Current Issue #487

Paul Kelly's Debutante days: 'Come back to Adelaide, I’m starting a band'

Courtesy Tom and Ian Stehlik

From North Adelaide sharehouses to the city’s 1970s pub scene, Paul Kelly’s manager-turned-biographer Stuart Coupe pieces together the story of the songwriter’s short-lived first band.

Adelaide in the mid-1970s was an emerging creative hub that nurtured a flamboyant and experimental world.  A small scene most certainly, but one that briefly burnt bright. Don Dunstan was the premier and the arts were valued. Arguably at that time, Adelaide had the biggest gay scene in Australia. It had the South Australian Film Corporation, the State Theatre Company South Australia, and Flinders University, which was radical and left-leaning. 

Pubs like the Buckingham Arms attracted students, artists, the transgender community and all sorts of colourful characters. Everyone mingled – everyone was accepted. Writer Nick Lainas, the godfather to Paul’s daughter Madeleine, first met Paul around this time in Adelaide in 1976, encountering what he describes as, “a callow youth without much worldly experience at all”.

“The first time I saw him, he was in a backyard with an acoustic guitar on his lap, and with this shock of incredible curly black hair.”

Initially Lainas and Paul didn’t have a lot to do with each other so when Lainas was preparing for a trip back to Greece, he was surprised when Paul arrived with a gift for him – a copy of Gail Holst’s book on Greek music, Road to Rembetika.

Lainas spent the second half of 1976 in Greece, sending back travel writing and poetry for John Kingsmill and Paul to publish in Another One For Mary [the magazine the pair started in 1975 while working as cleaners at the Adelaide Festival Centre].

When Lainas returned, Paul was living in Buxton Street, North Adelaide, and the friendship developed.

“It was a notorious building at the time, a building full of junkies,” Lainas says.

“Paul was breaking free from all those conservative years of his Catholic upbringing. He was reading Henry Miller and writers like that. He wanted to disorganise his senses and extend his range of experiences, especially sexual ones.

“He had a level of determination even in those days. Paul was going to crash through. He wouldn’t have lasted if he didn’t have that – that iron will and focused vision. Music and songwriting became his total vision.”

For Paul the Buxton Street house was where he had the game changer – the realisation that he could write songs. He wrote one. Then another. And another.

“There was a piano there and I wrote a song called We Don’t Get On. It has never been recorded. At that moment I remember the feeling and the realisation of, ‘Oh, I can do this – if I can write one song I can write another’. I stopped writing the prose poetry and other stuff and it just became songs. Around this period I also wrote The Going Down, this time on guitar.

“Once I began writing songs when I was 21 that became all I wanted to do. I didn’t want to do anything else. I always had part-time jobs – cleaning jobs, and dish- washing jobs – and the dole. But all I really wanted to do was make money off writing songs. I didn’t have an alternative. There was no thinking about something that I could fall back on – something like teaching or cleaning.”

It was 1976 and it occurred to Paul that it was time to start a band – and one of the people he was going to start a band with was Adelaide musician and writer Philip White.

“Paul came to my joint,” White recalls. “It was in the middle of summer and he said, ‘Hey Phil, I want to start a band’. We sort of talked about it. I didn’t know him very well at that point. I’d been introduced to him by John Kingsmill.

“When we met I had been in a few bands that had had a modicum of success. I was a hillbilly preacher’s kid, a full- on bible-bashing jerk. It was all bibles and shotguns for me. I must have seemed very exotic to Paul. I was pretty upfront. And Paul was a folk singer who hadn’t really done very much. Both he and John thought they were Jack Kerouac. But I knew they weren’t.”

Up until then, Paul had been drifting around Adelaide playing solo as a Bob Dylan–inspired folkie at Ginger’s coffee shop on Melbourne Street and other similar places around the city but this was his first foray into a rock ’n’ roll band.

Paul’s sister Mary Jo was working as a jillaroo on a cattle station thousands of kilometres away up in the Kimberleys when she received a letter from Paul saying, “Come back to Adelaide, I’m starting a band”.

