Tuesday, April 19, 2011

The Groove Book Report: "How to Make Gravy: A mongrel Memoir" By Paul Kelly - Penguin Books rrp $60.00

This is a Transcript : It will be aired on Thurs 21 April from 6 PM

Paul Kelly is like that cool, slightly unsettling uncle that turns at Christmas, off the back of a world tour, having played all the best opera houses and nightclubs, with a bag of presents and a mixtape of the best music you never heard. On the other hand, he's got those albums that hang around my studio, never really played, despite me knowing that within those cardboard sleeves lie delicate tales of love, hope and desperation. But, because Kelly was an Australian, I never afforded him the revery lavished upon Dobbyn or the Finn brothers. A missed opportunity - almost.

'... Gravy' started in a festival tent, in Melbourne in 2004, when Kelly undertook four nights of 'never-to-be repeated' performances based on a idea of singing 100 of his songs in alphabetical order, each night being the aphabetical progression of the last. To this, Kelly added storytelling for theatrical effect, and as the shows hit the road they were recorded for a CD with linear notes. Then the 'beast', as Kelly referred to it recently, took hold and a book finally emerged.

Not just the book of the tour, this is a self confessed mongrel biography and bloody good read. even if you aren't true blue. These are the observations, hymns, paens and a loose history of the Australia that lies under the surface. Not deep and sleezly, like the stories in the 'Underbelly' crime series or the manufactured love dramas of shows like 'Offspring', or even the suburban whines of 'Neighbours' and 'Home and Away'. No, these are the collected thoughts of a close relative, a cobber or some joker you met on the plane on the way over. Kelly writes with the care and passion he applied to his music, telling from A-Z tales and annecdotes behind each of his songs. Sometimes the narrative is personal, like "From St Kilda to Kings Cross', which is a brief reflection on his journey from Melbourne to Sydney, at a time when he was unknown and cutting his teeth as a musician. Others, like "Leaps and Bounds", an early hit, are fleshed out, revealing more than what I assumed to be simply boyhood nostalgia.

Kelly's actually from Adelaide, a town I know well. Though, not as he did. He was the plaid flannel ache of bored a youth hell bent of getting out and heading for the big smoke of a Victorian Capital. Mine was the wide-eyed awe of a city dedicated to riverstone architecture, exquisite wines, exotic food and culture. It's funny how living and visiting are different things. Which to some degree is the underlying point of this rambling memoir.

I should point out he doesn't entirely dis Adelaide, with a fond memory to it's past in a song of the same name and a brief historical pastiche in "...Gravy" about the Capital's famed hills.

On another level, his undying love of cricket is evident all over the show, especially in Aussies unofficial national anthem, "Bradman'. And it's here our boy goes to town. Did he sleep with a Wisdens under his pillow? Surely the bulk of the book brought on migranes, or was it the insurgence of batting averages and player lists?

Some songs took me surprise, like finding out the truth behind the disturbing story of a murdered girl in Everything's turning to white', that one in particular felt like a personal memory. I was almost crushed to discover Kelly stole the plot of a favourite author.

One constant is Kelly's love and respect of 80's trailblazers like Died Pretty, the Go-Betweens and the Triffids. These are all bands that circled around him during his early days, emerging in pubs and working man clubsand inspiring his own songs, challenging him to go on. In describing the origins of "Careless", Kelly talks first about the influence of these bands before flying out on an obscure trajectory about the importance of writing a good 'circle song'. This is a song that is useful in a jam session with strangers because it's repetitive. On goes the yarn to include an all out WOMADelaide jam session on the Nullabor plains. Add in failed sessions to learn said Go-between numbers, a touch of african drummingand an interlude with despression and then he skillfully, the trail cycles back to how "Careless" got written. It's this free, pseudo-rambling prose that makes reading this book such a joy. It's not prescriptive or even ordered, aside from the alphabetising. Ideas just seem to pop in and out like christmas tree lights, yet some how it all, unexpectantly, comes together.

Kelly has charted the human condition like no other with songs like "Dumb Things" and the tear jerker "To her door", which he outlays his decision to tell a tale of a broken man and his climb back to the love of his wife and family. But at times he's chooses political subjects like Aboriginal land rights, as in "From little things, big things grow". Outside Yothu Yindi and Midnight Oil few artists would take on Australia's bigoted 80's White man culture. It's in the book we find out more about the history behind the history. The unofficial and the personal history of these landmark incidents. For that alone, he deserves praise this side of the ditch.

