“Hey! Turn the lights on, I want to see everybody,” shouts Iggy Pop. And he grins that huge, irrepressible grin. Here he is, on the lip of the Concert Hall stage of a sold-out Sydney Opera House, with thousands of ecstatic fans cheering back at him. And he can’t get enough: he extends his hands, accepting everyone’s love and joy, touching that famously bare, Florida-tanned and now ever so slightly pot-bellied torso, as if to smear it upon himself.
“You’ve made me very happy,” he says, in all sincerity. But he’s no happier than anyone else in the room, after 21 of the greatest songs of all time that were never hits. Well, Lust For Life almost was, after its immortal tom-tom rhythm jump-started the film of Irvine Welsh’s novel Trainspotting. But that was in 1996, 19 years after its original release. Nothing else, other than Candy (not played this evening) ever came close.
I’ve started this review at the end of the show for the sake of some context. How could Lust For Life not have been a major hit in 1977, the year punk broke? The answer is that the death of Elvis Presley meant that Iggy’s label at the time, RCA, poured its resources into reissuing the King’s catalogue at the expense of promoting what should have been the biggest success of the World’s Forgotten Boy’s career, just when he thought his Chinese rug was at hand.
At the Opera House, Iggy pulls out this eternal opener or showstopper (it’s not really an in-between sort of song) fourth in the set, right after The Passenger. Most of the remainder is drawn from the deep well drilled by the Stooges, whose three pre-punk albums between 1969 and 1973 sold bugger all, except to those who had their minds so blown that they formed their own bands, who duly passed the torch to the next generation, et cetera. And so, here we are.
There are so many layers of improbability about this – Iggy Pop at the Opera House – that it almost defies belief. The first, of course, is that Iggy is still alive, having outlived not only his closest peers and mentors, David Bowie and Lou Reed, but all but one core member of the two original Stooges line-ups (James Williamson). Not to mention countless less fortunate musicians who shuffled off this mortal coil after sustaining seemingly far less damage.
This Sunday, the man born James Osterberg celebrates his 72nd birthday. He looks as healthy as a horse, an obvious limp from a bad hip notwithstanding, meaning that supple physique of his can’t move quite like it used to. Iggy’s voice, however, is in unbelievably good shape, whether he’s deploying his rich baritone on the sleazy dancefloor crawl of Nightclubbing or summoning the terminally bored teenage whine of No Fun.
That song sees Iggy invite dozens of fans on stage with him, in scenes reminiscent of a similar crowd invasion at a Royal Headache gig in 2015. This time, though, no cops are called to break up the party. And here, some scepticism is understandable. Has the man who wrote Gimme Danger lost his edge, now his songs have reached a level of mass acceptance that allows him to perform at a venue such as this?
One promotional poster for this gig features a famous image of the youthful Iggy Stooge photoshopped standing atop the sails of the Opera House. The Opera House is intimate enough that, had he chosen, Iggy could have stepped straight off the stage and had the crowd hold him aloft by his ankles, in a recreation of the iconic scene from the Cincinatti pop festival in 1970 (before he started smearing himself with peanut butter).
Really, as he sings on a cover of Bowie’s Jean Genie, he just “loves to be loved”. So much so that it’s easy to forget how deeply shunned Iggy Pop once was, decades before he became an object of adulation. Now, he can open with I Wanna Be Your Dog and close the set with Real Cool Time – two songs that defined the fine line between stupid and clever long before Spinal Tap – and, well, it’s like hypnotising chickens.
For the encore, Real Wild Child is a clear nod to his Australian audience (both for its debt to Johnny O’Keefe, and the Generation Xers who have grown up with it as the theme from Rage), followed by a much bigger surprise, as Iggy’s band bulldozes their way through Nick Cave’s Red Right Hand. Everyone is beaming, none more so than the superhuman on stage. It’s totally life affirming. Call it hip-replacement rock if you want: he’s Iggy Pop, and you’re not.
“If music be the food of love, play on!”I remember the first time I heard those words. It wasn’t in high school or university, but in a song from 1987 called Eat The Rich, a song written by the British heavy metal band Motörhead specifically for the film of the same name.
