Don Walker: a real cat

Every week, Don Walker buys a lottery ticket. It’s a matter of ritual. The piano-playing hurricane force behind one of the most successful Australian bands of all time, Cold Chisel – the man who gave us Khe Sanh and Flame Trees and too many more to mention – says he’s buying his continuing right to dream.

On his new solo album, Lightning In A Clear Blue Sky, there’s a song called When I Win The Lottery. What would he do? “Most of the song is about taking your winnings and running amok, basically coursing across the landscape with your hair on fire, fighting off supermodels,” he says drily, over Zoom, the familiar sweep of grey hair sitting high over his forehead.

“That’s not what I would do, because for a long time now I could probably do that anyway – the supermodels excepted. I live with a lot of freedom.”

Walker, 71, is well past retirement age. He has no need to work, and probably no need to be buying lottery tickets, either. He continues to do both out of habit. Lightning In A Clear Blue Sky is his fourth solo album, and first in a decade. Walker is also one-third of popular trio Tex, Don and Charlie (with singer Tex Perkins and guitarist Charlie Owen).

He even hints at the possibility of a Cold Chisel reunion, despite singer Jimmy Barnes all but putting the group to bed in an interview in 2020. “There are forces that are pushing towards doing some more work, and you’d be surprised where those forces are coming from. I won’t go any further than that,” Walker teases.

Relative to Chisel, though – and even to Tex, Don and Charlie – Walker’s solo albums, whether under his own name or as Catfish, have been commercial flops. Does it bother him? “To quote Kingsley Amis, only every fucking day,” he quips. “I’d love to be selling a lot more records than I do. I’d love to be selling a lot more Cold Chisel records than we do.”

Walker’s success as Chisel’s creative driver never hid an ornery, subversive streak. If he really cared about selling more albums, as he claims, then introducing Lightning In A Clear Blue Sky via its vast 11-and-a-half-minute title track – a grim murder ballad, complete with Johnny Cash-style mariachi horns – was not an obvious choice as a single.

But Walker insisted on that song, citing Bob Dylan’s 17-minute marathon Murder Most Foul (which trailed his last album Rough And Rowdy Ways) to those “whose job it is to channel me into sensible decisions”. Did any of them attempt to dissuade him? “They know part of the charm of being involved with me is that not everything is going to be sensible.”

He can, perhaps, afford to be flippant. “I can start listing people right now who I reckon are the real deal, who haven’t necessarily met with huge commercial success,” he says. He quotes the late American blues and funk player Johnny “Guitar” Watson: “‘The cats know who the real cats are’ – that was his great quote.”

Walker is a real cat. Cold Chisel’s guitarist Ian Moss once summed up his bandmate’s perfectionist approach to songwriting: that he would not let a song go if he was unhappy with the third syllable in the fourth word of the third line in the second verse. But Walker says there was little sweating over Lightning In A Clear Blue Sky.

“I don’t set out to write an 11-minute song – I’d like to avoid them,” he says. “For me, the perfect song is 3.15 or less. I admire the Ramones for that reason. But that’s just the length the song drove itself to, and I go with it rather than try to carve a two-and-a-half minute Ramones song out of the middle of it. That wouldn’t get to the first verse.”

Despite his prodigious output, Walker is no workhorse. Nick Cave goes to the office every day. “Nick Cave has an office?” Walker says, slightly incredulous, when I tell him this. “I don’t have an office. I get it, why somebody would do that, but no.”

Instead, he waits. “Waiting is how I work. It seems to happen. I’ve taken the attitude for decades that I don’t think the world needs more songs, certainly not from me. I’ve written songs, so I don’t care if any more come, but they keep coming.”

The comparatively few songs he saves for himself, though, are different from those he writes for Barnes and Moss to sing, or Perkins. Cold Chisel songs, he says, are in their own style, even though Chisel’s range, from pop to rock & roll to reggae, was exceptional. Mostly, they were songs Walker was simply unable to sing.

As for Tex, Don and Charlie, he says, he’s often just trying to make them laugh. “I proudly say there are still songs that are too dangerous for Tex and I and Charlie to have done,” he says. “Tex will say, ‘Don, it kicks goals, but then you get marched back 10 metres.’ I’ve written a few more of those since.”

The songs on Lightning In A Clear Blue Sky, he says, are the ones he keeps closest to his heart. “They’re the songs that really tell the story I would like to tell, and that I could not expect another singer like Jim or Ian, or Tex for that matter, to sing.”

He lists some other real cats: The late Ian Rilen; Steve Appel, aka King Curly – “as good a songwriter as anyone on the planet, and as beautiful a singer,” he says. There’s also Roydon Payne, who played guitar on Lightning In A Clear Blue Sky, but who died last July. “He had an innocent cut in one leg, then he felt sick, went to hospital and he was gone in two days.”

Walker was already reeling from the loss of the other guitar player in his band, Glen Hannah, who died in 2019. “We pretty much rebuilt our little band around Roy,” he says. “So the album was all based around the way that Roy plays guitar.”

So what would Walker do if he won the lottery? What is he buying the right to dream? “More and more, my dream is for a few more stages of life,” he says. “You know, it’s getting late. I’d probably be wiser to be doing some of the bucket-list travel stuff. But I do like these songs.”

First published in the Guardian, 6 May 2023

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