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Songs in the Keyes of life

TALKING TO PERRY Keyes is not a linear exercise. He is a taxi driver several nights a week, so you find yourself ducking down side streets of conversations, disappearing into dimly lit arcana or getting caught up in a roundabout yarn reports Bernard Zuel in the SMH of October 20, 2007.

The man loves a chat and he takes you along with him and before you know it you've gone from the mechanics of writing a song to what was on the shelves of the local milk bar in the early 1970s, to the great South Sydney forward packs, to holidaying at The Entrance in the early 1980s and discovering they still had 5-cent pinball machines.

Keyes, who has lived in Redfern or Waterloo all his 41 years and talks wistfully about family members moving "up the line" to such exotic outposts as Marrickville, knows there isn't a musical gene in his family and doesn't think there was a storytelling one either.

"I think what happened with me was I contracted polio when I was about 14 months old and I guess, in a way, because I had a dodgy leg I couldn't play footy, I couldn't ride bikes or skateboards and hang out with all my mates, I had to sit down and be inside my own head," he says. "And I think that gives you more time to think about things, look at things and wonder what makes them work. And of course once music creeps in under the door it's incredible.

"We used to live in a street where my auntie was on one side, my uncle was on the other and there were cousins who were older than me. Imagine a 16-year old explaining to a nine-year-old what Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars is about, I was just going 'Wow, wow!' It just seemed like an alternative world."

The kind of details that pepper his conversation make their way into his songs. His second album, The Last Ghost Train Home (with a photo of wrestler Brute Bernard on the cover), is packed with the kind of vignettes and characters you'd normally find only in a Cliff Hardy novel or in a Paul Kelly song about Melbourne.

Mind you, as Keyes points out when discussing that Souths team of the late 1960s and early 1970s, "I never saw the team playing: I was too young. But I know as much about it as anyone because you can't get away from it here." And he has the carefully preserved footy cards to confirm it.

"I remember being a little kid, we lived where the Block is now, and my grandfather used to take me to a shop next to Redfern railway station to get ice-cream on a Saturday night. One summer there was a pub there on the corner called the Railway View and [Souths' great running backrower] Bob McCarthy was sitting on the step having a beer. We walked past him, and I would have had a caliper on my leg so would have had eyes drawn immediately to me, he gave me a wink and said, 'G'day mate'. And I remember getting home and it was like, 'Guess who said hello to me, guess who said hello to me?' It was such a big deal. We were immersed in that stuff."

That's why he can write a song with such authenticity of texture as The Day John Sattler Broke His Jaw, despite the fact that he was four at that time of the famous grand final incident.

There is one downside, though, to be in the repository of such history, Keyes ruefully explains. "People come to a gig expecting to see a 64-year-old guy who looks like [beefy cabaret legend of the 1950s and 1960s] Norm Erskine smoking Peter Stuyvesants and reminiscing about Ricky May." There may appear to be a thick seam of nostalgia for a Sydney now past, yet Keyes's attitude to his city is more complex than that.

"The John Sattler song, for example, is actually about the good old days not being as good as people said they were," he says. "When I look at my family and I would hear my grandparents talk about raising a family here, it didn't sound like a lot of fun. The thing that I think was stronger then was the sense of community that people felt and what I tried to do with the songs was talk about the old working-class culture and how every community needs things like that to bind them. To give them that sense of a shared experience of living."

Perry Keyes's The Last Ghost Train Home is out now through Laughing Outlaw.