PAUL KELLY 1980-1995

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Everything’s Turning To White (P Kelly) and Sweet Guy (P Kelly) – Paul Kelly and the Messengers 1989

Raymond Carver (below) was an American short story writer and poet, born to a poor working- class family in the state of Washington (USA), who worked in laboring jobs after leaving high school. His minimalist and impactful stories began to attract attention, and gradually he earned enough from his writing to complete a tertiary education, and later emerged as one of America’s greatest writers. He battled alcoholism for much of his life, and died in 1988, at the age of fifty.

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One of his most celebrated short story collections was What We Talk About When We Talk About Love (1975), which included the story So Much Water So Close To Home, which was the basis for one of the stories in the 1993 Robert Altman film Short Cuts, and became the title of the sixth studio album by Paul Kelly. Paul had progressed through the bands the Dots, the Coloured Girls to the Messengers which had coalesced around a stable line up of Paul Kelly (guitar, vocals), Peter Bull (keyboards, vocals), Steve Connolly (lead guitar, vocals), Jon Schofield (bass), and Michael Barclay (drums), who would tour constantly in the seven years from 1984-91, and record the seminal studio albums Gossip, Under The Sun, So Much Water So Close To Home, and Comedy.  

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The album was recorded in Los Angeles with Scott Litt (REM) and Kelly producing, its title is an homage to Raymond Carver who had passed away in 1988 when they were recording, and the song Everything’s Turning To White was thematically based on Carver’s story, So Much Water So Close To Home, which was the dark centre piece of the Carver collection referred to above. A humble housewife, Claire, grapples with the disturbing decision that her husband Stuart has made on his recent fishing trip with his mates, not to report their discovery of a dead girl’s body in the river, until three days later, after they have finished their annual weekend away.

Much of the song has a sparse musical sound set by a lone guitar that strums and stutters behind Kelly’s narrative gauntlet, it’s his challenge to make us care about Carver’s characters and to want to know what happens next, and he does this. It’s a desolate song, and Kelly cleverly demonstrates that he understands the lifelong repercussions of poor decisions made at a more self-absorbed, narcissistic age, as no doubt he has made several such decisions himself.

Carver’s story and Kelly’s song are tragic, morbid, and compelling, Kelly uses a combination of sung and spoken words to re-imagine the original story, the indefinite bleakness is underscored by Kelly’s lonely guitar riffs seemingly played into a confined hollow space, and his mournful vocals.

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The palpable sense of a betrayal of trust and the numbing claustrophobia of the man’s wife are captured in the chorus “When he holds me now I’m pretending/ I feel like I’m frozen inside/ And behind my eyes, my daily disguise/ Everything’s turning to white.” Just as pallor mortis has drained the murdered girl’s body of its colour, so too has the life and vibrancy been drained from her marriage, replaced by feelings of disgust and revulsion, and the listener can feel the sombre despair of a woman, forced into intimacy with a man who repulses her because of his immoral decisions, and possible involvement in the girl’s death. Carver graphically captured this moment as well “Stuart makes a sexual advance on Claire in the kitchen. As he reaches for her breasts, she hears water running in the sink, and is reminded of the girl floating in the river.”

Brilliant Narrative, Moving Interpretation – Paul Kelly

In 2006 Kelly was commissioned to co-develop the soundtrack for the Ray Lawrence film Jindabyne, filmed in the Snowy Mountains (NSW), starring Gabriel Byrne, Laura Linney, Deborah-Lee Furness, and John Howard. The film was also based on Raymond Carver’s short story, but with a more fully developed screenplay, which revealed intimate details of the individual lives of the three men, and added further moral complexity by revealing that the girl who had been raped and murdered was an indigenous girl, so triggering racial tensions and conflict in a small rural community. 

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The album So Much Water So Close To Home climbed to #10 locally, but none of the singles charted, although both Everything’s Turning To White and Sweet Guy have become live performance favorites.

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Despite lacking confidence in his vocals, which he has described as a combination of talking and singing, Paul Kelly has always been deliberate about finding voices for his songs other than his own, if he felt that would enhance their interpretation. Jenny Morris (Street Of Love) above with Kelly, Renee Geyer (A Difficult Woman), Christine Anu (Last Train), Wendy Matthews (Take Your Time), Deborah Conway (Everybody Wants To Touch Me) and Kasey Chambers (When We’re Both Old and Mad) have all benefited from this approach.

