Three For The Road - By Clinton Walker

 

Don Walker, so the legend goes, likes eating dinner at the same time at the same Kings Cross cafe every night, surrounded by the sort of faces that populate his songs: A haunted Vietnam veteran; ex-cons, hookers and junkies; a once-legendary surfer wiped out on life; circus acrobats and showgirls; the wide-eyed farm boy jilted at the altar. In another age, Don Walker could have been a Tin Pan Alley songsmith, even a gentleman of leisure. With his slicked-back hair and expensive taste in suits, cigars and single-malt whiskey, he is one of Australia’s finest, yet most enigmatic, songwriters. Walker is seldom a character in his own songs because he values his privacy too greatly. But as the man who was the driving force behind Cold Chisel, he is responsible for a legacy of songs which have become part of the Australian landscape, signposts to our lives and times.

Today, Walker is at the Bondi Diggers Club. Along with his two new collaborators, singer Tex Perkins and guitarist Charlie Owen, he is having a bit of a flutter on the dogs as he talks about their project, the album Sad But True.

They make an unlikely trio. Perkins, of course, has ascended to all-round rock-god status this year, with the success of the Cruel Sea - and he still has the Beasts of Bourbon, the other band he fronts, in his back pocket. He once confessed, "I want it all, basically. That’s why being in one group doesn’t offer me enough." Well, now he’s got another group, which, for want of anything better, is going by the acronym of TD&C.

The "C", Charlie Owen, is the dark horse, a gun musician who has lent his talents to, among others, the New Christs and the Divinyls, has served as a stalwart sideman to Louis Tillett and, more recently, seems to have appeared on practically every backroom album coming out of Melbourne. Owen is one of those rare players in the music business who’s in it for the music alone.

Don Walker, Tex Perkins & Charlie Owen (from left) at the Bondi Diggers Club.

It was always going to be hard, after Cold Chisel broke up in 1983, for Don Walker not to let his past become an albatross around his neck. The two Catfish albums he’s cut since then have suffered for it - as Walker observed, he can’t get his new songs on the radio because his old ones are still being played. He reserves a bitter contempt for the phoniness of the rock industry and, proud though he is of Cold Chisel’s achievements, declines to indulge in posthumous backslapping. He still gives songs to Jimmy Barnes, and he wrote "Tucker’s Daughter" which topped the charts for Ian Moss. Sad But True, an album that came about almost accidentally, may be just the thing to return him to grass-roots favour.

Essentially live and acoustic, Sad But True proffers 13 songs, not only from the pen of Walker but also Perkins and Owen. As such, it invites description as an "unplugged" sort of super-session", but all three musicians are dubious about such tags.

"Unplugged", after all, is merely a term MTV devised to market music which continues a tradition stretching back centuries. As to it being a super-session, Walker is dismissive: "Such a lot of crap has been put out over the years under the name of that sort of thing," he says. "It sounded good on the night, and occasionally it works, but by and large, it ends up a meaningless jam. The first step to making something meaningful is to have a great set of songs."

Neither Walker, Perkins nor Owen can remember exactly how they first got together. Walker recruited Owen after he saw him playing in a band with Louis Tillett in Kings Cross, Sydney, and Owen played on the second Catfish album, 1991’s Ruby. Perkins was a star rising up from the underground whom Walker had only seen on TV. Somewhere along the line, Walker and Perkins met, and Triple J invited the three of them to do a session for Live At The Wireless. They cut three songs, Walker’s "Danielle", a retitled version of Chisel’s "Janelle", the Cruel Sea’s "You Are Gone" and Dylan’s "Blind Willie McTell" (the latter appears on the recent Live At The Wireless album).

"One evening we all went around to Don’s place," Perkins says, "and then the next day we went into Triple J. It all went so well; we thought we had something, so we weren’t satisfied with just three songs."

This was midway through last year. At the end of the year, the three of them were available again, and went into the studio in Melbourne with ace producer Tony Cohen, plus a cast of guest pickers including Kim Salmon ("one of Australia’s great guitarists came in to play Jew’s harp"), two of the Dirty Three, drummer Jim White and fiddler Warren Ellis, and Working Class Ringo’s bassist Shane Walsh. Three days later, they emerged with Sad But True. It was shelved for release until such time as TD&C could afford it the attention they felt it deserved with a few press interviews and a short national tour.

More songs by Walker will, as he puts it, "filter out through other projects" while he continues to work towards the next Catfish album Perkins will reunite with the Beast to tour and probably record (the band’s last hurrah with Kim Salmon, who is leaving), and then the Cruel Sea begin their assault on Europe. Owen, who has a solo album ready for release, will return to playing Melbourne’s thriving bars.

"If you can listen to the record and not tell which songs are mine and which are Tex’s then that’s great," says Walker. "One of the good things about this record is that my songwriting is taking a turn, and I suspect Tex’s is too. So, somehow, they intersect.

That the album sounds the way it does - acoustic, rootsy - is the result purely of the way it was recorded: "It wasn’t a concept we decided to stick to," says Perkins.

"They’re the kind of songs that just work on that most basic level," adds Walker.

In exactly the middle of the album, an instrumental by Charlie Owen called "Dead Dog Boogie" rears its ugly head as if to say, WAKE up! "It was the very last song we did," Perkins explains. "All the rest of the songs, there’s so much restraint, and this is like the huge vomit everyone wanted to have!" Restraint is perhaps a bad word; the album’s feel is relaxed, its means obviously modest, but its effect is memorable.

Walker’s songs, which show his journalistic eye for detail, present wry snapshots of the immediate environment. Those by Perkins, in contrast, are more subjective. "All these songs aren’t autobiographical, but I’m prepared to sacrifice my reputation for them," Perkins says laughing. "Basically, so much of my songwriting is trying to expose men for what they really are. Country and western music - if you’ll excuse me for giving this that category - is a perfect vehicle for that type of philosophy."

Walker stands promptly to attention as the club patrons call for the traditional 6 o’clock ode. Lest we forget, he intones. It is a display of the sort of empathy that makes him such a potent songwriter. Perkins and Owen linger at the bar, waiting for another round. ZZ Top chug along softly on the jukebox in the background.

Owen tells a story about recording Sad But True that encapsulates its beauty. It concerns pedal steel player Garrett Costigan. "He came in the night before he had to do anything, and we said, ‘You don’t have to be here,’ and he said, ‘Oh, I’d just like to see what you’re doing.’ When he came in to do his thing the next day, I think I said something to him like, ‘Oh, just sit there and play the perfect note.’ He sat there for half the song, and then - he just came in.

"It was like a bird in song…"

1994 Rolling Stone (Jan)

 

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