ETERNITY by DON WALKER Story by Damian Balassone

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ETERNITY by DON WALKER Story by Damian Balassone

Western Highway, Victoria, 1999

I’m on my way to the Policeman’s Ball in Portland. A copper mate of mine has recently been posted there and has been hassling me about coming down to meet a friend of his girlfriend. They reckon we’d be a good match. My heart’s with another girl here in Melbourne but the feeling hasn’t exactly been reciprocated, so I’ve decided to bite the bullet and head west to Portland for a few days.

It’s a four and half hour trip down the Western Highway, so I’m stacking a few CDs in the glovebox for the journey. One of these is the Don Walker album We’re All Gunna Die. I’ve actually had it for a few years, but for whatever reason I haven’t given it a good listen yet.

Once I’m out of town and on the highway I pop the CD into the slot. Turns out I’ve been missing out big time. The album is a cracker. In particular, the second track Eternity has me tapping the steering wheel in time. This band is hot. Thumping double bass, spine-tingling lead guitar, brooding pedal steel and a wailing harmonica that spans the length and breadth of the continent. All this provides the perfect canvas for Walker to paint his word-pictures.

Walker’s iconic drifter, who describes himself as a Pharisee, is on the road again.

My tongue was dry as the hills where Jesus hung
And I lay and wondered if he died for me
On a highway straighter than the barrel of eternity

It’s as if Walker is merging two mythologies – the Australian desert and the Bible. We have the narrator hitchhiking amongst the shattered stones, shifting sands and lizard bones of the outback, picked up by a mysterious stranger in a long black car. The narrator recognises the strange man in the car as someone who ate up the seed corn all this side of the Sambatyon River – a curious reference to the mythical river beyond which the ten lost tribes of Israel were exiled.

The narrator is now drinking from a bottle of rum, which he in turn shares with the mysterious driver. He then drifts into a dream about a girl who whispers something about Jerusalem, before reawakening and concluding with a verse that now shifts to Christ’s resurrection:

I opened my eyes on a land as frozen
Cold as the hole where Jesus rose
And I lay and wondered if he died for me
On a highway straighter than the barrel of eternity

There is a unity, a synergy to this album which has got me playing a dangerous game here – I’m searching for meaning in these songs, trying to join the dots. But just when I get close to latching on to some kind of linear narrative, it all slips through my fingers. But I don’t mind, I’m coming along for the ride still.

In The Good Book Walker conjures up a Nashville Skyline voice amidst a menacing groove. This time Walker’s everyman is stranded in a cheap motel, listening to the sounds of ceiling fans, midnight trucks and the wind bashing against the motel sign.

I need the Good Book
I need the Word to turn my gasoline to wine

In The Wedding there’s another mysterious stranger who wanders into town:

There’s a ghost at the wedding
No one else can see

The stranger is carrying a snake. An image that compliments the photograph on the album’s inner sleeve of Walker performing with a snake draped across his shoulders. Who is this ghost at the wedding and what is his motive? (Curiously, Walker’s mother Shirley Walker will later write an award-winning novel titled The Ghost at the Wedding).

Carless In Isa evokes the classic Australian film Wake in Fright. The laconic narrator is stranded in an unwelcoming outback town with no foreseeable way out. The title sounds like a re-jigging of Eyeless in Gaza, the title of a Huxley novel who in turned grabbed the phrase from a Milton poem that describes the fate of Samson, eyes gouged and shackled in chains in Gaza, as told in the Book of Judges. Talk about intertextuality.

On I Am The King the action shifts to the coast and the song plays out like a Tim Winton novel – the beautiful Australian coastline inhabited by demons. Just prior to the discovery of a dead body near the wreckage of a Japanese warplane, the narrator describes an old man who hangs around the bars and quotes from Ecclesiastes for a beer.

And the Book of Ecclesiastes is a nice tie in to the title track We’re All Gunna Die – seemingly pessimistically titled, but perhaps the message is in fact the opposite:

You gotta hold me now
Cause we never know the hour

In other words, we have to remember that our days are numbered, in order to make the most of the time we have left here – as per the Teacher’s conclusion in Ecclesiastes. At least that’s the message I take as I near my destination. And this is what I need to keep in mind tonight when I finally get to meet this girl at the Policeman’s Ball.

Damian Balassone's poems have appeared in over 100 publications, most notably in The New York Times. He is the author of three volumes of poetry: Prince of the Apple Towns, Daniel Yammacoona and A Day in the Lie (forthcoming).

By |2018-11-01T07:31:46+00:00November 1st, 2018|Latest Stories, Ozrock, Singer-songwriters|9 Comments

9 Comments

  1. JD November 1, 2018 at 1:08 pm - Reply

    Brilliant Damo – the song and your story.

