Don Walker talks Cold Chisel and other words

Don WalkerDon Walker is a notoriously private man. He just does not talk about the personal stuff. But he does talk about himself, about music and words and prose and work and Chisel and just about anything else you choose to throw at him.

He speaks slowly, deliberately, and laughs with a quiet, low rumble. Don Walker is also very dry and very funny.

Once a scientist who worked on Australia’s F111 program, Don says he worked for a little while with “whatever modest skills I acquired in aerodynamic engineering. I can’t say I was very good at it.”

Words matter to Don Walker and it’s obvious that language is a great love for the man who has written some of Australia’s most iconic rock songs, “I think my love of words, language and humour – which is very much part of it – comes not so much from reading but from listening to regional speech in Australia, listening to the way people talk.”

“I love the enormously intelligent use of language that you get in regional and grass roots Australia. I like to laugh and Aussies say stuff that makes me laugh all the time. I try and write in a way that’s close to conversation, and the conversation that I know is the way that I talk, and the people around me whose company I enjoy, talk.”

Don Walker grew up in Grafton on the north coast of NSW and says there was little choice in radio listening, “Where I grew up there used to be two stations. 2NR was the ABC station on the north coast, and the local commercial station was 2GF. So 2GF was where you went for music; they didn’t play any music on the ABC except for classical programs, so the music that was played on the local commercial station was the music we heard.”

“It was a peculiar kind of faux-country music; a lot of American stuff, but some Australian stuff, and in that curious period between Elvis and The Beatles. Elvis hit and then it all went quiet when he joined the army, but The Beatles hadn’t happened yet, so there was a fallow period there where all sorts of wild and wonderful but now-forgotten things happened in music.”

“Last year, a mate of mine who grew up in the Wheatfields in WA told me he’d seen a movie called ‘The Tree of Man’ which I haven’t seen but apparently it’s the greatest movie of the last 10 years or so. In this movie he was shocked into that period of 1960 listening to commercial radio. He and a friend who worked in a record shop gathered three CDs of what was on the radio in that period and gave them to me. It’s a real shock to listen to them because these are not songs that are widely played since, so to listen to three CDs of them now plunges me straight back to sitting on a verandah on a farm when I was 10 years old. It’s wonderful stuff. ‘Big Bad John’, quite a bit of Johnny Cash, Patsy Cline.”

‘Big Bad John’ is one of my own musical memories so I suggest to Don that I could probably sing him all the words of it and throw in a bunch of bad trucking songs about the ghosts of little girls to boot.

“That’s right!” laughs Don, “Six days on the road and I’m gonna see my baby tonight’, or ‘Wolverton Mountain’, or ‘From A Jack to a King’, all that kind of stuff!”

Our memories are strongly driven by sounds and smells and I suspect that as we get older, the guilty pleasures we have in music from years ago and may not have admitted to previously, are now songs that we love and will play loud in the car with the windows down, perhaps to the horror of our kids.

Don Walker is one of Australia’s most esteemed songwriters so of course I had to take the opportunity to try to get him to confess his musical sins to me.

“There’s plenty of stuff that I can go back to and I’d only admit between you and I that at a certain stage I was very passionate about ‘Blood, Sweat & Tears’. It is interesting to go back and listen to stuff now and see if it sounds as good as I thought it did at the time. ‘Blood, Sweat & Tears’ now sounds appalling! If you put on ‘Bitches Brew’ (Miles Davis) now, it sounds pretty good. So, there are examples like that, ‘bad fashion’ things that you do in any era.”

“I’m sure among the stuff I’m listening to and liking now there’s some pretty horrible stuff. You’re going to ask me what?”

Yes. But Don isn’t telling.

I share with Don that I had recently played The Beach Boys’ ‘Pet Sounds’ in the car for my kids to listen to because I think it’s one of those things that pre-dates my own record collection but still sounds wonderful. Indeed, ‘Pet Sounds’ was released in the year of my birth. So even if the lyrics are a bit cheesy, if something was beautifully recorded and produced does it redeem it somewhat for him?

