Like Paul Kelly’s How to Make Gravy, this is part memoir and part autobiography and there is a considerable overlap in the chronology between the two works. Both authors are counted among Australia’s greatest songwriters, they have places and experiences in common and one or two supporting characters crop up in both books, yet the end results are very different creatures.
Walker’s book is a series of mood-filled vignettes, pictures in prose that describe feelings as much as events and people. Reading this, you won’t find out exactly when and where he went to school, how he came to first write a song or even just who was in his unnamed and eventually successful band, but you will gain an impression of the poetry in him that led to some truly great song lyrics.
What Walker does do extremely well is convey a sense of what it was like growing up in a NSW regional town, watching country life disintegrate, wrestling with the demons of academic potential, becoming absorbed in music, exploring various intoxicants, waking up in strange places, forming bonds with fellow travellers and ultimately coming to no great conclusions about who he is or where he’s going.
You know how I said Kelly’s book was really about me? Well, Walker’s book features the me that perhaps I’d just as soon not remember. I certainly recognise myself in the Sydney sections: taking way too many unsafe substances; hanging out at places like French’s, the Kardomah and the Manzil Room; subsisting on little money and even less good food; forming some pretty unhealthy relationships.
Shots has an undercurrent that isn’t quite bitterness, but it’s not very pleasant either. There’s a sense of relief at having survived at all, rather than pride or even pleasure at having achieved any kind of success.
There are certainly passages where Walker’s lyricism allows him to paint some exquisite pictures of life in Australia in the 60s and 70s, but there’s not a great deal of affection and not a lot of hope. There’s some devastatingly casual cruelty, some figures who fall by the wayside uncared for and a frequent sense of disaster narrowly averted.
I’d tentatively suggest that there’s also a bit of room for tighter editing. No-one wants to mess with a major songwriter’s impressionistic manipulation of English to achieve a desired literary effect but there are some word manglings in here that are either unintentional or misguided.
Nevertheless, I found Shots very hard to put down. Especially reading it late at night with a glass of whiskey nearby.
Shots should probably be required reading for teenagers craving life in a rock and roll band, more so than Paul Kelly’s book.
I should also mention that there is an almost unbearable poignancy in my having read this book in the week that Walker’s bandmate Steve Prestwich died. Cold Chisel’s album East stands tall for me as one the best records ever produced in Australia, and Flame Trees – words by Steve Prestwich, music by Don Walker – is one of my all time favourite songs by anyone, ever.
Where’s that whiskey?