One of my good friends has a theory that Don Walker writes songs that are nostalgic for the present day. It’s an insightful point: ‘Cheap Wine’, ‘Showtime’, ‘Standing On The Outside’, ‘Flame Trees’ and numerous other Cold Chisel classics are written from a wistful point of view that seems older than Walker – who was only a few years into his thirties when Cold Chisel first disbanded.
‘Four Walls’ isn’t one of these songs though, firmly rooted in the tedious day-to-day torture of imprisonment. Who needs that sentimental bullshit when they’re calling “time for exercise”?
Prison is clearly one the most inhumane rituals of our present day social structure, but this isn’t the appropriate forum to get into that (we’ll leave political hot topics to Fitzy and Wippa). This song takes a removed view of it all – a hollow portrayal of a guy just trying to get through it from day to day to day to day. The simple coda at the end of each verse: “four walls, wash basin, prison bed” sums up the simple tedium of his situation so well. It’s a horrible, boring, lonely life.
Be warned, this vision contains actual prison rioting with actual prison stabbings.
Bitingly sarcastic throughout, ‘Four Walls’ refers to Bathurst jail, where this song is set, as Her Majesty’s hotel, following this with the glib, “the maid’ll hose the room out while I’m gone. I never knew such luxury until my verdict fell.” By the final verse, all attempts at humour are exhausted.
“I can’t see and I can’t hear.
They’ve burnt out all the feelings.
I’ve never been so crazy, and it’s just my second year.
Four walls, wash basin, prison bed.”
Walker’s poetry is pointed and precise as ever, but Barnes’ voice is the secret gun in this arsenal. Note the shift between the huge “I love to march” bridge and the hoarse, defeated final verse. People who counter that Barnesy only screams should listen to this song (or actually listen to any of his songs, to be honest) for an example of what a brilliant and surprisingly understated vocal performance he can deliver.
Due to my work as a music journalist I got to offer my friend’s theory to Walker during an interview a few years ago. He paused, and so I continued onto my next question. “Go back to what your friend said”, he interrupted. “Nostalgic for the present.” He paused again. “I like that. You know, I think he’s right.”
I do too.