“Well, you can’t dismiss something just because it has cheesy lyrics, any more than you can dismiss something because it has cheesy music. Often in those combinations there’s treasure.”

“But The Beach Boys, I never got it, or I never bothered. I think because when I was young, nobody in the banc could actually play – nobody could do a solo – and when I was 20 or 25 that was important. But I’ve been doing a lot of long car trips over the last few years and a couple of years ago I bought a ‘best of The Beach Boys’ and listened to it and started to wake up as to why so many of my musical friends are fanatical Beach Boys fans. Not so much musicians, but people in the music business, radio people and music journalists. I started to get it, to realise that this wasn’t just another pop group, there’s actually something unique and extraordinary that’s happened here and everyone else is just imitators. I kinda knew that, but I never got it myself. Now I do.”

Don Walker is perhaps best known as Cold Chisel’s main songwriter and through that band gave Australian rock music fans a new voice. With 40 years of songwriting under his belt, does the legacy of songs like Khe Sanh – released in 1978 – weigh on him?

“Well, it’s nice! There’s a good living in that kind of thing. But once songs like that go out and are adopted by people as part of that canon of what they like to listen to, then it becomes a little bit remote to me.”

“The last five years or so, occasionally, I’ve done Khe Sanh myself with just piano, but that sounds utterly different so I can kind of own that again. It becomes a story with some chords, but it doesn’t sound remotely like Jim (Barnes) and Cold Chisel on the radio because I can’t sing like that. I’m very proud of it. We were a bunch of young guys and we did some good stuff. It’s good that people like that and it holds up decades later, but it’s a little bit remote from my daily life.”

“I didn’t sing Khe Sanh originally. I just wrote it and showed it to the other guys in the band. Jim’s been singing it as an integral part of what he does live, but not me. Neither are any other Cold Chisel songs. It’s just in the last few years I started doing this other piano version of it. I wasn’t avoiding it in all that time, it’s just that it’s not something that sounds like what I do, and it’s not the way that I sound when I sing.”

“With such a song that’s as widely loved as that, if I get up and sing it somebody might yell out, ‘That’s not how it goes!’ he laughs, “The other thing is it’s gotta a lot of words and everybody else knows them better than I do so what if you get half way through and you get stuck?!”

In 2009, Don released his book ‘Shots’ – a collection of short autobiographical pieces. Reading ‘Shots’ reminded me of the way Leonard Cohen uses words, but Leonard Cohen makes me wonder just which words are lies.

“I don’t think songwriters lie, but they certainly make stuff up. Is that lying? It’s an essential part of songwriting.”

“Many years ago I was listening to someone do an interview with Paul Kelly, and they were digging in way beyond, ‘What comes first, mate, the lyrics or the music?’, they were digging in to just what happens and how do you come up with lyrics,”

“Paul said, ‘I make stuff up.’ I burst out laughing, I thought that was brilliant. Of course, you make stuff up. Is that lying? Yes, definitely. Sometimes it can tip over if you pretend it’s the truth. So if me or Laughing Lenny write something that is not fiction but purporting to be a factual account, but that tips over into something that didn’t actually happen, well … you’re on the edge.”

Where does Don Walker place the Canadian wordsmith, Leonard Cohen?

“The big attraction for Leonard Cohen, and like The Beach Boys I’ve become a Leonard Cohen fan late in life – never took much notice of him before the last five or ten years but the big attraction is his humour. I don’t think anything has got much legs if it hasn’t got humour. You can look around and look at all the recording artists in history and divide the ones who have humour from the ones who don’t. And that’s a pretty profound thing, that really sorts them out, and Leonard Cohen is one of the funniest people out there, and one of the driest in his lyrics. And that’s why now, late in life, I buy every Leonard Cohen album.”

Jimmy Barnes, of course, has deflected a lot of the heat of Cold Chisel’s success from the rest of the band, but after Chisel disbanded Don Walker has put himself up front.

