Music – Perry Keyes: Jim Salmon’s Lament
As a child who contracted polio, unable to run around with his friends, Perry Keyes was often the observer. Now he’s a critically acclaimed singer-songwriter whose observations fill five solo albums, the latest of which tells the story of a family typical of those he grew up with in the James Cook public housing flats in Waterloo.
Keyes renders social, personal and distinctively Sydneysider observations, like a melancholy John Kennedy. Melancholy because, “Some stories have happy endings/ You can smile without pretending/ But some tastes are always bittersweet/ When you’re hanging ’round that part of town/ Where the Devil walks by on every street.”
Keyes writes about the people he’s surrounded by, often with the implied question: do you want to know what’s real? And what’s real can be crime lords, drug dealers, prostitutes and burnt-out buses. But there are also aspects that create a sense of community like football and boxing and hanging around the local pub.
Facing the inevitable onslaught of gentrification, Keyes’ songs also document the loss of community. Jim Salmon’s Lament tells of family dynamics he knew growing up: the father, wife-beater and drug-dealer Jim Salmon, mother Jenny, drug-using son Jimmy, and daughter Iris. The children become the centre of a narrative about the struggles of life, from when their parents first meet to the kids surviving against the current, with their father “swimming up river”.
There’s a lot about fatherhood on this album because Keyes began writing it not long after his father died in 2013. He moved to an exploration of fathers in poor neighbourhoods, “from the great guys to really bad men”, all under the “houso umbrella”, getting by and doing what they had to do to keep things going.
Keyes has said: “I write about people who, despite an environment that seems to be constantly undermining them, come through the other side, maybe a little beat up but mostly intact. I think their stories are dramatic and worth telling. I try to find the moments of grace in the middle of the chaos.”
He considers it his job to tell those stories and show the worth of working-class culture, “that it’s good for your community to reflect on what’s gone or what’s going”.
Key to that remembering is Keyes playing in and with familiar rock styles, nodding to songs he has grown up with, name-checking artists or secreting lyrical reminders.
Sometimes you hear it in Springsteen-ish flourishes, cadences and intonations or, in the case of “Surf’n’Turf”, Mark Knopfler receives the homage.
Keyes doesn’t see the past through rose-coloured glasses. “The good old days weren’t as good as you think they were,” he has said. There was no lucky country for some people. “You’ve got to be very careful about what you romanticise.”
Now Keyes sees new people moving into his neighbourhood who don’t appreciate the culture of places like Redfern or Waterloo. “Sydney’s never cared about its poor,” he told the Australian. “With Waterloo disappearing under the weight of redevelopment, I thought I would make one last record before it’s all gone.”
As The Whitlams’ Tim Freedman described him, Perry Keyes is “an authentic voice from the heart of a disappearing world”.
EH Records, 2018
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