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!

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