Throughout his songwriting career with Cold Chisel, Catfish and with Tex, Don and Charlie, Don Walker has written some of the most incisive social commentary in Australian musical history. Whether it’s casting a wistful glance across the colourful characters of Australian country life, or pondering the tension between community and emotional solitude in the big city, Walker’s songs bring to life multiple facets of the Australian sociological matrix. Yet Walker bristles at the suggestion that he’s anything close to a social scientist.
“I’m definitely not a social scientist,” Walker says in his typically dry manner. “I think that term is a contradiction in terms. Who was it that said that ‘social’ is a weasel word that sucks the life out of everything around it?”
Walker grew up in Armidale in regional New South Wales. After embarking on a science degree, Walker headed to the relative big smoke of Adelaide, where he found employment in the Weapons Research Establishment, north-east of the city. “I worked at WRE all through 1973, then I went back up to Armidale, and then worked through 1975,” Walker says. Walker’s memories of Adelaide are fond, albeit distant. “My memories of Adelaide are great concerning the city and the people I met,” he says. It was bigger than where I’d lived previously, and it was quite prosperous at the time.”
WRE was located in Salisbury, a relatively short drive to the satellite city of Elizabeth, where English migrants Jim Barnes and Steve Prestwich had settled. “I was eating my lunch where Jim and Steve were living,” Walker says. While WRE provided gainful employment, Walker wasn’t interested in a career in the defence industries. “I enjoyed it, but there wasn’t much future in what I was doing,” he says. “My whole brain was consumed by music, although I didn’t really know what I was going to do with it.”
In Cold Chisel’s classic song Khe Sanh Walker narrates the story of a friend called up for duty in the Vietnam War; Walker himself managed to avoid conscription. “I was at uni at that time,” he says. “I wouldn’t have been called up because I’m born on the 29th of November, but the marbles that were pulled out were 28th and 30th of November. And then Gough Whitlam came to power, and he and Lance Barnard stopped conscription, so for a whole raft of reasons I didn’t get called up.”
Having met up with the other members of Cold Chisel – including, in the band’s original tenure bass player Les Kaczmarek, subsequently replaced by Phil Small – Walker and his band mates cut their teeth at the Largs Pier Hotel in Adelaide’s western suburbs. “I haven’t been back there for a long time,” Walker says, “but I’ve been told that where we used to play is no longer there.”
Realising that Adelaide was never going to pay dividends in the longer term, Chisel headed east to Melbourne, where the band spent a largely fruitless period in the first half if 1976. “It was pretty bleak in Melbourne because we didn’t have any money,” Walker says. “The Melbourne music industry was tightly controlled. They ran a tape over us, and decided we weren’t going to make it.” In spring of 1976 Chisel drove north up the Hume Highway and settled in Kings Cross. “Sydney is a bleaker place in some respects because it doesn’t have the same social knit as Melbourne,” Walker says. “But Sydney was the first place where we got people in the industry who liked us.”
Walker was already writing much of the material that would form the basis of Cold Chisel’s canon. Tracks such as One Long Day, Home And Brokenhearted and Standing On The Outside suggest a persona struggling to integrate in the hustle and bustle of the big city. While Walker was a country boy, his band mates were also exiles – Barnes and Prestwich from England, and Ian Moss from Alice Springs.
“Those songs were very much me, but also the other guys in the band – I just happened to be writing it,” Walker says. “But by the time Cold Chisel formed I’d definitely been floating around for a bit.”
After Chisel broke up for the first time in 1983, Walker floated around a bit more, eventually forming Catfish (which itself graduated into a straight solo career). In the early '90s Walker teamed up with Tex Perkins and Charlie Owen in Tex, Don and Charlie. Walker admits it took a while for him to find his artistic niche after Chisel’s demise. “For me, somewhere in my early 40s I started to take charge a bit,” he says. “Up 'til then I was under this ‘this must be what happens next’ type of impression’, so I decided to leave that behind.”
A few years ago Walker wrote his critically acclaimed novel-cum-memoir Shots, a collection of personal memories stretching from his childhood through to his days on the road. Walker says he’s not a people watcher, but it’s clear he takes the time to observe acutely what’s around him. “The thing I’d like most to do is to write a fiction work, but so far I haven’t had the time,” Walker says. “But I’m now coming to a clear spot, so maybe I’ll get around to it.”
While Walker would be happy to be played more often on radio, he’s not worried about being a comparatively anonymous character on the streets. “My anonymity is intact, and I’m grateful for that,” Walker says. “I do know a lot of famous people, like Jim [Barnes], who handle fame very well. Jim can’t walk ten metres down the mall without five people coming up to him for a chat. He handles that very well – but I wouldn’t,” Walker says.
BY PATRICK EMERY
The legendary DON WALKER brings the Nightfishing tour to The Northcote Social Club on Thursday July 26, The Caravan Club in Oakleigh on Friday July 27 and Stones Of The Yarra Valley on Saturday July 28, performing some old and new songs with his band The Suave Fucks.