Paul Kelly’s “How to Make Gravy” and me

songs from the south

My favourite Christmas song is twenty-two. But it seems as though it’s been around forever. Like Love Actually, which premiered in 2003, they’re both part of the festive furniture, and signal the season’s arrival.

It’s the 21st of December and our protagonist Joe, freshly imprisoned and hotly anxious, reaches out to his brother. But is “How to Make Gravy” a letter or a phone call? Initially, the form seems spoken- “Hello Dan, it’s Joe here,” but then moves to a written mode- “I hope you’re keeping well.” Which is it? I don’t know.

Over four and a half minutes, this mystery of the medium continues while we meet the brothers; Angus; parents Frank and Dolly; Joe’s wife Rita; his kids; sisters Stella and Mary; Mary’s former boyfriend, the olfactorily-offensive one (just a little too much cologne) and, of course, the almost missable Roger.

Although most are only mentioned once they’re Australia’s first family of Christmas song. We feel like we know them. Despite these skeletal sketches, they’re writ large. Dolly’s the uncrossable matriarch. I can imagine having a beer with Angus, and if he were alive surely Bill Hunter would play Frank in the film version, all gruff wisdom and barbeque tongs.

‘How to Make Gravy’ begins with opening chords similar to Thunderclap Newman’s ‘Something in the Air’ but its guitar riff by the recently-departed Spencer P. Jones almost nods in homage to the British band’s late-sixties hit song. This might be partly why Kelly’s tour de force seems like it’s been around longer than 1996. It’s deep in our musical tectonics.

Across the top and also underneath is that doleful slide guitar, foreshadowing the anguish to come. Exhilarating, it’s suggestive of outback space and tropical heat and melancholic veranda conversations.

The next surge is when Peter “Lucky” Luscombe’s drums kick in with an electrifying jolt at, “I guess the brothers are driving down from Queensland and Stella’s flying in from the coast”.  I was drawn to the song upon its release, and taught it (and Radiohead’s “Karma Police”) to year 10 classes.

I’d only considered it as a stand-alone song until I read this from the singer: “I’m sort of aware where certain songs are written a few years apart from each other – ‘To Her Door,’ then ‘Love Never Runs on Time’ and ‘How to Make Gravy’ – I’ve got a feeling it’s the same guy. He keeps coming back.”

Here Kelly’s created a fictional universe, or at least some intertextuality, especially as the line, “Tell ’em all I’m sorry, I screwed up this time” indicates a wider backstory, an extended narrative, featuring our central character and his wife Rita.

And what of that famous recipe for gravy?

“It’s a real recipe of my first father in law, which he used and which I still use. When I make gravy for my family, that’s the recipe that I use, and now they always make me, make the gravy. It’s my job now (laughs). When I made up the song it wasn’t my job but it is now. Sometimes art influences life or the other way around.”

I love how the song’s acknowledged with today, December 21, declared national Gravy Day. There’s even a hashtag- #GravyDay.

A portrait of timeless Australia, it’s as evocative as the timber pylons of the Port Willunga jetty; a backyard cricket match; the ribbon of road unrolling across the Hay Plains.

As the boys splash about in the twinkling pool on Christmas morning, and I sneak my first piece of ham I anticipate that plaintive strumming and forlorn slide guitar and hearing, yet again, Joe’s confessional.


Dead Korean Boxers and a Songwriter from Ohio


I’ve only just parachuted into an intriguing world: the music of Mark Kozolek. Named after a Korean light-weight, his current project is Sun Kil Moon and many of the lengthy, digressive songs reference boxing and death.

Along with Paul Kelly’s 1989 song, “Everything’s Turning to White” the film Jindabyne was inspired by the Raymond Carver short story, “So Much Water So Close to Home.” In it a matriarch laments the passing of her daughter, “When people die in the wrong order, that’s when it all turns to shit,” and Sun Kil Moon explores this, every parent’s dread, in a ten-minute epic on the recent collaboration, Jesu.


Continuing the boxing motif this track is entitled after Mike Tyson’s late daughter, and she is but one mentioned in a catalogue of the tragically-taken, including Nick Cave’s twin boy Arthur and the son of San Franciscan author Danielle Steele, gone at nineteen to heroin. Whatever your religious position it’s hard not to nod at this

I don’t believe in God, but sometimes I hope there’s Heaven

In the middle section of this funereal hymn the singer then lists those he’s personally known who also departed early, and the effect is haunting.

We recoil: this poor man’s drowning in death.

My cousin Carissa

My friends Chris’s, Brett’s, and Dennis’s

And my ex-girlfriend Katy’s mum and dad

All became a part of the family of bereaved parents

Sprechgesang is a German operatic style characterised as a hybrid of singing and speaking, and matches perfectly Kozolek’s worldview. The mundane and the poetic sit together atop a twinkling piano as he conveys a stream-of-conscious monologue. It’s strange and compelling and in stunning effect on “Exodus.”

