Making Gravy: In Praise of Paul Kelly’s Signature Song
First, by way of introduction to Australian songwriter and singer Paul Kelly for those in need of one, are the words of Jimmy Guterman from Guterman’s book The Best Rock and Roll Records of All Time (Kelly’s 1985 release Post was number 97 on Guterman’s top 100 list): “Kelly sometimes seems like a rock-critic-invented mixture of Joe Strummer, Elvis Costello, Bob Dylan, Graham Parker, Bruce Springsteen, and a half-dozen other significant white male rockers.” Not half-bad company, and in the 19 years since Guterman’s book came out, it’s become almost routine for Kelly to be presented as Australia’s Dylan and/or Springsteen.
At the center of Kelly’s catalog – chronologically and, at least for me, in terms of reverence – is “How to Make Gravy.” The song first appeared on the How to Make Gravy EP released on Australia’s White Label Records, before hitting the states in 1998 at the heart of Kelly’s Vanguard record Words and Music. It also served as the last song on Kelly’s greatest hits collection, Songs from the South, in 1997. A decade (and another CD’s worth of greatest hits) later, the two-disc Songs from the South, Volumes 1 & 2 was released in Kelly’s homeland. That set got a U.S. release last month, with “How to Make Gravy,” of course, anchoring the first disc. You can also find a live version of “How to Make Gravy” on Kelly’s magnificent and, yes, alphabetical eight-disc The A-Z Recordings box set. And the song supplies the title for a Kelly-penned book described as a “memoir in 100 songs” that serves as a companion piece to the box set. In other words, I’m probably not the only person with strong feelings about the song.
In one-line terms, “How to Make Gravy” is a letter-from-prison song in which the incarcerated Joe writes to his brother Dan about how much he’ll miss Christmas, the holiday traditions, and, especially, Rita. But it’s a song that demands much more than one line. There’s a whole lot to like about it….
It’s musically exhilarating.
As far as the Words and Music version is concerned, you can’t help but get swept up in the song’s gradual build, beginning with the amplified strums, just south of jangly and smack dab on plaintive, that kick things off. Other instruments continue to sign on, and when the drums arrive to jumpstart the second verse, it becomes a full-band affair. The move is from gentle to surging. You start out humming, you end up bobbing and weaving, maybe even fist-pumping. And Kelly’s vocals are, by definition and by execution, conversational. A bit of a rasp surfaces at times, perhaps – getting into character – courtesy of a drafty prison cell. And mirroring the expansion of the music, those vocals grow over the course of the song, making space for the narrator’s agitation over his self-inflicted plight, his unease over what might be happening with the woman he loves, and his distress over not being home for Christmas to all come through.
It’s the full range of emotions in a hooky four-and-a-half-minute rootsy rock song: sorrow, regret, love of the paternal and romantic types, anger, loneliness, despair and its close kin desperation, and more. There are even touches of mood-lightening humor with the recollection of the overpowering cologne of a relative’s boyfriend or when Joe offers, “And Roger, you know I’m even gonna miss Roger/’Cause there’s sure as hell no one in here I want to fight.” And as is the case with superb art, those emotions are transferred to the listener or viewer. “Brings a lil tear to my eye every time, yet I ‘m smiling when I sing along. Weird,” shares a YouTube commenter. Well said, jagertam.
It’s a short story pretending to be a song.
Yes, calling a song a “short story pretending to be a song” earned cliché status long ago. But it’s still a valid way to describe songs that are constructed in a decidedly literary fashion. See Freedy Johnston’s “The Mortician’s Daughter.” See also the bulk of James McMurtry’s catalog, with “Lights of Cheyenne” and “Ruby and Carlos” two particular favorites. “How to Make Gravy” has developed characters, conflict, themes, a couple of settings – the whole package, and a tough one to wrap in under 400 words. It’s become a cliché within a cliché to compare a song to a Raymond Carver short story. But I bet Kelly wouldn’t mind: he named one of his albums after the Carver story “So Much Water So Close to Home.” (Carver also wrote a poem titled “Gravy,” but that would be reading too much into things.) As an aside: “How to Make Gravy” would be categorized as an epistolary short story, although I’ve always contended that you could make the case that it represents a one-sided phone conversation. I mean, who writes in a letter ‘”It’s Joe here”?
