I went to see Paul Kelly play Berlin. I was going with my girlfriend and the evening of, she rang to say: I don’t feel well. I feel so tired and I just need to stay at home and curl on my couch. Can you go on your own?
I went. Since I left my boyfriend I have been going to a lot of events on my own. I sat with a German couple and the man said to me, “Do you know him?” “Oh,” I said, awkwardly. “I once sat in the same cafe with him in Richmond, in Melbourne. Australia’s not quite that small.”
This was in the Richmond Hill Cellar and Larder and Paul Kelly was sitting quietly with his friends and I was nutting out the playlist for my album, listening over and over through what we had made with cat-callers and buskers and students of jazz in New York and I looked round the room with my own music in my ears and saw the love: how everyone tried so hard to be courteous and pretend we had not noticed him there.
“But you know his songs,” this man elucidated now. “I am the same year as him: 1955.”
He patted himself on the chest, approvingly.
The audience was filled with Australians. You can tell by the facial expression. A certain kind of friendly lazy openness that lends itself to generalisation. I looked around. You looking at me? asked an older, Australian man behind me when I glanced round. Oh no, I said, I was just… gazing in your direction. He had hopped up. Held his beer up in his hand. Can I come sit with you? Ok, I said, and so he bought me some beers and talked in my ear between the songs. But I hardly heard. I was transported. Someone brought on a bottle of water and stood it next to the central mic. The musicians came onstage and among them were Vika and Linda, the glorious Islander Bulls, it had not occurred to me they’d travel with him. I know they sing backing vocals on his albums. They were radiant and they owned the stage, from its wing. Paul Kelly introduced the new album he had written and they launched it like a ball of flame. These people, and their music.
Linda sang one song and Vika sang another. In their salty, knowing womanhood they swayed side by side like palms. The beautiful affinity between them bespeaks sisterhood. The rest of the stage was occupied by men. They know each other. They can communicate with a bare glance. I was almost crying. There came a moment when the crowd threw back their heads and yawped, bawling along with the lyrics in our Australian accents: he took it pretty badly: she took both the kids.
Then they sang How To Make Gravy and I was crying. Surrounded by beautiful, healthy, young Australian men in their t shirts I flung my arms open and one of them snatched me up and hugged me harder than I have ever been held. I emerged from his embrace and his face was wet with my tears. Every time I smiled he smiled back at me. The music finished and they all walked offstage and we weren’t having it, we hammered our feet on the ground and yelled and hollered. Paul Kelly broke the glittering curtains open by himself. The closing song had been a quiet one, “Darling, you’re one for the ages,” and he had spoken the lyrics, shyly, in bad German: mein Liebling, du bist zeitlos. It seemed like he had half the crew of Rockwiz on stage with him and half of those were my Facebook friends. Australia really is that small. Now he took up his guitar in silence and the crowd began to sing to him, irresistible, a capella, “Darling – you’re one for the ages. Darling… you’re one for the ages.”
A grin tugged at Paul Kelly’s face. He is not a good actor, he is too authentic and sincere, as I had ascertained this evening by watching the film clip for Love is the Law, in which he looks uncomfortable and the film maker’s directions are almost visible on the screen. “Well this is probably my second favourite moment of tonight,” he said. “My favourite was when someone yelled out, ‘En-fucking-core!'” We laughed, proud of ourselves. He started to encore. We all stood still and listened. To awaken stillness in a big crowd is a consecrated kind of gift. Sweat was rolling down my spine and darling, I was one for the angels. When I got home I would hand wash every one of my garments in a trance of caretaking meditation and the beautiful young man had given me his number and so had the older Sydney guy, who sells Blundstones. But for now the rest of the band came back on and played like emperors. Much later, as I stood collecting my warm wrappings for the long bike ride home, a roadie opened the curtain and out the back I could see their white tour bus, Vika Bull standing beside it waiting for the gear to be boxed up and wheeled out, she was smoking a cigarette and our eyes met, and I felt a bolt of womanhood arc out of me and into the vast cold sweet dark Berlin sky which chuckled with the autumn wind, all the way home.