One of my favourite songs is ‘They Thought I Was Asleep‘ by Paul Kelly. There are three kids in the backseat of a car, one grizzling until the eldest child tells him ‘he’d better quit it or die’. They are travelling home, worn out after a day in the country playing with their cousins. One child wakes in the dark, the car moving through the night, and senses something big was happening. Something he didn’t understand and wasn’t meant to know about.
He hears his parents talking, his Dad says something and his Mum begins to cry. ‘No more words then, just soft sobs and my head began to throb, I just lay there playing dog breathing slow and deep, they thought I was asleep.’
I love what this song evokes, the light touches of childhood, the perplexity around his mother’s tears, his father’s too, not knowing why, feigning sleep.
As he sings I’m in the backseat of the car, wedged into the warmth of my siblings, vinyl bench seat beneath my legs, crocheted rug pulled across the three of us, staring out into the black night. Eyes turned up to the night sky, seeking out the moon which was guiding us home, picking out the shapes of trees with branches silvered in moonlight. Sensing something was amiss but not knowing what. Snippets of my memory, real and imagined, overlaid onto the lyrics of a song.
This is what we do, essentially, with songs, stories, artworks and poetry that have a particular resonance, or evoke a personal reaction. There might be familiarity too, or a synchronicity of time or place that embeds a response. It can be difficult to separate the personal at times, to peel back the layers of why a song, in this instance, pulls me up whenever I hear it.
In Kelly’s excellent mongrel memoir How To Make Gravy, a wide-ranging read mixing personal and family history with insights into his creative process and influences, there is a section about this song. One of his band members asked him a couple of times about the family in the song: did the parents break up, was one of them seriously ill, why was the mother crying? Kelly’s response: he didn’t know. He could recall travelling home as a child, pretending to sleep so that he would be carried inside, ‘floating across the threshold’, being gently placed into bed. The rest he made up.
This is what the act of creating is about, not telling. Being more of a conduit than providing an explanation for everything.
Are there any songs that make you pause for thought or reflection?
[Photo: dining room table at Wyalong Museum]