    Whilst a huge Chisels fan I’m not across Don Walker’s solo stuff. A bit of a Chris Isaac vibe about it. As ever, lyrically superb.

    So, was the Portland Police Ball girl as cold as the hole where Jesus rose?

    • DB November 2, 2018 at 12:46 pm - Reply

      Thanks Jeff. It’s well worth the effort to check out the solo albums. The most recent album ‘Hully Gully’ is a great place to start – in particular the song ‘Young Girls’ is one of Walker’s finest compositions.

  2. Stephen Andrew November 15, 2018 at 9:16 am - Reply

    Walker is a living national treasure, a masterful songwriter, traveller and witness. Who else would attempt, let alone succeed, in taking on a song like “Eternity”? From the first Catfish record to his latest release, he rarely missteps. He has a good surgeon’s eye for detail and a wicked way with a tune. He’s a must-see for me whenever he and his amazing band, The Suave Fucks, saunter into town.
    Steve Earle famously declared that “Townes Van Zandt is the best songwriter in the whole world, and I’ll stand on Bob Dylan’s coffee table in my cowboy boots and say that.” I’d happily alight Paul Kelly’s coffee table and make a similar declaration about Don Walker

  3. Smokie November 16, 2018 at 10:30 am - Reply

    I enjoyed this, Damo. But I too am keen for Part 2 of this yarn!

    I am with Stephen: Don Walker is Australia’s greatest ever songwriter. Bar none.

  4. Rick Kane November 16, 2018 at 11:18 am - Reply

    Good piece Damo, especially leaving us wanting re the night and the date.

    I share the opinion of others who have commented about Don Walker as a songwriter. As a singer, however, I can’t bear him. I’ve tried to listen to his albums but I can’t engage. Cold Chisel was that perfect mix and no one from that band has done better than what they did.

    Stephen, Steve Earle has re-calibrated that story on more than one occasion, however it is still a good one. And the DW vs PK makes for an excellent dinner party debate. However, we’d have to throw in Slim Dusty, Angus and Malcolm Young, Greg Macainsh, Courtney Barnett and yes, I would argue, Dave Warner.

    Cheers

  5. DB November 16, 2018 at 1:34 pm - Reply

    Thanks Stephen, Smokie and Rick. Stephen I’ll join you on standing on that coffee table. Paul Kelly is, of course, great, but Walker is in a class of his own. No one comes close. In particular, there’s something about his chord progressions – I wonder if it’s a jazz thing – not being a musician it’s hard for me to articulate, but if you listen to the opening lines of songs like ‘Young Girls’, ‘Looking Forward, Looking Back’, ‘Redheads, Goldcards and Long Black Limousines’ there’s a sublime change of chord that hooks you in from the start. Of course, he’s written some great jazz-fused songs like ‘Just How Many Times’, ‘The Party’s Over’, ‘At the Piccolo Bar’ and ‘The Way You Are Tonight’, so maybe there’s a connection there. Don’t even get started with Don as a lyricist, but here’s a few gems that spring to mind:

    They build jails for those who can’t build their own (Jails)

    Everybody wants complete fidelity /
    From two or three lovers simultaneously (Everybody)

    Where the tide is one long wedding gown (Fishing)

    And we’ll drive up north, all day and all night
    Watch the moon rise over the Pacific on our right (Young Girls)

  6. Rick Kane November 16, 2018 at 8:14 pm - Reply

    This:

    Well I met her at a disco in the School of Arts Hotel,
    The kind of place that some girls won’t attend,
    The moon shone over Edwards Street and later I could tell,
    I’d never be a lonely man again.
    In Charleville

  7. DB November 17, 2018 at 8:50 am - Reply

    Cracking song Rick. It also contains one of my favourite Don Walker lines with no less than three rhymes in it:

    I’ve seen Girls in Paris to humble any man
    I’ve seen Earls embarrassed by models in Milan

    Slim did a great job with many Don Walker songs e.g. Charleville, Looking Forward, Looking Back, Get Along, etc.

  8. Stephen Andrew December 2, 2018 at 10:48 am - Reply

    Rick, re: DW as a vocalist. I confess to feeling underwhelmed by his singing when the first Catfish album landed. But once I got over my silly this-doesn’t-sound-like-Barnesy attitude, I grew to appreciate, then love, his beautifully dry and richly expressive pipes. As a vocalist, Barnes can be like a blowtorch, while Walker’s singing often suggests a slow, liniment burn. My advice: go back and listen to Walker’s solo material a few more times.

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