SPECIAL FEATURE – PAUL KELLY

To Her Door (P Kelly) – Paul Kelly and the Coloured Girls 1987

 In 1977 Kelly had relocated to a shared house at 1109 Hoddle St, East Melbourne, he was pretty much broke but absorbing musical influences from a lively local club scene and the extensive record collection of one of his housemates.

He played the Carlton pub rock, campus, and inner-city venues as initially The High-Rise Bombers and then the Dots, they were generally described as New Wave, he met and married his first wife Hilary and their son Declan arrived in 1980.

Kelly was living with his wife and family in a flat in Punt Rd. Richmond, he was hitless, without a band and paralysed by writer’s block, he went to see a group called the Cuban Heels at a pub in Richmond, the band’s front-man, Steve Connolly, seemed to Kelly like a cross between Hubert Sumlin, Steve Cropper and James Burton, all legendary guitarists. Connolly would ultimately join Kelly a year later in Sydney as lead guitarist with the Coloured Girls, and his musical influence within the group would prove to be pivotal to their future success.

He hit the mark with the iconic Kelly/Chris Langman song Leaps and Bounds which was lifted off  the Gossip album, and was an undisguised love letter to his adopted home town of Melbourne, he was at a creative peak when he released the single To Her Door, lifted off the Under the Sun album in 1987; it exemplified his accessible and engaging narrative style, so reminiscent of Bob Dylan and the bluesmen of another era, the opening guitar chords have a distinctive delta blues provenance.

The steel pedal guitar of Lucky Oceans is exemplary and Peter Bull’s piano complements it perfectly, Kelly’s vocals are passionate and underscore the dramatic ebb and flow of the song.

To Her Door has a ballad/country rock fusion feel to it as it depicts the story of a young couple who become estranged, and make a brutal yet touching attempt at reconciliation ”They got married early, never had no money/ Then when he got laid off, they really hit the skids/ He started up his drinking, then they started fighting/ He took it pretty badly, she took both the kids.”

The song is typical of Kelly’s narrative style, infused with wry observations, bitter sweet emotions, and chronicles a schism in the life of a man and his wife and family, and was the first in a trilogy of songs about the couple who we later come to know as Joe and Rita, when their story evolved through 1994’s Love Never Runs On Time, and finally the quintessential Australian Christmas song, How To Make Gravy, completing the trilogy in 1997.

To Her Door was included by APRA in the top 30 songs written in the modern era in Australia to 2001, and the song almost passed the taxi driver recognition test as recounted by Kelly in his memoir How To Make Gravy, when taking a cab from Tullamarine Airport back to the city, the Greek cabbie told him that he liked Kelly’s song “they got married early” and that other one “out the door” was pretty good too.

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Love Never Runs on Time (P Kelly) 1994 and How to Make Gravy (P Kelly) – Paul Kelly 1997.

 Kelly was still chronicling the life of the young man who had split with his wife in To Her Door in 1987 when his wife took the kids and declared “shove it Jack, I’m walking out that fuckin’ door.” He was last heard of riding a silver top to see his estranged wife and kids, he was still aimless and drifting and she had sent him the money to make the trip, would they reconcile, could they be a family again?

Love Never Runs On Time was lifted off the Wanted Man album, recorded at Clearlake Studios, Los Angeles by Kelly and mixed by Tony Cohen at Metropolis Studios in Melbourne. Local talent included Peter Luscombe (drums), Bill McDonald (bass), David Bridie (keyboards), Shane O’Mara (guitar), and the sweet harmony vocals of the Bull sisters Vika and Linda.

In Kelly’s book How To Make Gravy his profile of this song becomes a dissertation on the quality of coffee around the world and in the song our young protagonist makes some observations about the turgid roadside café version of what passes for a decent brew “” I followed the old river till morning/I stopped, I don’t remember the name of the town/ But the colour of the coffee was a warning/ It was the colour of the river but not nearly as brown.”

His life is spiraling down, he cannot connect with his former partner and kids, “You’re lost in the traffic/ I’ve been asking around, but you haven’t been seen/I never thought we were perfect/ Oh, but darling- what we could have been.”

The last in this trilogy of songs is a Christmas song which is set in prison, it has no chorus, traditional yuletide references and tinsel-tree imagery are eschewed, Kelly had been inspired by Darlene Love’s version of Irving Berlin ‘s White Christmas, which is a track on the box set “bonus” album A Christmas Gift for You from Phil Spector. He realized that this famous song was sung from the perspective of a person who is not going to be with their loved ones at Christmas, this inspired the mood and ambience of Kelly’s song, a letter written from a person in prison to his family.

Kelly had been asked by Lindsey Field, guitarist and backing singer for John Farnham to contribute a song to a Christmas charity record for the Salvation Army, and instead of covering a traditional song like Little Drummer Boy or Good King Wenceslas Paul had submitted How to Make Gravy, Lindsey loved it but he had to get permission from the charity to include it, and he did.

Our protagonist, whose name is Joe, is now serving time for unspecified crimes but is hopeful of getting parole in the near future, his partner Rita, whose identity is also revealed for the first time, will be at the Xmas dinner with his children and other family members and Joe feels desperately lonely and alienated from his loved ones ”Hello Dan, its Joe here I hope you’re keeping well/ It’s the 21st December, and now they’re ringing the last bells/ If I get good behavior, I’ll be out of here by July/ Won’t you kiss my kids on Christmas Day, please don’t let ‘em cry for me.’

The lyrics are in the form of a letter from Joe to his brother and are spoken and sung at different points in the narrative, the mixed emotions of family factions meeting at Xmas and the traditions of meals, games and making the gravy for the roast meal are unerringly captured, the musical structure is simple and unadorned – guitars, bass, drums, harmonica, and keyboards, with a slide guitar line written and performed by Spencer P. Jones – Kelly’s vocals are impassioned yet bittersweet. Joe may be at a low ebb in his life, his self-esteem and confidence eroded by incarceration, but he has not given up hope “You know one of these days I’ll be making gravy/I’ll be making plenty, I’m gonna pay “em all back.”

Recorded at Sing Sing Studios Melbourne, produced by Kelly and Simon Polinski, the single barely made the top 100 but the Deeper Water album from which it was lifted charted at #39, and How to Make Gravy would become a seasonal classic and a much-loved song. In December 2018 Paul Kelly would reprise a performance of this song at Melbourne’s Sydney Myer Music Bowl accompanied by his two daughters Maddie and Memphis, with Ash Naylor on slide guitar, in a tribute to Spencer P. Jones who had passed away earlier that year.

The highest chart entry for Paul Kelly over his illustrious career, with an album of new songs, had been his 2001 album …Nothing but a Dream which hit #6, but good things come to those who persist, and in 2017 one of Australia’s living legends of music, scored his first national #1hit with the album Life is Fine.

After 36 years and 23 albums, Paul Maurice Kelly could enjoy this sweet moment of long overdue public affection and respect, and the feeling that life was fine.

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