The words of a common man

The Age
February 6, 2006

Karen Ford explains how Paul Kelly knows us all so well.

Paul Kelly sings unaffected stories of love, injustice and hope amid adversity.
Photo: Supplied

Don't start me talking: Lyrics 1984-2004

TO SAY that Paul Kelly's lyrics are merely about relationships is too simplistic and a bit of a cop-out. Kelly's work is about the self, the ego, our place in the world and the "dumb things" we do.
His writings locate, with intense precision, the nature of not only what it means to be an Australian, but also what it means to be a man, woman or child caught up in the modern world. There is beauty in pain, celebration in suffering and an honesty that cuts to the core.
In reading his work it is easy to agree with his sentiments about love, passion, loss, family, identity, betrayal, conceit and belonging. One can question how this man with simple, unaffected songs can know us and share our experiences. The answer is simple: Kelly is part of the human experience and thus articulates what is common to us all.
In this anthology, Kelly writes candidly about his relationship with his father and home, including Adelaide, Before the Old Man Died and Going About My Father's Business. What is revealed is a sense of pain and pragmatism about the flaws of his dad, "For the way he ruined our mother/ Not enough blood could run/ We had plans me and my brother/ Every day I cleaned the gun". Kelly's words remind us that turning our back on our birthplace and family is one thing but to leave behind the memories and images they imprint on us is often impossible.
In Adelaide Kelly laments on the stagnation of his town, "everybody's inside/ Sitting in the same chairs they were sitting in last year". But we also have to remember that while we can be critical of that sameness, there is also something reassuring and safe about knowing that those aspects of our lives will never change. From those beginnings and strained relationships we can develop attitudes and values and make decisions about how to live.
As an Australian committed to human rights and social justice, Kelly writes about the plight of Aborigines in the past and the present. In the songs Maralinga, Treaty, Bicentennial, Special Treatment, From Little Things Big Things Grow and This Land is Mine, Kelly presents a stark and passionate comment on native title, the stolen generation and assimilation.
In 1988, Australia celebrated its bicentenary: 200 years of white settlement. In the song Bicentennial, Kelly writes from the point of view of those unimpressed with 200 years of white settlement. While "they want us all to cheer/ Charlie's head nearly reaches the ceiling/ But his feet don't touch the floor/ From a prison-issue blanket his body's swinging/ He won't dance any more".
The juxtaposition of celebration with suffering is made acutely clear in Kelly's repetition of the words "hunted man" in the third verse, where in the end "all (are) swept away". This repetition reminds us that Aborigines were hunted then and are hunted still - not by men with guns but with words, politics, bureaucracy and apathy. It is not surprising that the choice of pronoun "they" and "your" distance the speaker from those celebrating, for it serves to highlight that not everyone saw this as a moment to rejoice: "Leave me out of your parade/ I have not the heart for dancing/ For dancing on his grave".
Kelly's lyrics also take us to much more intimate and personal landscapes. Common to all his work is his use of cliches, language and iconography that are emblematic of the Australian identity. In Dumb Things, Kelly's lament about succumbing to ego, "I lost my shirt, I pawned my rings . . . I threw my hat into the ring/ I've done all the dumb things". His list of dumb things only serves to remind us that, in moments of weakness, we are all capable of foolishness.
In To Her Door, Kelly's lyrics bespeak the notion of fate and optimism. A ballad about young love, the couple's marriage "hit the skids" and our third-person narrator provides a fragment of this couple's struggle to survive. It is brutal and beautiful and an attempt at reconciliation sees "him" "riding through the cane in the pouring rain/ On Olympic to her door". These lines alone provide rich imagery of cleansing, determination and hope while the reference to the bus line gives us a sense of immediacy and realism.
In the final verse, Kelly chooses to eschew a happy ending and reflect life's uncertainty: "Could he make a picture and get them all to fit?" Nothing is certain, we all make mistakes and, like many of his songs, life doesn't have full stops where stories suddenly end.