“It’s never all about me, even when you’re up there in front of a band. It’s about the songs and the story. You’re trying to put that over and connect. You’re trying to whisper in the ear of everybody who’s listening, whether you’ve recorded something that’s being played on the radio or if you’re playing a big show and there’s thousands of people there. It’s just one person trying to communicate to one other, and in some situations there’s a lot of ‘one other’. It’s not about ‘you’, the person standing up there.”

“The fascist thing about it is that people can’t talk back,” laughs Don, “And for people in our position, the beautiful thing.”

I find it interesting to think about how songwriters see their own work given how precious it can sometimes become to others. To fans. To listeners. We listen, we love, we lose. We perhaps get married to the words in these songs. Live our lives through them. Die. We carry them with us and consider which of them we’d rescue from our burning house or take to a desert island. But how does the songwriter, the storyteller, see them?

Don chips me about just wanting to ask what his favourite song is, but I think it’s more complex than that and he concedes it’s difficult to answer.

“There’s a lot of stuff over the decades and I don’t think of them as valuable or otherwise. Although there’s a few things I’ve written that I would regard as ‘value-less’, but I’m not going name them. I admire people who use their songs to help people – that has value – but the songs I value most often have no correlation between how good a song is in my eyes and how well-known it is or how much money it’s made or anything like that. It’s not an inverse correlation either.”

“Probably one of the most – in my heart – beautiful songs I’ve ever written I wrote about 15 years ago – at the turn of the century! When I wrote it I thought, ‘This is going to be massive all over the world because it’s such a beautiful song’, and I wrote it about a personal situation but it was universal, it had what I thought was a beautiful melody, it was simple, and it had everything that I thought was good about songcraft. And yet, everybody who heard it in the publishing world acknowledged how good it was but I couldn’t get it recorded.”

“So that’s what I’d call one of the top five songs that I’m proud of and yet nobody knew about it for 13 years.”

“But Missy Higgins has just recorded it and done a stunning version of it (The Way You Are Tonight) and now people are hearing it. In the meantime, there’s a lot of other songs I’ve written that are enormously popular and have been all over the airwaves that I didn’t think were nearly as good.”

Don Walker is a storyteller, but are there stories he hasn’t been able to get out yet?

“Yes, yes there are. There are things like that that have hung around in the back of my head for a long time, but they’re difficult to describe because describing them will be in the song or in the prose writing and I haven’t figured out a way of doing that yet. Where they live now is in pictures and movies and landscapes and feelings and maybe a few scraps of words.”

How does he know when the song is done. When the words are finished. When to stop and leave it alone.

“You just know. It’s like a big bell goes off. ‘This is right now.’ And it’s something that is the same with a piece of prose writing. I can’t explain that but I utterly know when something’s right. At the same time, the reverse side of that is that you utterly know when something is not right. But knowing it’s not right doesn’t mean that you know how to get to where the bell goes off. I’ve put things out without waiting for the bell to go off, when they’re not quite right but good enough.”

Will he tell me what they are?

“No. But there’s an internal thing that defies all logic. Surely, all of these things are subjective. What is right to one person is not right to another, but there is something in me – and I know it exists in others – where it’s not a subjective thing, there’s an utter certainty when something is right. And a nagging, cold dissatisfaction and itch when it’s not.”

Meanwhile, after a 40-year career in the music industry, Don Walker is still touring larger shows with a full band, and smaller intimate shows to just a few dozen people.

“The beauty of doing things like that is to deliberately put myself in a situation where I didn’t know if I could pull it off and I had to do some work. I had to do a lot of preparation and figure out a lot of things I hadn’t had to figure out before to make a show of that length work with just me and the piano.”

I suggest that to do so is gutsy.

“It’s not so much the size of the audience. It doesn’t really matter. It’s what’s going on onstage. In that situation I have no band and nothing to hide behind. So I have to make it work with those few tools. That’s confronting. I did a night in Nundle and it worked. The night I did in Mayfield, the first set didn’t work. I just couldn’t make it work. The second set worked and everybody got it and we all had a good time.”

