In rock music, there have been many critics’ favourites whose appeal rarely reflects the gushing compliments and glowing reviews, but you’d be hard pressed to think of a band that didn’t deserve them more than Australia’s Go-Betweens.
Highly literate indie pop/rock might have been de rigueur (as we liked to say) back in the early 1980s, but a band in cahoots with the back catalogues of both Velvet Underground and The Monkees were, more often than not, on a hiding to nothing. Yet the group – formed in 1977 in Brisbane around the nucleus of arts students Robert Forster and Grant McLennan, each of whom had notions of becoming great songwriters – continued into the mid-2000s. Life in all of its varying states, inconveniences and downright cruelties occurred during the band's existence, but throughout it all their creative partnership and personal friendship stubbornly persisted and survived. It is no spoiler to the enjoyment of this exquisitely written memoir to inform the unsuspecting reader that McLennan died of a heart attack in 2006, aged 48. His death ended the Go-Betweens – who in 2005 released their most-awarded, and final album, Oceans Apart – yet inspired the writing of this book.
It begins in strictly autobiographical form, with Forster laying out his own contrarian background ("If rebellion is on, I will play it straight; when straight is needed, I'm the funniest guy in the school. This mule-kick attitude will define me."), finessing his cultural yardsticks ("Beckett, Ionesco, Brecht, Pinter and Pirandello . . . These were the first things I encountered at university that spoke right to me, that hit with the freshness and punch of a favoured album or an episode of Bewitched or Get Smart . . ."), and how David Bowie's Starman radically altered his thinking ("what would a band be like that was not traditionally proficient on their instruments, but astonished by having the best songs in town?").
Through luxurious, descriptive prose that sometimes fails to avoid self-admiration, Forster outlines his initial meetings with McLennan, their gradual, unbreakable friendship, and the respectful dance around each of their ample songwriting abilities. As years pass and the friendship endures the customary fractures of distance, miscommunication, silence and – when Forster first hears about McLennan writing and recording songs for a solo album – betrayal, a reasonable understanding of what holds them together emerges. Both men simply hold each other in extraordinarily high regard. This is no mutual back-slapping festival of friendship, however, but rather an insightful, drily intelligent appreciation and understanding of worth.
Hard drug use
This being a fundamentally human story, there is frailty at its core. Forster doesn’t evade his own inadequacies as a person (the description of his break-up with Go-Betweens drummer Lindy Morrison, and her responses, are chilling; he admits to being diagnosed with Hepatitis C, following hard drug use), but the memoir comes into its own when it focuses on its primary subject.
Forster really loved his songwriting partner, but not to the point where he ignored obvious shortcomings. “Alcohol was not a demon for him,” he writes of McLennan’s slide into alcoholism, “but one of life’s necessities, and often treated as such.” Forster associates music with a cleansing of the intellectual palate, writing sparse, lyrical songs that lean toward the “mundane and everyday”. He says he could be stone-cold sober and write good material, whereas McLennan “associated music with a chemical tweaking of the mood, and with night rituals”. It clearly helped Forster that he had a stable marriage, and two children he “desperately wanted to see grow into adulthood”. His best friend, however, “was in a dark place” and could, apparently, best express himself only through the solitary medium of songwriting. “Music was his confession box,” writes Forster, with a mix of acceptance and disappointment.
Memoir can be a place of confession, too, of course, and Forster, honest to a fault, remains true to his creative principles. There is no false note or awkward phrasing here, but rather an exceptional love letter to a friend that didn’t have a “life-grounding weight at the end of the long chain we all drag . . . He drifted on his back, his face blissful to the sky, free to the currents.”
Robert Forster reads from Grant & I: Inside and Outside the Go-Betweens, at The Gutter Bookshop, Cow’s Lane, Temple Bar, Dublin, on Friday, September 8th