Paul Kelly by Stuart Coupe

Reviewed by Rod McLary

I came to this biography of Paul Kelly knowing only a little about his music – as in From Little Things Big Things Grow – and even less about the man.  The subtitle of the biography is ‘The man, the music and the life in between’ but it doesn’t entirely meet that implied promise.

As it is written by Stuart Coupe who is a music commentator, independent artist publicist and one-time manager of Kelly, the average reader would expect a reasonably comprehensive setting out of Kelly’s life and music – and perhaps even some previously undisclosed details of his personal life.  However, this is not the case and, while there is considerable information about the various bands of which Kelly was a member during his formative years in the 1970s, there is little about Paul Kelly’s life between the man and the music that the average reader would want or need to know.

What we do learn though is that Kelly was born in Adelaide in 1955 and was the sixth of eight surviving children.  His father died of complications from Parkinson’s Disease when Paul was thirteen.  In 1974, he made his first public appearance in Hobart at an open mic event where he sang at least one Bob Dylan song – perhaps the beginning of all those later comparisons with Dylan.  However, by 1976, he had moved to and settled in Melbourne.

Life in Melbourne – particularly around Carlton – during the 1970s was captured in all its grunge by Helen Garner in her book Monkey Grip published in 1977 and now considered an Australian classic.  Unfortunately, the description of the same period of time in Paul Kelly falls short by comparison but perhaps it can’t reasonably be expected to match the immediacy and uncompromising depiction of heroin addiction, love and relationships as they appear in Monkey Grip.

There is more than synchronicity of time and place between Kelly and Garner.  For one, her sister Sally Ford played saxophone in a band called The High Rise Bombers in which Kelly both sang and played guitar.  This band was one of a number of which he was a member – some of which were short-lived but all offered opportunities for him to hone his musicality and contribute to his slowly growing popularity.

A further connection between the Melbourne of Kelly and Garner was addiction to heroin.  The book does not shy away from acknowledging the heavy use of heroin – and other drugs – by Kelly and others as they navigated their way through the music scene in Melbourne, Sydney and Adelaide.  An older and more experienced musician – Phillip White – once visited Kelly when he was living in a share-house in Hoddle Street Melbourne.  What he saw gives some indication of life in a band in the 1970s:

F*** that was a dismal hovel of a house.  I asked for a joint and they thought I was so uncool – this prick from Adelaide asking for marijuana when a bunch of them had needles hanging out of their arms. [32]

Consistently through the book, comparisons are drawn between Kelly and Bob Dylan.  In fact, on page 38 alone, Dylan is mentioned three times and the word ‘Dylanesque’ – as in ‘Paul was so Dylanesque’ – twice.  As John Donne [among others] once said ‘comparisons are odious’ in that any comparison will inevitably be unjust to one of the two people.  In this case, I think it may be unjust to Bob Dylan.

However, what the book does well is capture the history of Australian music across Melbourne, Sydney and Adelaide through the 1970s.  The level of detail in terms of the bands, the musicians and the constant moving of players between bands – and the creation and dissolution of them – suggests that Stuart Coupe was [and probably still is] thoroughly immersed in Australian music.  Clearly, the author spoke with numerous people who knew Kelly or had shared a stage or house with him and was able to extract their experiences.  The book also sets out the development of his song writing and his considerable success in writing across three music genres – folk, rock and country.

Stuart Coupe has written a biography of one of Australia’ most well-known musicians and for that reason there will be a demand for this book.  For those who are interested in the history of Australian rock music, there can be few better places to start than with this book.

Paul Kelly:

The man, the music and the life in-between

[2020]

by Stuart Coupe

Hachette

ISBN 978 0 7336 4234 0

343pp; $32.99

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