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.
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.
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.
In our series Art for Trying Times, authors nominate a work they turn to for solace or perspective during this pandemic.
During the lockdown in Sydney, I turned to my shelf of well-loved books and found Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince. Browsing through it again, I realised that the situation in which the book’s narrator finds himself uncannily resembled my own: crash-landed in the middle of a desert, his plane’s motor broken, he had nowhere to go.
He was stuck – stuck in a place that seemingly provided little hope of surprise or wonder.
The first night, then, I went to sleep on the sand, a thousand miles from any human habitation. I was more isolated than a shipwrecked sailor on a raft in the middle of the ocean.
But little did he know! The next morning, a boy appears seemingly out of nowhere who claims to be a prince from a faraway planet.
His account of intergalactic travels takes the desert castaway to a number of places as strange as they are familiar: one planet inhabited by a king and nobody else, another by a conceited man, a third by a lamplighter, a fourth by a businessman, a fifth by a tippler and so on.
In Saint-Exupéry’s book, first published in French in 1941, the point is that all these individuals live in their own little worlds.
The king believes everybody arriving on his planet to be a subject. The conceited man considers each comer a potential admirer. The lamplighter turns the single streetlight on his little planet on and off, on and off, multiple times a day. The businessman counts all the stars he can see in the belief this will make them his own. The tippler drinks to forget that he feels guilty for drinking.
Even though they pursue different ends, there is a certain uniformity to these characters: in the uncompromising resoluteness with which they apply themselves to their tasks, they reduce and diminish their lives and worlds.
The lockdown cuts back the radius of our actions. Even though some of the frantic activity that defines our days continues online, it deprives us of many of our usual interactions. No more twice-daily commutes, no more school runs, no more rushing to social engagements, no more travel.
Rather than looking for adventure outside, in public and faraway places, lockdown involves taking a fresh look at things close to home. And this long hard look in the mirror can bring the realisation that our pre-pandemic lives resembled those of the king, the conceited man, the lamplighter, the businessman, and perhaps even the tippler in more ways than we are prepared to admit.
‘People where you live,’ the little prince said, ‘grow five thousand roses in one garden, … yet they don’t find what they are looking for.’
In some sense, and in addition to other central themes such as love, friendship and loss, The Little Prince is a story about looking: about how we see only what we are prepared to see; about the narrowness that can come with our perspectives, professional and otherwise; about the way grownups and children look at the world differently.
Reassessing in moments of rupture
Moments of rupture, of crisis, and distress, when everything we took for granted suddenly seems up in the air, always also harbour an opportunity to take stock and to reassess. To look at our life and the lives of those around us from the point of view of an intergalactic traveller, or, indeed, a child.
‘Men,’ said the little prince, ‘set out on their way in express trains, but they do not know what they are looking for. Then they rush about, and get excited, and turn round and round…’
Back home in lockdown with my little daughter (aged seven), I was fortunate to have my own guide who took me to once familiar but long-forgotten places: listening to the sounds of the sea in an empty seashell; throwing paper planes down a cliff; blowing dandelion seeds; gazing at the stars at night. Our radius had shrunk considerably. And yet the world seemed rich and marvellous and full of wonder.
At one point in the book, the little prince explains to the castaway that real seeing is not even a physical activity but a matter of the heart.
And now here is my secret, a very simple secret: It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.
What changes our world and our being in the world is that there are things, activities, and people we care for deeply; and we make them as special (for us) as they are. In Saint-Exupéry’s book it is a flower with four thorns back on his home planet, that the little prince misses and holds dear. But it could be anything, really …
Saint-Exupéry’s book ends with the little prince returning home and the narrator repairing his plane and returning to civilisation. And yet, he never looks at the world again with the same eyes.
The knowledge that somewhere up there among the myriad little planets there was one with a prince and his beloved flower, a sheep, and three volcanoes (one extinct) made all the difference.
And what about us? Will we too look at the world differently once this has passed? Or will we return to the routines and habits that defined our worlds before?
Ask yourselves: Is it yes or no? Has the sheep eaten the flower? And you will see how everything changes …
The link below is to a book review of ‘An American Uprising in Second World War England – Mutiny in the Duchy,’ by Kate Werran.
The link below is to a book review of ‘A Room Made of Leaves’ by Kate Grenville.
In our Art for Trying Times series, authors nominate a work they turn to for solace or perspective during this pandemic.
That we are all spending more time at home these days goes without saying; for those of us in Melbourne, our four walls feel restraining when most ways of leaving them are proscribed. So let me persuade you of a marvellously legitimate alternative to breaking the law, sorting your messy passwords, or rearranging your higgledy-piggledy books into some kind of order. It’s called vicarious escape.
Oddly enough, if my bookshelves had been in proper order I might have missed out on this experience. During the first lockdown I was looking for inspiration among the over-familiar titles when I discovered a book I had bought but not read, and then forgotten I owned. In triumph I carried it as far as the couch, stretched out (the sun was streaming through the windows), and turned to page one.
