I’ve loved Paul Kelly for over 10 years, and this year I finally decided to retrace his steps. (ABC RN: Paul Penton)
I was lucky. I heard the tunes and caught the fever young.
But I didn’t realise the significance of Paul Kelly’s music until university.
To a share house full of international students, I boldly declared him to be Australia’s Bob Dylan.
To prove my point, I grabbed a copy of Kelly’s (original) greatest hits album.
As the chords to From St Kilda to Kings Cross bounced off the plasterboard walls and cheap carpet, I watched their faces trying to decipher the lyrics.
It was incredible. They had no idea what he was talking about.
Because it was uniquely Australian. It named Australian places. It referenced a city rivalry older than St Kilda’s palm trees.
Fair-weather friends, white lines on the highway, and a soul that goes running.
The experience let me hear it with fresh ears and a new perspective. This was our story.
More than a decade later, for the love of Kelly, I flew from Sydney to Melbourne to catch the bus back to Sydney.
Watching the sun go down in ‘scruffy’ St Kilda
Once I landed, I headed for St Kilda.
I needed to find out what made this place was so special that someone would sacrifice Sydney harbour for it.
As the lyrics go: “I’d give you all of Sydney harbour, all that land and all that water, for that one sweet promenade.”
The answer wasn’t obvious. And for Kelly, that’s part of its appeal.
“St Kilda’s a real mix. It’s kind of scruffy, all kinds of people there, it’s by the sea which is why I love it,” he says.
“It’s always going to have this air of faded glory. It’s never been totally trendy; it’s never been the rage.”
I drilled locals about bad weather, loud tram tracks and even the distance to get coffee. But they always seemed to have an answer. St Kilda was home, nothing could compare.
A rugged up couple embrace as they watch the sun go down on St Kilda beach. (ABC RN: Mike Williams)
It was hard to argue with the sun as it began its bold descent. The white facade of the famous Espy Hotel turned golden. A couple sat on the beach in arms — albeit in jumpers — watching the light fade.
Like Kings Cross in the rain, things were different.
It was just another sunset in St Kilda.
“I want to see the sun go down from St Kilda Esplanade, Where the beach needs reconstruction,” Kelly sings. (ABC RN: Mike Williams)
‘I never caught the bus from St Kilda’
The next morning, I made my way to Southern Cross station, which Kelly will tell you, is not in St Kilda.
I watched the people boarding the bus and imagined how different it would have been when Kelly caught it 40 years ago.
Surrendra, a man I met on the bus trip, sat up to get a better view of the Australian landscape. (ABC RN: Mike Williams)
In the mid-1980s, Kelly was at a crossroads. His band had dissolved; he wasn’t happy with the albums they’d made anyway.
He departed his record label and he’d recently split with his wife.
“It wasn’t like a terrible time in my life, just battling away,” he says.
“Trying to keep the family together, also trying to make music and find my voice — it was just normal life. Trying to get ahead like most people.”
Kelly had a family connection with Don Walker, the pianist and driving force of Cold Chisel. He moved into his place temporarily in Kings Cross.
There, he wrote some new songs that formed the basis of the album Post, a self-aware nod to the new chapter.
Rick’s plan was to jump off at Albury to pick up a truck for a friend. (ABC RN: Mike Williams)
The change in city had done him wonders. He was now a solo artist and had borrowed money from a friend to record the album.
“For the first time, I felt like I’d found my own groove. It felt like I’m onto something here, at the beginning of something. Like a fresh start,” Kelly says.
One of the songs he wrote on Don’s white grand piano was From St Kilda to Kings Cross.
While he’d driven to Sydney when he moved his life, Kelly had caught the bus between the cities a few times before.
“I had memories of the bus trips stopping at the big ram in Goulburn, I think they’d just started having movies on the bus,” he says.
Though he never got on at St Kilda — ‘you catch it from the middle of the city” — those particular syllables ‘fitted the melody of the tune”.
“And they were similar suburbs, that’s probably what joined them together; seedy, scruffy reputation,” Kelly says.
He didn’t think much about how he’d been so specific with place names. He says people did find it unusual, but he was taking inspiration from Chuck Berry and Lou Reed.
Locally, Skyhooks and Cold Chisel were referencing Australian towns and cities.
“It’s just how the song fell out”, Paul says.
Everything goes on just the same
On the bus, the driver asked me if I’d like to hear the song. The chords began as we were flew along the Hume Highway.
I heard the song in a new way. This time, it was more emotional. My memory returned to thin plasterboard walls and cheap carpet.
I was nostalgic for long university days with short classes and friends that could only ever be fair-weather.
Kelly has lived in St Kilda since 1992 and has no plans to move.
“It’s never been totally trendy; but it’s home now and I can’t imagine living anywhere else,” he says.
But I’m taken aback at what he says next.
“I love Sydney too; I’m never interested in the Melbourne-Sydney debate because I love both cities. I love the water and beaches — Sydney’s beaches are beautiful.”
I was confused and it showed.
“Even though you’ve written this classic song about sacrificing the harbour for St Kilda… you still like Sydney?” I asked.
Kelly replied, a little baffled: ‘It’s a song. You know, it’s fiction.”
After travelling for 13 hours on a bus, I finally made it to Kings Cross. (ABC RN: Mike Williams)
I was embarrassed.
I was so caught up in the story of the song, and my feelings towards it, that I’d forgotten the difference between art and reality.
For me — when I hear his music — it’s all real. Because he sings about places I’ve been, people I’ve met, relationships I’ve had and feelings I’ve felt.
How can someone be so good at expressing what I’m feeling?
For decades, Kelly has told our story, one song at a time. Is there any other musician that embodies Australia’s psyche like him?
Today he kicked off his annual Making Gravy tour.
Before too long, thousands will shout in unison about how ‘they got married early. Never had no money’; how ‘from little things big things grow’; and of course, how we’ve ‘done all the dumb things’.
And for a while at least, everything will be right in the world.