Standing on the outside
February 7, 2009
After 30 years of writing rock songs that made other people famous, former Cold Chisel keyboardist Don Walker has finally turned his pen on himself. Drew Warne-Smith asks why.
Don Walker would rather not talk about himself. Not that he’s being impolite as he sucks on the stub of a fat cigar on a molten January afternoon, jacket still on, sweeping grey thatch refusing to wilt. The former Cold Chisel keyboardist and songwriter is simply, notoriously, a very private man. Except that today, Walker, the quiet one, has come to a cafe in Sydney’s Kings Cross to discuss his first book, a freshly minted memoir. It’s kinda hard to talk about anything else.
“A private person? I was until now,” Walker mutters with a thin smile soon after we meet. As he speaks he’s studying a copy of the book that sits on the table, a grainy picture of his younger self on the front cover, square-jawed and smoking, eyes cast downwards. “I’ve often felt uncomfortable about this whole thing.”
He appreciates the irony, of course. While his collaborators over the years – from Jimmy Barnes to Tex Perkins to the late Slim Dusty – were at home in the spotlight, Walker was forever slinking from it, penning songs that made other people famous. But in choosing to revisit his past, at age 57 and 25 years after his iconic Aussie rock band disbanded the first time, he is inviting the very scrutiny he has avoided for so long.
So why? And why now? “Because there were also some times I didn’t feel quite so uncomfortable,” he says with a shrug, before protesting, gently, that he’s not even sure his book should be described as a memoir at all. He never intended to write one; it didn’t feel like that’s what he was doing.
It started back in the early ’90s, when Walker penned some stream-of-consciousness liner notes for a Chisel compilation. Ever since then he kept “banging stuff down on blank sheets of paper”, a disparate collection of memories and rants and episodes, none of them designed to be read by anyone else. But when he realised he had enough words to fill a book, he started to wonder if they could be somehow melded into book form.
So he sorted the pages into order – starting with one from a “long, long time ago” (a farmer’s suicide in Grafton, northern NSW, where he grew up, having been born in Ayr, in northern Queensland) and ending with one “just a long time ago” (the death, by drug overdose, of his friend and Dragon keyboardist Paul Hewson, in 1985). Then he wrote some fresh connecting pieces and sent it to an agent, still so rough it was barely punctuated.
The result – aptly entitled Shots – is still a long way from a conventional account of one person’s life. It’s devoid of dates, context, explanation, even names. And while there are plenty of references to sex and drugs, there’s not a whole lot of rock’n’roll either. This is hardly the insider’s story of the hell-raising Cold Chisel.
Even when he’s being mounted by a lingerie-clad Kiwi girl after an acid trip, there’s also a sense that he’s only an observer in the world he depicts, rather than a participant. This is more of a road trip through the small, shambolic towns and city back-alleys that once shaped Walker’s life, a series of postcards from the fringes of an Australia he once knew. Places such as Kings Cross – that sepulchre for lost dreams and his home for 30 years, first in the old Plaza Hotel, littered as it was with needles and working girls, and more recently in a grand Elizabeth Bay terrace he sold for about $3 million last year.
“There’s a certain picture that I’ve been playing with and trying to get down in my songs for 35 years, often ineptly; a feeling and a landscape I want to describe. And I’ve done the same thing with the book. The form is different, but the picture is the same,” he says. “It’s a
travelogue really, more than a memoir.” But it’s his life all the same, and he clearly feels vulnerable about it. He showed a draft to his sister, Brenda Walker, an associate professor in English and Cultural Studies at the University of Western Australia and an esteemed novelist in her own right, to make sure he didn’t “stub his toe”. And to his brother, a tradesman in Brisbane he’d rather not name, to check he hadn’t trampled on his siblings’ memories of home.
But most of all he was nervous about the reaction of his eldest daughter, Danielle, 29. He only found out about her over the phone, not long after the release of the album East in 1980 while he was overseas. He writes that her mother would abandon her, and she and a step-sister wound up in foster care. It took Walker two years and countless courtrooms before he won custody.
By 1984 and the album Twentieth Century he would also invoke her in a song, Janelle. “Lookin’ through your photograph / Talking through the telephone / I’m thinking through my plans for me / And you so all alone.” (He later reclaimed it for her, re-recording it as Danielle with Tex Perkins and Charlie Owen in the trio known as Tex, Don and Charlie).
But she is not a topic of conversation for now, for this Kings Cross cafe, that much is clear. “The Danielle thing is just a private thing for me,” he says, sounding more than a little detached. And neither, he makes plain, are his wife or their 13-year-old daughter, both of whom he would prefer not to name.
Of Danielle, all he is prepared to share is that she’s not a musician and that if she hadn’t liked and approved of the manuscript he wouldn’t have proceeded. But, most surprisingly, he also admits that he hadn’t actually discussed much of this past life with her before she read it on the page. And she hadn’t asked much, either.
Like father, it seems, like daughter.
“We’re not sitting in a circle holding hands, emoting kind of people,” he says with a wry smile, by way of explanation. “She’s just a very private person, too.”
THEY CALLED THEMSELVES “Orange” when Walker first joined Ian Moss, Steve Prestwich, Les Kaczmarek and Ted Broniecki on stage at the Italian Men’s Club in Adelaide in October 1973. Seventeen-year-old lead singer James Swan, aka Jimmy Barnes, would arrive at the end of the year, and soon after the name Cold Chisel.
