Bedroom, Williamstown, 11.30pm, 2007
To listen to Feelings of Grief is to try to swim out beyond the buoys, where the water is too deep and the shore too distant.
After I first heard Feelings of Grief, the opening song on Paul Kelly’s 2007 album Stolen Apples, I wondered if I was game enough to hear it again. I was afraid of where it might take me. And I worried my initial response was an over-reaction. Maybe it was just another song on the radio.
But when I read that Kelly would be opening every gig of his Stolen Apples tour with Feelings of Grief, I knew I wouldn’t be buying a ticket. I didn’t want to be in tears after the first verse of the night’s first song, crying for my brother and for my parents, and for the grief of life.
I first heard Feelings of Grief on the little bedside radio, at about eleven thirty in the evening. Trying to get warm. Waiting for my wife. Falling asleep.
I next heard it a few days later, after I’d bought Stolen Apples from the local independent CD shop.
As I do with most new albums, I gave Stolen Apples the ‘kitchen’ test. If the songs catch my ear amongst the slicing and dicing and frying and dish-washing and kids coming home from school and the phone ringing and the TV playing, then I know I’ve got myself a good album.
Stolen Apples and especially Feelings of Grief passed the test.
Feelings of Grief begins with a mournful one-minute solo from an instrument listed as a ‘mey’. Not quite a trumpet, not quite a bugle. More like a clarinet, an eastern or Asian clarinet.
The song then finds a more formal rhythm, a slow beat that takes you into four short verses where Kelly sings of grief ‘breaking over me/Wave after wave like the rolling sea’.
For five minutes the song rises and falls, rises and falls, until there’s just a drumbeat fading to silence, the silence of a deep well.
Is Kelly grieving for anyone in particular? Presumably so. Do we know who the person is? No, except for the words ‘my friend’. And that is all we need to know.
No matter what you might read about ‘moving on’ or ‘moving forward’ or ‘closure’, grief, like this Paul Kelly song, never goes away.
I didn’t cry when I first watched Feelings of Grief on YouTube, sitting at my desk, in July of this year. But I was nervous, I was anxious. I could feel a tightness in my chest, in my face, in my throat.
But I relaxed as the song progressed and thanked music for its ability to calm and to heal.
Paul Kelly speaks to One Song at a Time (via email), July 2012:
2006, my 52nd year on earth, was a tough one – many people I knew died. It seemed suddenly that things had sped up in that way. Now it’s just normal.
That year I also had a disastrous experience trying to write a score for the film Romulus My Father. Richard Roxburgh, who directed it, approached me for the job. I was excited. I had read the book years before and loved it. I read it again and loved it even more the second time round.
I am a great admirer of Richard’s. We got together a few times, listened to music from Moldavia, Armenia, Romania, music that related to the lead characters’ background. We discussed favourite film composers (Rota, Iglesias, Santaolalla), cooked meals together, went to the country to some of the film’s locations. A friendship was budding. The rough cut came in and was looking good. I went to work and wrote a few pieces. Richard didn’t like them. I re-jigged them but was still way off the mark. It was very awkward because Richard and I liked each other and both badly wanted it to work.
I went back to the well and came up with what I thought was a terrific opening sequence for the film, featuring mey, a Turkish wind instrument, and harmonium. Richard thought it was all wrong. Uh, oh. Time was getting tight for the deadline. I asked him if it would be better if I resigned and he got someone else, someone who could orchestrate properly. He said yes and sounded relieved. So was I.
I took Richard’s reject – waste not, want not – and stuck it on the front of a new song, the first song of a new record. The bands’ five foreheads furrowed at first when they heard it but they came to love it. For me it was like having a nice beautiful bow to tie 2006 up in and send it far behind.
Official YouTube clip (Empire Theatre Toowoomba, September 2007)
A much earlier version of this story – without the postscript and the links – was published at australianrules.com.au and then in The Big Issue (November 2009)