Tagged: Grant McLennan

How the Go-Betweens made Streets Of Your Town

The Go-Betweens’ Streets Of Your Town is the winner of Guardian Australia’s Songs of Brisbane poll. But is it even about Brisbane? Separate interviews with the surviving members of the band reveal very different viewpoints and memories about the song’s genesis, recording and legacy.

The writing

Streets Of Your Town was written in Sydney shortly before the recording of the Go-Betweens’ sixth album, 16 Lovers Lane, in 1988. Grant McLennan was in a relationship with multi-instrumentalist Amanda Brown when he wrote it. It was unusual in that the band’s co-founder, Robert Forster, had not heard the song before it was brought to the group. McLennan died in 2006.

Amanda Brown (violin, guitar, oboe): “Grant and I were living together in Bondi Junction in Sydney, and that song was written very quickly in our sunny top-floor flat … It was written in, I would say, 10 minutes. I was singing along and I sung that ‘shine’ line, which is like the call and response answer in the verses, and that’s pretty much it – that’s how it came about. And I don’t collect any songwriting royalties for that song, because that was a condition of my joining the band.”

Lindy Morrison (drums): “We were in a park in Glebe when Amanda and Grant played the song to us for the first time, and I guess I was hearing it through Robert’s reaction, because Robert was so shocked. So I was feeling his pain, but that didn’t mean I couldn’t see how magnificent that song was.”

Robert Forster (singer-songwriter, guitarist, band co-founder): “The fact that I hadn’t heard the song, it did miff me … Every other song from every other album that we’d done before that, and every album that we did after, I knew all the songs that Grant had. This was the one song that I didn’t. But a week later it was fine. That was the thing with Grant and I, we didn’t yell and scream at each other. There’s things that I did to him that he must have just had to swallow, too.”

Amanda Brown: “What I do remember is sitting down with [producer] Mark Wallis somewhere and Grant saying, ‘And we’ve got this one’, and then just singing it with me, and Mark hearing it and going, ‘Oh, we have to record that song.’ Probably everybody concurs that it was a late addition to the album. And, I hasten to add, everybody [else] was dead against recording it as well.”

Lindy Morrison: “We all knew that it was going to be the single.”

Robert Forster: “You don’t go into an album thinking this is going to be the single. It just felt like one of the other songs. It’s only really in the studio, [when] you get to the end of the session, that you go, ooh – we’ve got this, this is the single.”

Lindy Morrison: “Oh no, that’s rubbish. Because it was so good, I mean, come on Robert! It was so hooky! It was such a standout. And to see the two of them play that together, and Amanda doing that backing vocal ‘shine’, you know, she composed that, and it’s a hook.”

Amanda Brown: “It’s kind of pointless to bear grudges about it. The band gave me lots of good things that I’m very grateful for, but at the same time there was a pretty concerted effort to erase, in particular, mine and Lindy’s contribution to the band.”

Robert Forster: “The one person who could really speak to that isn’t here to defend himself.”

The recording

16 Lovers Lane was recorded with English producer Mark Wallis in Studios 301, Sydney, in May.

Lindy Morrison: “Because it was the single, there was an enormous amount of pressure on me to use a drum machine. And that was fine by me because I understood that a single had to be treated differently. It was my beat that I programmed into it, so it’s exactly as I would play it.”

Amanda Brown: “I remember multi-tracking the vocals and Mark always telling me to sing it softer. We did several takes that were just really whispered, and at the time I was a bit suspicious of that process, because I didn’t want to sound like some fey Jane Birkin-esque ingenue.”

Robert Forster: “Streets was always difficult to play live, if only because the flamenco guitar solo is done by [bass player] John Willsteed, and when we were playing live he was on bass. So it was much more of a studio construction, and maybe the best version of it ever is on the album.”

Amanda Brown: “John’s bass line was actually played on a guitar, on an octave pedal, so that’s why it has such a distinctive sound. It was a nylon-string classical guitar he played the solo on – it might have even been a crappy old guitar of mine that just happened to be lying around.”

John Willsteed (bass, guitar): “It was Amanda’s guitar … I probably did a couple of takes. I know that the ending got fucked up – I didn’t have an end, so had to kind of glue an ending on. I’ve never been happy with the ending.”

