Stuart Coupe doesn’t really consider himself a music writer, yet he’s widely regarded as one of Australia’s best.
His new book about Australia’s favourite songwriter and poet Paul Kelly is being dubbed “the definitive biography”, and when I speak to Stuart about its release he’s just finished autographing 200 of them for family and friends.
It’s not the first book to be written about Paul Kelly. Paul himself released ‘How to Make Gravy’ in 2010. But as Stuart rightly points out, that’s Paul’s own take on his life.
“It’s what Paul felt like writing about,” Stuart said. “It’s really great, but there’s a whole lot of stuff that he doesn’t talk about and that’s his call.”
Stuart had the idea of writing a book about Paul Kelly – who he first interviewed in 1977 – as he was writing ‘Roadies’.
“I was like, ‘what will I do next?’”
“I thought, there’s a really good book in Paul, which is not Paul’s book. So I started thinking about it and every six months I’d send an email to Paul’s manager Bill Cullen. When ‘Roadies’ came out I got more serious. I was in a really good position to write it and I thought ‘if I don’t, someone else will write it by looking at Google and Wikipedia.”
After a bit of to-ing and fro-ing, Paul Kelly offered his blessings for what Stuart had proposed and, more importantly, agreed to sit for interviews at the end of the process.
Stuart interviewed more than a hundred people as he researched the life and work of Paul Kelly, interweaving his own recollections and history with the songman along the way.
Stuart befriended Paul early in his career, stepping in to the role of manager from 1984 through the eighties. This was an important period in Paul Kelly’s career. His breakout album ‘Gossip’ was released in 1986 followed soon after by ‘Under the Sun’ (1987) and ‘So Much Water So Close to Home’ (1989).
And it was during that period that Paul Kelly and Stuart Coupe spent six weeks driving around the USA together immediately after ‘Gossip’ was released.
“The only people on that trip were he and I, and he doesn’t mention it in his book,” Stuart said.
We parted as good friends.
“I was managing Paul with my partner at the time and when we separated Paul decided not to choose between us and to find another manager. People assumed we had a falling out,” Stuart explained.
When Paul was doing a run of PR for his album ‘Songs from the South’ and a new book of poetry, he came in to do an interview with Stuart for his weekly Dirt Music program on 2SR and the pair calculated they hadn’t spoken in 22 years.
“We live in different cities and we don’t move in the same circles. The last time I’d even seen him was when he was getting a gold record at the State Theatre in 1991.”
“Within five minutes of meeting up we slipped in to this very easy… a bit like the characters in ‘To Her Door’, you know? Will he know his children? Will it work out? Will it be OK?”
Stuart was adamant he was going to write a book that did not replicate Paul’s book and Paul was initially nervous about the whole thing – you can imagine – a former manager writing about the past.
“I didn’t go back and re-read his book,” Stuart said, “and I started to read all of the thousands of things that had been written about Paul and I thought I’m not going to do this either.”
“I wanted to talk about Paul Kelly’s world and all the people who’d inhabited that world. There is one quote from Helen Garner’s notebooks but everything else is completely new, including all of the conversations with Paul Kelly.”
“There is nothing in it that people have read before,” Stuart said.
And, as you might have guessed by now, Stuart was rather comprehensive in his approach. He found every existing member of the Dots, the Coloured Girls, the Messengers and anyone that’s ever played with one of Paul Kelly’s bands.
He interviewed Neil Finn, Don Walker, Archie Roach, Kev Carmody, Michael Gudinski, Deborah Conway, Renée Geyer, Paul Grabowski, Rachel Perkins and even some of Paul’s sisters.
“I’m hoping it sits comfortably alongside his book. And that people find value in reading both accounts of his career to date,” Paul said.
Of course the burning question on my lips is whether Paul has read the book and if so, what his response was. Stuart was quick to point out that it was never part of the deal that Paul would read the book and that he’s not the kind of author to do an ‘authorised’ account.
“But with someone so respected and with such a loyal fan base…” he trails off.