The song was full of double entendres and cheap innuendo. “They say music is the food of love / Let’s see if you’re hungry enough!” were the opening lines, gargled by the late Lemmy Kilmister, whose lyrics deftly trod Spinal Tap’s famous fine line between clever and stupid.
I’m not sure how I have managed to almost entirely avoid Shakespeare, despite a life devoted to words and music. The sum total of my experience was a reading (not a performance) of Hamlet, in year 11. It is, frankly, an embarrassing gap for a writer.
When Queensland Theatre invited me to respond to their production of Twelfth Night, I was intimidated, and my instinctive response was ‘no’. Then I realised I was being offered a challenge and a belated opportunity to engage with something beautiful.
The other selling point was musical: Tim Finn, whose early work as a member of Split Enz had been forever imprinted on my brain, would supply the food of love for the play, composing music for Shakespeare’s old verses as well as a suite of original new songs.
These songs draw mainly on two musical forms: English folk and, in the play’s second half, stomping glam rock – particularly its most androgynous purveyors, David Bowie and Roxy Music, both clear influences on the work of Split Enz.
That androgynous element is important, for Twelfth Night is especially resonant today. It’s a romantic farce, full of suggestion and double entendre, and its comedy rests on multiple mistaken identities and cross-dressing, as well as delicious wordplay.
Beneath the laughter lies deep melancholy. The shipwreck that separates twins Viola and Sebastian, and the loss of Olivia’s father and brother, creates a sense of mourning: Viola (as Cesario) warns Orsino that Olivia is “so abandoned to her sorrow” that she fears she will not be admitted into her court. Orsino is insistent, telling Cesario to “be clamorous and leap all civil bounds, rather than make unprofited return.”
In one of Tim’s songs written to complement the original text, he compares their love to an abandoned building: “No one lives there anymore”. Yet Orsino, Viola and Olivia are all stricken with unrequited longing for those whose hearts are set on others. In Viola’s words, they love “with adoration, fertile tears, with groans that thunder.”
The heart wants what it wants, and “love is love” are words we have heard many times in these last 12 months. As we have grappled with the concept that gender and sexuality might not be fixed identities, but exist somewhere on a spectrum, so Twelfth Night was ripe for reinterpretation.
On this theme, Tim makes one of his finest contributions, Keeping Up – a song sung by Feste, Olivia’s resident court jester, after he may, or may not have identified the male Cesario as the female Viola:
Once upon a time it was clear
Who I was and how I got here
Now I’m not so sure anymore
The new normal
Seems a bit queer
The song acknowledges the temporary social seasickness caused by rapidly changing social mores. I found myself wondering if some of our most conservative commentators have ever asked themselves Feste’s question: “Am I confused, or simply annoyed?”
Feste himself is not quite the fool he appears: he understands that ch-ch-changes could end up leaving men like him behind. Mostly, though, he is too busy enjoying himself to be annoyed by anything – unlike Malvolio, Olivia’s insufferably pompous steward.
Here lies this production’s most provocative twist: Malvolio is re-cast as Malvolia. Her pursuit of Olivia gives Twelfth Night another layer, not just of same-sex attraction but also tension and, ultimately, betrayal: “she hath been notoriously abused,” Olivia says.
Her star turn, singing Lady Ho Ho, is the play’s most outrageous moment. Quivering with pent-up desire in her yellow cross-gartered stockings, her over-the-top attempt to seduce Olivia is doomed by Olivia’s disinterest as well as by Maria’s cruel device.
Tracy Grant Lord’s set design depicts the fictitious land of Illyria as an island under a celestial night sky, revolving through different exterior and interior landscapes that are like chambers in the hearts of the island’s occupants.
Australia is an island, too: “Beneath our radiant Southern Cross, we’ve boundless plains to share” – or so our anthem says. Our debates can be petty and mean-spirited. As a people, though, I don’t believe we are, at least not when given the chance to be our best selves.
Australia’s LGBTIQ community made clear they felt deeply betrayed by last year’s postal survey on marriage equality.
Having long been victims of notorious abuse themselves, they were subjected to a national vote that struck at their core as human beings. They saw it as another cruel device to prevent them from loving who they pleased as equals under the law.
Yet, presented with no alternative, Australians rallied behind them, resulting in marriage equality being signed into law before Christmas of 2017. It was a significant moment in our polity which showed the public to be far ahead of party-political games.