Robert Forster: “John Willsteed and Amanda were the great musicians in the band … Not every great musician gets that opportunity of being in a world-class studio, with a world-class engineer-producer with good songs, and that came to John, which I’m really happy about.”

Streets of whose town?

Streets Of Your Town has long been identified with Brisbane, and has featured in an advertising campaign by Queensland newspaper the Courier-Mail (with the darker lyrics omitted). The Go Between Bridge, spanning the Brisbane river, is also named after the group. Yet it remains a source of passionate conjecture which “town” the song refers to.

Lindy Morrison: “I always thought it was about Brisbane, because of the buildings being torn down; the nostalgia expressed for a town that once was. The most important thing I want to say is that Brisbane took it on as their own, so the Brisbane community grabbed it and ran with it, and because of that, for me, the song is about Brisbane. It’s owned by the Brisbane community. But Amanda will have a different story, and Amanda was a lot closer to Grant than I was.”

Amanda Brown: “Well, I’ve got a few things to say about that. Firstly, is it important? It’s quite a universal thing, which is how the controversy or perhaps the misconception has come about, because everybody thinks it relates to their town.”

Robert Forster: “It was written in Sydney, and a lot of the songs that Grant was writing around that time involved Amanda. Streets Of Your Town, it could be Sydney, because that was Amanda’s town. But I really don’t know.”

Amanda Brown: “There’s reasons for and against. First is the title, Streets Of Your Town, the possessive noun there being, I think, in relation to me. But the song’s bridge – They shut it down, they pulled it down – Brisbane people of that generation would feel that keenly, with Cloudland and other beloved buildings being torn down in the dead of night by the infamous Deen Brothers. In Sydney, it was the beautiful Regent Theatre. There’s also the line I ride your river under the bridge, and I take your boat out to the reach – it could relate to Brisbane, of course, being a river town, and Sydney more commonly being known as a harbour town, although it does have rivers as well.”

John Willsteed: “I don’t think it’s really centred anywhere. I know Grant wrote it in Sydney, and if he wrote it about running around after Amanda in her town, then I guess that’s Sydney. But at the same time there’s the river, and the bridge. Maybe it’s a beautiful amalgam of Grant’s experiences!”

Amanda Brown: “It’s a widely misunderstood song, in the same vein as something like [Bruce Springsteen’s] Born In The U.S.A. – people think it’s that kind of patriotic, parochial sentiment. It’s actually very dark, with the lyrics about butcher’s knives and battered wives. There’s a lot more awareness of domestic violence now, so it’s a very relevant song.”

Lindy Morrison: “It’s really funny. It’s always the same, everybody’s got a different perspective, haven’t they?”

The legacy

Despite being the glossiest production of the Go-Betweens’ career, Streets Of Your Town wasn’t a hit, stalling at 70 on the Australian charts and 80 in the UK, and the band broke up amid acrimony in late 1989.

Robert Forster: “[It wasn’t the hit] that the band needed at that stage of our career. But before we went [into the studio], no one would have seen what it became, in terms of its commercial accessibility.”

Amanda Brown: “It’s probably the closest thing to a hit we ever had. It certainly generated the most income of all the songs, and it’s the song that everybody knows.”

John Willsteed: “It doesn’t matter how many fucking great songs you make. There’s a whole range of twists of fate that lead you towards something being popular or just disappearing. But obviously, it’s retained some kind of place in people’s cultural memory.”

Amanda Brown: “That duality inherent in the lyrics is really emblematic of Grant as an artist and human. He was charming, affable and loved by all who had the good fortune to know him.

“But privately he was also melancholic, with an ever-present awareness of loss, absence and loneliness, and these qualities are all in his best work. If Streets did not have this, it might be too saccharine, too sweet.

“Sometimes, when the stars align, we come together in unlikely formation and create something that resonates and touches the soul. I think, for the Go-Betweens, 16 Lovers Lane was such a moment, and Streets was the bittersweet, poppy gem at the heart of the album.”

