By Stuart Coupe
Hachette, Australia, 2020
For those who read Paul Kelly’s autobiography How to make Gravy (Penguin, 2018), Stuart Coupe’s latest book Paul Kelly, will fill many gaps in the narrative of this musician’s life.
Stuart Coupe engages in these musicology writing projects in order to record the cultural history of Australia. He is the author of a fistful of books about musical identities and eras, a couple of them written with Glenn A. Baker.
Dozens, if not hundreds of interviews form the basis for this book. Many conversations are set down apparently verbatim – and interestingly the same event is told by several people with often conflicting points of view – this is the means by which Stuart Coupe tries to arrive at ‘the truth’. Memory, of course, makes unreliable witnesses of us all.
In tracking Paul Kelly’s musical life from childhood to the present, Coupe also inevitably explores the personal. Not only does he delve, albeit not salaciously as he says, into the marriages, other relationships and family bonds, but also the ever-changing landscape of Paul’s entourage.
It is clear that from very his early days, this Dylanophile had a clear idea what he wanted of the music scene and was intent upon achieving it. Like many musicians with longevity, it took Paul Kelly a long time (till 2007) to light upon the line up which survives to this day.
Paul Kelly is a consummate writer of stories, most of them drawn from his life. His deep interest in literature as a reader is evident from his early interest in Rimbaud and Baudelaire and much later in the publication of an anthology of his 300 favourite poems. It is, however, his transformative prowess and Darwinian adaptiveness that has allowed his longevity, the bringing on board of a generation of young followers and the insistence on doing what interests him at the time rather than hanging on to a past glory.
Any good story of our musical history will be a bigger account of our social history. With countless minutiae, Stuart Coupe leads us through the drug ravaged seventies and eighties music scene, through changes in Australian society in the nineties and turn of the century.
All of this and with ample insider knowledge, Stuart Coupe delivers in a fast- moving biography with a pace that nicely mirrors the often manic industry into which he pulls us.
These sorts of cultural histories are important. We are indebted Stuart Coupe, who has taken the trouble to write in the manner of an academic researcher but with no doubt a more accessible product and hence greater reach.
I do also want to pay homage to Andrew Southam’s stunning cover image, taken on the Staten Island ferry with the now forever changed New York cityscape in the background.
Thank you, Hachette Australia for sending me a review copy.