Songlines of an uncommon man

Margaret Saltau
August 13, 2007
A study of Paul Kelly's finely crafted lyrics reveals much about the man, writes Margaret Saltau.
'DON'T start me talking," orders Paul Kelly, or he will "start to flow". And he does. Words, images, pain, humour, celebration, journeys, losses, reflections - all trickle and pour into "deeper waters" - a portrait of a man, a portrait of a place and time, a portrait of human experience especially in a recent Australian context.
Examining the idea of the tragic hero in modern times, playwright Arthur Miller claimed that "the common man" is intent upon claiming his whole due as a personality, and if this struggle must be total and without reservation, then it automatically demonstrates the indestructible will of man to achieve his humanity.
Further, he asserts that society alone is responsible for the cramping of our lives. Miller's ideas provide us with a means of understanding Paul Kelly's lyrics. Although he makes no grandiloquent claims to tragic stature, Kelly's characters are, indeed, concerned to achieve their humanity in a limiting environment. Miller's common man is found in Kelly's ruminations on his world and his position in it, in his laments for lost love, in his celebration of the "little things".
When he told a reporter that "I don't know any ordinary people", Kelly provided a key to the characters found in his lyrics. Whether he is writing of an iconic cricketer, of a black tracker, of a hungover, lonely man, we all matter, and every aspect of our lives is important, as is every aspect of every act we undertake. The range of voices and of characters is indicative of his inclusive sweep, of the extent to which he speaks of, and for, all Australians.
If life can be unbearable, if at times we can only howl our losses out - "No you, no you, no you!" - Kelly also maintains that "we're not alone". As he maps his geographical context, he derives meaning from his physical surroundings, discovering an emotional context for us.
Australian poet John Forbes called the world of Paul Kelly "the standard one of urban, romantic individualism". However, Forbes qualifies what could be seen as a dismissal of Kelly's lyrics with the recognition of his "toughness", a rejection of indulgence in the suffering that many of his songs acknowledge. But, along with the value Kelly places on the individual is the insistence on the need for connection - through talking, loving, thinking: "you gotta have a friend". Forbes dubs Kelly's "refusal to be heartbroken" as "noble". This word moves Kelly and his subjects into Miller's world of those who are struggling to achieve their humanity.
In Melting, Paul Kelly evokes a moment in which loss and celebration are fused, but as we often find in his lyrics, loss dominates. As the past slips away, the only way Kelly can retrieve what his "grandmother's house" represented is by recreating it in words. The children seem suspended between the past and the destruction that the present wreaks. The ice-cream, symbol of purity, is transformed into an active symbol of the impossibility of retaining innocence or happiness: like ice-cream they melt away.
The starkness of the final stanza denies hope, acknowledging the absence of what has melted, though the fire that warms the singer in the "colder city" could suggest that he has retained something. The children's harmless fires that transform into bushfires are now tamed, controlled, perhaps even a source of comfort.
Kelly finds comfort, and his work insists that we are in need of solace, in small, odd places - for instance, in Charlie Owen's slide guitar, in memory, in moments of beauty and love, and in hope. The lovers, the years, the friends have gone, but the winter coat remains, and becomes an emblem of warmth in "the cold, cold hills". Kelly hasn't lost hope. The cold that sets in with the passing of time can be countered.
Kelly's lyrics can give a false impression of simple, uncomplicated words and feelings, but we must not confuse simplicity with lack of sophistication. One means by which Kelly's songs gain depth and complexity is through intertextuality. Chekhov, the Christian bible, literary figures such as Ernest Hemingway, films, Shakespeare, Australian current events: all these provide nuances and the allusions which combine in the rich mixture of high and low culture which is Australia. In Nothing on My Mind, he segues from "the old man" - Hemingway on "grace under pressure" epitomised in the bull ring, to the less heroic but, he argues, more challenging pressures of "fighting bullshit". We, too, are required to face adversity with "grace".
Kelly mourns the inexorable movement of time, he acknowledges love that turns bad, he comes to terms with human frailty, he even suggests that religion might be a source of, if not comfort, understanding. If there is bitterness to be found, it is directed at the "little kings" who put "a price on everything", at "the double fella with the mean back flip", at hypocrites who only value the material, at the unthinking person who fails to capitalise on his ability to reason and feel and make moral decisions.
Two songs resonate as examples of the personal voice and commitment that speaks all. Taken from Raymond Carver's short story, Everything's Turning to White demonstrates the ramifications that flow from a weak, self-serving act, or neglecting to act. Here, the public decision - the disregarding of a dead girl - destroys the private life. "I feel like I'm frozen inside," the wife says, condemned to "daily disguise" by her husband's self-indulgence.
In From Little Things Big Things Grow, Kelly encapsulates the idea of the value of the minutia of life. Epitomising his hatred of "power and privilege", this song is one of many that acknowledge the wrongs done to Australia's original inhabitants, but has resonance for those of us of every background. "Attention must be paid", Arthur Miller writes of his "common man", and Kelly, too, insists that attention must be paid to every person and every experience at every level. It is from this that "big things grow".
The songs in Don't Start Me Talking are also linked by images - specifically fire and water, the motif of the past and its impingement on the present, the sense of physical movement that creates emotional growth, by the vivid evocation of Kelly's Australia, but the overarching impression is of a fully engaged persona involved in the experience of living, and of how meaning is derived from that experience.
Kelly evokes the people and places that are seen as quintessentially Australian, even clichedly so. He writes in the vernacular, but he transcends the mundane. Thus Bradman is "a kid in from the sticks", but also "something like a tide" in Kelly's tribute to the cricketer.
In St Kilda, "the palm trees have it hard", like typical Aussie battlers, but "sweet" in the last line jolts us into another realm of meaning, with a gush of emotion and tenderness.
Kelly traces his travels as he maps his physical and emotional world. He writes of the unravelling of a love affair on a peripatetic journey through Europe. This song starts "on the channel train to Paris" and finishes, like Melting, in "a chilly city".
The speaker has drawn into himself, cynical and damaged; there is no variety, no interest - everything is "just the same". This sense of defeat and finality is rare in Kelly's work, and is usually fleeting. He describes life and death as cyclic, hinting at patterns that endow each experience with meaning. Some of his later lyrics engage with Christian motifs of the lamb, the light, the angel.
"Let the part tell the whole," says Kelly in Bradman. And he does.
One Night the Moon
A musical drama featuring Paul Kelly, directed by Rachel Perkins, co-written by Paul Kelly.
Tragedy and the Common Man by Arthur Miller
Interview with Andrew Denton in Enough Rope, July 5, 2004.
Homosuburbiensis by Bruce Dawe. In this poem, Dawe argues for the importance of the "ordinary" person.
The music of poetry by John Forbes in The Age October 9, 1993. One of Australia's major poets assesses Kelly's lyrics.
Kelly's official website contains a vast array of material.