In the process, leaders and heroes emerged on our national stage. Some, you might say, were born great; some achieved greatness; while others duly had greatness thrust upon them.
Twelfth Night is a joyous play. Everyone is searching and longing for love and companionship. Even Malvolia, after vowing vengeance “on the whole pack of you”, is entreated to a peace. And music, being the food of love, ultimately binds them all together.
Between his work as a guitarist and songwriter with the Easybeats and as a producer (along with fellow Easybeat Harry Vanda) for AC/DC, there is a very strong case to be made that George Young was the original sonic architect of Australian rock & roll. Other than Vanda – and with no disrespect to anyone who came before them, or followed after – the legacy of Young, who died yesterday aged 70, arguably outstrips anyone’s.
Those are big claims to make, so let’s start at the beginning. Young was born in Glasgow in 1946, migrated with his parents and younger brothers Malcolm and Angus to Sydney in 1963, and met Vanda at Villawood migrant hostel (now shamefully a detention centre) the following year – an event Australian Musician magazine selected as the most significant event in this country’s rock music history, in 2007.
That’s another big call, but the Easybeats, Australia’s first and finest response to the British Invasion (and the Beatles in particular) all but justify it by themselves. Their second single She’s So Fine, released in May 1965, launched them to local stardom. Their fifth, Sorry – led by a propulsive, serrated Young riff that prefigured younger brother Malcolm’s rhythm work with AC/DC – took them to the top of the Australian charts.
That was in October 1966, by which point the Easybeats had relocated to England. Until then, Young had written music for singer Stevie Wright, who contributed lyrics. It was the year of Revolver and Blonde On Blonde, and there were murmurs that the wild, colonial Easybeats lacked polish by comparison. Young was subsequently teamed with the Dutch-born Vanda, who was still learning English. Their first recording was Friday On My Mind.
The Easybeats’ joyous paean to the end of the working week was a worldwide smash, covered in years to come by everyone from Blue Öyster Cult to Bruce Springsteen, as well as David Bowie, who recorded it for his album Pin Ups. In 2001, the Australian Performing Rights Association voted it the best Australian song of all time; it was added to the National Film and Sound Archives registry in 2007.
If that had been all, Young’s legacy would have been secure. But it was his ongoing work as a songwriter and producer for other artists that turned he and Vanda into giants. As house producers for Albert Productions, they started out by rescuing the doomed Wright’s career with the magnificent three-part opus Evie in late 1974. Around the same time, another Scottish immigrant, Bon Scott, joined AC/DC.
A few stories sum up George Young’s contribution to that band. First, as Clinton Walker has pointed out in his biography of Scott, Highway To Hell, Young insisted that AC/DC should never deviate from straight, hard rock & roll: following trends, he believed, had been the Easybeats’ undoing. He also identified the silence and space in Malcolm Young’s stop-start riffs as crucial to their early sound: “It’s the stops what rocks,” he said.
The most famous story is of smoke billowing from Angus Young’s amplifier as he laid down the climactic solo for Let There Be Rock. From the control booth, George gesticulated and screamed at the guitarist to keep going, with Angus just managing to finish before his Marshall melted. “There was no way we were going to stop a shit-hot performance for a technical reason like amps blowing up!” George said later.
The work Vanda and Young produced for AC/DC – Let There Be Rock, especially – had a tougher edge than the sound Robert “Mutt” Lange gave the band for their international breakthroughs Highway To Hell and Back In Black, recorded after Scott’s death. Vanda and Young were by then also working with the likes of the Angels and Rose Tattoo, who would go on to influence a new generation of hard rockers, notably Guns n’ Roses.
And yet again, there was still more to the story. For as much as Vanda and Young can be credited for birthing the sound of what we now know – sometimes somewhat derisively – as “Oz rock”, they were also writing and cutting huge pop, and even disco hits: Can’t Stop Myself From Loving You, performed by glam rocker William Shakespeare, followed by a string of songs including Love Is In The Air for John Paul Young (no relation).