“He and I were getting on really well, he volunteered a lot more time for interviews than I was expecting and I thought ‘we’ve got a living subject here.’”
“So I offered Paul the opportunity, very close to going to print and he thanked me for that and sent a note saying he’d like to read it.”
“And he said he didn’t expect to like it all because if he did I wouldn’t have done my job – which is a good basis to start from,” Stuart said.
You can imagine the nerves when Stuart’s phone flashed with the initials PK a few days later.
“He was up to page 189 or something and he thought I’d done a really good job,” Stuart said. He found the first 150 pages or so confronting to read but he didn’t have a beef with what I’d said”.
So the pair spent three hours together going through the book page-by-page and Stuart is proud of the fact that Paul Kelly didn’t ask for a single thing to be changed.
“He corrected little factual things and said, ‘are you sure this happened?’ He suggested some people that would be good to talk to, provided some great photos. I knew he was in a good mood when he sent me a photo of all of the kids bar one, all together. And he said, ‘please credit Whisky the dog, and that’s whisky without an ‘e’.”
“I’m not surprised that he finds the first half hard-going,” Stuart said. “This covers the emerging Paul Kelly. It encompasses in detail the first two records that he has had suppressed, that people don’t have the opportunity to listen to; ‘Talk’ and ‘Manilla’.
Paul’s past hasn’t always been pretty, but Stuart is certain fans won’t be put off his work.
“Paul’s outed himself about his heroin use in his own book. Maybe, there’s more about that and that lifestyle in my book, but there’s nothing I think in my book, where someone would say ‘I used to be a Paul Kelly fan and now I’m going to burn his records’.”
All but diehard fans will find things here that they don’t know.
“A lot of people in the book have never talked about their time with Paul Kelly because no-one asked them. This is first-people accounts.”
So, with all that research, were there stories that surprised him?
“Maybe not surprised me, particularly, but certainly things that I didn’t know that much about. I mean writing about the recording of the ‘Manila’ album, it’s like fear and loathing in the Philippines. I learned a lot talking to everybody involved in that.”
“I guess I was surprised at how hard he worked and how much travelling he did as a youngster, post-HSC. He was working in mines, railway yards, the docks, travelling and hitchhiking around Australia. His first ever show was in Hobart because he was down there working in the mines. I was surprised to get a fix on his determination and focus.
“I asked ‘when did you think you were a songwriter?’ and he said, ‘when I wrote my first song.’
“His quite singular and determined focus surprised me a little bit. I liked the very first quote in the book.”
That’s what I would call myself, a songwriter. That’s enough. Not everyone can do it.
While Stuart has been dubbed Australia’s best music writer, he doesn’t actually describe himself that way. He spent 20 years reviewing crime fiction for the Sydney Morning Herald, he published Mean Streets magazine and edited anthologies of crime fiction. He actually lays claim to a Ned Kelly award for contributions to crime fiction. So while he writes a lot about music, that’s not all he does and it’s not all he’s interested in.
Out of all the books Stuart’s written, there are three anthologies of crime fiction and an early days guide to the internet that he co-authored with Richard Kingsmill. But on top of that he’s promoted a swag of international tours (James Ellroy, Link Wray, Dick Dale), written for Dolly and Edge magazines and still rolls out PR for independent Australian artists.
Which begs the question, what’s next?
“I don’t know,” he said. “I wrote another book while I was writing the Paul Kelly one. Jane Clifton and I have written a book about Australia in the 1970s through a hundred songs. That book will come out next year. A lot of the time I’d wake up in the morning and write 300-400 words about a classic song and then I’d go back to Paul Kelly,” he said.
He then rattles off a short list of potential subjects for future books: airline pilots, Wendy Saddington, Helen Reddy…
“I’m a great believer that more often than not it’ll be something that I hadn’t actually expected,” he said. “Something will come from left field and I’ll go, ‘that’s a really good idea’. Who knows? Next week I might be beavering away on a new project.”
Stuart Coupe’s new book ‘Paul Kelly: the man, the music and the life in between’ is out today.