“I’m hoping that they didn’t feel like it was a waste of their time. That they’re thinking, ‘That was a worthwhile thing to do’. That’s what I’m wishing and hoping for. People’s time and attention is valuable and if you’re going to use it up you’ve got to do something worthwhile, make it work, and try and figure out a way of transporting them into the stories. Sometimes you don’t manage that and if you don’t manage that, well that’s a failure and instead of transporting them somewhere, you’ve seat-belted them into a dark little room for an hour when they could have been enjoying themselves.”

When all is said and done, what does Don Walker feel he’s gotten right?

“The things that I’ve done right have nothing to do with music because they’re far more fundamental things than that, and they’re not public things. There haven’t been many of them and there’s a lot of things I’ve done wrong. But they’re the things in the end.”

“While I’ve been doing this interview, I’ve got a call from my daughter. It’s in that world where you really succeed or fail. If there’s a couple of things I like myself for, it’s in that world.”

And with that, I encourage Don Walker to go and call his daughter.

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Being a Muslim woman in Newcastle

After a recent visit to Newcastle’s Mosque I was invited to take my family to the Newcastle Eid al-Adha celebrations. I took the opportunity to try and bust a few myths about being a Muslim woman by asking a group of them to tell their own stories over vast quantities of cakes and sweets.

Diana Rah is the vice-president of the Newcastle Muslim Association and I joined her along with a small circle of Muslim women as she explained the celebrations underway at the University of Newcastle.

“We have two Eids each year; one is Eid al-Fitr and that’s the celebration at the end of the fasting month of Ramandan, and we have this second celebration which is Eid al-Adha, this is a time that Muslims perform the Hajj pilgrimage, the pilgrimage to Mecca.”

“As Muslims, and you can see that we’re from so many different cultural backgrounds, our God is the God of all and we send, on this day especially, our best wishes to everyone from every race culture and religion.”

The group of women gathered to chat on this warm Saturday look like a tiny United Nations. Diana points out that there are 28 countries represented among the families busy with barbeques, conversations and children swarming over the jumping castle.

This small group of women, amongst other things, includes a dentist, a science student and a fitness instructor.

There are many questions I want to ask them, but firstly I want to know how they feel in the Newcastle community, given the broad discussion of all things Muslim at the moment – and not much of it positive.

Despeana has lived in the Hunter all of her life, and is not a Muslim by birth, or marriage.

“Newcastle has always been a lovely place to live in, I’ve noticed that some of the sisters have mentioned to me that they’re a little bit concerned about stepping out on their own.”

“I came into Islam as a choice, prior to finding out about Islam in 2002 I had no idea who Muslims were. I became involved with the Muslim community and discovered what beautiful people they are and I became one of them because of the love I felt here.”

“I don’t see what all the hype is about, I don’t understand it, but now we, and me myself are in a position that we feel threatened.”

Avelina doesn’t actually wear a veil, “I don’t normally wear a veil, my husband would like me to I’m sure but he’s happy with me to not wear a veil. It’s up to me 100 percent and he supports that decision.”

Avelina says when she has worn hijab in public she has always felt safe and hasn’t experienced any problems, but she does say she notices how people behave when she is out in public with her mother-in-law who does wear hijab, “When I walk with my mother-in-law who wears a hijab I often see people – she doesn’t notice, I notice – if anyone was to approach I would definitely say something.”

“I think people just need to realise it’s (hijab) part of who we are and whether we wear it or not it doesn’t make us any different.”

Avelina is a fitness instructor who works in women’s gyms and with children in schools and relates what is probably a common experience.

“I was actually in the gym doing my own workout and waiting for the class to start when the lady next to me commented on the stories in the news, “It’s terrible what’s happening with these terrorists around our country,” she said. I asked what she meant and she said, “These Muslims, they’re taking over and the women are wearing burqas and they’re scary and they frighten me.”

I said, “I’m a Muslim, do I frighten you?’ and she said, ‘No, I don’t mean you, I mean like those other Muslims!’ I explained to her that we’re all the same, that we might wear hijab or burqa and that I don’t but that we’re no different. She was shocked.”

