How to Make Gravy

ARTS, Books, Music

In his 2009 book The 10 Rules of Rock and Roll, Australian rock icon (if that’s the right word) Robert Forster wrote, “It can seem futile trying to chase down biographical material on Paul Kelly because, just as he’s ducked the glare of mainstream pop stardom, his self-effacement and unease with his past have left the songs to sketch the details…” Later he says, “it is astounding that no official version exists.”

Now I’m sure Robert Forster is resting easy, because How to Make Gravy (Hamish Hamilton/Penguin, NZ$60) is Kelly’s autobiography. Or at least sketches of it. Gravy is a concept album, literally and figuratively. The format of the book is based on his performances of A to Z. During these shows Kelly played around one hundred of his songs over four nights in alphabetical order from Adelaide to Zoe. (You can buy an eight album boxset of A to Z if you like.) The book is also an A to Z, with the lyrics of each song introducing prose which in some way relates to the lyric, the period, and the people.

The promotional material states that this is unlike any autobiography you’ve read, and for once that isn’t hype but God-honest truth. The conceit of the book means that this is no ordinary chronological autobiography, but random snippets of a life well-lived.

Many years ago, Kelly was one of my favourite musicians. An Australian troubadour, a little bit Dylan, a little bit Springsteen, a little bit Slim Dusty, a little bit Aussie pub rock. His songs tended towards the narrative, may or may not have been autobiographical, and he had a great backing band, initially the Coloured Girls, later renamed the Messengers as he took on America. Shortly after he ditched that band, after being ditched by his record label, I felt he lost his mojo. While Kelly has continued to release new material I have largely ignored him, pulling out old cassettes every now and then, but paying little attention to his new work.

The idea of Gravy though was intriguing to me, based as it is around his songs. Lyrics are important to my enjoyment of pop songs, and I always enjoyed Kelly’s lyrics. He got the short story in a song concept right in a way that other songwriters rarely have. He has an economy of language which produces tales that are simultaneously personal and universal, and pull you in emotionally. More recently though, he has been writing love songs (where he once wrote relationship songs), and pondering those big themes of mortality and God.

In recent years a number of songwriters have published volumes of their lyrics, Neil Finn among them; the implication being that pop lyrics (or their lyrics, at least) are poetry. Sadly, this is rarely the case, and reading Kelly’s words removed from their musical context is often disappointing. They’re not poetry, they’re song lyrics.

However, the lyrics are merely starting point, and it is his sense of narrative that brings alive the autobiographical details. Essentially they are memories, sketches of details inspired by a song, a name, a place, a word. Contradicting Forster’s comment, there is a sincere honesty here, still somewhat self-effacing, but suggesting he is no longer uneasy with his past (if he ever was). At the same time we’re not always fully introduced to characters, and are left to deduce the nature of the relationship. The lack of linear narrative fits perfectly with the lyrical conceit, as we jump from open mic night in Tasmania, to touring the US, to the pleasures of heroin, to Australia’s handling of asylum seekers, to some guys he saw in a bar someplace, to Gallipoli to the treatment of indigenous people.

Reading Gravy is kind of like a chat. You ask “what about ‘Bradman’?” and he regales you with how his Dad knew the great cricketer, that he (Paul Kelly) used to play on the same grounds, the beauty of circle songs, why finishing the song before Bradman’s story was complete made perfect sense, and what Bradman himself thought of the song. That’s not too far removed from what you’d expect. But ask about ‘The Gift That Keeps Giving’ and you get treated to some Bible history (not an uncommon topic hear) and his thoughts on Bic Runga. Or “is it a coincidence that ‘Nothing But A Dream’ sounds like a Together Alone outtake and the lyrics invoke Jane Campion’s The Piano?”, and Kelly’s response is a list of male singers headed ‘All Heaven Breaks Loose’ and no explanation.

The looseness of the concept means that Kelly has a huge freedom to riff on whatever takes his fancy. It’s not all straight memoir; in fact, it often reads like an Op-Ed column covering history, politics, literature, art, religion, and music, alongside chapters of his own life. One of my favourite songs (and the reason I started reading Raymond Carver) receives a beautifully long write-up. ‘Everything’s Turning To White’ is based on a Carver short story, and inspired the film Jindabyne for which Kelly co-wrote the score, and in Gravy he covers all this and more.

Like a chat with an old friend, you can jump in and out as you please. You don’t need to know the songs, or even anything about Kelly to enjoy this book. His life hasn’t been astounding, but there have been fascinating times, and he has great stories to tell. The way he tells them has an intimacy that a traditional chronological narrative would lack, and by dipping and diving into his life with certain randomness he gives away much more than we might otherwise expect.

The best writing about music gets you and leaves you longing to hear some of what you’re reading about. Gravy is no exception. Personally I’d suggest Comedy (1991), or Hidden Things (1992), or the countrified Foggy Highway (2005), though possibly the best place to start is Songs From The South, the 2009 retrospective Robert Forster wrote about in The 10 Rules of Rock and Roll.

And if you’re really keen, Paul Kelly has just been announced to play his A to Z show at the Auckland Arts Festival 2011, over four nights from March 16.