There are plenty of songs that get a whole lot of airplay around this time of year. Many ill-deserving.
I’ve been attempting to encourage diversity beyond Mariah Carey’s Christmas album in my household this year. Results so far: patchy. I have long thought that one man’s idea of hell could be ‘Felice Navidad’ on repeat, so a Christmas song that stands up all year round is a rare beast.
I’ll get this out early: I love Paul Kelly. His ability to conjure an emotion in a disarming way through a simple twist of phrase has a tendency to be both transcendent, tear-inducing and, on a bad day, feeling utterly impotent as a writer. He can do in a couplet what I can fail to do over a couple of pages.
While there are Christmas songs, hymns and carols that present the good news about Jesus’ birth in magnificent ways, I doubt there’s a song that captures the ‘Christmas season’ quite like “How to Make Gravy”.
Hello Dan, it’s Joe here, I hope you’re keeping well
It’s the 21st of December, now they’re ringing the last bell
Kelly’s self-deprecation in talking of other’s ability to transport you to a time, place and emotion where you’ve never been, belies his genius to do the same.
If I get good behaviour, I’ll be out of here by July
Won’t you kiss my kids on Christmas day?
Please, don’t let them cry for me.
There, I’m done. Four lines in. No chorus, drums haven’t hit skin, and I’m done. A little bit of steel guitar just to seal the deal.
My daughter, Molly, usually watches me when this song comes on to see how soon before the dam wall breaks. As if it’s some sort of party trick.
Soon enough is the answer. Soon enough. Not every time, but soon enough.
Give my love to Angus, and to Frank and Dolly,
Tell ’em all I’m sorry I screwed up this time
Perhaps we have such widespread experience with failure that it reaches us quickly, but where Kelly settled with penning ‘Gravy’ was the sweetest notion.
He writes of being paralysed by the thought of capturing Christmas for a charity album in 1996. What turned the tide was not attempting to capture anything but rather to describe what it’s like to miss out. To describe the feelings of NOT being there.
And off he goes. A rolling tale of dysfunctional families, failure, lost loves and, wrenchingly, an absence from his wife and kids on one of the biggest days of the year.
A Christmas song set in prison with no chorus about a bloke away from where he wants to be. All the ingredients for a winner.
I didn’t mean to say that, it’s just my mind it plays up,
Multiplies each matter, turns imagination into fact
What a cracker of a line. Our ability, in the absence of truth, to come up with our own concoction, to our detriment.
Anyway, I’m off on a tangent. This is a cracker of a song. If you haven’t had the privilege so far this season, grab a tissue and enjoy some catharsis.
Listening to another piece of Kelly’s storytelling genius this morning (“Other People’s Houses”), Fi asked me ‘what gets you crying in this one?‘ Often it’s the small and innocuous details. A boy is whispered “wake up, little one, wake up“, and dresses himself to leave with his Mum without breakfast for a suburb that takes two buses and is foreign to his sense of place. What’s to get teary about, right?
You know one of these days, I’ll be making gravy,
I’ll be making plenty, I’m gonna pay ’em all back.
Around four and half minutes and we’re done. A pause, a tear, a dollop of tomato sauce for sweetness and that extra tang, and on with the job.
In his big fat book that goes by the title of this song, Paul Kelly writes of being asked to sing another Christmas song for another Christmas charity album. This time, it was the cover of a Robbie Robertson song.
He finishes with a plaintive aside:
That’s the great thing about Christmas. It comes around every year so you always get another shot.
Not that you need to wait that long, but Christmas is the epitome of divine intervention. God not only reaching down, but joining us.
If ‘Gravy’ points to the hope of a second chance, the bigger story against which it’s written is the emphatic, eternal, and re-presenting second chance. There’s no need to wait a year for grace to roll around.
(Originally published 21 December, 2015)