Friday, May 18, 2012

How to make gravy

I'm delighted to have found my Desert Island Book.  Or rather another Desert Island Book.  Of course, most of my favourite books are novels, but they aren't really suitable as desert island books: there aren't many novels which I've read more than twice, and I doubt that I'll ever read any novel more than three times.  The last novel which I re-read was Peter Temple's 'The Broken Shore' and I loved it just as much the second time around - and I'm sure that the next novel which I will re-read will be the same author's 'Truth', and I fully expect to enjoy that one too just as much second time around.  But for one's Desert Island Book, it has to be a book which one can re-read until the cows don't come home, or until the castaway doesn't come home.  My Desert Island Book was always going to be Ross Du Bourg's 'The Australian & New Zealand Thoroughbred', but that has now been moved one place down the list in favour of a book which I brought home with me from Australia at the start of April, 'How To Make Gravy', by Paul Kelly.

You might not be familiar with Paul Kelly and his words and music, but that's forgiveable: even if you followed the Australian charts closely, you'd still find it easy to miss him.  Even knowing that he isn't mainstream, I was still surprised to read in the book that when one of his best-known songs 'From Little Things Big Things Grow' (a true story about the Aboriginal land rights struggle) was incorporated into a song by "the hip-hop group The Herd" in 2008 and that the "single went to number four on the national Top Forty chart", "after thirty years in show business it was the first time I'd been involved in a Top Ten single."  So, Paul Kelly isn't the most popular singer you'd ever find, but he's one of the very best.  The music's great, and the words are very, very special.  So you can understand why his book looking back on his life and recounting the background to his songs is just terrific.  There's so much in it, and I'm sure that I'll still be dipping into it until the day I die.

As accompaniment to writing about this book, I've just put on one of his CDs which I haven't played for too long, 'Words And Music'.  The song playing just now is 'Charlie Owen's Slide Guitar', about his friend and fellow musician.  This is a memory of him in the book: Paul Kelly was listening to him and Joel Silbersher playing one night in his local music club, The Continental, when "Joel sang the immortal 'I Miss Your Big White Bum'.  During another song, Charlie played a strange, harsh run of notes that seemed wrong to me at first.  But when I heard them a second time, a verse or two later, they lifted my head clean off my shoulders.  Great music does this to you - makes you feel like a wanderer washed up on a seemingly strange island who suddenly feels they've arrived home.  Listening to them play that night, all my troubles became tiny things."

See what I mean?  This is terrific.  His reflections on the music that he's enjoyed through his life, the background to the writing of his own songs, and his friends - all too many of them dead sadly, usually because the drugs generally don't make for long lives - whose company he has treasured are so moving.  How about this reflection on The Triffids?  "The Triffids had an album called Born Sandy Devotional, a great cathedral of a record inside which singer David McComb preached on love, lust and loneliness, surrounded and uplifted by the soaring architecture of 'Evil' Graham Lee's pedal steel.  Nashville never sounded like this.  For months I worshipped there daily."  (In case you are interested, there are two terrific versions of my favourite song from that album, 'Wide Open Road', on Youtube, with David McComb - another who died young - at his haunting best).  Or could a friend's life be better summed up than this?  "Steve Connolly, who played guitar with me for seven years, came from a line of vaudevillians, writers and communists.  He had a prodigious memory, a capacity for alcohol and drugs, and loved the Essendon football club, American Civl War history, Howlin' Wolf, Abba, and The Beach Boys.  He died too young, at the age of thirty-six, from a heart infection."

Talking of The Beach Boys, what better homage to Brian Wilson could there be than this?  Having recalled how The Beach Boys' music was forever played in the van as he and his band drove around the country for thousands and thousands of miles, playing show after show anywhere and everywhere in the middle of nowhere and catching the surf whenever they found themselves beside a suitable bit of ocean and had some time free, Paul Kelly tells how, "Two decades later, at the Domain on Sydney in a moist summer night, I stood by the side of the stage in the dark next to the monitor desk with my spine tingling as Brian, seated at an electric piano and reading from an autocue, in front of what used to be a Beach Boys covers band, sang and played his hits.  He noodled on the keys and talked out of the side of his mouth between songs.  And when he couldn't reach the high parts, the big guitarist to his left stepped up and sang like a bird.  The band, though heretical - one of them was a woman - were impeccable, the harmonies flawless.  The man who wrote 'God Only Knows' was singing it right before my eyes.  I thought to myself, I could die happy now.  And that man Brian - avatar of sun and bliss and girls and surf, who never rode a wave in his life, and probably never will - why, he'll die only when the world dies."

You might wonder about the title to the book.  Well, that's Paul Kelly's Christmas song.  Predictably it's a Christmas song with a difference; and it's possibly the best.  "In 1996 I was approached to take part in a Christmas charity record organised by Lindsay Fields, guitar player and backing singer for John Farnham's band.  It's an annual project of his.  Various artists sing carols and Christmas-themed songs to raise money for the Salvation Army."  They mostly just sing existing songs, but the one which Paul Kelly chose to sing had already been bagged by someone else.  So he decided to write his own.  A while later, "I rang Lindsay.  'I have a Christmas song,' I said, 'but it doesn't have a chorus and it's set in prison.'  'I better come over and have a listen.'  The next day he sat in my small back shed while I played it to him, my head down, partly from nerves but also to read the fresh-scratched lyrics in my notebook on the floor.  When I looked up at the end he was holding his hanky.  'It's supposed to be a comedy,' I said.  'I know,' he replied, wiping his eyes."  And that's how 'How To Make Gravy' came about.  And if and when you listen to it, you'll probably be wiping your eyes too.

Anyway, I've gone off at a complete tangent here, but I hope you get the picture.  And I should credit Jeremy Gask for his part in the saga.  Amazingly I'd managed to spend a whole year in Victoria without Paul Kelly appearing on my radar.  But this omission was recitifed a few years later when Jeremy Gask was in the UK.  He'd been working for Mark Tompkins and was getting ready to go home to start training in South Australia.  I think that this would have been in 1997 that he went home.  Anyway, he'd moved out of his lodgings a small number of weeks before departure, so he stayed here before leaving.  And he had some Paul Kelly albums which we played a lot, one of which he left with me, which was really kind.  And I've been listening to his music ever since.

To return to what is meant to be the subject in hand, we should have runners on the second and third day of Newmarket's three-day meeting this week.  Silken Thoughts on Friday in a massive field - the legacy of all the abandonments is that there are plenty of horses waiting to run, so Friday sees two identical races at York and Newmarket each with a full field of 20, plus several horses eliminated from each, which isn't what one usually expects for higher-grade races - ridden by Brett Doyle, who's now back from Hong Kong and who has always done well for us in the past.  And then on Saturday we have Grand Liaison and Wasabi (pictured on Railway Land on Wednesday morning) running, one in each division of the mile three-year-olds' maiden.  Let's hope that all three horses acquit themselves with credit.  They should do, but one can't take anything for granted.

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