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Sweet Guy was such a song, it is a fiery domestic drama about abuse, which is told from a woman’s point of view, recorded with the Messengers at the urging of guitarist Steve Connolly, as Kelly initially felt that it would be inauthentic for a man to record such a song.

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 It was the first song that Kelly wrote from a women’s perspective, and the first single released from the So Much Water So Close To Home album in 1989. Steve Connolly’s blistering guitar riff kicks things off, Kelly’s vocals are carried along on Peter Bull’s keyboards and Michael Barclay’s percussion, Steve Berlin’s baritone sax flourishes were also a highlight, and Barclay and Connolly enriched the mix with their harmony vocals, it was aggressive pub rock, but with a profoundly feminine message. Kelly’s lyrics are written in the first person perspective, with the narrator, a female reflecting on the violent nature of her relationship and brooding over the Jekyll and Hyde transformation of her partner from being loving and attentive into a violent man.

The first verse captures the loving and positive physical dimension of their relationship “In the morning we wreck the bed/ You bring me coffee black and boiling/ Then we start again and the coffee goes cold…”. But when the emotional switch is flicked, and the power struggle and violence ensue the mood changes “One thing I will never understand (It’s become my problem)/ And it’s something that’s right out of my hands (My hands are clean)/ What makes such a sweet guy seem so mean?”

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The verses captured the very essence of an abusive relationship and some of the distinctive characteristics of the “battered woman syndrome” – a victim’s view that it’s her fault, a willingness to forgive and succumb to the charm of the abuser and rely on his promises of no further violence, a sense of confusion about what is real and normal so that the victim becomes disoriented, a process known as “gaslighting” (after the 1944 psychological thriller of the same name).

I must be mad, I must be crazy, everyone tells me so/ Every day I see it comin , now I’m facing the wall, waiting for  the blow/ In the morning you kiss my head/Now you’re down on your knees/ Begging me to forgive you please…”

Paul Kelly Sings About Domestic Abuse

According to Rolling Stone’s Clinton Walker, the song is about Ian Rilen (guitarist Rose Tattoo, X, Sardine V), a friend of Kelly’s who spent time with him and Paul Hewson (Dragon) when they were sharing an apartment in Ward Ave near Kings Cross (Syd) after Kelly relocated there in 1984. Rilen (below) had been a member of the hard-living boogie rock band Rose Tattoo and had penned their debut hit Bad Boy For Love, he was a much sought-after songwriter and formed the group Sardine V around himself, and his then-wife Stephanie Falconer, who was the victim of the domestic abuse which so moved Kelly to write Sweet Guy.

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Debbie Nankervis wife of Rilen’s former bandmate Lobby Lloyd, remembered Rilen as a fearsome bass and rhythm player, his low-slung guitar powering; a “brown-eyed, handsome runaway train, having the suave charm of Cary Grant, the drug appetite of Hunter S Thompson, and the political correctness of Jacques Chirac”. He was best friends with Howard Arkley, and like Arkley and five of his former Rose Tattoo bandmates – Mick Cocks, Peter Wells, Dallas Royall, Neil Smith, and Lobby Lloyd, he succumbed to a rock and roll lifestyle, which accelerated their demise as members of the most famous cancer cluster in the history of Australian rock music. Stephanie Falconer below far right next to Rilen.

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The video for Sweet Guy was directed by Claudia Castle, who had earlier directed Kelly’s To Her Door, which won the ARIA for Best Video in 1988. The video for Sweet Guy was shot in black and white and intercuts between Kelly and his band, and a couple fighting and making up. Kelly later wrote that he was disappointed in the video, “this one looked like an ad for coffee or sheets… [Castle] had worked with us on a couple of videos previously … that had turned out really well. We’d talked this one through and made a plan … but when I saw the rough cut my heart sank. And there wasn’t much I could do to change it”. Cover versions of Sweet Guy abound, with the best being by Renee Geyer, Adalita Srsen, and Vika Bull.

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