For more than 40 years Don Walker’s songs have been imprinted into our collective DNA as if our very souls have been permeated by a giant earworm.
With the release of his new book Songs Walker has put some of his considerable songwriting output into a 304 page compendium that shows his strengths as a writer and storyteller.
Songs opens with Khe Sanh and as the first 40 pages unravel we already have Breakfast at Sweethearts, Shipping Steel and Ita lifting off the page, with many more to come.
Few songwriters anywhere have such a rich body of work and even fewer can say that they have have had them recorded by some of Australia’s greatest talents including Slim Dusty, Troy Cassar-Daley, Sarah Blasko and Katie Noonan.
The reader generally needs to be circumspect when lyrics are presented as poetry as they are usually closely associated with the melody, a question best answered by Walker’s most prolific interpreter, Jimmy Barnes, in the foreword.
“The words hold up stripped of the music,” Jimmy Barnes said.
Walker’s world view as an outsider informs much of this body of work, where aloneness rather than loneliness is the dominant viewpoint.
His incisive intelligence does away with any sentimentality and even the most mundane of subjects are treated with wryness and existential humour in language that is as crisp as it is descriptive.
Being Don Walker this omnibus of songs is not casually thrown together but bound in a chronological order set up in prose preambles starting with the nascent days of Cold Chisel in Adelaide in the early 70s and ends with a loving recollection of passed family members.
In Walker’s many life beats he recounts the years spent broke in the Cross until the mid-80s when Cold Chisel cracked it as the biggest band in the country before it all starts to fray at the edges.
Now he must stand alone and find out who he is without his band of brothers.
“Standing on the outside lookin’ in, Oh-oh.”
The search takes him across Australia and onto eastern Europe just as that region is also disintegrating and finding its own way.
Personal relationships are formed, some fleeting and others longer term and are fleshed out in song form, many finding their home in newer outfits like Catfish, Tex, Don and Charlie and solo efforts.
Throughout this enormous scope of work, Walker finds two subjects that he tackles with great effect.
Not since Kenneth Slessor has Kings Cross been depicted by a writer so incisive and few since Les Murray have tackled the Australia beyond the cities as successfully.
These snapshots over 20 years or so are all the more important as both subjects are now rapidly undergoing changes.
“At the Piccolo Bar” brings Vittorio, the tiny cafe’s irascible patron, to life as he deals with a customer while the ballad Darwin speaks of life change at the edge of society and the continent.
Over these many pages, Walker consistently shows his strength as a bloody good yarn spinner, and there is no higher artistic achievement for an Australian than that.
This elegant edition of Songs from Black Inc. is also being released with the hardback of Shots, Walker’s previous paperback of impressionistic writings.
Reviewed by John Moyle