This was not a cop-out, you understand, for the book was Literary Criticism. It would be instructive, even demanding; it could almost count as work. It was a book born of impressive knowledge but written in a lively, deceptively simple style; it offered new and clever perceptions about a writer of whom you might think everything had long been said. It plunged me back into the beloved novels of Jane Austen, and I read it with delight.
By the time I had reluctantly reached the last page, the next lockdown was imminent, and I rejoiced that one effect of my excellent discovery was to know exactly what I must do next. I would reread one, two, or all of Jane Austen’s major works, beginning with Sense and Sensibility, the first of the six to enthral an unsuspecting 19th century English audience.
Published anonymously in 1811, its first run had sold out. What I did not anticipate was the light this book could throw on life under COVID-19.
The novel concerns two sisters, Elinor and Marianne. The contrasting natures of the two girls provides Austen’s title, but there is also a younger daughter, Margaret, and an older stepbrother by the mother’s first marriage whose new wife forces the mother and daughters out of the large family house into a cottage in a small village in another county.
It is this move that puts the sisters in a situation that has parallels with ours. The tiny village of Barton could offer no social life. A little like people obliged to work from home, the girls found themselves with no external stimuli, other than Nature, with which to fuel their inner thoughts and mutual exchanges.
Thrown back on their own resources then, the two older sisters work on their existing accomplishments. Elinor sketches and paints, Marianne practises her piano-playing; they walk daily, sew and read. Their every activity seems to the modern reader almost weirdly extended: a short stroll will occupy two hours; Marianne, at least in intention, will read for six.
Now that lack of time is no longer an excuse, we might even think of emulating them, but there is one great difference (at least for me). Each sister has in the other, on tap, a daily companion who provides companionship and stimulation. There is no mention of boredom or restlessness; depression results only from romantic mishaps. How? Their neighbour Sir John turns up, some social life takes off, and Marianne falls in love. Well, this is a novel.
I briefly put aside the Dashwood sisters to consider darker examples of literary isolates. Dostoevsky’s Underground Man leapt to mind. He lives utterly alone in a basement; his first words announce that he is “a sick man… a spiteful man … an unattractive man” whose liver is diseased. As a solitary he qualifies, but he’s hardly an example to follow.
Back to Jane. But could even she help someone without a sister? Someone whose props, given the age we live in, are texts and emails, both of which seem determined to shorten our exchanges. “U?” is all we need say to seek an opinion by SMS.
The phone seems currently the only resource by which we Melburnians could copy the sisters’ ability to introduce, develop, and thoroughly draw out a conversation. But even that we can’t count on. Usually our life-saving story isn’t nearly finished before the friend we’ve rung rudely interrupts with what she wants to say.
No. The only escape must be vicarious, and preferably delivered by the divine Jane, with her potential Mr Rights completely taken in by her unscrupulous Miss Wrongs; where Incomes (salaries are for the middle classes, wages for the servants) can suddenly become desperately insufficient or dangerously excessive; where heart-stopping vicissitudes abound. All related in elegant prose that flashes with pointy wit and lashes with quiet disdain.
The lockdown does permit you to lose yourself in a beguiling other world – if you have a Jane Austen on hand.
The links below are at articles and book reviews of ‘Too Much and Never Enough,’ by Mary L. Trump.
For more visit:
It was during this period that the philosopher king penned a series of “notes to himself”. Unpublished during his lifetime and found untitled with his mortal remains, this work has come to be called his Meditations.
Described by philosopher and biblical scholar Ernst Renan as “a gospel for those who do not believe in the supernatural,” the Meditations is a series of fragments, aphorisms, arguments, and injunctions. They were written at different moments in the final years of Marcus’ life.
As its opening book makes clear, Marcus had been converted to the philosophy of Stoicism at a young age. Like its great ancient competitor Epicureanism, Stoicism was more than a set of doctrines explaining the world and human nature.
Stoicism also demanded from its students a transformed attitude to life. Many Stoic texts prescribe practical exercises to reshape how a person responds to adversity and prosperity, insults, illness, old age, and mortality.
This practical dimension to Stoic philosophy underlies its extraordinary global rebirth in the new millennium, even before COVID-19. So, what can Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations tell us today, in our time of pandemic?
A kind of lockdown
The Meditations comprises over 400 fragments, divided into 12 books. These disparate fragments are shaped by a few core philosophical principles. At the basis of these principles is the fundamental Stoic distinction expressed most clearly by the emancipated slave turned philosopher, Epictetus, whom Marcus greatly admired: that some things depend upon us and others do not.
In fact, of all the things in the world, we can only directly control what we do, think, choose, desire, and fear.
Everything else, including everything our society tells us that we need to “get a life” – riches, property, fame, promotions – depends on others and on fortune. It is here today and gone tomorrow, and it is usually distributed unfairly.
So to pin our dreams on achieving such things makes our happiness and peace of mind a highly uncertain prospect.