Vanda and Young even formed their own studio project, Flash & The Pan, whose first single Hey St Peter, released in September 1976, prefigured new wave just as punk was breaking worldwide. The song’s B-side, Walking In The Rain, was covered in 1981 by Grace Jones on her iconic album Nightclubbing. The mesmerising synth-pop of Waiting For A Train, released in 1983, featured Wright on vocals and hit No. 7 in the UK.
The story of Australian rock & roll, from the Easybeats to the Saints to the Hard-Ons and beyond, is of migrant kids. We should all be forever grateful for the day George Young met Harry Vanda at Villawood. And if it sounds like too much of a stretch to say Young defined the sound of Australian rock, listen to that manic, choppy riff from Sorry again – then try to imagine it without him.
I’M told I can call her Ella: Ella Marija Lani Yelich-O’Connor is quite a mouthful. The single-syllable name by which she is better known, though, is a nod to old-fashioned aristocracy, with a silent “e” on the end to add a feminine touch. Lorde – the 20-year-old New Zealander whose hands the late David Bowie once took in his as he told her that her music sounded like listening to tomorrow – is not one for airs and graces, except for her impeccable manners.
The only problem has been pinning her down for an interview that’s been scheduled and rescheduled multiple times. On the eve of the release of her second album Melodrama, Lorde, her harried publicist tells me, is being pulled in a thousand different directions. Now, though, she’s relaxed, almost effusive. “It’s truly time for this record to come out,” she says. “I don’t feel like it’s being prised from my hands or anything. I’m just excited for people to get a feel for it and live inside it.”
Yet in February, in the days before the release of the album’s first single Green Light, she had found herself so racked with anxiety she struggled to get out of bed. “I wasn’t sure if everyone was just going to turn on me and be like, this is terrible, we hate it – go back, take it back!” There had been times, she confesses, when had wondered whether she might start baking cakes for a living, or just hone her skills in the garden at home.
Second albums are notoriously difficult; all the more so when they follow successful debuts. Green Light was the first new material from Lorde in nearly four years, after her first album Pure Heroine made her a global superstar at 16. Royals, released as a single from the preceding EP The Love Club, topped the US charts for nine weeks, winning her Song of the Year award at the Grammys; the album sold 1.5 million copies worldwide from its release in September 2013 to the end of that year.
Lorde doesn’t play an instrument, and needs collaborators to help bring her music to life. On the first album, she was paired with New Zealand songwriter and producer Joel Little, and while she started work with him on a follow-up, co-writing Green Light, the creative partnership soon began to run dry. “I don’t want to be as good a writer as I was last time,” she says. “I want to have improved, and to improve across the board takes time, takes practice, it takes messing it up a bunch of times.”
She was subsequently introduced to Jack Antonoff, who had worked with Taylor Swift on her album 1989, and it was with him that Lorde found a new musical direction and energy. He also cracked the whip as Lorde battled a serious case of writer’s block: a memorable text exchange which the singer posted on Twitter features Antonoff telling her to write “beautiful soul crushing lyrics all day. nothing else … happiness is for tourist write you little fucker” [sic].
Lorde has described Pure Heroine as a portrait of the artist in her mid-teens, and she’s equally unabashed about characterising Melodrama, with its self-aware title, as a document of her life on the cusp of her third decade. She aspires to make records like Kanye West and Bowie, artists whom she says “are wonderful at building these universes to live inside, there are whole different species that populate it, and the geography is totally unlike anything in the real world. It’s so vivid and so involved.”
On Green Light, the signature elements from Royals are there – wide open spaces, with Lorde’s voice all but carrying the melody by itself – but, like the singer’s life, it accelerates into something that’s far more extroverted, and rather less innocent. The singer growls about ordering different drinks from the same bar with a lover; she knows “about what you did, and I want to scream the truth”. She says the song tapped into what she calls the “night-time energy” she had been feeding on.
Night-time energy? She laughs: “It’s a nice way of saying just staying out really late and being quite naughty.”
MAKING comparisons between Lorde and the young Kate Bush is both easy and lazy. Both were teenage prodigies (Bush wrote The Man With The Child In His Eyes, from her debut album The Kick Inside, when she was just 13; Wuthering Heights, from the same album, came a few years later), they bear a superficial resemblance to each other at the same age, and both have been the subject of tributes and parodies: “The most Wuthering Heights day ever”, in which thousands of fans around the globe dance in flowing red dresses in homage to Bush’s first worldwide smash, is now an annual event; in a sure sign that Lorde had officially made it, Royals was turned into Foil by career musical satirist “Weird Al” Yankovic in 2014.