First published in The Guardian, 20 September 2018

Songs of Brisbane

I’m from Melbourne. I spent the first 15 years of my life there, in the outer eastern suburbs of Wantirna South and Ringwood North. I grew up on Australian Rules football and Countdown until punk entered my life 10 years too late. Then, in 1987, my parents relocated the family to Brisbane. Other than a few regrettable years in Sydney in the late 90s, I’ve been here ever since.

I still feel like a Victorian, though I’ve come to hate the cold. I still follow a Melbourne-based AFL team, despite having written on the side about the Brisbane Lions for 13 years. I even wrote a book about Brisbane, a sort of love letter to my adopted city and, especially, its music. The sound of the place captured me. To this day though, I feel like an outsider or interloper. Stranded, you might say, far from home.

But when I hear Streets Of Your Town by the Go-Betweens I feel differently. Never a hit at the time (the band’s co-founder Robert Forster has said they may as well have released a free jazz record, such was its commercial impact), the song, written by Grant McLennan, has become part of the city’s fabric. The Courier-Mail even used it for an ad campaign when it downsized from a broadsheet. They cut the line about the town being full of battered wives, of course.

That was the Go-Betweens, though. They called theirs the striped sunlight sound, and they captured it best on 16 Lovers Lane, their sixth album, 30 years old last month. Streets Of Your Town, the hit that wasn’t, is so lyrically visual it seems to sparkle in the late afternoon sun. At the heart of the song is aimlessness: “I ride your river under the bridge / And I take your boat out to the reach / ’Cos I love that engine roar / But I still don’t know what I’m here for.

A lot of people in Brisbane ask themselves that question. Many leave, as I did, in their 20s, only to return. It’s like the city has a push/pull magnetic field around it.

For all the punk energy that roared out of the place in the 70s in the wake of the Saints, and for all its growth since, Brisbane has a stillness missing from Melbourne and Sydney. Partially it’s the heat and humidity of the increasingly endless summer. That builds tension. The Saints’ guitarist, Ed Kuepper, wrote of it in one of his best solo songs, Electrical Storm. You can get stuck here just watching the thunderheads build up, waiting for the place to blow.

In between, things drift. The Apartments’ Peter Milton Walsh, the finest Australian songwriter most Australians have never heard of, puts that push-pull effect of Brisbane best in No Hurry: “Smell the rain that’s coming, all the windows open wide,” he sings, “I’ll never get away / I can’t stay here forever … Someone slowed the whole world down, in the old town called the past.” It’s a great place for procrastinators.

I came of age around the same time Brisbane was awkwardly doing the same. Expo 88 was happening on the South Bank of the river. It looked a little quaint to my Melbourne eyes but, for many Queenslanders, it opened theirs to a bigger, brighter world. Directly opposite, the state and its government were in the dock as Tony Fitzgerald’s inquiry calmly tore Joh Bjelke-Petersen’s corrupt police state apart. Brisbane wasn’t called Pig City for nothing.

There was a surge of energy that pulsed through the city in the next decade as a new generation of artists emerged. I can listen to Screamfeeder’s Wrote You Off, a song from their second album Burn Out Your Name, and I’m 22 again, on the cusp of … Well, I didn’t have a clue what. I saw Regurgitator’s second or third gig and was stunned but not surprised to see Quan Yeomans on stage: I’d gone to school with him and he was always miles ahead of everyone else.

There was a separate scene that revolved around Custard, in a Spring Hill house owned by David McCormack’s parents. McCormack had another band called COW – Country or Western – with drummer Glenn Thompson; they ended up being Robert Forster’s backing band on his solo album Calling From A Country Phone. Like the early Go-Betweens, though, what McCormack really tapped into was the suburban viewpoint of Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers.

Brisbane still has a streak of that suburban sensibility a mile wide – listen to Jeremy Neale, for example, last year’s winner of the GW McLennan fellowship. Jeremy’s song In Stranger Times is a favourite of mine from the last decade, tapping into the pre-Beatles AM radio sound that Richman fetishised. You can hear it in the dream pop of Babaganouj and Hatchie, too.