No, it’s a movie pretending to be a short story pretending to be a song.
It’s easy to picture “How to Make Gravy” brought to the big screen as an Aussie indie. Sam Worthington as Joe, Ben Mendelsohn as Dan, and Michelle Monaghan as Rita. I know Monaghan is not Australian, but it’s a goal of mine to get her as much screen time as possible, and she is married to an Australian. But if you insist, Rachel Griffiths can have the Rita role. And we have to make room for Jacki Weaver because she kicked so much ass, cinematically speaking, in Animal Kingdom.
It’s full of great lines.
Reminiscing about past holidays and lamenting the one that he’s about to miss, Joe sums up Christmas morning – with great affection, mind you – as “All the treasure and the trash.” It’s as perfect a six-word description as you’re bound to find. Another compact line that gets me every time is “And kiss the sleepy children for me.” When he starts to beg his brother to not get too friendly with Rita, he catches himself and offers the explanation that his mind plays tricks and “multiples each matter, turns imagination into fact.” Throughout, it’s as if the size of a line’s impact is directly disproportional to the number of words. All that plus the secret for jazzing up gravy: “don’t forget a dollop of tomato sauce for sweetness and that extra tang.”
It’s a Christmas song.
Then again, maybe it’s not really an official Christmas song – although it’s more a Christmas song than Die Hard is a Christmas movie, despite what yuletide shoot-em-up aficionados would have you believe. Let’s put it this way: It’s Christmasy enough to be included on a Christmas mix without anyone questioning its presence. And my friend John Wendland – radio show host (KDHX’s Memphis to Manchester, Thursdays from 7-10a.m. CT), gifted musician, and all-around top-shelf human being – covered the song on the holiday record Just Because It Was Christmas by his band Rough Shop, so enough said. Well, almost enough. “How to Make Gravy” is my second favorite Christmas(ish) song, behind only Roger Miller’s “Old Toy Trains” and one spot ahead of the Band’s “Christmas Must Be Tonight.” And in the kind of circumstance that makes the toes of liner-note junkies like myself curl in delight, Paul Kelly recorded a version of “Christmas Must Be Tonight,” which can be found on 2004’s Won’t You Come Around EP. Mr. Kelly, care to have a go at “Old Toy Trains?”
It’s got a Junior Murvin name-drop for crying out loud.
To wit: “You’ll put on Junior Murvin and push the tables back.” If people know reggae artist Junior Murvin, it tends to be only because of the Clash’s cover of his Lee “Scratch” Perry-produced “Police and Thieves.” That’s how I knew Murvin anyway, so his output seemed like somewhat of an unexpected choice as Christmas party soundtrack. Still, “How to Make Gravy” holds such sway over me that it wasn’t long after hearing the song that I bought Murvin’s Police and Thieves record in case a seasonal dance party ever broke out. The main thing, though, is that there’s something wonderfully exotic about the idea of clearing out some space and letting loose to some Junior Murvin tunes, especially for someone whose family, if they were to become truly unhinged at a holiday gathering, might go as far as to tap a foot to Burl Ives.
It’s real, man.
There’s something undeniably authentic about the song and the perfect imperfection that it captures. “Tell ‘em all I’m sorry I screwed up this time” – yep, been there. We all have someone we love who’s screwed up, and we all have screwed up, probably not to the locked-up degree but enough that we have to explain absences and make tough apologies. Realization, redemption, reacting, rekindling, reaching out – it’s got all the great re’s. Sure, this ties in with the emotion-packed angle because it’s this realness that gives the song its emotional wallop, but it’s worth reiteration.