Walker had come to South Australia to work at the Weapons Research Establishment, having completed a physics degree with honours in quantum mechanics. And for the first few years he juggled his job – modelling airflows around the bomb-release pod of an F-111 – with the band as they lurched from grimy pub to grimy pub, belting out a few original numbers amid a stale list of covers. But when they traded in Adelaide and headed east in search of something bigger, he would have no hesitation in leaving the physics behind.
Based first in Melbourne’s St Kilda, then in Sydney, the band would grind away until 1978, when they finally scored a record deal and put out their eponymously titled debut album. Walker wrote almost all their early material, including Khe Sanh. Their first manager, Sebastian Chase, recalls Walker as the band’s “steward” in those penniless, formative years. “He was an outsider in a way, sort of on the fringes, observing what was going on, but he was the one who had a vision for a band that had an ethic of performance and relevance,” says Chase.
With the release a year later of their follow-up album, Breakfast at Sweethearts, the band finally caught fire. For about four years they were an inferno – a hard-driving, hard-living, fair-dinkum rock band telling distinctly Australian stories to a generation of fans, songs infused with anger and pathos and politics, too. And many came from Walker’s pen, classics that still get airplay today such as Flame Trees, Saturday Night, Breakfast at Sweethearts and Cheap Wine.
But along with the fans, the bestselling records, the drugs and the drink came the in-fighting and the feuds. After a failed tilt at the US and some chaotic European shows, they would call it quits around 1983. Jimmy Barnes recalls a show in Germany when Walker finally vented his frustrations, upending an expensive keyboard at the end of a set. The crowd lapped up what appeared to be some Pete Townshend-style theatrics, but the band knew otherwise. “That was a big statement from Don. We were shocked. He’d finally lost it,” Barnes tells me over the phone. “He was the guy who’d kept us together, who wrote the songs, who worried about the business. He was the guy who did all the work. He was the straight one, the smart one. And he could see the writing on the wall long before any of us. We realised then it was the beginning of the end.”
Looking back, Walker says it was a relief to part ways. They’d needed to move on, for the music as well as their souring relations. But in their absence the legend of Cold Chisel continued to grow, and there would be two reunion tours, in 1998 and 2003, and a new album, too. Walker can understand the cynicism, but he insists it was not for the money and has no regrets they did.
“Cold Chisel was a great band. Most people who are musicians know this and the ones who don’t acknowledge it are lying,” he says. “And after some time away I wanted to get in a room with these guys again. You think to yourself, ‘How good could this be?’ That was always the attraction.”
But the father of two, who now lives in Edgecliff in Sydney’s eastern suburbs, can also afford a laugh when asked if they all get on better now they’re not in the band. “You could say that,” he says with a broad smile, before insisting they remain firm friends. And he has continued to play with many of them in his career since then.
After a three-year musical hiatus, during which he travelled through Europe and Asia, then assumed the responsibilities of fatherhood, Walker returned with a new band, Catfish, which produced two albums and won critical acclaim but not the following he’d anticipated. There were also two well-received albums with Tex, Don and Charlie, and a couple more under his own name (most recently Cutting Back in 2006, on which Moss, Prestwich and bassist Phil Small – who replaced Kaczmarek in Cold Chisel – played).
For the most part these offerings have become a “rootsier” affair – part-blues, part-country, ragged even, the pub rock long gone. Walker has also written or co-written songs for a Who’s Who of Australian music along the way: Ian Moss (including the hit single Tucker’s Daughter), Troy Cassar-Daley, Jimmy Little, Kate Ceberano, Wendy Matthews, Jeff Lang and Slim Dusty.
It’s not by accident they’re a diverse bunch. Even with his own recordings Walker says he is not hung up on the genre, or the instruments. He is seeking out fellow musical travellers, such as pedal steel guitarist Garrett Costigan. “(Garrett) has an intuition that goes far beyond the sound of what he’s got his hands on, and that’s what I’m looking for in the people I play music with – being absolutely in the moment and absolutely in touch with the song and the story.”
He would also like to sell some more of his own albums – “not that I think that’s going to happen”. He still sees himself as peddling “popular” music, and he keeps an eye on the audience’s taste and not just his own – “changing vehicles if I get bogged”.
JIMMY BARNES RECKONS Walker should be regarded as one of the great Australian songwriters, not only for his work with Chisel but everything since then, too. “I don’t say this for the sake of it, but if it wasn’t for him I wouldn’t have had a career,” he says. “He really nurtures and cares about music. I’d spend three minutes writing a song, he’ll take three years on a lyric.”
And in many ways the lyric is the thing. Walker remains obsessed with telling stories. His father, a cane farmer, used to regale the family with tales of troopships in Palestine and the jungles of Ceylon. His mother, a teacher, went on to write books, too. And then there’s his sister, Brenda. It’s in his blood.
But there’s also every chance that his first book might be the last time he tells a story without a keyboard, a band and the lyrics to shelter him, and with his own life centre stage. And you get the sense that would be fine with him.
“I’m not sure why anybody would be interested in me,” Walker says not long before we part, still holding the remains of his cigar. “Mine has been a non-eventful life, just bumping along the bottom.”
Shots is out on Monday (Black Inc., $27.95) Staff writer Drew Warne-Smith’s previous feature was “Everyone’s an expert” (December 13-14, 2008), about the democratisation of knowledge.