Tagged: Monty Python

Paul Kelly and Charlie Owen: Death’s Dateless Night

Most of us have a song that we’d like played at our funeral. Some of us aim for the transcendent: spiritual songs that, we hope, might say something to those we leave behind about our approach to life. Others who take the exercise (and themselves) less seriously prefer a more mordant strain of philosophy: Always Look On The Bright Side Of Life, by Monty Python’s Eric Idle, is a popular choice.

It was while driving to a friend’s funeral with Charlie Owen, one of Australia’s most expressive guitarists, that Paul Kelly had the idea to record an album of such songs. Death’s Dateless Night features 12 bare-bones, intimately recorded tunes, with a cathedral-like ambience that echoes the sparseness of Gillian Welch and David Rawlings.

This could have been compelling, if only Kelly had a fresh set of songs to fit. He is now 61 and, while he’s not quite staring mortality in the face, he’s had enough brushes with it over the years and certainly farewelled more than his share of friends before their time. If anyone could take a hard look at a topic no one much likes talking about and have something worthwhile to say, you’d hope Kelly might.

Instead, there are re-recordings of a couple of originals (Nukkanya, from 1994’s Wanted Man, and Meet Me In The Middle Of The Air, from 2005’s Foggy Highway) and a few traditional numbers (Make Me A Pallet On Your Floor, which Welch has also recorded; The Parting Glass), with the remainder of the album padded out by covers. Some are standards; others are songs by contemporaries and peers.

This is a low bar for a singer and songwriter of Kelly’s stature to get over. The strengths of Death’s Dateless Night are his warm, empathetic singing and Owen’s always tasteful playing. Its weakness is its lack of ambition: this is an easy listening album about a difficult subject, with neither Kelly nor Owen extending themselves. It’s pleasant, but far from essential.

Should an album of songs about death be merely pleasant? Of course, Death’s Dateless Night could have been depressing and that would have been no more effective, or even interesting. But, instead of offering redemption, Kelly’s versions of Don’t Fence Me In, Bird On A Wire and Let It Be feel redundant, even trite. He’s not adding anything new to these songs. Then again, who could?

The songs that really sting are the less familiar ones, written by artists with whom Kelly shared a more personal connection. One is Good Things, by the late Maurice Frawley, who played in Kelly’s first band, the Dots. Owen’s moaning steel guitar perfectly complements Kelly’s plaintive, haunted vocal and two-chord acoustic shuffle. Singing one of the finest songs of his lost friend, here Kelly is hanging on for dear life.

The other triumph is Pretty Bird Tree, by the Indigenous singer/songwriter LJ (Lawrence) Hill. It’s as powerful as anything by Archie Roach or Kev Carmody and it’s to be hoped Kelly’s version draws more attention to Hill’s exquisite talent. The original finger-picked melody and arrangement is preserved, and Kelly’s voice is at its most yearning as he retells Hill’s heart-stopping narrative.

It might say something about the strength of these two songs that they easily outshine the better-known material that dominates the rest of the album. Alternatively, perhaps the other songs simply suffer for their overfamiliarity. Either way, it’s hard not to wish for more from someone who, at his best, has written so fearlessly about life, death and everything in between.

First published in The Guardian, 6 October 2016

Sex in a cab? Not on my watch

For about the last 10 years, I’ve been driving a maxi taxi on the weekends. In the early noughties, it funded my first book Pig City; during the GFC, as the freelance commissions dried up, it kept me afloat. These days, I restrict myself mostly to Sunday night shifts only, and although much has changed in the industry in that time, much of it not for the better, one thing hasn’t changed. And that’s The Question.

The Question gets asked in all sorts of ways. Sometimes people come right out with it, but more often than not it feels like I’ve picked up that hapless idiot from Monty Python’s “Candid Photography” sketch – better known as Nudge, Nudge. A nod’s as good as a wink to a blind bat, eh, eh, knowwotImean?

Say no more!

The question (I’ll put it euphemistically) goes something like this: have I ever picked up in the act of, you know, picking up?

It’s always men who ask it, of course. Never women. Women (at least the nice, polite and proper ones that I mostly seem to meet) don’t generally think to ask such things. Maybe I’m just meeting the wrong ones, at least if the bragging from my colleagues is anything to go by. Let’s take the case of Prabhjit Gill.

Gill has just been acquitted by the Perth District Court of raping an intoxicated female passenger. Gill’s co-accused, Amrit Pal Singh, was convicted. I can’t say anything about the case, with which I was previously unfamiliar, but in its aftermath Gill has made a series of what to me seem quite extraordinary, not to mention lurid claims.

Firstly, Gill says he knows “at least 60” drivers who had been offered sex in lieu of payment. I would love to know how he arrived at this figure. Did he (or his defence team) do a survey? His claim was news to me – and to my fiancée, too.

On top of that, Gill boasts of being offered oral sex by passengers as payment “two or three times a month”: “You drive, you pick up a girl, and they have no money. They offer you [oral sex],” he says. Of course, Gill claims he never accepted sexual favours as payment himself, but “knew of many drivers who did.”

Riiiight. Well, he would say that, wouldn’t he? His job, after all, depends on it. Otherwise, I can only put Gill’s startling public testimony down to the fact that, unfortunately, many men love only one thing more than sex, and that’s bragging about it – how much they’re getting, who with, in what shapes and forms. I’ve certainly come across other cabbies who, like Gill, seem to fancy themselves when it comes to Business Time.

“Hey, can you take me to Carindale, please.”

Wait a minute, I know what you’re trying to say, baby. You’re trying to say ooh, yeah, it’s business time.

Yes, you are quite correct. It is business time. I am at work. That will be $28.50, thank you very much. Enjoy the rest of your night. With someone else. Make that with someone else especially.

All I can say is this: in a decade, I have never picked up while picking up – not once – and have fielded just two genuine propositions. One was from a gay fellow whom I picked up from a festival at the Wickham. He hadn’t scored, was a bit sad about it, and I was the last guy of the night to (politely) turn him down. He did cheerfully pay up for the fare, though.

The other was a transgender woman, who didn’t have the full fare for me to get her from Fortitude Valley to Woodridge. She offered to show me her new breasts – and started to slide down her top. I looked away, saying only that they weren’t mine to see. She eventually left the cab and tottered away on her six-inch stilettoes. Am I sending out the wrong signals, or what?

Look, I’m sure it happens. Occasionally. To someone out there. Maybe even Mr Gill. But really, I am afraid to tell you that in my experience, the idea of cabbies rampantly getting lucky in their vehicles (do they charge their passengers the $80 cleaning fee at the end, I wonder?) is a big, fat urban myth – one propagated almost entirely by cabbies themselves.

There is, however, one shining, magnificent exception to my story.

I was at the rank at Red Hill, outside the old Skate Arena, when the job came through. The pickup was in Victoria Street. The destination was Roma Street; barely time for a conversation. And yet, in those few minutes, we were getting along so well, she asked me to take her further, on to the airport.

The connection was palpable. What was I going to do? How could I let this opportunity slip? I couldn’t, of course.

We arrived at the airport. Suddenly I was as nervous as a kitten. “Look, I can’t ask you for your phone number,” I blurted. “That would get me into trouble. All I can do is offer you my number. If you want to call me when you get back, I’d love to hear from you.” She tilted her head to one side, grinned, and said OK. I wrote down my number, my hand shaking.

We’re getting married next year. It’s made that decade of driving worthwhile.