Paul Kelly biography traces his journey but not his work with young artists today

Liz Giuffre, University of Technology Sydney

Review: Paul Kelly: The Man, the Music and Life in Between (Hatchette)

Stuart Coupe’s new biography of Paul Kelly takes many known elements of Kelly’s story and rouses them again. Paul Kelly: The Man, the Music and Life in Between reads the way a Kelly cover version sounds: familiar, but also a bit disorienting.

Old school music fans might go to the liner notes first – in this case the back cover and acknowledgements. Both detail the insights Coupe has drawn from others: hundreds of interviews, including Kelly himself and over 80 people thanked in the acknowledgements.


It’s a who’s who of Australian music from the last few decades – Archie Roach, Kasey Chambers, Kev Carmody, Vika and Linda Bull and Neil Finn – but not too many younger voices. Coupe’s emphasis is on how Kelly became, rather than who he is today.

The impressive interview list provides the choir that sings this cover version. Each person adds an extra layer: a solo to recall a key memory of Kelly as a band member, collaborator, business partner.

As Kelly’s former manager, Coupe also chimes in with his own testimony.

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If I could start today again

Large parts of Kelly’s early career have been lost to time, with records not added to the master log.

Particular casualties are his first two albums with The Dots, Talk (1981) and Manila (1982). Coupe’s interviews do however explore singles like Billy Baxter and Alive and Well, which have been left out of subsequent Kelly histories, including best of compilations and Kelly’s 2018 autobiography.

As Kelly explains it:

When I gained control of my work in the late nineties I simply chose not to make them available anymore. It wasn’t the fault of the bands on those records. It was me.

Studio recordings of this time are now hard to come by (as Coupe and his colleagues lament), though a few iconic Countdown snippets linger on.

The 1982 Countdown performance of Alive and Well captures the perspectives of some of Coupe’s interviewees. Kelly is working in collaboration, but also keen to draw the spotlight for himself. He is rake thin. Is this youth’s blessed metabolism, or the drug use many remember throughout the book?

The Paul Kelly he became in terms of sound and songwriting is here, but some of the interviews in Coupe’s book make the wobble of his head and unsteadiness of his gait hard to ignore.

Look so fine, feel so low

References to Kelly’s use of heroin in the past appear repeatedly in the biography. Fans will be curious to know how drugs influenced Kelly’s actual music, however Coupe doesn’t focus on Kelly’s writing process in this way. Some details are there, but nothing as forensic as Kelly has already offered himself in terms of craft and context. Instead, Coupe focuses on the machinations of the music industry.

As a songwriter, Kelly’s value was seen early. Accounts by Mushroom Records alumni and other associates from the early 1980s, show how his writing talent was privileged despite his unsteady performance style.

Still, Kelly’s songs were so popular so quickly that there was money to be made. Although many of the musicians in the book were left by the wayside as Kelly moved from project to project, his publisher continued to benefit.

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Deeper water

The biography brings readers to the present day, including the 2019 How To Make Gravy concert in the Domain in Sydney and his 2020 album releases (one in lockdown, and with Paul Grabowsky).

However, it would have been nice to see Coupe explore Kelly’s continued association with youth broadcaster Triple J and the newer artists and audiences who find him via contemporary collaborations.

Kelly’s 2016 collaboration with AB Original and Dan Sultan for Triple J’s Like A Version remains as much a step up for Kelly as it does for the younger musicians.

A reworking of Dumb Things, Kelly’s anthem (and his art) is sampled into a new context. Its energy is breathtaking.

How many teenagers discovered Kelly for the first time after this?

As well, the 2019 collaboration with Dan Sultan on Every Day My Mother’s Voice shows the fundamental connection Kelly continues to make with new audiences and artists – only vaguely referenced as “the Adam Goodes song” by Paul Luscombe in Coupe’s book.

While of, course, there had to be an end to Coupe’s address book, a bit more on these more recent and younger collaborators would strengthen this story and tell us more about where Kelly is going, not just where he has been.

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The Conversation

Liz Giuffre, Senior Lecturer in Communication, University of Technology Sydney

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Jim Thompson is the perfect novelist for our crazed times

Susanna Lee, Georgetown University

Crime fiction often thrives in periods of social and political tension, when readers long for both justice and stability. So it’s no wonder that as the pandemic took root, crime fiction sales rose.

As I explain in my new book, “Detectives in the Shadows,” many of the protagonists of hard-boiled crime fiction, from Philip Marlowe to Jessica Jones, are models of moral authority, humility and empathy.

Doggedly pursuing justice, they defend those in distress, earning little for their efforts.

In 1945, novelist Raymond Chandler famously defined the hard-boiled hero as “a man … who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid… He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor, by instinct, by inevitability, without thought of it, and certainly without saying it.”

These were reassuring characters who served as models of competent leadership and ideal authority figures. But it didn’t exactly paint the full American picture. In truth, no matter how many Marlowes or Joneses came to the rescue, signs of America’s deranged underbelly were always lurking just beneath the surface.