Grant’s death in May 2006 sent a violent shudder of mortality through everyone involved with music here. We’d lost our first genuine elder prematurely, at 48. I’m 47 now. Life comes at you fast and we’ve all gotten older with the music, and the people who made it. Powderfinger’s These Days is probably a very nostalgic song for many. Who can’t relate to the feeling of things not turning out as we planned? Some of us never had plans to begin with.

What I love most about Brisbane is that it’s unafraid to be itself. There’s no confected competition or rivalry with Sydney or Melbourne to be had. The music made here was always too variable to be reduced to a “Brisbane sound” but the best of it is unafraid to be itself too, and that’s the stuff that travels and endures. Most of our best bands, like Blank Realm, SixFtHick and HITS all command much bigger audiences overseas. Our flaw is not to rate ourselves.

They also prove that making worthwhile art isn’t necessarily a consequence of reactionary politics. It seemed to me that Bjelke-Petersen’s biggest contribution to music in Queensland was encouraging a generation of artists to leave. But the survivors wear it like a badge of honour. Some never made it back here. For those who remained or, like me, came to visit and decided to stay, Brisbane is just home – stranded or not.

First published in The Guardian, 4 September 2018

Right Here: Behind The Heartache

Scene: a tall, erect man, aged 60, is walking up a long gravel driveway. He is impeccably, incongruously dressed for the country surroundings: dark blue suit and tie, rose-pink shirt, dress shoes. It is the Go-Betweens’ Robert Forster. He is carrying a guitar. An old radio voice-over asks him to describe the music he plays. “It’s like running water off thin white strips of aluminium,” he replies. Soundtrack: the first three notes of Cattle And Cane.

The next person we see is footage of the late Grant McLennan, the song’s author, who died of a heart attack at the age of 48 in 2006. He is dragging on a cigarette. “We’re not a trendy band,” he says. “We’re a groovy band. And I like that.”

Rewind. Setting: The Golden Century, a Chinese restaurant in Sydney. Film director Kriv Stenders, best known for Red Dog, is pitching his documentary about the Go-Betweens, Right Here, to a suspicious Lindy Morrison, the band’s drummer on their first six albums, and multi-instrumentalist Amanda Brown. During the band’s life, Morrison had been in a relationship with Forster; Brown with McLennan. Old wounds remain close to the surface.

Morrison describes the meeting as “extraordinarily traumatic”. The Go-Betweens is a subject on which she long ago stopped giving interviews, except in relation to specific projects. The story of the band always returns to the friendship between Forster and McLennan: Forster’s memoir of last year was titled Grant & I. After the band broke up, Morrison and Brown fought and settled with the two songwriters for a share of royalties.

For Morrison and Brown especially – along with former bass players Robert Vickers and John Willsteed – Right Here was a chance to detail their vast musical contributions. Cattle And Cane would have been lost without Morrison’s unique time signature; Bye Bye Pride is crowned by Brown’s oboe part; Streets Of Your Town features a gorgeous Spanish-inflected acoustic guitar solo played by Willsteed.

“I don’t think Kriv knew who or what he was dealing with,” Morrison says. “He had no idea of what had unfolded at the closing of the band, and the discussions about that brought forward our feelings again about what had transpired.” Stenders didn’t know what had hit him. “I must admit I didn’t sleep that night,” he says. “I think they ran me through a gauntlet to test my mettle … There was so much emotion, so much anger and frustration there.”

The dysfunctional band documentary is a staple of the genre, but it’s just getting started in Australia. So far, most of the energy has focused on the punk scene of the late 1970s. Radio Birdman and the Saints, Australia’s two primary sources for the movement – both famously tempestuous groups – have been honoured recently on film. But for human drama, the Go-Betweens, arguably Australia’s first post-punk band, were untouchable on stage and off.

What Right Here has that most “rockumentaries” lack is atmosphere. Taking the Go-Betweens’ stifling mid-1970s home of Brisbane as its starting point, it feels naturalistic and expansive. Interviews with band members were shot on the verandah of an enormous Queenslander owned by Stenders’ sister near Beaudesert, south of Brisbane. But the suffocating humidity, which builds like a thunderstorm, is provided by the complex relationships between the members.

