‘How to Make Gravy’ by Paul Kelly

2010, 549 pages

It’s the 21st of December, which makes it Gravy Day and what better day to review Paul Kelly’s How to Make Gravy. Actually, I’ve had this book beside the bed for the best part of six months and I just dip into it now and then, partially because I didn’t want it to finish. I bought it at the op-shop ages ago and it’s the best $2.00 I’ve ever spent.

Paul Kelly is a brilliant Australian singer/songwriter – he’s Australia’s Bob Dylan. While there are better singers around, no other Australian songwriters captures masculine vulnerability and love of country as well as Paul Kelly does. The book is a written version of his A-Z show, a four-night performance that he first wrote for the Speigeltent in Melbourne in 2004. Each night he would sing 25 songs from his repertoire of over 300 songs (at that stage- there would be more now), arranged alphabetically, with a different setlist on nights 1, 2, 3, 4. Some people just came to see one night; others came for all four. In his introduction he says that he realized that he just couldn’t sit there and play 25 songs one after the other, and uncomfortable with stage-patter, he wrote a script to go along with it. He released the songs as a CD collection, and then wrote this book based on the songs and his show notes. He’s typically self-effacing about it:

Before too long a mongrel beast appeared. Was I writing an idiosyncratic history of music, a work diary or a hymn to dead friends? There were lists, letters, quotes, confessions, essays and road stories. Could I get them all to fit? Could I make the architecture sing? And what kind of megalomaniac would assume that setting his lyrics down and writing commentary around them – a kind of Midrash- would be interesting to others?


The book is in four parts, reflecting the four nights of the performance. The songs are presented alphabetically and the lyrics precede each chapter, bolstered at times by poetry by other poets (Yeats, Donne, Shakespeare), quotations from books, and definitions. Some of the chapters directly relate to the song; others are a form of mental riffing on his childhood and adolescence, a succession of marriages and breakups, drug addiction, diary extracts while on the road, reminiscences of concerts seen and performed. The index of people and bands at the end of the book stretches to eight pages, and he cites movies, books and other people’s music. It’s an erudite, generous memoir by a gifted, intelligent man- and one of the best memoirs I’ve ever read.

Let me leave you with the video of the eponymous How to Make Gravy. Happy 21st December, Gravy Day.

3 responses to “‘How to Make Gravy’ by Paul Kelly

  1. Well, well, with impeccable timing you have explained the origins of a mystifying Xmas card with a graphic of a man with a gravy ladle and the greeting ‘Tis the Season to Make Gravy’.
    I had no idea what the pop reference was!

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