The sense of journey and the distance travelled in How to Make Gravy, where the active language of driving and flying is juxtaposed with Joe's "standing" provides a distinct sense of regret as he vows to "pay 'em all back". In asking "who's gonna make the gravy now?" Kelly's question serves as a metaphor for loneliness, alienation and the importance of family. The images of "sleepy children", dancing with Rita, Mary's new boyfriend and "the treasure and the trash" highlight the importance of tradition and ritual, just like making gravy, and all are images of comfort for the son who "screwed up".
The letter structure provides a conversational tone and allows an intimate glimpse into one man's pain. Again, we are presented with hope amid adversity through language that is unaffected and colloquial.
Deciding which lyrics to study is difficult as each song provides a window into Kelly's world and mirrors our own. His love of summer and cricket is explored in Behind the Bowler's Arm and Bradman, while uncontrollable passion and desire is conveyed in the matter-of-fact She's Rare. The displacement of refugees is sorrowfully echoed in Emotional, while the horror and confusion of domestic violence is revealed in Sweet Guy.
Kelly's lyrics are evocative, confronting and inspiring. Often embarrassing, always honest, his verse reminds us of Shakespeare's Fool, more wise than we give credit for, laying bare the universal qualities of the human condition wrapped up in music and folly.
Karen Ford lectures at the Victorian College of the Arts and is an assessor for the VCAA.
The juxtaposition of celebration with suffering is made acutely clear in Kelly's repetition of the words "hunted man" in the third verse, where in the end "all (are) swept away". This repetition reminds us that Aborigines were hunted then and are hunted still - not by men with guns but with words, politics, bureaucracy and apathy. It is not surprising that the choice of pronoun "they" and "your" distance the speaker from those celebrating, for it serves to highlight that not everyone saw this as a moment to rejoice: "Leave me out of your parade/ I have not the heart for dancing/ For dancing on his grave".
Kelly's lyrics also take us to much more intimate and personal landscapes. Common to all his work is his use of cliches, language and iconography that are emblematic of the Australian identity. In Dumb Things, Kelly's lament about succumbing to ego, "I lost my shirt, I pawned my rings . . . I threw my hat into the ring/ I've done all the dumb things". His list of dumb things only serves to remind us that, in moments of weakness, we are all capable of foolishness.
In To Her Door, Kelly's lyrics bespeak the notion of fate and optimism. A ballad about young love, the couple's marriage "hit the skids" and our third-person narrator provides a fragment of this couple's struggle to survive. It is brutal and beautiful and an attempt at reconciliation sees "him" "riding through the cane in the pouring rain/ On Olympic to her door". These lines alone provide rich imagery of cleansing, determination and hope while the reference to the bus line gives us a sense of immediacy and realism.
In the final verse, Kelly chooses to eschew a happy ending and reflect life's uncertainty: "Could he make a picture and get them all to fit?" Nothing is certain, we all make mistakes and, like many of his songs, life doesn't have full stops where stories suddenly end.
The sense of journey and the distance travelled in How to Make Gravy, where the active language of driving and flying is juxtaposed with Joe's "standing" provides a distinct sense of regret as he vows to "pay 'em all back". In asking "who's gonna make the gravy now?" Kelly's question serves as a metaphor for loneliness, alienation and the importance of family. The images of "sleepy children", dancing with Rita, Mary's new boyfriend and "the treasure and the trash" highlight the importance of tradition and ritual, just like making gravy, and all are images of comfort for the son who "screwed up".
The letter structure provides a conversational tone and allows an intimate glimpse into one man's pain. Again, we are presented with hope amid adversity through language that is unaffected and colloquial.
Deciding which lyrics to study is difficult as each song provides a window into Kelly's world and mirrors our own. His love of summer and cricket is explored in Behind the Bowler's Arm and Bradman, while uncontrollable passion and desire is conveyed in the matter-of-fact She's Rare. The displacement of refugees is sorrowfully echoed in Emotional, while the horror and confusion of domestic violence is revealed in Sweet Guy.
Kelly's lyrics are evocative, confronting and inspiring. Often embarrassing, always honest, his verse reminds us of Shakespeare's Fool, more wise than we give credit for, laying bare the universal qualities of the human condition wrapped up in music and folly.
Karen Ford lectures at the Victorian College of the Arts and is an assessor for the VCAA.