Robert Forster, co-founder of the Go-Betweens, writes that in the small, but febrile post-Saints Brisbane music scene of the late 1970s, everyone knew each other. That should be no surprise: really, they still do. But even back in those days, he says, he and the late Grant McLennan knew of Peter Milton Walsh before they had met him; he was a man with “whispers and claims on his trail”.
Walsh is the near-myth behind the Apartments, the group he named after one of Billy Wilder’s greatest films. It speaks of him. He wore impeccable suits and shades under a big mop of blond hair in Brisbane’s sweltering heat. He had a taste for the arcane and the exotic. His music is of another time: of post-punk, certainly, but also of Burt Bacharach and Jacques Brel; Françoise Hardy and Serge Gainsbourg.
He is a star in France, yet all but unknown here. He lives quietly in Sydney, rarely performs, and has just made his first album – his fifth overall – in 18 years. The man himself is no mystery; just not one to make a noise about himself. He deadpans he has been “hard at work developing my sitting still and keeping quiet talents, which to me are a little bit neglected in this world”.
Walsh had a very brief stint in the Go-Betweens in 1979, but he already had the Apartments, and he quickly returned to them. (The Go-Betweens honoured him with two songs: That Way, from Before Hollywood, and an early B-side, Don’t Let Him Come Back, with the lines: “Who’s that dressed in black / Who’s that in his apartment / With his crazy walk / Don’t let him come back!”)
In the years since, following the release of the Apartments’ debut album The Evening Visits … And Stays For Years on the prestigious Rough Trade label in 1985, he has slowly built a reputation as a songwriter’s songwriter. One song from that album, Mr Somewhere, was covered by British ensemble This Mortal Coil (keeping company with tunes written by Tim Buckley, Big Star, Syd Barrett and Gene Clark). A later single, The Shyest Time, featured in the John Hughes film Some Kind Of Wonderful.
In the 1990s, Australian soul legend Renée Geyer tackled another of his songs, Knowing You Were Loved, on the recommendation of another fan, Dave Graney. That song had come from Walsh’s second album, Drift – a record which reputedly sold some 25,000 copies in France, but less than 200 in his home country. It amounts to, one critic wrote, “one of the great crimes of neglect in Australian music”.
Graney, who first met Walsh in the early 1980s while the latter was serving a brief stint as bass player in Ed Kuepper’s band the Laughing Clowns, describes Walsh as “a great songwriter, very individual. He has dark and shifting tones, with a pop default, but epic peaks and falls. Great to talk with – always talk laced with references to arcane literature and music. Always carried a dramatic back story about him, impossibly authentic. You can’t make that shit up.”
But the back story to The Apartments’ new album No Song, No Spell, No Madrigal – released after a crowd-funding campaign on a tiny French label, Microcultures – is so traumatic that, by Walsh’s own estimation, it is a miracle that it exists at all. It begins a full 18 years ago, in 1997, on the last day of mixing his fourth album, Apart, when the family GP rang.
It was about Walsh’s son, Riley, whose blood tests had come back. The doctor told Walsh to take him to the Sydney’s Westmead hospital immediately where, he was told, a specialist would be waiting for them. Riley had been diagnosed with a rare auto-immune disorder that meant his body wasn’t producing white blood cells to fight off infections. The Walsh family spent the next two years “on a death watch, basically – the cold that another child gets and beats back, is the cold that will kill yours”.
Riley lost the fight he was never going to win in 1999, aged just three years and eight months.
Walsh was eviscerated. A pall descended: to borrow a line from the song Twenty One – a lament for all the birthday parties that would never be held for his son – he’s been “stuck in the same quicksand since 1999”.
Not that Walsh has been inactive. He continued to write songs for himself, and for Riley – just never with the intention of recording or releasing them. One of the first to arrive was Swap Places, where he recounts: “Walking round the hospital, Friday afternoon / Other children going home / Wondering if the day will come when that might be you, if you’ll ever come home?” It ends with a chant: “Where’s the God in all of this?”
He quotes lines from a poem, Old Marx, by Polish writer Adam Zagajewski: “He still had faith in his fantastic vision / But in moments of doubt / He worried that he’d given the world only / A new vision of despair.”
“That poem absolutely haunted me for ages,” he says. “And I just thought, OK, I’m not going to do anything with these songs.” He didn’t share them with anybody – not even his wife, Kate, with whom he has two other children.
But that, Walsh says, amounted to “another kind of death”. For years, silence had seemed like the only way to suitably honour his son’s passing, but the more songs that came, the more they weighed. “I [couldn’t] go on if I didn’t do them,” he says. “It was like a necessity because here he lives, in these songs – do I just throw them away, so that’s another thing that’s forgotten?”
In 2007, he began to dip his toes back in the water: first a few very low-key gigs in Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane; then, a couple of years later, he played a sold-out show in a Parisian club, L’Européen. There he was introduced to a young French singer, Natasha Penot, who had covered his song Sunset Hotel. A duet was organised, and his first music since Riley’s death – a song called Black Ribbons, recorded by Sydney producer Wayne Connolly – was released as a seven-inch single by Melbourne label Chapter Music in 2011.
Connolly had first met Walsh in 2004, when they met to discuss the idea of recording. “Peter told me at that meeting that the subject matter of the songs was related to the loss of Riley and that he wasn’t sure if he could ever actually record them. He wrote to me soon after to say that it was unlikely that he ever would,” Connolly says.
But then, seven years later, came Black Ribbons; the following year, Connolly joined Walsh on another tour of France. During the first gig, Walsh unexpectedly threw Twenty One – which no one else inside or outside the band had then heard – into the set. “It’s impossible to describe what I felt, but I had never stood on a stage with tears streaming down my face before,” Connolly says.
Finally, late in 2013, the pair entered the studio. Sometimes, songwriters talk of writing and performing songs as reliving a kind of trauma; few, surely, have lived through anything approaching Walsh’s. “The songs were very hard to play, very hard to record.”
“At some point we had a discussion about his doubts, and it was evident how close to the surface the pain of [Riley’s loss] was,” Connolly says. “But, as it is for so many involved in music, it’s possible to find joy in a beautifully played hi-hat or piano or a nice bass line. Peter loves to be immersed in sound – as long as there’s a generous amount of reverb! – and I got the sense that he began to appreciate it as a therapeutic/cathartic process.”
In September, Walsh will return to France, where he’ll be confronted with a new challenge: playing the songs in front of an expectant audience. In the meantime, there are press duties, which he is understandably keeping to a minimum. It is, he says, “like a mountain I haven’t yet climbed, so I’ll just have to see what it’s like. But that’s part of the deal I made when I made the album. Songs are like windows, sometimes they’re trapdoors, and memories come cartwheeling out. You just have to deal with them.”
First published in The Guardian, 7 August 2015