By Julia May
Published: May 20, 2013
When Guest Butler Julia May asked about celebrating Paul Kelly, he wasn't even a name to me. Then I listened to 'They Thought I Was Asleep' and understood why Australians say he's a national treasure. Scroll down, listen, shake your head at the pictures he can sing. National treasure, indeed.
Julia is a co-founder of The Bulb, an Australian online publication about inspired living. She's also a journalist, having most recently been the London correspondent for The Age and Sydney Morning Herald in Australia. She is working on her first novel.
As I sat in Melbourne’s Palais Theatre recently watching Paul Kelly, I thought, “The whole world should know him. Why don’t they?“ He’s doing his part, a tour of the US and Europe. Now I’ll do mine.
The first thing to know about Paul Kelly --- really, the most important thing to know --- is what his strength is as a singer and songwriter. It’s this: He articulates the feelings you know but cannot name, conjuring the first, worst, best, most lusty or loneliest love; that person’s smell, the particular flavor of that heartbreak. He also transports you into other bodies, other lives.
“They Thought I Was Asleep” is the story of a long-forgotten nighttime car ride, the one when your parents‘ misery was stripped bare.
In “From Little Things Big Things Grow,” he stands with the Aborigines deprived of their land.
The family Christmas? In ”How to Make Gravy,” the singer is in prison, writing to his brother on December 21st. He fears his brother will steal his wife. He misses the kids. The remorse is a punch in your guts.
What links the songs is the life experience. Paul Kelly roamed around the pubs of Melbourne, building his repertoire and his laconic, even languid, performing style, and nursing the heroin addiction that he‘s only kicked in the last few years --- his face has the look of the mean streets about it. In the ‘80s, he moved to Sydney, forming his first well-known band: Paul Kelly and the Coloured Girls.
But it was Melbourne, my hometown, that drew him back and forms the backdrop for songs such as “From St Kilda To King’s Cross,” in which he would trade all of spectacular Sydney Harbour for St Kilda’s gritty promenade. He has mainly stuck to a solo career in the past three decades, but has played or written with just about every terrific Australian musician. [To buy Paul Kelly’s most recent CD from Amazon, click here. For the MP3 download, click here.]
Kelly is demonstrably Australian. He explores and very simply but beautifully illustrates this country’s culture and landscape. But his music is a soundtrack to life wherever it is lived, with no age bracket necessary. In university pubs, I danced --- badly, drunkenly, and too close to the jukebox --- to “Dumb Things.”
I mulled theapologies of a crazy boyfriend with “To Her Door” on rotation (and finally turned him away).
My beloved and I choreographed our bridal waltz to “Down to My Soul” at 3AM two nights before the wedding. The lyrics; 'You wake me up / Speaking dreams at dawn/ I reach and touch/ The fine lines time has drawn/ For all the world I wouldn’t change my place/ Your mixed-up tears Falling on my face.' This verse, from that song, is perhaps my favorite from all of Kelly’s songs; if this does not speak of a lasting partnership, what does?
"When I First Met Your Ma,” written as a letter from a father to his child, was not necessarily intended as a lullaby, but sends my 8-month-old daughter’s eyelids fluttering when hummed by her father. I love that I am the woman in the song.
Kelly’s skill as a songwriter lies in its contrasts: the lyrics are minimalist, yet deep. Poetic, but in an everyman way. Poignant, but frequently funny. He draws inspiration from the short stories of Raymond Carver. Indeed, in his magnificent autobiography, How To Make Gravy: A to Z, A Mongrel Memoir, which also doubles as the liner notes for every song he’s ever written, he says this:
Short stories have much in common with songs. Both need to carry their weight lightly. And Carver’s stories in particular are a perfect model for a certain kind of songwriter. They’re lean, clipped, mysterious, with a lot happening around the edges.
I wanted to write modern love songs, sing all kinds of love --- old love, young love, complicated love, happy love, sad love, carnal love, yearning love, hanging-on love, hanging-in love, out-of-control love, love gone wrong, love pretty right, love between friends, love among families, love of home, love of the unknown, love of clan, love of enemies, love of drinking, love of oblivion, love of pain.
As I sat at the Palais Theatre, by the sea in Kelly’s treasured St Kilda, this man I have known a long time still managed to grab me with surprise. He was performing with Neil Finn, of Crowded House. It was all pretty great but it was when he took "Into Temptation,” one of Finn’s best-known songs, that the tears popped from their ducts. Kelly made it his, and better than the original.
Be warned: A few songs, and Paul Kelly can form part of your life’s soundtrack.
130 wind turbines, 400 feet high, in Nantucket Sound --- who wouldn’t want that natural, cheap energy? A lot of people, as it turns out. (Including the Kennedys.) ‘Cape Spin! An American Power Struggle’ tells the funny/tragic story of this project. It’s good. (My friends made it.) For tickets, click here.
After, try getting this woman out of your head. Her optimism, her love of her friend, her lack of filter --- for most of the movie, these charm you. But there comes a moment when you lose patience with Frances. She's no longer a young woman trying to find a place for herself in her own life, she's a screw-up, a dingbat, a flop. How does she change, "grow up," become a new and better incarnation of the woman we loved in the beginning? That occurs off-screen. The movie is blighted by these two moments: the extra beat of bumbling, the absent beat of explication. But these are quibbles. "Frances Ha" is an affirmation and a delight. And the final 30 seconds are the most satisfying I’ve experienced in a movie theater in a long time.
It takes large stones to begin a show in a noisy, jammed New York club by coming out solo, dropping to your knees and howling like an Idaho wolf. Josh Ritter did that. He began his second song, also solo. Then, one by one, the other musicians stepped onstage and, like artists who know exactly how good they are and what it took to get that good, Ritter and the Royal City Band presented a demonstration of what adult rock music can be: smart and powerful, loud and tender, wise and innocent. I have seen Josh Ritter perform dozens of times; I’ve never seen a show like this. The arc of his new CD --- from his wife’s kick-in-the-gut announcement that their marriage was over to a wish for joy to all, ex-wife explicitly included --- was the spine of the show, but not more than that; Ritter curated his catalogue and delivered it with fire and precision. And the band! Not just crisp, but honed. Of course this crowd knew all the words. And not only sang along, but sang a tears-in-the-eyes-beautiful counterpoint in a favorite number. We hit the street buzzing, humming the tunes, like Broadway in the golden age. So I’m looking at you, you smart people in the cities ahead: Pittsburgh, Richmond, Charleston, Charlotte, Nashville, Knoxville, Birmingham, Baton Rouge, New Orleans, Lansing, Denver, Sun Valley and Lenox. Tickets here. Joy guaranteed. You find a better deal, let me know.
Giraffes for kids: Friend of the site Ann Medlock is the force behind The Giraffe Heroes Project, which identifies and honors people who stand up for what they believe --- people who stick their necks out. Now she's launched a Kickstarter campaign to fund "Two Tall Tales," a popup book for kids that shows how the giraffe got its long neck --- by being brave and caring. She's made a terrific video to pitch her project. And, if you're moved, help her move.