‘Shouting out across an empty station…’ Don Walker, Jimmy Barnes, and Cold Chisel

Shots by Don Walker (Penguin) 2010
 Well some of us are driven to ambition
Some of us are trapped behind the wheel
Some of us will break away,
Build a marble yesterday
And live for every moment we can steal
Conversations, 
Conversations
Shouting out across an empty station...

‘Conversations’,   the opening track of Cold Chisel’s second album, Breakfast at Sweethearts, is the sort of song which critics call ‘full tilt’, but it isn’t so much full-tilt as almost overbalancing itself with its own speed. Fast and frantic, it captures the band’s own desperate ambition.

Not so long back, interviewing the man who wrote it and most of Cold Chisel’s songs, keyboard player Don Walker, Kim Hill suggested that people had a lot of fun to his songs, but they’re mostly quite sad songs.

Walker sounded somewhat nonplussed.

“I might have to go and have a look at meself”, was his response.

Difficult to tell if he was being serious. He sounded serious, certainly, but Walker has that dry Aussie humour which can be taking the piss when it is sounding most serious.

It is a brand of humour which often serves as a guard, especially when confronted with that kind of sharp personal insight Hill delivered during the exchange.

I found myself recalling that interview as Hill interviewed Jimmy Barnes, the lead singer of that band, Cold Chisel, last weekend.

Barnes’ memoir has just come out and it’s a lot about surviving what was basically an abusive childhood and adult alcoholism.

Barnes writes in that autobiography that despite their very different backgrounds, that it was as if Walker had read his mail.

Walker wrote most of Chisel’s songs, and I’ve thought for a long time that those songs – certainly his most famous ones, the ones he did with Cold Chisel, are about having a good time while you’re having a lousy time.

Back when they were in their heyday, I can remember having one of those intense conversations about music which you often have at that age, and distinguishing between the two big Aussie bands of the day, Australian Crawl and Cold Chisel.

Aussie Crawl were about pure hedonism, having a good time: Cold Chisel was about having a good time even though you’re having a lousy time, I vaguely remember proclaiming, probably while waving my arms around and just before falling off my chair.

This is kind of a definition of soul music (the having a good time while having a bad time thing, I mean: not so much the waving arms around/falling off chair thing), I think: if you listen to classic soul, by which I mostly mean the Stax-Volt Memphis brand but also the best Motown stuff, it is about dancing while feeling lousy about your life.

There’s a whole lot of socio-economic and political reasons for that aspect of soul music, most of which should be fairly obvious to anyone with who knows a bit about history and retains a bit of empathy.

It applies, perhaps less politically than in the music made by American blacks,  to other rock music: the Who’s Pete Townshend, when his band was trying to pretend to be Mods, suggested the Mod ethos not so much about solving young people’s problems as allowing them to dance all over those problems. (although dancing to the Who’s music, is, I think, a bit problematic).

Walker’s memoir, ‘Shots’ only seldom alludes to influences such as this. His own early influences were jazz and country, while Cold Chisel has been more associated with pub/hard rock.

That said, there are enough jazz and country, as well as blues, influences, on Chisel, especially their earlier work.

This number – which closed their first album – shows singer Jimmy Barnes wasn’t just a shrieker: it is a song of summer regret and has a torch-like, almost jazzy flavour:

Lovers see the world through an old red wine

All the sounds of the blues, well

They just disappear

With a light like yours beside me

It’s been an old, old, red wine year.’

Soul, definitely: Chisel’s second vocalist, guitar player Ian Moss, consciously modelled his singing style on Sam Cooke and although Moss isn’t as good as that (unless your name is Al Green or Aretha Franklin or Ray Charles you’re not even gonna come in the same league) you can hear the influence. (Moss used to sing Charles’ ‘Georgia’ at Chisel concerts and he carries it off respectably).

Walker’s ‘Shots’ is, as he has said himself, not so much a memoir as a highly impressionistic travelogue of his time before and after, as well as during, Cold Chisel’s heyday from 1978-93.

It reaches a climax, and a crisis, at the time Chisel release their breakthrough album, East. The opening track from that, like ‘Conversations’ has a desperate headlong rush to it, especially when played live.

Lyrically,  ‘Standing on the Outside’  is more linear than ‘Conversations’ – it has a similar mood to the earlier track and both were used to open concerts, but it tells a story as well. This live clip is from their final concert, and it shows them going out at their peak.

They’re playing their hearts, and guts, out here:

 

‘I wonder if other lives have a fulcrum, a few days or weeks that gather everything from decades before and fire it though into a trajectory pre-drawn for decades after…’

 

Walker ponders in ‘Shots’, referring to this period.

Just after East was recorded, and just before it was released, two friends of the band were killed in a road accident: one knocked out when it went into a tree and the other, conscious but struggling and insisting they get his mate out first when the vehicle caught fire and they both died.

‘Why that should have been the end of anything I do not know, maybe it just coincided with other things, but the end it was’, Walker wrote, years later, in the notes to the ‘Teenage Love” album. The final couple of years – including that farewell concert, the opening of which is that above clip, was, he wrote, a ‘long slow ugly vicious death… like clubbing a dearly beloved while they cling to your leg.’

It is a strange, jaundiced and in some ways odd read. Walker has a rare gift for a phrase: ‘someone whose dreams have strangled their common sense…’ he describes the funder of a concert in some bush backwater; ‘like trying to fuck through a tennis racquet’ sums up a particularly bad gig; young female concertgoers from the posh Victorian squattocracy, ‘rich girls who want to play out their hatred of any plans at all from anywhere up the ancestral chain’; or, visiting old haunts, ‘It’s like visiting your baby playground after you’ve sold your soul’.

There’s a cynicism, perhaps – a lyrical cynicism, certainly, but cynicism it is. Is Walker trying too hard here, perhaps? There’s what seems to be a deliberate, emotional guardedness, something which comes through in that response to Kim Hill’s question.

There’s a bizarre traveling the Aussie outback fantasy involving escaped Laundromat washing machines going rogue, roaming the badlands,  breeding and ‘sometimes ending a decoy out on the highway in ambush, if you stop they kidnap you off  and just wash the fuck out of you…’

The book is a neat, if offbeat, read. He comes at his subject – that subject being his own life, mostly – obliquely and from a skew-whiff angle. There’s a longer interview with him on ABC Radio here…

 

 

 

 

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