But perhaps there are deeper parallels to be made. Asked for a song that never fails to move her, Lorde nominates Bush’s 1985 hit Running Up That Hill. The song, like much of Lorde’s music, is deceptively simple, relying on a tribal beat and heavily stacked vocals for impact. “It’s very minimal, but it sounds huge, cavernous,” she says. She speaks of its “modernity”, saying that if she heard the song drifting across a festival ground, she would be drawn to whatever new artist might be singing it.
That huge sound hints at something Lorde also aspired to in the making of Melodrama: maximum volume. “Jack [Antonoff] said to me once, ‘My favourite music is just all the stuff that you would want to play really, really loud,’” she says. The point is not to blast the listener into submission as much as it is to draw them into a song’s vortex. “You wouldn’t hear Running Up That Hill in the background and be content with it down low. It grabs you and it holds you for five minutes.”
She is an earnest student of pop, with a hunger for new sounds and classics alike. Right now, she’s enthralled by Paul Simon, for entirely different reasons to Kate Bush: Simon makes quiet music. Listening to him taught Lorde a new lesson: “He’s always existing between about a 4 and a 7 [out of 10] in terms of how much energy he’s expending. The lyrics are almost spoken – there’s such a delicacy to how he sings. He’s able to impart such joy or pain without ever really breaking a sweat.”
Like most adults three times her age, though, she is convinced her own formative years were a golden era for music. “Futuresex Lovesounds by Justin Timberlake had just come out, the first Lady Gaga record was out, Tik Tok by Ke$ha was the biggest song in the world.” Lorde perceived what few saw below pop’s shiny surface. “I think I really understood how to infer with it. It was like, oh – there’s a lot they’re not saying, but I can hear it, and I can sort of interpret it, and that’s the special stuff.”
Pure Heroine appeared at a time when many pundits were proclaiming the album dead as an artistic format in an age of downloads. Around her childhood home, though, Lorde grew up on Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours. “It really taught me what an album was, and drew me to that medium. A lot of my peers don’t really place a lot of value in that, but I do. That’s such a great example of building a universe to live inside.”
WHO KNOWS what Lorde is like when stays out late and gets a bit naughty, but the answer is probably like most 20-year-olds. In conversation, she’s sweet and often startlingly wise. She speaks of dealing with sudden fame “probably like being a parent, you go in blind and do the best that you can”. She remains grounded by the same things that keep most of us tethered to the planet: family, friends, and home, which remains Auckland, though she spends much of her time in New York.
Pop stars don’t have to be swept away by the current of charts and tabloids. Lorde simply gets on with her life, living as anonymously as she can without being a hermit. She mentions Frank Ocean, the R&B singer “who’s totally not a public figure at all and hasn’t played a show for this record [last year’s Blonde] and has done, like, one interview.” Her audience, she says, are more likely to be interested in what drum sounds she’s into than what she had for breakfast.
A recent New York Times article noted that when she did become aware of being noticed, she would defuse attention by raising her finger to her lips with a soft “shh” and a small, conspiratorial smile. “I still feel like so much of my personal life is mine. At the end of the day people don’t really know what I do every day, apart from when I’m going around working. I think there is an element of, ‘oh, she goes to New Zealand and we don’t really know what happens’, and I do find that really precious.”
The same Times profile, though, related a story of Lorde being kicked out of a Greenwich Village recording studio she had been commuting to after it was booked by U2. She is part of Taylor Swift’s squadron of girlfriends, along with Antonoff’s partner Lena Dunham, creator of Girls. The most surreal moments, she says, are the awards nights: “You know, the Grammys or Brits or Golden Globes, and everyone is so stupidly famous – like, ‘oh, that person was on TV when I was growing up’.”
Does she ever feel like she doesn’t belong in their company? “I don’t feel imposter syndrome because no one is under any impression I belong,” she deflects. “It’s like, ‘Who let her in here?’ Or, ‘She’s very lucky to get to be around us.’ I feel ridiculous being there, for sure, but I do feel like myself.” Like Ella.
