from Los Angeles through the mid-west to New York; now they were at the tail end of the return leg, heading west back to California, playing along the way in small clubs and university halls to people who’d either never heard of them or were the only Australians in town. (In New York, at the Bottom Line club, an Aussie voice in the crowd had yelled out: “Play ‘Bradman’!”). After the breakthrough in Australia, this was the familiar bottom rung. It was a matter of working your way up, one gig at a time.

This day they were playing in the afternoon, outdoors, at Texas Tech University, to a scattered crowd of perhaps a couple of hundred undergrads. It was a sunny late autumn day under an epic Texan sky, an incongruous setting for songs set on the grubby nocturnal streets of Darlinghurst and St Kilda. But the kids of Texas Tech were enthusiastic, sitting there on the grass rocking to ‘Darling It Hurts’ and ‘Before Too Long’, and there was one moment when band and audience seemed to connect in perfect communion. It happened when the band fell silent and Kelly sang his tender song of lust, ‘You Can Put Your Shoes Under My Bed’, with just piano and vocal harmony backing. For a few God-blessed minutes the song’s drowsily seductive melody seemed to float up into that big sky, and the crowd fell under its spell. The Texan girls liked that one.

By mid-afternoon we were all on the bus, heading west to New Mexico. Up close, the Coloured Girls looked a little worn, like they’d been eating badly, drinking unwisely and sleeping wrongly for too many weeks. Their hair stuck out at odd angles, their skin was blotchy and their conversation had the mad wisecracking energy of men cooped up together so long that they spoke a coded language. The bus had hit a skunk somewhere in Tennessee, and a faint aroma akin to burnt rubber and ageing offal still permeated its interior. The lonesome cry of the country singer George Jones was playing over the stereo.

Kelly sat a little apart from the action, largely because he was travelling with his new love and future wife, the diminutive actress Kaarin Fairfax. They had about them the slightly secretive air of happiness that new lovers share; it was tempting to see it reflected in new songs like ‘She’s a Melody’ and ‘Big Heart’. The songs were still coming, for Kelly kept a well-thumbed notebook in his travelling bag, which he pulled out periodically to scribble down images, impressions, phrases. On the highway through Texas he had stared out the bus window at the shimmering steel and glass towers of Dallas and Houston, rising like mirages from the plains. He talked a little about their “spectacular evanescence” – the sense that all their man-made majesty would one day crumble into the desert around them. Later I’d hear all of that compressed into the 12 lines of ‘Cities of Texas’.

Kelly was turning 33 in a few months, and I was struck by the rootlessness that lay beneath the camaraderie of the touring musician’s life. When I mentioned a particular record we both loved, he said he had lost his copy long ago, during one of his many relocations. In Melbourne he had lived in a bare flat with his first wife, Hilary; in Sydney he had shared various digs with other musicians. It was virtually impossible in those circumstances to acquire the ordinary comforts of life – a book collection, a nice stereo, some furniture. Now he was planning to move to the US, somewhere he could find a decent school for his six-year-old son, Declan. I wondered at the doggedness required to keep it all on track and still retain a creative spark. In Australia he still hadn’t cracked the Top 10; in America he was starting all over again. When I left the tour bus the band were in Provo, Utah, in the shadow of the Wasatch Mountains, where they played to a crowd of clean-scrubbed Mormon kids in an alcohol-free nightclub called Plastique.

We kept in touch after that. He brought the band back a year later for another US tour, and the song ‘Dumb Things’ clawed its way to Number 16 on the Billboard alternative rock chart. They recorded an album in Los Angeles with the big-name producer Scott Litt.

The songs were changing again. Kelly had been reading Raymond Carver, the master minimalist of the American short story, and the influence worked its way most tellingly into the song ‘Everything’s Turning to White’. Another new one, ‘Most Wanted Man in the World’, had the dramatic structure of a classic soul ballad, and he confessed a secret wish that it would find its way into the hands of Aaron Neville, the angel-voiced New Orleans crooner. But then there was a corporate reshuffle at A & M Records, and the exec who signed them got the shaft. The album that Scott Litt produced failed to chart; A & M dropped Kelly. Declan never did get to live in New Jersey, and Aaron Neville never recorded ‘Most Wanted Man in the World’. By 1991 Kelly was back in Australia, breaking up the band and rethinking it all.

He would be 42 before he saw one of his records – the greatest hits album Songs from the South – finally crack the Top 10. That year, I wrote a magazine story in which I noted that his record company, Mushroom, had stuck by him for 20 years before he sold “any significant number of albums”. The phone rang shortly after that was published and I heard a familiar quiet voice on the other end of the line. “Richard? It’s Paul.” There was a hint of a warning note in that measured tone. He had a bone to pick: he didn’t like the suggestion that his music had been some sort of charity case, propped up by the largesse of the music industry. His records had always recouped their costs, he said. They’d paid their way, in other words – even the ones he’d like to bury in a hole.

This essay is one of ten from Paul Kelly – The Essays, published by Shark Island Productions and out through iTunes Books in June.

Richard Guilliatt
Richard Guilliatt is a Walkley Award–winning journalist. His work has appeared in the Independent, the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times. His books include Talk of the Devil: Repressed Memory and the Ritual Abuse Witch-Hunt.

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