Fittingly, the song closes with a chorus and the lead singer harmonizing on this simple refrain

For all bereaved parents- I send you my love

Sun Kil Moon aficionados know that the opening track from the previous record, Benji,  documents the sudden death of Kozolek’s second cousin, Carissa, and the intertextuality of these amplifies the impact. Their discography functions in ways reminiscent of Robert Altman’s 1993 opus, Short Cuts which weaves together nine Raymond Carver stories. These have been described as “K-Mart realism,” and the plaintive grittiness applies here too.

Among the Leaves

In contrast is the title song of his 2012 album. With its rousing strings and themes of generosity there’s melody and sunshine, and the lyrics arrive through a warm baritone as Kolozek invites a homeless girl to use his downstairs room when he’s away on tour.

I’m away for weeks, arrive at night

She hears my steps, turns off the light and runs

No mind at all, more space than I need

It’s just me among the weeds, among the ghosts, among the leaves

 But with mention of ghosts we again note that death is unceasing, even in this effervescent context. There’s resignation, and no evasion from this deepening shadow. Despite this, Kolozek welcomes the light through the windows; the universe is not utterly dark, and we must keep offering, connecting; forever alert to the possibilities

When evening comes I play guitar

 For the planets and the stars

 I leave the porch light on

 Like I do when I’m gone

 Winter, spring, summer, fall

 Basement’s yours, have a ball

Sun Kil Moon is a confronting aural space. There’s elegy, confessional crush, and the open pages of a diary you’d rather didn’t catch your eye on your way past.

But it’s uplifting and cathartic, and we learn how even obscure Korean boxers can instruct our tiny lives.


AFL Round 10- Adelaide v Carlton: The Pogues or Paul Kelly?


Our eldest son lost his front tooth yesterday. Already dangling, the other is now lurching across his gum. He is six.

Smiling, he is a little like Shane MacGowan, the lead singer of The Pogues. You know, the one who somehow maintains a pulse. Despite his sustained dedication to not, over these last four decades.

With the annual, happy promise of snow, a big Norwegian spruce in Trafalgar Square, and BBC Radio 2 being obliged to play “Fairytale of New York” every fourteen minutes across December, England does Christmas better than Australia.

It just works better in the dark and the cold.

“Fairytale of New York” is a superbly bleak song. Marrying misery with a rousing melody, the doomed couple bicker and snarl, and of course, it ends badly for them.

Which connects to both Carlton and Adelaide, except that it is only May. For much of the first half, the football goes back and forth, perversely suggesting the call and response form of the duet between Shane MacGowan and Kirsty MacColl

I could have been someone

Well so could anyone

You took my dreams from me

When I first found you

I kept them with me babe

I put them with my own

Can’t make it all alone

I’ve built my dreams around you

While this festive ode is euphoric, Sunday’s MCG fixture was dour, and for much of it, lacking music. There would be grander joy within an afternoon spent shopping in Luton. At least there’d be the chance that your umbrella might be picked up in the sleety gale and speared into a Bedfordshire oak tree.

In their peculiar tribute to “Fairytale of New York”, The Crows continue to set their watches to Christmas Island time, well behind that in Melbourne, chronologically and in humanitarian/football supporter terms. And so they only have two goals at the major break. Adelaide’s pre-season strategy of starting in an excruciating way persists into a tenth week. John Farnham has enjoyed shorter retirements.

Norwood boy and Crows fan Paul Kelly’s “How To Make Gravy” is our finest seasonal song. Like The Pogues’ tune, it is jubilant in its despair. Both are anchored in familial misfortune. Each begins with a gentle, welcoming melody, and then erupts into a torrent of regret.

Living in St Albans, just north of London, Paul Kelly’s tour de force was my umbilical cord to Australia. Its evocative power, and fraught, jailed brother were overwhelming. On many a Friday evening I played this song in our tiny townhouse, after beers at The Bunch of Cherries, The Ye Olde Fighting Cocks, or The Goat.

When Peter Luscombe’s drums kick in at

I guess the brothers are driving down

From Queensland and Stella’s flying in from the coast

They say it’s gonna be a hundred degrees

Even more maybe, but that won’t stop the roast

I’d be a goner. The heat, the ritual, the anguish. There I’d be, on our couch, blubbing away, wondering what the feck we were doing half a world from home, having, in a sense, voluntarily imprisoned ourselves. Both songs signify Christmas and the end of the year. Although winter has not begun, 2014 is already finished for The Blues and The Crows.

Yarran and Betts have some electric moments, while Thomas for Carlton and Laird for the vanquished, contribute meaningfully. Kade Simpson appears to roam about unchecked and collects a mammon of disposals. There are more clangers than a Chinese gong workshop, and Adelaide’s sixteen behinds is telling.

I’d like to say that the second half was artistic and masterful like Paul Kelly and The Pogues, but I can’t. The error and turnover rates fell. Each team kicked eight goals. It was close.

Within a few weeks, our son will have a new front tooth, and his smile will again be complete.

Adelaide needs to stop its decay, and stop it urgently.