The Stoics propose that what they call “virtue” is the only good. And this virtue consists above all in knowing how best to respond to the things that befall us, rather than fretting about things we cannot control.
For Marcus, all those “goods” that markets trade, and our contemporary advertisements hawk, are “indifferent”. It is what you do with the pleasurable things, and with the difficulties you face, that shapes how happy or unhappy you will be.
It is almost as if Stoicism asks of us a kind of “virtual lockdown”, anticipating the actual one some of us are currently experiencing. The inability to go swimming, or to the football, gym, or movies, is for the Stoic regrettable. But it isn’t devastating. For s/he has weighed such preferable external things at their relative value.
“Wherever it is possible to live, it is possible to live well”, Marcus affirms.
None of us chose the pandemic. But each of us can strive to exercise courage in facing it, generosity in helping others, and resilience before the challenges it presents.
‘Only the present’
“Things do not touch the soul,” Marcus writes: “our perturbations come only from the opinion which is within”. And our opinions can, with hard work, be reformed. For they depend upon us.
This is the Stoic “good news”. Pandemics, bullies, and mischances really can rob us of our money, our jobs, our reputations. If they are malign enough, they affect our physical health. But they cannot change our minds. They cannot make us commit evil actions. They are powerless to even compel us to think resentful or hateful things about our fellows.
If it becomes clear, for instance, that someone has back-stabbed you, Marcus advises:
Pronounce no more to yourself, beyond what the appearances directly declare. It is said to you that someone has spoken ill of you. This alone is told you, and not that you are hurt by it.
If what your insulter has said is true, then change. If what they have said is false, it does not merit your being upset by it. If they have betrayed your trust, the shame and the fault lies with them.
“The best revenge,” Marcus counsels, “is not to become like the wrongdoer”.
Yes, we might reply, but what about truly enormous situations like COVID-19, or the end of a life-shaping relationship, or the illnesses of loved ones?
The Stoic principle of focusing only on what depends upon us operates here too. Worries carry our minds away into the future. Unless we watch ourselves, we can quickly find ourselves imagining the worst – the death of friends and family, a second great depression, the end of a career …
All of these things may come to pass. Or they may not. But, just now, we cannot immediately avert them. What depends on us right now, always, is what we think and do. And there is, for the Stoic, a comfort in this. As Marcus reminds himself:
Do not disturb yourself by thinking of your whole life. Don’t let your thoughts all at once embrace all the various troubles which may … befall you: but on every occasion ask yourself: What is there in this which is intolerable and past bearing? For you will be ashamed to confess. Next, remember that neither the future nor the past pains you, but only the present.
He is content with two things: to accomplish the present action with justice, and to love the fate which has been allotted to him, here and now.
Does this mean then, that we should just accept the worst, rather than struggling to prevent it?
No: we each have a small range of things we can do and influence at any time. We can increase our understanding, start new initiatives, form or join groups, advocate and persuade others to the best of our powers.
But Marcus asks us also to recognise this: however great and urgent the causes we take up, any positive change will always consist of a lot of small decisions, each taken in the present moment.
And each of these decisions is more likely to be efficacious if we can calmly and clearly assess what is possible, rather than giving way to anxiety, fear, hatred or despair.
A soul’s secrets
Unlike much philosophy, the meditations of Marcus are mostly easy to grasp. The philosopher-emperor writes beautifully, with an honesty that can be affecting.
The difficulty lies in really applying these simple, often striking ideas to our lives.
It is (alas) somewhat easier to see why it is right to serenely bear misfortunes and forbear others’ flaws; to remember that “we are made for cooperation, like feet, like hands, like eyelids”; and not to fear death but embrace life in full awareness of one’s mortality, than to do these things in the heat of the moment.
This is why the traditional title, Meditations, is telling.
Readers who go to this classic expecting an ordered, linear philosophical argument will be quickly disillusioned. There are many repetitions and seeming hesitations. Many key Stoic ideas, and Marcus’ own preoccupations (for instance, with how to respond to schemers, and accept his own death) return multiple times. He reformulates his ideas in new ways, striving to find their most compelling expression.
Indeed the Meditations, as scholar Pierre Hadot has argued, need to be seen as an exemplar of a particular Stoic exercise, explicitly prescribed by Epictetus. This involved writing key precepts down as a means to later recall them and to deeply internalise them as philosophical aids to call upon at need.
All this makes the Meditations the singular classic that it is. Or, in Hadot’s moving words:
In world literature one finds lots of preachers, lesson-givers, and censors, who moralise to others with complacency, irony, cynicism, or bitterness; but it is extremely rare to find a person training himself to live and to think like a human being …
We feel “a highly particular emotion”, Hadot continues, as we witness Marcus trying, as we each do, “to live in complete consciousness and lucidity; to give each of our instants its fullest intensity; and to give meaning to our entire life”.
“Marcus is talking to himself”, Hadot observes, “but we get the impression that he is talking to each one of us”.