First published in Spectrum (The Age/Sydney Morning Herald), 16 June 2017
As the Australian music community absorbs the news of the passing of David Bowie at the age of 69 yesterday, musicians and songwriters – especially those who came of age in the 1970s and early ’80s, when the songwriter was at his peak – have spoken of his profound influence on both their work and their lives.
Melbourne soloist Jen Cloher expressed commonly recurring theme of disbelief. “I turned to Courtney [Barnett, Cloher’s partner] last night and said, you just never thought that David Bowie would die. Which is ludicrous, but that’s how it feels … He was like a god.”
Cloher also spoke of Bowie’s indirect impact on her as a queer artist. “The ’70s in so many ways were far more dangerous, far more edgy, far more open to a broad idea of gender than today. It would have rubbed off. You grow up around that, and it infiltrates in ways that you don’t even think about at the time.”
Robert Forster, co-founder of the Go-Betweens, has often written and spoken of his admiration for Bowie. “Bowie was obviously the most important white musical figure of the ’70s. He bestrode the decade like no one else.
“Bowie was beautiful, which was confrontational for a 14, 15-year-old boy. The most beautiful pop star of the early ’70s was a man, which is an amazing thing by itself, and Bowie played it to the hilt.
“All the Melbourne boys at the time – Sean Kelly, James Freud, Nick Cave – loved Bowie. The Brisbane boys loved Bowie too, but they didn’t want to be Bowie. All the Melbourne boys loved Bowie and wanted to be Bowie. There’s a lot of photos of those boys in make-up, believe you me! That’s how the different cities took to it.
“He was this beautiful flittering presence, and an amazing songwriter. It was Rebel Rebel; it was Golden Years; it was Diamond Dogs. I could name every track off Ziggy Stardust and Hunky Dory. It was Sound And Vision; it was Heroes, it was just an amazing run.”
Yet Bowie was also remembered as an open and friendly presence, a world removed from his alien persona. Graham “Buzz” Bidstrup, who supported Bowie on his first Australian tour in 1978 as a member of the Angels, recalled Bowie introducing himself backstage over a bowl of soup.
“It was one of the first times I had met someone really famous who was incredibly normal, and he put to shame a number of people I met who were nowhere near as talented.”
Kim Salmon, of pioneering punk-blues group the Scientists and later the Beasts of Bourbon and the Surrealists, posted a personal note on his Facebook page that highlighted the intergenerational nature of Bowie’s cultural legacy.
“A few months ago I took my 11-year-old daughter to the Bowie exhibition. Today she said it – I said it – he gave people permission to be exactly who they were. When I was a 14-year-old spaced-out science fiction kid he was my man.
“When my drop-dead gorgeous friend was wondering about his sexuality, Bowie gave him permission to be what he was. Lately my daughter’s been far above the world, floating in her tin can, and it hasn’t been easy. Bowie was there to let her know it’s OK. Thanks to his massive body of work, he’s still there.”
David Bridie, of Not Drowning, Waving and My Friend The Chocolate Cake, also pointed to Bowie’s astonishing output.
“There are very few artists you could say made at least eight classic albums – Hunky Dory, Lodger, Low, Aladdin Sane, ‘Heroes’, Scary Monsters, Ziggy Stardust and Station To Station. Fine work, Mr Jones.”
“Regardless of his image or his sense of how he projected himself, there was always the songs, and he wrote some of the best pop songs ever written,” Cloher said. “He transcended our idea of what rock or pop music should be. I guess the Beatles started fucking with those ideas, but I felt that Bowie took it to the next level.
“He never lost melody, his sense of what a good pop song is. Genius is thrown around far too often, but in the case of David Bowie, he really did possess that quality.”
The biggest problem one faces when writing a profile about Robert Forster is the knowledge that he could quite easily write it himself, and would probably prefer to. The lauded singer-songwriter – co-founder of Brisbane’s revered Go-Betweens; creator of six solo albums; former Pascall prize-winning music writer for The Monthly – likes telling stories. Sometimes he likes to make them up.
This does not mean the stories are not truthful; just that Forster likes to tell them in a particular way. Stories serve a purpose. They make the man, but also enlarge the myth. For a book accompanying the release of a lavish Go-Betweens box set earlier this year, Forster wrote a lengthy potted history of the group – all of it, disarmingly, in the second person. He became his own, not particularly harsh critic.