Forster stares into a bonfire as he recounts how he and McLennan decided to end the band in 1989 and return to their beginnings as a duo, heedless of Morrison and Brown’s financial and emotional investment. “We were just bumbling boys,” he says. Morrison’s response is acidic: “Both of us refused to be defined as the girlfriends, and that’s what they did, when they dumped us. They treated us like ex-wives, and that was the greatest insult.”

It’s a heart-stopping scene, shot in darkness, with Brown and Morrison together. There’s a twitch in Morrison’s eye as she bitterly recounts the moment, while Brown’s eyes are full of tears. But if Right Here was only about settling scores, it would be a lesser film. There are many moments where Morrison’s old fondness for Forster, Forster’s for Morrison, and Brown’s deep anguish at the loss of McLennan are keenly felt.

To get those moments, Stenders put his subjects through the mill. Morrison was interviewed for 16 hours, in four blocks of four hours each. For her, she says, the results were therapeutic. “It’s lifted the sense of sadness I’ve always felt about the band. It’s made me close the door … I feel great about the band and the music now; I feel that finally that bloody striped sunlight sound has warmed me!”

The Go-Betweens, as McLennan noted, were never trendy. “I never gave a shit,” Morrison says in the film. “We did not look the part, we didn’t sound the part, we were not the part. We were too intelligent.” Cue the opening chords for Streets Of Your Town, the closest the band’s “striped sunlight sound” ever came to a hit. It reached 70 on the Australian charts; 82 in Britain. “We may as well have put out a free jazz record,” Forster says.

Yet the music has endured. Forster and McLennan reconvened the band at the turn of the millennium – without Morrison and Brown – making three more celebrated albums before McLennan’s death. Here, Stenders encountered a problem he couldn’t resolve. Interviews with Glenn Thompson and Adele Pickvance, the band’s drummer and bass player during this period, hit the cutting room floor. The band’s final act is summed up in five minutes.

The decision grieved Stenders, as well as Thompson and Pickvance, whom Stenders says was especially upset. But the heart of the Go-Betweens’ story lay in that classic line-up. Stenders justifies it by saying he wanted to present an emotional history of the band, not a discography. “That band just kept on building and building to a point where I think it just caved in on itself,” he says.

In 2013, Morrison was awarded an Order of Australia medal for her services as a performer and an advocate. A social worker before joining the Go-Betweens, she is now the welfare co-ordinator with music industry charity Support Act. The end of the band, she said, “was pivotal in me going out and establishing myself as Lindy Morrison, and I will not be anyone but Lindy Morrison, and nothing will change that”.

But she will always remain a Go-Between. “Despite the acrimony, despite the anger, despite the betrayal, ultimately there’s still love there, and I find that very moving,” Stenders says. “I know it’s an extreme analogy, but when soldiers go to war, that bonds you forever, and I think it’s the same with the Go-Betweens. That’s why the music was so great, because they lived it and believed in it so passionately.”

When the Go Between Bridge was opened in Brisbane in 2010, Forster and Morrison shared a moment. “We walked across the whole bridge together, just him and I,” Morrison says. “Just chatting, like a couple of old codgers. That was very, very special to me, and I’m sure it was special to him. We’ve had our moments where we’ve been able to find each other again. It’ll never return to what it was. But we found each other on that day.”

First published in Spectrum (The Age/Sydney Morning Herald), 23 September 2017

Robert Forster: Grant & I

Fifty pages into this long-awaited memoir, songwriter, critic and author Robert Forster gets very meta. “If a film of Grant & I is ever made, it could start here,” he writes. It’s 1978, and he and Grant McLennan, the co-founders of the Go-Betweens, are driving from Brisbane to Sydney for the first time. After crossing the Tweed river into New South Wales, McLennan dashes into a shop, and emerges triumphantly waving a copy of Playboy, which was banned in Queensland at the time.

Of course, this being the Go-Betweens, they’re reading it for the articles – in this instance, Bob Dylan’s first full-length interview in three years, which McLennan ecstatically reads to Forster as the car races past cane fields on their left, Mount Warning on the right (“Cue thundercrack,” Forster says). The Go-Betweens always were the most self-referential of groups, as well as the most literate. Grant & I would make the most bookish of buddy films.

