Home' Rhythms Magazine : 2016 Nov-Dec Contents Rhythms 97
That floating ampersand in the title is all-important.
This book is neither Robert Forster’s autobiography, nor
a biography of Grant McLennan, much less a history
of the Go-Betweens. It is something more and less:
Forster’s personal take on his thirty-year friendship
with McLennan, which ended abruptly on 6 May 2006,
when Forster arrived at his friend’s Brisbane house to
attend a party, only to discover an ambulance out front:
“Then Emma came running down the path and threw
herself into my arms... ‘My baby’s gone’.” A life cut short
– McLennan was just 48-years of age. This book is an act
of restitution then, and a deeply-felt coming to terms with
the loss of a friend.
The story of the Go-Betweens is a saga of ‘what-ifs’.
Darlings of the critics, and armed with a coterie of
adoring fans world-wide, the band somehow never
garnered a mass appeal beyond cult status. Today,
listening to their music, it seems stupefying that we
didn’t love them more. For their music is classic, in the
way the Velvet Underground’s first album is classic, their
songs fresh and timeless like a perfect summer’s day.
There is a fatalistic quality about the foundation myth
of the Go-Betweens. Two young students, obsessed
with music, film, and literature, meet at University and
decide to start a band. Forster makes it clear life was
never that simple, though he remains wide-eyed as to the
miraculous nature of their crossing paths: Grant was ‘the
first person I’d met who was entirely on my wavelength’.
When Forster first asked him to form a band in 1977,
McLennan turned him down. Thankfully, this proved not
to be his final answer. The first hurdle, teaching Grant to
play bass, was quickly overcome, and in short order the
pair were playing gigs and recording their first single
‘Lee Remick’, which Forster unblushingly calls ‘the best
pop song to be written in town since ‘(I’m) Stranded’.
Grant & I charts the ups and downs of the band’s episodic
career. From Brisbane to St Kilda, by way of London
and Sydney and back again, performing alongside the
Laughing Clowns, living in squats, hanging out with the
Birthday Party. It was a rock n’ roll lifestyle after all. You
just have to register the band’s record labels – Missing
Link, Rough Trade, Sire – to recognise indie royalty. But
this chopping and changing never allowed for traction,
each new phase was like a starting over. What if Rough
Trade’s Geoff Travis hadn’t dumped them after he fell
under the spell of the Smiths? Europe turned out to be
more receptive, offering the band genuine successes;
and there was a whistle-stop performance at new York’s
legendary CBGBs that Forster described as ‘one of the
best performances the band ever gave’. The recording
sessions brought mixed blessings: Before Hollywood
proved an exhilarating experience, whereas the recording
of Spring Hill Fair left the band ‘a little bewildered and
Forster is generous about his friend’s mighty talents.
Writing about Before Hollywood, he says: ‘The songs
Grant delivered were the final click, and they were
enormous’. Of his musical prowess: ‘He had become a
riff merchant on guitar, a legacy of his bass playing that
allowed him to string notes together as a musical entity’.
But the best riff of all, Forster initially missed. It wasn’t
until Grant’s song ‘Cattle and Cane’ took shape – ‘the
unpacking of a masterpiece’ – that Forster experienced
its full revelation: ‘My god, the beauty of that, and here he
was in song, the person I’d known since university’.
The relationships within the band are well-known –
Robert & Lindy Morrison, Grant & Amanda Brown – and
are not overly dwelt upon here, save for the devastating
effect Brown’s departure had on Grant. not surprisingly,
this coincided with the demise of the first incarnation
of the Go-Betweens in 1989, and what follows might be
called ‘the lost years’. Forster headed to Germany with
new love Karin, and McLennan toyed with side projects
and solo outings. If F. Scott Fitzgerald told us there were
no second acts, then surely the late run of Go-Betweens
recordings, starting with The Friends of Rachel Worth
(2000) and culminating with the masterful Oceans Apart
(2005), proved the exception. But Forster makes clear that
Grant was not in great shape. He was drinking too much,
his life had frayed at the edges. For all the ‘what-ifs’, the
end, when it came, possessed an air of inevitability.
Mid-way through their thirty-year friendship, Forster
recalls a touching moment when the two friends hugged,
something Forster acknowledges ‘we rarely did’. “’You’re
my best friend’, I said to him, and I’d never said that
before. What did I know? The fact is Forster knows plenty.
With Grant & I, he has delved deeply into those things,
delivering us a heartfelt elegy to friendship.
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