05 Jan 1998

Under The Sun in Kelly country

Under The Sun in Kelly country

By Vin Maskell, The Australian

HERE are many great images of the Australian summer. Call them cliches or call them icons, they are images that have become part of the national consciousness.


Max Dupain's photographs of swimmers at Newport and Bondi beaches are etched in our memories, coming to life every time we go to the beach. The best known is his 1937 photograph, Sunbaker.


Russell Drysdale's 1948 panting The Cricketers depicts three thin men having a game in an outback setting, the lone fielder leaning against a veranda post.


Ray Lawler's Summer of the Seventeenth Doll became a turning point in local drama. Helen Garner's Monkey Grip exposed and explored love and addiction under the hot Melbourne sun.


Paul Kelly, recently inducted into the Australian Record Industry Association Hall of Fame, has said that he mainly writes about love, sex and death. When you include summer within those topics you find a series of songs that are as important as the works of Dupain, Drysdale, Lawler, Garner and others.


Throughout his long solo career Kelly has sung about summer, telling stories about cricket, bushfires, ice-creams, Christmas, jail, lust, parenthood and childhood sweethearts. Sometimes the reason is a backdrop, sometimes it is the main image that propels the song.


Post, Kelly's first solo album (1985) included Standing on the Street of Early Sorrows, a bitter-sweet memory of feelings for a childhood sweetheart during an Adelaide summer when it was always 35C.


Reminiscence – and lost friendship – is also the theme of Under the Sun (1987). The narrator stands on a shoreline and remembers: "Leaving South Fremantle in a Falcon panel van, We were smoking Marlboro, always singing Barbara Ann … All day long under the sun."


Melting, a 1995 song co-written with Monique Brumby, is a haunting story made powerful by the lack of detail. Kelly delivers his lyrics in spoken word, while Brumby's vocals remind one of Rickie Lee Jones. They recall family gatherings, melting ice-creams, youthful pranks and, perhaps, arson:


There was a hill
Black and smoky at the end of the day
We watched the fire trucks go back on down the road 
We heard them calling out our names 
We were standing in the shadows
melting, melting.


Kelly uses bushfire as a simile in Don't Stand So Close to the Window, a 1987 tune about an affair where "the word on the wire would be just like Ash Wednesday bush fire".


Sex is cheap in pop music but Kelly can sing about sex and give it some substance, some meaning or, at the least, some semblance of reality.Summer Rain, from the 1994 album Wanted Man, is a short, gentle, languid look at sex and yearning. Kelly's almost plain vocals are offset by some delicate piano and cello. "She comes and goes like summer rain / I wait all day for summer rain / And when she comes I smile again".


Blush describes a woman walking "by the Indian Ocean", the breeze from the beach is playing with her cotton dress. Kelly mentally disrobes the object of his desire, wanting to taste the salt on her cheek and on her neck.


And Kelly loves his cricket. He pays tribute to the Don in Bradman in a long ballad he wrote in 1982, and jauntily sings the praises of David Gower in a ditty to the tune of Guantanamera. He also tells us where he'll be on Boxing Day in Behind the Bowler's Arm. (Ten rows back, Great Southern Stand).


The Christmas period is a rich source of material. In I Can't Believe We Were Married (1991), "We danced in the kitchen on Boxing Day / I held you swinging in my arms to Marvin Gaye / Our Christmas ham turned green by New Year's Eve".


In How to Make Gravy (1996) a prisoner writes to his family, regretting that he can't be home to make the gravy for the Christmas roast. Kelly has long been an admirer of US writer Raymond Carver and this song deserves to be regarded in that company. Poignant, heart-wrenching, but not cloyingly sentimental.


PERHAPS Kelly's finest summer song – finest song for that matter – is Deeper Water, the title track of his 1995 album. The song begins and ends with a simple, classic image, father and child on the shoreline. In between are five succinct verses about love, sex, birth and death. Musically, it features one of Kelly's trademarks – the quiet, scene setting first verse followed by the full band joining in as the story unfolds.


Kelly is not the only Australian songwriter to paint evocative summer images (try Sirens, by My Friend the Chocolate Cake or Ocean of You by the Black Eyed Susans, or Wedding Cake Island by Midnight Oil) but he has written more songs about summer than most.


Kelly's summer songs are, of course, just part of his work. Land rights, human rights, addiction, cities, winter and the darker side of love are among his other subjects. But the cover and booklet of his greatest hits collection, Songs from the South (140,000 copies sold) shows a boy on a beach holding a bat, the stumps broken. The sepia photos could be of Kelly. Or the boy could be a descendant of one of the figures of The Cricketers. Or maybe he's a grandchild of one of Dupain's subjects.


Whoever he is, summer is calling him, singing to him, telling him about fires, ice-creams and love. And deeper water.