Paul Kelly: Stories of MeNovember 3, 2012
Archie Roach reckons Paul Kelly is Australia’s “bard”. It’s what people used to say about Banjo Patterson and Henry Lawson back in the days when poetry was a popular art. But for every man-in the-street who could recite parts of The Man from Snowy River in the 1890s, there must be thousands today who can sing To Her Door or Careless.
Ian Darling’s engaging, unaffected portrait of Paul Kelly hints at more than it reveals about a musician who defies classification. Kelly is reluctant to talk about himself, probably believing – like any good artist – that his work says all we need to know. There are plenty of friends and family members who are willing to fill the gaps, including two ex-wives and members of his various bands.
Gradually a picture emerges of a fiercely determined personality – a perfectionist who sets high standards for himself and those around him. On the other hand there is Paul Kelly the romantic, the moralist, the wrecker of personal relationships. It all goes into the music, but if Kelly’s songs were only about himself they wouldn’t have the same power to move people.
Kelly’s special brilliance lies in his ability to tell a story in song, putting himself inside the skin of different characters. How to Make Gravy comes from a prison cell, From Little Things Big Things Grow chronicles a historic moment in the struggle for Aboriginal Land Rights. His writer cousin, Fiona McGregor, envies Kelly’s ability to get an entire novel into a handful of verses.
It is interesting to compare this documentary to the major Australian rock bio pic of last year, Autoluminescent, devoted to the late Rowland S. Howard. Perhaps the most significant difference is Kelly’s extraordinary self-belief. While Howard’s career was derailed by his heroin use, Kelly experimented with the drug but stopped when he saw many of his peers becoming addicts. The same goes for song writing. Martin Armiger who played in one of the early bands, recounts how Kelly decided one day he no longer wanted to sing anybody else’s songs. Sorry Martin, no hard feelings.
Like Howard, and Sidney Nolan for that matter, Kelly read Rimbaud and felt the attraction of that youthful thirst for extreme experiences. But he also read Shakespeare, Proust and the Romantic poets. Kelly is a rock and roll survivor, who has become a mentor and inspiration to a new generation of musicians. At 57 years old and looking every day of it, music just keeps pouring out in a bewildering variety of styles.
For such a skilled songwriter it may be a little surprising that Kelly has never been fully appreciated outside of Australia. The reason for his relative neglect in the international arena is the same reason he is idolised at home. Most of Kelly’s songs may have universal relevance, but there is an unmistakable Australianness, starting with his voice, which never adopts the standard British or American accents used by singers all over the world.
Kelly sings about places we all know – Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide; he sings about Maralinga and Bradman. In the cadences of his songs, in his use of the vernacular, his work strikes a powerful, sentimental chord with local audiences. Overseas listeners may be able to recognise the quality of these songs but never catch the emotional resonances. Australians can feel instinctively that this music belongs to us.
Paul Kelly: Stories of Me, Australia, rated M, 100 mins.
Published by the Australian Financial Review, November 3, 2012