There has been a prominent social media campaign over the last week or so called #WISH – Women in Solidarity with Hijabis – in which non-Muslim women are sharing photos of themselves wearing hijab.

There has also been some criticism of #WISH so I sought the opinion of the Muslim women I had in front of me – what do they think of it, is it offensive?

Unanimously the women assured me that it wasn’t seen as offensive. Indeed Diana Rah thinks women are doing an excellent job with #WISH, “No-one in our community is offended by it, we actually feel very supported by it and we love them for it.”

Dalia agrees, “I believe this is very supportive, you should try it yourself and see how the Muslim woman feels.” I assured her I did on my visit to Newcastle’s Mosque a week ago but that I got hot and sweaty.

Dalia says women at her gym often express concern about her being too hot, but she laughs, “I’m used to it! They keep telling me, ‘You must be very hot’, and I understand but when you’ve been wearing it for years you get used to it.”

Gym instructor, Avelina, “I can’t imagine (wearing it at the gym). I get so sweaty and so hot, even my hair I wish I could cut it all off let alone wear a scarf! I admire every woman who wears a scarf, their faces just glow and they look so beautiful, it’s admirable.”

Farida has come to Newcastle from Cape Town but is originally from Burundi in Central Africa, “I left my country 15 years ago because of the war but I just arrived in Newcastle two years ago.”

Generally the women I spoke with have had mostly good experiences of being Muslim women as members of a minority. Diana Rah says it’s only recently that problems have occurred.

“So far in Newcastle we’ve had a very good relationship with the wider community and we haven’t really ever had these problems that have happened in the last couple of months. I think that they’ve seen that in Newcastle and they do feel safe here but I think there are isolated instances of abuse like verbal abuse and the odd finger (gesture) here and there.”

Farida is concerned that this may change in the current environment, “I hope and we pray very hard that the government must find a solution to see how they’re going to protect the country because Australia is a peace(ful) country. We have the right to choose any religion we want and to wear what we want.”

Dalia has found the recent media discussion of what Muslim women wear to be shocking, “What I’ve known is that Australia is a free country and they support women and I know that the government usually supports women rights. So the idea of discussing what to wear is not what I expected. I wear hijab because I’m a Muslim lady and this is what I believe in. I believe that a women should cover her hair and it shouldn’t be seen by strangers.”

It is often claimed that Muslim women who wear a veil are oppressed. Despeana begs to differ, “No. We are not oppressed. It was my decision to wear the veil. Yes, I decided to become a Muslim in 2002, I wasn’t married at the time, my husband didn’t have a say (in it) – nobody’s pushing me to do this, it was my choice. Yes, it was a bit difficult becoming accustomed to it after being a non-Muslim and not wearing one, but I believe Allah gave me the strength and I just want to please my God. No-one is forcing me to do anything.”

Diana Rah agrees, “There is no compulsion in our religion and wearing a hijab is entirely a woman’s choice. There’s a huge misconception put out by the media and others to say that a women is forced to cover her head by her husband, by her son, her father, whoever, but this is entirely our choice.”

“I had an incident in Beaumont Street last week when we were stopped by two men who wanted to teach us about Christianity. He was very loud and overpowering, very tall and wanted to tell us what he thought about his religion. We accept that because we believe everybody has the right to converse and exchange ideas. But we need to respect each others opinions without becoming angry. He disagreed with something I put forward and then he refused to speak to me further. There is no need to be aggressive. But we need to converse and learn from one another. He was looking to agitate me but I walked away.”

What I have taken away from spending the morning with these women is that, for them, wearing hijab is simply an act of faith – the same as a Christian may choose to wear a crucifix or other religious icon.

If you want to know what a Muslim woman thinks – just ask one!

There is a national Mosque Open Day coming up around Australia on October 25, however the Newcastle Muslim Association will be opening their mosque to the public on Sunday 19 October so as to not clash with state government by-elections in Newcastle and Charlestown.

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