For his new album Songs To Play, he wrote and directed an eight-minute trailer for which he scripted not only the narrative, but the quotes of those appearing: friends, band members, even family. Yet he rejects the idea that he is some kind of control freak. He says it was about skewing expectations, and playing with the form: “That’s what Billy Wilder did, that’s what Orson Welles did.”
This sort of trick – he denies it’s a schtick – is Forster all over. “I’m not much up on social media and how you promote an album [but] that seemed the most interesting way of doing it to me,” he says, in a café near his home in Brisbane’s western suburbs. “It went back to [D.A. Pennebaker’s] Don’t Look Back … I enjoyed putting words into people’s mouths, that they’ve got to say straight-faced to a camera.”
Not everyone enjoyed reciting them. “I cringed,” admits sound engineer Jamie Trevaskis. “I want to hide under the table, because they’re not my words, and I feel awkward saying that stuff. He never said, ‘Jamie, I want to make an analogue album,’ and I never replied, ‘That’s what I do.’ That’s when I realised, the story is the most important thing for Robert. He was making a story for the album to sit on top of.”
Forster is an enigma. A student of Bob Dylan, he assiduously cultivates his image. Asked to describe himself, though, he does so “In very straight terms. Fifty-eight. Australian – which is important. A family man [he and German wife Karin Bäumler have two children; Louis, 17, and Loretta, 14], which is also very important. I cook things up at home – I’m talking about art – and take that out to the world. That’s it.”
Except it’s not. Like his plain-spoken, barely sung songs, there is always more going on than first appears.
Melbourne-based singer-songwriter Dave Graney wrote a tune that may or may not be about Forster, which he drily called Everything Was Legendary With Robert. “His riveting self-consciousness drew you in / The crowd gathered to see what he was looking at, talking about … It wasn’t him, or the times, it was just the angle he locked into / The attitude, the window that came between him and the world.”
Long-time friend Peter Fischmann, who actually does get to speak for himself in the trailer, says Forster “has a great understanding of the ridiculousness of life that goes over the head of some people. His irony confounds.” Forster, for his part, says it’s an extension of his earlier band. “There’s a playfulness there, which I like. The Go-Betweens, right from the start, were always based on a certain amount of theorising.”
Peter Milton Walsh, singer-songwriter behind the Apartments and very briefly an early member of the Go-Betweens, invokes the Monkees, a crucial early influence on the group. “He’s a daydream believer, a wonderful mix of innocence and calculation.” He describes an optimist: “Robert’s world is one where it is forever spring – it’s his principal season. The promise of it all; everything that’s on the way.”
“There’s a sense in his songs of big stuff going on between the lines,” says writer and editor Christian Ryan, who first tapped the previously untried Forster to write about music for The Monthly for its first issue in 2005. “His words are very spare – it’s almost in shorthand, so you’re listening [and] your mind is simultaneously operating on a separate high-wire level, thinking, what the hell is going on here.”
Forster resigned his commission at The Monthly in 2013. It was a brave call. “The one source of constant income I had, I threw away. I’d been there eight years. I’d written myself out, I thought, and I wasn’t getting around to the other things I was doing.” Apart from assembling the box set, he’s been working on a memoir. (“If you say rock musician and memoir, you know, eyes will roll,” he grimaces.)
Ryan had a hunch that the songwriter could transfer his poetry into prose, a rare skill. “Taut, exotic, precise, vivid yet never straining, in terms of the imagery. And no banality, ever,” he says – and that’s about the songs. He describes the thrill of receiving Forster’s first piece, on Antony and the Johnsons’ album I Am A Bird Now, as “like receiving a postcard from the moon”.
Fischmann alludes to another early influence, David Bowie – but not in the way you might expect. “Robert is like the man who fell to earth. The machinations of modern life confound him, but when it comes to matters of the human heart, he is a Zen master.” He cites the time when, after the Go-Betweens first broke up in 1990, he returned from Germany with Karin, and earnestly asked a friend how to buy a fridge.
