(To be published in the Songsmith)
On Wednesday 11 March I attended a book talk at Gleebooks on Glebe Point Road in Glebe. Don Walker, former Cold Chisel keyboard player and songwriter, was interviewed by published author James Bradley on his inaugural new book, Shots. I was delighted to attend and listen to Don discuss his book and how it came to be written. Don also elucidated on his relationship with Cold Chisel and on the craft of songwriting in general. It is accepted without question that Don Walker is one of Australia’s greatest songwriters, and for me to see and hear my hero talk to James Bradley at Gleebooks that night was a marvellous and thrilling experience, doubly so for the fact that prose writing is of increasing interest to me, so much so that I plan to write a book during my time off in May - July. This talk has certainly been an inspiration as far as my propitious endeavour is concerned.
Entry to the event was $10 and complimentary beer and wine was served. Unsurprisingly of course the event was packed out.
I’m finding more and more as I travel through the years that I'm drawn to the stories individuals carry with them, particularly of those individuals I greatly admire. Don Walker's life-story, along with another local hero of mine, Steve Kilbey, is fascinating in my view. Don Walker was born in North Queensland in 1951, moved to a farm near Grafton in Northern NSW as a child, moved to nearby Armidale to study physics at the University of New England, moved to Adelaide to take up a position with the Weapons Research department in 1973 (co-forming Cold Chisel in the process), moved back to Armidale to complete his honours degree in quantum mechanics in 1974, finally moving back to Adelaide in 1975 to rejoin Cold Chisel. The rest is Australian rock’n’roll history.
Shots, according to Don, came about over time as an adjunct to the songwriting process. In recent years as Don spent many idle afternoons working on problems within songs, often two syllables, Don discovered that automating writing on blank sheets helped to loosen up his expression and concentration on his songwriting. He usually came back to the song clearer and more focused after a bout of automatic writing. Over time these sheets became the genesis of a book, Shots, written in sub-automatic style, or "shots" as they are often referred to. The book covers the story of his life from childhood all the way up to the late-80’s which is some few years after the break-up of Cold Chisel and the beginning of Don’s Catfish project. Of note, the words “Cold Chisel” are never mentioned in his book. Of this Don is quick to point out that even during the height of Chisel’s fame, the fact remains that playing live represented a small-portion of day-to-day existence. Don points out the real life is different, that the members of the band led separate lives with different social circles, that life consisted more mundane matters of finding places to live and scrounging up dole-money etc. Real-life and observations thereof, in this context, is what Shots is about.
I’ve only commenced reading the book and already I’m mesmerised by Don’s expressive vividness, his observational prowess, and the underlying passion and romance he gives to his recollections and anecdotes – just like his songs really. James Bradley was keen to point out how striking the ‘Kings Cross’ chapter was for within the context of relatively few pages, it felt like an entire book in itself. James also praised the book’s underlying musicality, lyricism, and flow.
Don answered questions from the audience in which invariably the omnipresent subject of songwriting came up. Of note one audience member asked about ‘Flame Trees’ and how that came to be written. Don replied that it was sub-autobiographical, about a first love from Grafton, and that Steve Prestwich had the melody for a long time of which Don finally added his classic lyrics at Steve’s request. Don mentioned that he usually has the lyrics first and goes into the music from there; this isn’t surprising for like Nick Cave, Don is a tremendously verbose lyricist.
The talked was topped off by a visitation to the stage by Ian Moss on acoustic guitar, accompanying Don on two haunting ballads, one of which was desolate country as only Don can do it, the second song was a ballad on a long-gone local crim. Personally my favourite music of Don’s is the very early Cold Chisel stuff such as the jazz-blues songs like ‘Rosaline’, ‘One Long Day’ & ‘Breakfast at Sweethearts’ to name a few; that, and the first Catfish album of 1988, 'Unlimited Address' that shamefully remains a relatively obscurity given that it's such an astoundingly great album.
I stood in the long line to have my book signed. Don was convivial and smiling and seemed genuinely happy to be signing his book and having a chat to everyone. I asked him about a guy called David Embury who was an old school/uni friend of Don’s and who had introduced me to Don at a Catfish gig some 15 years ago, David & I having studied at Uni together in 1994. I had a brief, enjoyable chat with Don.
I’m very impressed by Don Walker, and always have been. He’s such a cool man, dapper, sharp & eagle-eyed, intense – a real man. He’s one of my god-smacked idols actually. He’s a brilliant piano/keyboard player and an extraordinary songwriter. I’m eager to delve into his world with Shots, so far it’s a mesmerising read. I’m looking forward to reading the rest of this fascinating book...and to start writing my own. ;)
I’d suggest Cold Chisel’s first album, Cold Chisel (1978), and Catfish’s Unlimited Address (1988) as being the album highlights of Don Walker’s songwriting genius. Interestingly both albums were produced by the same producer, Peter Walker, who bears no relation to Don.
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