When Kelly tours he's always asked about his involvement with heroin. At the book launc in October, (http://www.theaureview.com/sydney/paul-kelly-how-to-make-gravy-book-launch), he remembered “I wanted to write about it, as being addicted to heroin is very different to using it on and off for a very long period of time”. He claimed he didn’t need it, not like an addict, yet it affected those around him and his life anyway. Such revelations seem more honest, than the overbloated excesses of America's glam musos and England's lad rockers simply because he seems to be such a down to earth kinda guy - someone you may know or know off.

And that's what makes this memoir special. He could be you or me, only more poetic and articulate. Kelly's contribution, to Australia's cultural cannon owes more to the pioneers like Norman Linsay, than, say Nick Cave or Baz Lurhman. As a unofficial, published history of a life well documented, I'd recommend this to anyone with one caveat - make sure you at least listen to "Post" or "Under The Sun" and while you're reading it!

Friday, April 1, 2011

The Groove Book Report: FAB - An Intimate Life of Paul McCartney by Howard Sounes - Harper Collins rrp $40.99

This is a Transcript of a review broadcast on 7 April 2011

I never really liked McCartney's music post Beatles, except for Wings' epic Band on the Run, which still maintained some of that great late fab-four zaniness. Yet reading this epic 634 page tome it's hard to contest that, in the words of David Puttnam, McCartney is a man of "immense, immense, immense talent". It's just that somehow he seems unable, or unwilling to make that crucial transformation from merely good to exceptional. All through this biography author Howard Sounes keeps poking the cynical stick. "Was it that it was too hard, was it that it was too challenging? Or was it that he was a reasonably contented guy and he didn't think it was worth putting himself through that amount of pain?" What he seems to have missed, I believe is that creative rivalry between McCartney and Lennon, between te Beatles and the Beach Boys between Wings and the Plastic Ono Band. McCartney's best work was when he was challenged, threatened even. Obviously McCartney's a natural musician, with extrodinary writing capabilities. Songs like "Yesterday", "Honey Pie", "Blackbird", "The Long and Winding Road"are beautifiully written, so simple they can be peformed by everyone from a punk band to a reggae dub collective. It's virtually impossible for even the Ekatahuna 1st Grade Recorder Ensemble to stuff up one of his compositions. But yet the post Beatles era is bland. Still nice, but without that creative edge. In Beatle days, the schoolmasterly George Martin was always in the control room, pushing the boys on. Afterward, McCartney seems to have shunned all advice. Wings were essentially a Band on the Payroll, not the Run. Poor old Linda was as musically witless as they come. And the truckloads of narcotics they consumed surely dumbed down their critical faculties. Linda even arrived at one of their many court hearings "stoned out of her mind", according Len Murray, their long suffering lawyer. But if this was Iggy or Bowie the creative juices would be flooding the studio floor. Nope. McCartney chose to drift gently down stream, strumming and humming in the summer breeze. Puttnam and Murray are just two of the 220 people author Howard Sounes canvassed for their for what he believes is "a better-balanced, more detailed and more comprehensive life". Interestingly, though he doesn't directly speak with the man himself. The early sketches by those around in the heyday of Merseybeat, friends, neighbours and fellow-musicians all offer insights, annecdotes and evidence. And others(Ravi Shankar, John Tavener, Carla Lane), mostly industry types provide further pieces for the jigsaw yet the some like Ken Dodd, Bruce Forsyth, Jeffrey Archer simply offered nothing bt extra pages, void of editorial rigour. Personally, I found the memoirs of Astrid Kirchherr and J├╗rgen Vollmer fascinating. Although a quick web search roves this material s hardly new. The 'explanations' from Imelda Marcos are most certainly enlightening, given the treatment of the Beatles in the Philippines led to their decision to quit touring.

Alas, those most likely to add to the story – Ringo Starr, the McCartney children, Jane Asher – remain silent. Incidently, it's amazing Asher has said nothing since 21 July 1968 when, questioned about her engagement to McCartney, by chat-show host Simon Dee, she replied: "I haven't broken it off, but it's finished." Maybe she's forgiven him for that dscretion, despite her family looking after him, and McCartney's pressuring at the time for her to give up acting.

I'm always suspicious of authors who use source notes rather than numbered footnotes. And there's nearly 20 pages worth here. They simply, disguise Fab as an exceedingly thorough cut and paste job with a heavy reading of Barry Miles's authorised biography on the side. I could certainly do without the supermarket trash moments and tittle tattle around McCartney's marriage to Heather Mills, and the the overvalued implosion that followed. Still, it's a good airline book, assuming you're planning on several trips to the UK non-stop in the next wee while. While, hardly academic, Fab ticks off as a definitive re-work on McCartney, not entirely original but meaty, exhaustive and the most up to date thing you'll find on the shelves at present.