Anyone interested in The Go-Betweens was probably uplifted by the wave of interest generated by co-founder Robert Forster’s recent NZ appearances and the publication of this book, his second. I know I was and what a warm and thoroughly welcome trip down memory lane it was.
Band books have always been a lottery; most are co-written, many are ghost-written and, understandably, there’s a pretty high failure-rate. “Grant & I”, however, is very different as Forster is a fantastic writer not just of sharp lyrics but also long-form as a music columnist for Australian publication, The Monthly. I see this book as having a broad appeal, far wider than the band’s fan-base, because of Forster’s near-photographic recollection of the diverse circumstances that shaped the band right through from birth to its dissolution, subsequent reformation and later fame.
It’s ostensibly the story of a friendship between two men. Grant McLennan, his co-everything in The Go-Betweens (who died ten years ago) but the book throws its net wide enough to cover areas as diverse as the ’80s music scenes they inhabited; on love, loss and creativity, how to endure regularly moving countries, making up and breaking up, on growing up in Brisbane; chapters on intra-band dynamics, hiring and firing and relationships, on writing film scripts and on becoming famous and behaving badly. Not quite sex, drugs and rock’n’roll but certainly everything that leads there as the band ended up on a different label for almost every release. Each tale is brightly lit by an enviable resilience the two guitarists shared for almost 30 years. That’s longer than most marriages and as Forster points out, “We created the most romantic thing two heterosexual men can, a pop group.”
It felt exciting to read the chapters where success starts to build, where emboldened by the success of their first wave of songs and shows, they leave a right-leaning Brisbane for New-Wave London in 1979, bringing with them an enviable strength of pride. God knows, it can’t have been easy traipsing across the world carrying only your dreams and enthusiasm but they had a champion in BBC DJ, John Peel, who was already wise to debut single, “Lee Remick”. This became a strong calling-card as Forster and McLennan were able to make strong connections almost as soon as arriving in an otherwise unwelcoming London.
Serendipitous meetings with other musicians and label-honchos are recounted with circumspection and honesty as the band heads for Glasgow and onward through every signing and subsequent dumping, Forster remains calm and realistic relating how he thought The Go-Betweens mattered to each label and then didn’t. It’s certainly not trivia, though, as these are some of the bravest sentences. Fueled by hindsight and wisdom, he tackles events and issues that were both everyday and pivotal and some just plain unpleasant. But things never stray far from The Friendship; the neuroses, the shared, creative processes, decisions, songs and concerts that gave The Go-Betweens their much-deserved and long-overdue recognition.
Robert Forster is an extremely generous writer and he is blessed with an impressive memory for the people and the moments of those years, both good and bad. His skill is in treating all of them with grace and equanimity, happy to reflect on and share the lessons learned from many sources.
I found his perspective of the times doubly fascinating as I was on the other side, buying the records that didn’t sell and attending the venues that didn’t fill. So it came as a surprise to read the diary of an indie band on the make going through same machinations their major-label cousins would have. I never knew they made so many videos but in the pre-internet ’80s UK, there were few ways to see these. MTV was still in its infancy and in any case, we didn’t know anyone settled or wealthy enough to have cable. So what I imagined The Go-Betweens did in between shows (drink absinthe, write and promote epic albums) was only half true. They were also jumping through hoops, a few of which were edged with flame.
The more Robert Forster unmasks Grant McLennan, the deeper and more interesting the book becomes as he reveals what made each front-man tick. Forster, tall and ornery onstage, wrote the more antagonistic songs while the seemingly more friendly McLennan’s were redolent of his eponymous “striped sunlight sound.” The reality was quite different and is something of a twist in this tale, though one was neither expected nor necessary. It’s just Forster’s continuing generosity of spirit that allows a reader to feel like they’re getting the whole story, not just the bits that will sell a book, because this was never about that.
It’s more about telling the tale, “getting it all down”, as the subliminal messages urged in the days after Grant’s passing. So it’s definitely something of a purge for Forster, probably allowing him to intellectualise then stretch out as a writer, going from three verses and a punchy chorus into something far more rich and layered.
Footnote: Robert Forster has also written The 10 Rules of Rock and Roll, published by Black Inc.