Paul Kelly’s ‘How to make gravy’ – a book review

I spent the final business hour of the final day of 2010 hunkered down at the City Library finishing the last book I read last year – Paul Kelly’s memoir ‘How to make gravy’. I had to polish it off quickly because the book was overdue and I was feeling guilty about denying a fellow book lover the opportunity to borrow it over the holidays. For those who don’t know of Paul Kelly (unlikely in Australia but this is the ‘world-wide’ web after all) – he’s a musician who would be a strong contender for Best Ever Australian Songwriter with other nominees being Nick Cave, The Go-Betweens’ Grant McLennan and Robert Forster, and Don Walker. I may be revealing my vintage with this list so if anyone would like to add to it, or dispute it, be my guest.

I have dabbled in the mysterious craft of songwriting and know that, like juggling, it appears easy until you try it yourself. So I lapped up Paul Kelly’s frequent references to songwriting process, although ‘process’ is a word too clean and clinical for the various byways Kelly describes… pounding the pavement, scratching out and starting again, marinating, refining and the cheerfully admitted acts of adapting and stealing from other songs, Shakespeare and The Bible.

The book is not a slender volume (576 pages) and I had to make some cost-benefit line calls as I prepared to get on public transport with the prospect of lugging it around with me for the night. But Kelly has had a music career of around 30 years’ duration, so he’s hardly going to cover it in a haiku. The length is also explained by the book’s structure, the genesis of which was a series of concerts at The Spiegeltent where, over four nights, Kelly performed an A-Z of 100 songs accompanied with stories. Each chapter begins with a list of the songs that the stories riff on.

I could probably count on one hand the number of memoirs I’ve read but I started reading ‘How to make gravy’ in a bookshop, was impressed by the quality and style of the writing and bought it for a friend. Kelly covers a lot of ground – the quirks of touring, Indigenous Australian history, cricket and cricket heroes, heroin, country music, a roll call of Australian musicians, the behemoth that is American songwriting, children and childhood, the opera singing strand of his family, recording an album, the bittersweet nature of middle age…and lists, lots of lists, from ‘songs about Texas’ to ‘Christmas songs’. Throughout, Kelly yarns about life as a musician without gripe or grumble (not too much anyway), elucidates the craft of songwriting without hubris or false humility and fills 576 pages with people without disrespecting any of them.

‘How to make gravy’ is like listening to an entertaining conversation, at turns philosophical, funny and enlightening. As with all good conversations, it sparked some memories and meanderings of my own, including the memory of a songbook an old friend made for me years ago when I was learning guitar. Paul Kelly’s song ‘To Her Door’ was one of the songs with which I tortured my housemates as my fingers slowly found their way between ‘G’, ‘C’ and ‘D’. I shut ‘How to make gravy’ just in time for the announcement that the library was closing and thought ‘Now, there’s a man who knows how to live a life’. And by the way, if you want to read this book on the train, I’ve since discovered there’s a downloadable version.

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