The Sydney cabbie who’s writing the songs of our lives
Peter Corris’s Glebe PI Cliff Hardy has a modern Australian playlist in his latest adventure, Torn Apart, including the Whitlams, Kasey Chambers and Sydney’s cab-driving troubadour Perry Keyes.
Hardy listens to tunes from Keyes’s second album, The Last Ghost Train Home, which includes the song The Day John Sattler Broke His Jaw, about the revered Souths’ rugby league player and the 1970 grand final that he played with a fractured face. If Hardy doesn’t lose his obvious fine taste, he’ll be in the shops this week picking up the new Perry Keyes offering, Johnny Ray’s Downtown.
It is a stunning record; chock full of compelling, beautiful, sad and joyous songs that places this singer-songwriter at the top of the Australian creative tree. Johnny Ray’s Downtown is an early contender for the best Australian release of the year and will give international competition a shake, too.
In fact, Keyes now occupies the place that Paul Kelly had to himself for the second half of the seventies, all of the eighties and the early nineties. He is our pre-eminent chronicler of our times, especially through the taste and smell of inner-city Sydney.
The writing on this record – which like the first Keyes release, Meter, is a generous offering of 16 tunes – shows a growth in confidence and reach that was apparent in his earlier work, something many reviewers recognised. Sydney musician and producer Grant Shanahan has worked beautifully with Keyes, adding some delightful layers of musical texture – the coronet and trumpet are spot on - and an occasional lightness that just makes you want to smile. That Hawkesbury River studio must be a magical place.
But it’s the songs that weave the magic. Like Keyes’s earlier work, you need a Sydney Refidex, easy access to Google and Ian Macfarlane’s Encyclopaedia of Australian Rock and Pop handy at all times. There’s a strong sense of time and place as horse racing, drug use and crime, surfing and street night life swirl through tales about growing up in Coogee, living in King Cross and being down and out in Waterloo and Surrey Hills.
Many of the songs won’t get a lot of commercial airplay, with gritty subjects and straight-talking language. But every tune begs revisiting and rewards those who return. As with the earlier albums, there are easily recognisable influences at work but none of it is mimicry or theft, rather the paying of dues and respect. There’s a hark back to Paul Kelly a bit but more towards those American cultural bower birds, Bruce Springsteen and Alejandro Escovedo. The song Lou Reed & Robert Quine nods to the New York rock poet with a riff straight out of Sweet Jane (a piece of guitar genius never played better than when Quine hit the strings with Reed).
The song-writing carries the album, something demonstrated nowhere as well as in the second tune, 1982. It’s a slice of Sydney life, referencing the putting down of Dulcify during the 1979 W.S. Cox Plate and the drug culture that poisoned so much of the harbour town in those days. He sings: “We watched the smokey moon swim through the black south head/Bobby kicked his sand shoes from his feet and he said his Mum was dead/Her liver turned her eyes to gold and her sagging skin to ash/There’s a stolen Betamax machine/And sixty bucks in cash.”
And it’s hard to find a better description of life in and around King Cross: “Tonight, by Kings Cross station/I have no destination/Surrounded by temptation/No sign of salvation.”
Elsewhere, Keyes connects with Midnight Oil’s great surf tune, Wedding Cake Island both by name checking it in Things That A Boy Would Do and using the island itself as a backdrop in the heavily sad song Coogee Boy (a tune prefaced by Pest, a brilliant piece of instrumental surf music which has to be inspired by the Atlantics).
The sign off on the album is Boxing Day, a roaming tale that pivots on the 1908 heavyweight championship bout in Sydney between Jack Johnson and Tommy Burns – the first time a white boxer and title holder fought a black fighter (Burns lost but still pocketed a reputed $US30,000). Here’s how Keyes concludes his story: “On the very last night of his very last fight/Hitman Harding buckled to the taste/As Jack’s ghost takes flight from The Block tonight/With Tommy’s belt wrapped tight around his waist.”
It’s a magnificent album, as much world-weary observation as soul-heavy sad reflection. There’s also enough chinks of sunlight to offer moments of hope, although you have to be eagle-eyed to spot it and lightning-fast to grab hold. A bit like life in Sydney.
- Johnny Ray’s Downtown is on Laughing Outlaw Records and a deluxe book/CD version – featuring photos by Johnny Barker and Perry Keyes’s guide to his songs - is out next week.
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