“He had a level of determination even in those days. Paul was going to crash through. He wouldn’t have lasted if he didn’t have that – that iron will and focused vision. Music and songwriting became his total vision.”

That band was The Debutantes. They rehearsed in a big old stable in a backyard at the top of O’Connell Street. They did more rehearsing than actual playing and there was a constant if not chaotic stream of musicians – some unknown to White and Paul until they turned up to the rehearsal.

The idea was that the band would play both Paul’s and White’s songs. But at every rehearsal Paul would show up with four or five new songs and it ended up being more Paul’s songs than White’s. White says he helped Paul work out the new songs, which were often “three chords and a scribbled bit of paper with some words on it”.

Paul’s sister Mary Jo played violin and flute and sang.  She also played some keyboards. She remembers Tom and Ian Stehlik were part of it and James Black, who also played piano. Black, an accomplished musician, went on to play with Mondo Rock, Joe Camilleri and many others as well as being part of the RocKwiz television show band.

As Stehlik recalls it, Paul wanted to call the band The Debutantes but others in the band were against that. “We were all seasoned musicians, not debutantes, so we wanted to call it The Paul Kelly Band, it was known as that as well. There were certainly elements of the Rolling Thunder Revue in it.

“We had a few extras come in. We might have added John Highland from the Lone Rangers on pedal steel at one point, and Jo Moore was around and might have sung with us. She definitely sang with Paul on a music show on ABC television in Adelaide. I remember Paul looking so nervous and uncomfortable. She sang on his first album, Talk, but was sadly later killed in a car accident.

“Paul had a lot of songs. After he came back from Tasmania he’d fallen in love with Rosie Jones and all these songs started pouring out of him. Cherry – which is on his first album – and there was the song Derailment that at our very last gig Paul announced as being a song about premature ejaculation. It was very influenced by the Dylan song Hurricane.

“The way I remember it was that we played pretty much all Paul’s songs and about half of them appeared on his Talk album. We recorded a few songs at the Kelly family home – the Brigalow Bungalow – as we used to rehearse there. James Black offered to record the band with a Revox reel-to-reel tape recorder he had. We recorded about four songs, but James had also brought along a bag of hash cookies so things degenerated fairly quickly.”

“James Black recorded songs in the study at our home,” Mary Jo says, “four or five songs, including Derailment, which I loved because I got to do this funny violin solo trying to sound like a train. Paul discovered Jo Moore, who had the most incredible voice – and she started singing.”

Mary Jo says all the songs in The Debutantes were Paul’s. That was when I realised, ‘Gee, he writes good songs’.”

The Debutantes played gigs at pubs like The British and The Wellington. Usually it was a shambolic mess that would occasionally become something bordering on the coherent.

“We tried to make the band work,” White says. “Paul thought he was Bob Dylan in the Rolling Thunder Revue, and would be dressed up like him right down to wearing    a scarf like Dylan did. I used to stand next to him with a white Gibson guitar  wearing  a  white boilersuit  like  Pete Townshend. I soon realised he didn’t want my Pete Townshend presence beside him but I thought it was better than leaving him to lead 12 musicians.”

“It was a fricking nightmare and I had the job of trying to arrange the music – but I think we made a joyful noise. Our big anthem was a song called Derailment. I helped Paul work it out. We’d stretch it out for ten or fifteen minutes and everyone would be dancing.”

Philip White

The Debutantes played all original songs, something that was challenging and ambitious for a new band with so many members.

“There’d be a brass section coming and going,” White says. “There was pedal steel. It was crazy. Nuts. Ian Stehlik came and went playing second lead. His brother Tom was the drummer. And then there were people like Madeline Blackwell and others coming and going as the singing girls. We’d be halfway through a song and Paul would look at a girl in the audience and say, ‘See that one, she’s going to join the band’, and the next week she’d be in the vocal section.