That’s not to say they were square. “On many occasions dark rock bands would encounter the Go-Betweens expecting namby-pamby, book-besotted, cocoa-drinking wimps, to find themselves partied under the table. We were a rock & roll band,” Forster declares. Yet it’s both a strength and a weakness that this often very moving book avoids the cliched recounting of rock & roll excess – until those excesses inevitably begin to catch up with them.

The obvious stylistic inspiration for Grant & I is Patti Smith’s Just Kids, which centres on her enduring friendship with the late photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. But whereas Smith’s book skirts around her years of fame (like Dylan’s Chronicles, another reference point), Forster revels in his: each album, each single of the Go-Betweens’ career is lovingly charted – if only they had actually charted. This is a tale of cult stardom, of missing hits and hits-that-missed.

At one point, Forster writes of “the lengthy entry in the rock encyclopaedia that we felt the group deserved”. With Grant & I, he has all but written it himself. Some of the best passages of this book are clear-eyed critiques of his own band’s work as they navigate the usual artistic pitfalls: grinding poverty, unrecouped advances, unsympathetic producers, and drum machines used to tame a true original, Lindy Morrison, with whom Forster was in a relationship for eight years.

The heart of the book, though, is about a close friendship with someone who remained unknowable: a “naive boy” who kept a close watch on his inner life, only to pour it out in songs such as the revered Cattle And Cane and its companion, Dusty In Here. Both songs reference McLennan’s father, who died when he was six. Yet as Grant & I (and the band’s career) unfurls, McLennan recedes; as his friendship with Forster is attenuated to a few words or glances, it’s easy to lose sight of him.

And in this, there is an omission. The shadow of heroin hangs over this book, but we don’t know of it until Forster drops the bombshell of his own diagnosis with hepatitis C, a likely consequence of his own dabbling with the drug. It’s well known in rock circles that McLennan was a long-term user; Steve Kilbey’s book Something Quite Peculiar speaks bitterly of McLennan introducing him to opiates, and the journalist Clinton Walker has also written of his habit.

It’s obviously a charged topic. Yet towards the end, as McLennan begins to fall apart physically and emotionally – alcohol, Forster notes, was “eating him out, destroying him, and he knew it”, and songwriting sessions between the pair occasionally lapsed into therapy – it’s impossible for anyone familiar with the Go-Betweens’ story not to question the toll it took not just on McLennan, but on everyone in and around the band, not least his best friend.

The awful ending is already known and, as Forster has conceded publicly, McLennan’s death at the age of 48 from a heart attack came as a shock, but not a surprise. That’s another rock & roll cliche, and it’s to Forster’s credit that he avoids it in the beautifully written final chapters, which still manage to build tension leading up to the tragedy that finished the band 10 years ago. “I’ll carry it on,” Forster says, a promise to ensure the group’s legacy is not forgotten.

Behind the legacy lies enmity: Morrison and violinist Amanda Brown, who fought and eventually settled with Forster and McLennan for a share of songwriting royalties, are acknowledged at the funeral with just a nod – and, if there’s something missing, it’s an epilogue. If a film of Grant & I is ever made, it could end here: the surviving members leading the first walk across Brisbane’s Go Between Bridge, with Streets Of Your Town the soundtrack – the bridge an act of belated recognition that, cruelly, took the death of one of the city’s finest poets to bring about.

First published in The Guardian, 29 August 2016

The day I got owned by Grant McLennan

It was the 10th anniversary of Grant McLennan’s passing yesterday. It wasn’t until late afternoon that I actually remembered; there’d been some stuff going down in my own world that I’d been absorbed within. But then I also remembered that days before, I’d put a lay-by on a rare copy of G Is For Go-Betweens, the long since out-of-print box set released a couple of years ago by Domino, that had turned up in Rocking Horse Records.

The box was expensive at the time (which put me off) and of course it was even more so now, but I’d regretted missing out after it quickly disappeared. So I traded some old stuff to make the initial deposit and – being inclined towards the sentimental and the symbolic – I decided to head into town and pick it up, rather than waiting a few more days to actually get paid. Sometimes you just have to do these things.

