‘I listen to this song at least once a week, because if I don’t, I miss it’.
Playwright and actor Kate Mulvany refers to Cold Chisel’s ‘Khe Sanh’ as though it’s a family member.
Listening to her tell the story of how the Australian classic acted a catalyst for so many significant events in her personal and professional life, only strengthens belief in the extraordinary power of music.
Growing up in country Western Australia, Kate recalls this song’s ubiquity; Barnesy’s impassioned voice blaring out everywhere from the radio to the blue light discos. Everyone held out to belt along to that infectious closing refrain ‘…the last plane out of Sydney’s almost gone’.
For the first time I felt as though I had a conversation with my father through someone else’s words.Kate Mulvany - Don't Look Back
It wasn’t until later in her teens when her veteran father was going through an especially tough time with his post war ‘demons’ that she noticed the word ‘Vietnam’ in the song.
She sat down to listen to the rest of the words and realised that the story that was being told within ‘Khe Sanh’s vivid and concise verses, described, to a tee, her father’s life: “A guy working on the roads, who’s suffering terribly, has bad nightmares … doesn’t know quite how to maintain a relationship and was a sapper … and for the first time I felt as though I had a conversation with my father through someone else’s words.”
A few years later, she and her father took a road trip together across the Nullarbor. She asked him if he knew ‘Khe Sanh’. He said he did. “No, but have you really listened to it?,” she insisted as she began to quote lyrics from it as it played on the car stereo. He went quiet and when the song concluded, he said “put it on again.” They listened to it another seven times in a row. Kate says “to watch Dad’s face, in the middle of Australia, to watch his face shift as he took in every word was quite an extraordinary thing.”
Not only did Don Walker’s lyrics touch a tender nerve, giving Kate’s dad “a wry grin of recognition”, she says ‘Khe Sanh’s impact goes much further. Kate was born with the very serious and ongoing affects of Agent Orange, a herbicide that her father and many other Vietnam veterans breathed in during the war. She justifiably needed answers to many questions. It was this song that opened the door to that dialogue with her father, to finding the explanations she sought and also inspiring her to become a writer. Understandably, she adores the Cold Chisel keyboardist and songwriter.
“It doesn’t just give my dad a voice, it gives his family a voice too… all of [Don Walker’s] songs do for Vietnam Veterans and their families.”