“It was a fricking nightmare and I had the job of trying to arrange the music – but I think we made a joyful noise. Our big anthem was a song called Derailment. I helped Paul work it out. We’d stretch it out for ten or fifteen minutes and everyone would be dancing. It was a good knock-off song. There were, however, a lot of other songs we did that were just forgettable.”

But, let’s face it, they were supposed to be ‘Debutantes’ after all. Although White and the others were much more experienced and able musicians, Paul was only 21 years old and, although he had learnt piano and trumpet as a child, he hadn’t taken up the guitar until he was 18. There was much to learn.

Coupled with that, White feels that part of the erratic nature of The Debutantes was due to Paul’s use of heroin, which White considered to be pretty serious when he lived in Adelaide.

Whether Paul’s dabbling with heroin was serious or just outwardly so, White says that pretty early on he became alive to Paul’s gritty determination and single focus.

“He was very easy to misunderstand because of his surly, quiet, almost receding nature but that belied a very heavy little ego and a determination which a lot of people didn’t pick.”

Paul Kelly: The Man, The Music and The Life in Between

In early 1977, Nick Lainas borrowed his father’s Toyota Crown and he and Paul headed off to Sydney – with differing missions.

For Lainas, the main reason for the journey was to interview playwright Steve Spears for a feature story for Another One For Mary.

For Paul it was a case of – apparently without telling the rest of The Debutantes – exploring the possibility of getting a recording contract with a label. Paul and Lainas went into Festival Records in Pyrmont with a cassette of Paul’s songs.

“We met with a guy in long white socks and checked shorts who was clearly listening under sufferance to this tape,” Lainas says. “Not surprisingly there was no interest and he told us there was nothing he could do.”

Leaving Sydney the two took the coast road towards Melbourne. At one point Lainas decided to let Paul – then a notoriously bad driver – have a stint at the wheel on a comparatively quiet stretch of road.

“He almost totalled the car. He was a really careless driver who really thought he was Neal Cassady behind the wheel,” Lainas says.

Reaching Melbourne, Lainas took Paul to visit some friends of his from Adelaide, musicians from a band called Spare Change who were living in a house in Hoddle Street, East Melbourne. Paul had seen Spare Change when they were living and playing in Adelaide.

He liked what he saw in Melbourne. “Nick and I went back to Adelaide,” he says, ‘but pretty soon I decided to move to Melbourne permanently.”

The Debutantes – a part-time band at best – disintegrated, but the decision to end came out of the blue for White. He picked up the phone one day and Paul was on the line. “He said, ‘You’ve got to come and see my new band’, and I said, ‘What new band? What’s happening to our band, what’s going on?’ And he said, ‘I’m not playing with those people anymore,’ and I said, ‘Well, there’s fucking 12 of us – have you told them?’ And he said, ‘Can you tell them?’ And that was it. He wouldn’t tell the others that it was over.”

After that the two had a tense relationship, and over the ensuing years it has ebbed and flowed.

Paul decided to travel back to Melbourne and move into the Hoddle Street house, first sleeping on a mattress before moving to an enclave under the staircase.

Some time later White paid them all a visit. He didn’t  like what he found. “Fuck that was a dismal hovel of a house. I asked for a joint and they thought I was so uncool – this prick from Adelaide asking for marijuana when a bunch of them had needles hanging out of their arms.”

“I was pretty keen to leave Adelaide,” Paul says. “But it was more like leaving the place I grew up in and wanting to see the world.”

This is an edited extract from Stuart Coupe’s book Paul Kelly: The Man, The Music and The Life in Between, out now through Hachette

Kelly’s ‘complicated’ feelings about his hometown would later be captured on 1985’s Post, later re-recorded with The Messengers a year later

Stuart Coupe

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Stuart Coupe is an author, music commentator, independent artist publicist and radio broadcaster who has been involved with music all his life. Amongst the books he has written, edited or collaborated on are The New Music (1980), The New Rock ‘n’ Roll (1983), The Promoters (2003), Gudinski (2015), Tex (2017) and Roadies (2018).

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