One crime author, the singularly harrowing Jim Thompson, gave this unique brand of American craziness center stage.

Unreliable, deceptive and sadistic

Author of more than 20 novels including “The Killer Inside Me,” “Pop. 1280” and “The Grifters,” Thompson created a sinister army of corrupt police, cunning con-artists and psychopathic murderers.

“The Killer Inside Me,” published in 1952, is his best-known novel. Its narrator is Lou Ford, a 29-year-old Texas sheriff who pretends to be a bland and boring rube but ends up committing every murder in the novel.

Unlike classic hard-boiled characters who understate their own misfortunes but have compassion for others, Ford exults when others suffer. He claims spiritual authority and a superior intellect but displays an “aw-shucks” helplessness to seem innocent.

Unreliable as a narrator, he talks in populist clichés – saying things like “haste makes waste” and “every cloud has a silver lining!” – while confiding in the reader that he “should have been a college professor or something like that.” He sometimes references his “sickness,” hinting he is schizophrenic, but he shows no signs of psychosis – only psychopathy.

Most of all, he consistently and calculatingly shirks responsibility, making sure others take the fall for his misdeeds. When a man witnesses him brutalize a town prostitute, he bullies that witness before murdering and framing him.

“Don’t you say I killed her,” he warns the terrified witness. “SHE KILLED HERSELF!”

The gaslit 1950s

The novel arrived at a period in American history that was rife with demagoguery, paranoia and manipulation.

In 1950, the National Security Council paper NSC 68 advised a massive buildup of military power in response to the threat of the Soviet Union. The report remarked that “a democracy can compensate for its natural vulnerability only if it maintains clearly superior overall power in its most inclusive sense,” and warns against our “tendency to expect too much from people widely divergent from us.” It would soon become apparent that retaining power – and a readiness to mistrust those deemed too different – were becoming fundamental to the country’s foreign policy.

Condemning others while behaving badly seemed to be a specialty of the early 1950s. Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s anti-communist crusade was ruining lives with sensational and unsubstantiated allegations. In 1951, McCarthy accused former Secretary of State Gen. George Marshall of a “conspiracy on a scale so immense as to dwarf any previous such venture in the history of man,” arguing that his Marshall Plan was helping and appeasing the country’s enemies.

It’s no wonder that American novelist Norman Mailer called the 1950s “years of conformity and depression,” while “Homeward Bound” author Elaine Tyler May described the decade as one of “containment,” with fearful insularity as characteristic of American society as it was of foreign policy.

When Jim Thompson published “The Killer Inside Me,” Lion Books nominated it for the National Book Award, calling it “the most authentically original novel of the year.” An editor at the New American Library found in his books “the passions of men and women revealed in their naked, primeval fury.” Thompson’s characters, from the gloating gaslighter Lou Ford to the messianic delusionist Nick Corey, echoed the paranoid thoughts, delusions and deceptions already patent in 1950s politics.

The writer’s fiction dismantles point-by-point the classical hard-boiled heroes whose word was good and whose ethics were reliable. Its real bleakness comes from the vacuum that replaces any sense of accountability, empathy or reliability.

His novels are chilling precisely because they smash the beloved American illusion that with rugged individualism comes rugged integrity.

Echoes today

“The Killer Inside Me” is a testament to moral accountability exultantly shredded, and its resonance today is uncanny.

America has long embraced the figure of the unhinged or explosive person in entertainment, advertising, sports and politics.

But today’s craziness has reached another level. From Walmart to the White House, Americans are claiming to be both completely righteous and entirely blameless.

Whether it’s the Florida man advancing on fellow Costco shoppers, bellowing “I feel threatened!” the New Jersey woman trying to have innocent neighbors arrested for building a patio on their own property, or the president insisting that he takes no responsibility as over 150,000 Americans die of COVID-19, our current moment is the nightmarish version of society that Thompson envisioned.

As Stephen King famously wrote in the introduction to a 2011 edition of Killer, “In Lou Ford, Jim Thompson drew for the first time a picture of the Great American Sociopath.”

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In a sense, the conduct is not new, even if it now readily goes viral on social media. Men have long complained of blamelessness while harming women, and whites of both sexes have simulated fear while attacking people of color. The wealthy have long encouraged the poor to take personal responsibility for privations they themselves caused. Individuals historically most called to account are curiously those who have the least to answer for.

Those in power readily pass the buck, even managing to seem innocent or misguided. The contrived specter of helplessness – combined with claims of absolute conviction – create chaos and dissolve accountability. That Thompson did all this in a book famous for its bleakly sociopathic vision testifies to the insanity and abusiveness that surround us.

A torrent of lies and injustice has demoralized Americans much as it dejected Ford’s victims. To me, we are living in Thompson’s world and can only dream of such fundamentals as honesty, empathy and accountability.The Conversation

Susanna Lee, Professor of French and Comparative Literature, Georgetown University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.