Paul Kelly: The Man, the Music and Life in Between
08.10.2020

Paul Kelly: The Man, the Music and Life in Between

Words by Chris Lambie

The first dedicated Paul Kelly biography is here, written by industry legend Stuart Coupe

It’s been said that, for an artist, there’s no such thing as bad publicity. Maybe that’s what motivated Paul Kelly to give the green light to this ‘unauthorised’ biography.

Airplay from Kelly’s back catalogue has accompanied promotional interviews for the well-publicised release. He likely knew that among those quoted (particularly from the early years of his career) some would raise ‘issues’ they’d experienced with the Australian music icon.

Author and former Kelly manager Stuart Coupe balances accounts of the singer-songwriter’s genius and generosity with insights detailing his sometimes ‘challenging’ nature. Driven or ruthless? Pedantic or focussed? Perhaps his work on Renee Geyer’s acclaimed album ‘Difficult Woman’ was a shared expression of the fine line between an artist being a pain in the arse or being justified in pushing for the best.

Maybe, like many past a certain age, Kelly just doesn’t give a rat’s about conclusions drawn from the book’s mix of accolades and grievances. For all the insider revelations, he remains an enigma.

Coupe’s longstanding and wide-ranging involvement in the local music business affords him access to many key players in the Paul Kelly story. While Kelly’s own memoir ‘How To Make Gravy’ covered more of his personal back story and perspectives, this book gives voice to other figures in the artist’s orbit.

Kelly himself agreed to a number of interviews with the author, while close family members declined to contribute.

What is wonderfully captured across the pages is the sense of time and place during Kelly’s rise to stardom. Former housemates, band members, agents and collaborators (Vika and Linda Bull, Kev Carmody, Mick Thomas, Shane O’Mara, Archie Roach, Michael Gudinski…) describe working in communion with the sporty ‘boy’ from the big family in Adelaide. Having lived in Richmond in the 80s, descriptions of inner urban share houses and live venues (seven nights a week in those glory days) rang true for this reader. So too the roll-call of bands, often short-lived, with musicians featuring in several simultaneously.

We hear of the differences between regions. Melbourne’s live scene in the 70s. Sydney in the 80s. The suburban beer barns, touring from Tassie to Townsville, recording in the US. Third person accounts describe Kelly’s rollercoaster ride between albums – marriages, break-ups, drugs and drawn-out business deals.

The multitude of band members from Dots to Messengers include many who’d like to see the reissue of early recordings. Owning the rights, Kelly is determined to keep them buried, apparently embarrassed by the songs or the stories they tell from a turbulent time. Understandable but unfortunate for former bandmates (and songwriting contributors) whose work is left in the shade of history.

For a songwriter who reckons he’s used the same four chords across his repertoire, Paul Kelly (AO) has become an intrinsic part of Australia’s music landscape. His memorable melodies, poetic renderings of ordinary and extraordinary stories and creative relationships with other industry legends have all sealed his place in our popular cultural history. This compelling biography opens a window into Kelly’s world while recapturing the best and worst of the potent era and environment that made him.

You can grab a copy of the book via Booktopia.

Stuart Coupe is an author, music commentator, independent artist publicist and radio broadcaster. Books he has written, edited or collaborated on include The New Music (1980), The New Rock ‘n’ Roll (1983), The Promoters (2003), Gudinski (2015), Tex (2017) and Roadies (2018).