Forster’s songwriting partner in the Go-Betweens, the late Grant McLennan, shared Forster’s disdain for the mundane. After his friend’s premature death in 2006, Forster wrote a eulogy in The Monthly noting that McLennan didn’t drive and owned no wallet, watch, credit card or computer. He did, however, maintain a subscription to the New York Review Of Books.
To call the Go-Betweens bookish would be an understatement: select items from McLennan’s library came as bonuses with early copies of the box set. On the inner sleeve of the band’s final album, Oceans Apart, McLennan is dressed in jeans, a fleece jacket and ski cap. Forster is immaculate in suit and spectacles, leaning against a tree trunk with a hefty hardback tucked under his arm for effect.
The pair were a contrast, but again, all was not as it seemed. Forster was flamboyant; a bevy of tics and mannerisms, and a wardrobe ranging from canary-yellow suits to dresses as the occasion demanded. McLennan was the quiet one, with the most sincere eyebrows in rock & roll. Off stage, though, McLennan was the hell-raiser with a turbulent personal life; Forster was settled; the “sensible rock”, as he called himself.
McLennan’s death finished the band for good, after a second coming that spanned three albums with a new line-up from the year 2000. In 2008, Forster released his fifth solo album, The Evangelist, which included unfinished songs by McLennan. The record hung heavy with grief. “A river ran and a train ran and a dream ran through everything that he did,” Forster sang on It Ain’t Easy, one of the jauntier tunes.
After The Evangelist’s release, Forster beat a deliberate retreat. The original aim was to not release another album for five years; it stretched to seven. “It was like Act Four,” he says. “If you take The Go-Betweens as Act One, the solo years as two and the band getting back together as three … I wanted Act Four to come with a certain amount of gravitas.”
The first step was to assemble a new band. Long-serving collaborators Adele Pickvance and Glenn Thompson had moved to Sydney, and Forster couldn’t afford to fly them north for rehearsals. He also wanted to open a new chapter. Along with Karin, who plays violin (son Louis also plays some guitar), he decided to work with Luke McDonald and Scott Bromiley, from Brisbane’s John Steel Singers.
Songs To Play is a very different album, the sound of a dedicated craftsman starting over, with tunes reminiscent of the Go-Betweens’ early years: small, suburban songs indebted to Jonathan Richman’s Modern Lovers. “I wanted to write something more upbeat. The feelings that I had were more life-affirming. There was just a looseness in the way that I felt that I can only describe as a bounce out of my last album.”
Perhaps the most telling track is called I Love Myself And I Always Have. “It’s one of the most serious songs on the album,” he says, straight-faced, knowing full well that audiences – particularly in Australia – could take lines like “I hold myself in high regard / And loving yourself shouldn’t be so hard” as a joke. It’s not. “I like throwing an idea out and then twisting it right in front of their faces.”
In a recent essay, “What’s the difference between a pop star and a rock star?”, Forster expands on one of his 10 rules of rock & roll: being a rock star is a 24-hour-a-day job. He recalls a chance encounter with the late Dragon singer, Marc Hunter, one morning in Kings Cross in the early 1980s: Forster was out for a walk; Hunter, clearly at the end of a long night on the tiles, still looked, in Forster’s words, “fucking incredible”.
Forster, by his own admission, isn’t a rock star anymore, even though – like Dave Graney – the dividing line between the private and public persona can be paper-thin. “You’ve got to be careful because, you know, Hunter died from it. [Michael] Hutchence died from it. Bon Scott. Chrissy Amphlett died, but under other circumstances. So it’s dangerous. People die young.” He doesn’t mention McLennan.
“One of the things I like best about Robert, actually, is that I don’t think he really wants you to know the artist,” Ryan says. “It’s kind of an old-school thing which has gone out of rock music, in the age where everybody’s tweeting and making their personal lives very transparent. Robert still sees value in mystery. He doesn’t go out of his way to tell you about his love life.”
In the trailer, another of Forster’s friends is asked to describe him. “He’s difficult,” she replies, after a studied pause. In person, though, Forster is unfailingly courteous; even affable. But, he says, “somehow I enjoyed being on the other side of the camera, having written the lines for someone to say that I’m difficult, while I watch it. I don’t know what that makes me.”
First published in Spectrum (The Age/Sydney Morning Herald), 11 September 2015