Kelly had begun to chronicle the life of a young man who had split from his wife in To Her Door in 1987, when his wife took the kids and told him to “shove it Jack, I’m walking out that fuckin’ door.” He was last heard of riding a silver top taxi through Melbourne 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? In 1994’s Love Never Runs On Time, lifted off the Wanted Man album, the life of this young man is apparently still spiraling down, he can‘t 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 third in the trilogy of songs about this couple, lifted from the Deeper Water album, is a Christmas song which is set in prison, it has no chorus, nor traditional yuletide references, and tinsel-tree imagery is eschewed for a jailhouse blues ambience. Kelly had been inspired by Darlene Love’s version of Irving Berlin ‘s White Christmas, which was 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, at Christmas.Kelly had been asked by Lindsey Field (sadly recently deceased), 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 good cheer, re-connecting with seldom-seen relatives, games and making the gravy for the roast meal are unerringly captured, the musical structure is simple – guitars, bass, drums, harmonica, and keyboards, with a slide guitar line written and performed by Spencer P. Jones – while Kelly’s vocals are impassioned and bittersweet.
Joe may be at a low ebb in his life, his self-esteem and confidence eroded by bad decisions and 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 charted at #39, and How to Make Gravy would become a seasonal classic and a much-loved song. In 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.Although Kelly had taken his album Songs From the South- Paul Kelly’s Greatest Hits to #1 in 1997, 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, and followed up with another #1 album in 2018 with Nature.After 36 years and 24 albums, 14 ARIA awards, 3 APRA awards, an Order of Australia, and induction into the ARIA Hall of Fame in 1997, Paul Maurice Kelly could enjoy the sweet moment of long overdue public affection and respect, and a feeling that life was fine.