Legend has it Don Walker hitchhiked the trans-Siberian highway but I think that is mostly bollocks, the general consensus is that he spent a lot of the time drinking his royalties away but this too is pretty questionable. Don Walker presented himself during this time as a kind of lecherous spiv lounge lizard, drinking and chasing tail, writing and singing songs of hapless (in)fidelity (I think “Sing to me” is fantastically beautiful) but it didn’t last long, devolving into a frontiersman figure fevered by the drugs and drink and the nothingness of the land and the intense heat and the evil tendencies of men. As such the music shifted away from keyboards toward a shambling minimalist guitar based country blues. Tony Orlando played by Lyle Lovett singing Guy Clark songs.
Eventually Don Walker began to release product, not much though, just a thin line of quiet unpromoted releases under various guises, collaborations and nom de plumes. In 1994 he recorded We’re All Gunna Die and released it under his own name. The album is a knockout, not for singing which is hampered by Walker’s own limited vocal range (to put it super politely) or playing which is understated (we’re a long way from the beer barn here, no more marshall stacks), but for the stark misanthropic romanticism that all the songs are invested with.
But it is more than just landscape or nostalgia that draws me in; the songs are about the failure of Australian men, the failure of imagination that sees the one tree town as a petty civilisation, the failure that measures itself against an impractical vision of grandeur and colonial splendour. To be a big man in Don Walker’s songs is to be a fool and a blind one. Small men may understand and know, big men are deluding themselves and everyone else. The fate of big men is to be laughed at; the fate of small men is to laugh at themselves. We’re All Gunna Die was independently released to about seven people in the early nineties, almost no one ever heard it, and no one could fucking download it. They still can’t, but it was re-released this year which saw me finally retire my cassette to the bin after a decade and half of being carried around like the book of Kells.
Walker’s second release under his name, Cutting Back in 2008, is of a very similar vein. This quiet romance with failed men appeals to me greatly, probably for obvious enough reasons, but mostly because the shame of the men is warmly embraced, loved even. Austere and rich, sparse and crowded, speaking of hope from hopelessness: these are the markers of Walker’s best songs. And the best of them are as good as any. The songs aren’t fun, they aren’t light or easy, but they summon a complex and difficult world and regard it curiously.
In contrast to We’re All Gunna Die, Cutting Back was released on Warner Brothers and was widely available for a month or so but then disappeared from the shelves. I haven’t seen it in ages. As I said there was little or no promotion for either album, though he did a short tour with a pick up band in support of Cutting Back. Setting the tone, the band was named The Suave Fucks.
Slightly more publicly Walker was part of collaborative project which for some really hit the mark. Working with Tex Perkins and Charlie Owen he put out two studio albums under the sobriquet Tex, Don and Charlie. Tex Perkins is a kind of legendary frontman for alternative, drunken rock bands (he’s a kind of Australian Jello Biafra figure but without the politics), and Charlie Owen has been the guest pedal steel player on just about every Australian album that features a pedal steel (it might be that he’s not the only Australian pedal steel player but he’s for sure the only one in paid work). So the TDC albums have a slightly open tone that recalls Chisel but I think this is just my reading of the songs which are more radio friendly than anything Walker, Perkins or Owen have ever done anywhere else.
And it must be said that my adoration of Don Walker’s songs should not imply that they are unproblematically fucking brilliant (though, just for the record I think “Three Blackbirds”, “I Want My Kids to Look Like You” and “Harry Was a Bad Bugger” are unproblematically brilliant). There are some songs that just send shivers, like “My Ex-Wife” and “Another Night In”, and there are songs that are just funny (to me anyway) like “Yakuza Girls” and “Four in the Morning.” And there are the usual clutch of rip offs borrowings and lifts which are always part theft and part salutation.
Don Walker is a quiet man and he is not heard of, or from, much. Indeed except for a few New Zealanders, next to no-one knows about Don Walker outside Australia. But he is top notch.