Paul Kelly’s “song memoir” How to Make Gravy (Penguin, 2010) is as expansive and rich in gems as Australia itself. This is no conventional autobiography, and all the better for it. Written using an A-Z of his songs as its structure, it is digressive, thoughtful and honest. He is a raconteur with a sense of history and a guitar at hand to illustrate a point.
With maternal grandparents who were Italian opera singers, and an Irish-Australian father who was a Shakespeare-quoting friend of Don Bradman, Kelly’s love of music and story-telling combine to shape his greatest work and perhaps the most substantial and literary musician’s memoir. (Against this, Dylan’s Chronicles is just an aperitif).
He talks of the joys of big families, touring the outback choking on the tales of Slim Dusty, wasting years and wasting relationships while dabbling in heroin, songwriting friends such as Dragon’s Paul Hewson and Cold Chisel’s Don Walker (“the Clint Eastwood of Australian music”), collaborations with Aboriginal musicians, a pro-active commitment to social justice, and endless summers of cricket. As asides, lyrics and lists (great opening lines for songs, a recipe for gravy, Gary Puckett and the Union Gap’s concept album). The best songs keep nagging you, “like a tongue with a loose tooth”. So does this. Two years after reading it I still don’t feel I’ve quite scraped the best bits off the pan.
A long televised interview with Kelly, conducted by the Go-Betweens’ Robert Forster, is recommended. So too is Forster’s thoughtful essay on Kelly’s work, “Thoughts in the Middle of a Career”, written for The Monthly.