Travels with Don - By Noel Mengel

 

"I remember the first time I came into Broome," says Don Walker, new father, one third of an unlikely partnership with Tex Perkins and Charlie Owen, and, lest we forget, author of Khe Sanh.
"I pitched my tent down at the beach, and went out in the morning for a look around and went in to the local newsagent. Now in most newsagents there are two or three Phantom comics, but in this place there was a whole wall of them."
He sensed then that here was a town apart from so many other small communities scattered across the continent, with its exotic mix of cultural influences, Aboriginal, the Japanese pearlers, Chinese & Indonesian. The writer in him sniffed a song.
That's where Three Blackbirds came from, a graphic tale of slave trading - blackbirding - on the north-west coast of Western Australia, shipping Aboriginals to work as pearlers on the boats out of Broome. It's one of the standout songs on We're All Gunna Die, his new album, the first he has ever made under his name.
The image most Australians have of Walker is of an elusive Kings Cross nightowl who turned his back on the fame, fortune & constrictions of Cold Chisel, preferring instead to dabble where he pleased and the obscurity of his occasional band, Catfish.
On We're All Gunna Die, he consciously chose to explore well beyond the city limits.
"There's an awful lot of travel on this record," says Walker, who grew up in north Queensland then around Grafton, and touring with Cold Chisel saw more of this country than most people see in a lifetime.
"I found the story to Three Blackbirds in historical society literature in Broome when I took a long trip around the country in 1984. It's almost like a Boy's Own comic story..." Some comic, with its biblical images and Saul-like conversion of one of the blackbirders.
Then there's the Mt. Isa-meets-Aldous Huxley song Carless in Isa, the searing desert imagery of Eternity, and the intriguing far NQ mystery of I Am The King.
"For a long time now I've wanted to place my music in the Pacific region. There's something that sets it apart, whether its the racial memories of fighting the Japanese, South Pacific, Enola Gay, surf culture. The Doors are a Pacific region band. So are Tamam Shud. There's something that sets it apart.
"It's a very American culture, but there's a little of Australia in there too. And I thought if you could gather all these threads together you could make music that was like from nowhere else."
Lyrically, you can see the seeds of this direction as far back as Khe Sanh, the first and still best-loved Cold Chisel hit, perhaps the only pop song ever that had people singing along with a story of post-Vietnam traumatic stress. Musically though, Walker seems content to have left the more hard rock elements of Chisel behind for a more spacious, bluesy feel.
He has also added a steel guitar to his sound.
"I was determined not to have keyboards, so I went for a pedal steel. It's an instrument that can hold a chord; there's a lot of space, a lot of bend & swirl. It makes the music sway a lot."
And what about the pubs that spawned Chisel? "I've got no problem with doing pub shows - I love it. I don't know if it's a sign of emotional immaturity or what.
"Paul Burton, who played bass with me for ages, became upset by the insensitive nature of it, the smoke, the drunks, but I really prefer it. If you can make music work in that, then you've achieved something.
"Really, it's what has built the best bands this country ever produced."

Courier Mail, Sep 23, 1995

 

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