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, including the 2020 publication Strange Game in a Strange Land (Wilkinson Publishing).