I call bullshit on this memoir. On its long, windy sentences. On its attitude. On the story it tells, or rather doesn’t tell. On just about everything about it. I do it with great reluctance, because when it comes down it, Don Walker is some sort of genius, probably Australian rock’s greatest songwriter, definitely its greatest lyricist, a person without whose input Australian music would be infinitely poorer. But nonetheless, I call bullshit.
First up, it’s pretty boring. I really had trouble figuring out what he was talking about half the time. I understand that he wanted to offer something more than the usual rock n’ roll memoir, the tired practice of name-checking or name-dropping from page to page, stringing together the usual anecdotes of ‘life on the road’ and all that palaver, but if you do that, you have to replace it with something worthwhile.
Walker’s method seems to have been to replace substance with style and in some ways that works — there are passages of great beauty and real control — but for the most part, the style he has chosen doesn’t work.
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It all starts promisingly enough. This is the opening sentence and it had me hooked:
Poor Billy Keeper, hangin’ in the barn, discovered on Empire Day, the afternoon making its long eventful way on to cracker night.
That’s good. Nicely evocative of another era (Empire Day and cracker night), the undertone of menace (Billy Keeper hanging in the barn), or the undertone of boredom and frustration and failure (Billy Keeper hanging in the barn), the promise of more to come (long eventful way). It is good, and it continues nicely:
In truth something hangs low over the grown-ups all day, like they knew, like they had a delegation secretly doing it, everybody waiting, then the early afternoon siren sweeping out from the town, the yellow ambulance through the railway gates, through the picnic ground and down to Keeper’s farm.
Again, nicely evocative. Strangely detached, and yet, the sense that these are people and places that he knows intimately. You don’t need to be told this regional Australia, and you can probably guess its the 50s. It’s all very promising.
But it doesn’t take long for the long sentences to lose their charm, their effect. The detachment becomes removal, more like his heart’s not in it, and if his isn’t, why should mine be? Those dropped ‘Gs’ become more frequent and all the ‘ain’ts’ and other self-conscious locutions designed to — what? Dunno.
After the first thirty-odd pages of it, I’m tiring. It isn’t working for me. But I’m hanging in there. For a while I’m even thinking, if this guy gets his act together, there’s a chance he’s setting himself up as an Australian William Faulkner. He is writing about people and places that are largely ignored in our popular culture, except as caricature. The only person who really takes them seriously is Les Murray, but we need a novelist to do it too, and maybe Walker has it in him. So I hang in there. I’m kept interested by passages like this:
McGuiness and Crecy and to a lesser extent Michael are reading Marx, like most bright seventeen-year-olds blessed with enough leisure. It’s all subversive heroes and all-powerful villains, with an underpinning of pseudo-mathematics expressed in dense language that’s irresistible for humanities students. They can’t see that it’s all over, Marxism, European philosophy in general, rendered obsolete with the birth of Elvis Presley in a shotgun shack in Tupelo Mississippi on January 8th 1935. As the old world fired their sputnik out and died he and a side-show entrepreneur used African sounds and Nazi recording technology to throw the switch between capitalism, sex and the United States electricity grid, and as children we heard the thunderclap blaring from the tannoys out across the beaches even here on the primitive edge of the world.
As good — great — as that is, now that I’ve finished the book, I can see the seeds of the cynicism that ended up curdling the story for me. First time through, that crack about humanities students and seventeen-year olds with enough leisure time seemed a well-judged and well-meaning shot at something real, the privilege of those who dream thoughts of revolution while safely ensconced in first-world relative comfort. Fair enough. But there are more such cracks throughout the book, not nearly as well-aimed or well-judged and the tone takes on a bitterness that veers towards anti-intellectualism.
Around this point in the book, the sentences got shorter too, and there were whole paragraphs where it felt like he was bringing the narrative under control. It felt like the opening section had used those punctuation-free, rambling sentences as a method of indicating what a blur those childhood/youthhood memories were, and I was thinking, well, good for you, I can buy that. But it didn’t last.
The sentences lengthened again, snide was turned up to eleven, and for most of the rest of the book I wondered why this obviously well-read, university educated, thoughtful Australian male who had made such a contribution to our culture was pretending to be some lowlife idiot. Is it simply impossible for Australians to find that balance between a healthy scepticism about some of the pretensions that go with higher learning and middle-class life, and an honest recognition of the value of the same things?
If anyone could do it, I figured, it would be the man who wrote the lyrics to Flame Trees or Khe Sanh, the man whose way with words was second to none, on a par with Paul Simon or Ray Davies or even Dylan. But on the strength this book, I’d have to say I was wrong.
Anyway, I can’t bring myself to leave this on a negative note, so here’s another little passage that had me smiling and wishing that I’d written it (guitarists will understand):
One day I’m around at Frank’s house, this is before he got married, and he pulls a polished guitar case out from under his bed and carefully opens it to show me — a mint-condition Gretsch that he bought for a song off some old guy somewhere who had let go of his dreams. Frank packs and slides it away without picking no more than a couple of notes. They don’t sound like the bending howl of a Fender, more like the deep thrum of a mile of fencing wire singing to itself as a storm approaches.
Look, the book is worth a read, if for no other reason that a few sales might encourage him to have a crack at another extended piece of writing, maybe that novel I mentioned. For all its disappointments, you can’t help but feel there’s something major there waiting to get out.