So I took it home and spent the night in a funk, listening to the early singles and the first three albums, Send Me A Lullaby (ripe for rediscovery, though the band was still gelling), Before Hollywood (on which they perfected the Striped Sunlight Sound to which they’d aspired) and Spring Hill Fair (sort of a step sideways, before their next great leap forward, to the masterful Liberty Belle And The Black Diamond Express).

By the end of the marathon I’d stopped gazing at my own navel for long enough to reflect on Grant and the impact he’d had on me. I never got to know him very well; ours was a semi-professional acquaintance more than a friendship, though we’d known each other 10 years. Grant was always respectful of critics, though sometimes irascible if they didn’t give his albums enough stars. Robert Forster, of course, became a critic himself.

Anyway, I remembered the day I bumped into him in Egg Records, in West End. We were chatting and he pulled out a CD of Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea, by PJ Harvey, and told me how much he loved it. I demurred slightly. I had been a huge fan of her visceral early records, but was less enamoured, shall we say, of the post-therapy, painfully self-aware Polly writing songs like Good Fortune.

I remember saying something along the lines of, I didn’t think her songwriting was at quite the same level as it had been. Grant raised an eyebrow. “Really?” he said. Here I was, talking to one of the finest songwriters on the planet, archly dismissing the work of another of the world’s best, and I’d never written a damn song in my life.

At that instant, I could see him looking right through me. But his eyes were twinkling; he didn’t call me out because he didn’t need to – he just shuffled and grinned that lopsided grin of his. “Really?” It was terribly humbling, and I found myself laughing at the absurdity of my position. Grant was a very funny man. Those who can, do; those who can’t talk shit, and I was talking complete shit.

We ended up having lunch, and he told me that a copy of Pig City had gone around the Go-Betweens’ van on the band’s last tour. Of course they’d all had their various takes on it, but they’d all enjoyed it, and that was humbling, too. I think I can say Grant himself wasn’t always known for his humility (which is to say he knew how fucking good he was), but he sure taught me a lot about it that day.

He was gone three weeks later. I miss him like we all do, but it’s a reminder that you never know when you’re going to lose people, and always be grateful for what they give you.

Robert Forster: Songs To Play

A new album by Robert Forster is almost always a challenge before it becomes a pleasure. For a start, there’s that voice, which hits fewer notes than Lou Reed on a less than perfect day. So there isn’t a great deal of melody, unlike the songs of Forster’s former songwriting partner in the Go-Betweens, the late Grant McLennan, who wrote the majority of that band’s better-known, poppier material.

But, as Forster admonishes on Songs To Play’s brisk opener, Learn To Burn, “You can miss details when you’re in a hurry.” Forster rarely writes obvious songs; the type that get your foot tapping and rattle around your head for days. Instead he writes songs, and records, that creep up and throttle you from behind. And he almost never writes duds.

My first feeling upon listening to Songs To Play was of disappointment, especially coming after The Evangelist, the masterpiece Forster had to make following McLennan’s premature death in 2006. This is his first album in seven years, and though far more upbeat, I found myself waiting for it to finish, which didn’t take long. Then, as soon as it did, I played it again.

Forster’s albums are like that. You think there’s not much going on, only to find the songs growing upon you as inexorably as vines around an abandoned building. The music is lean and understated; the lyrics, as ever, are penetrating and compelling. Imagine Reed narrating a Talking Heads album (it could be ’77 or True Stories) and you’re getting close to the feeling of Songs To Play.

For this album, Forster has moved on from long-serving collaborators Adele Pickvance and Glenn Thompson and instead used members of Brisbane’s John Steel Singers, as well as his wife Karin Bäumler (who plays some sumptuous violin) and his 17-year-old son Louis. There are bits of glockenspiel, Mariachi horns on A Poet Walks, and lots of backing vocals throughout. Songs turn on the lightest of touches.

The band is tight and it’s versatile, whether it’s playing the sly bossa nova of Love Is Where It Is, or the final track Disaster In Motion, which recalls the Velvet Underground’s The Murder Mystery with its churning organ and insistent percussion. A final shriek of unexpected feedback reveals the hidden menace beneath the song’s surface.

Let Me Imagine You is a plea for the preservation of mystique in an exhibitionist age: “Please don’t twitter / I find it sweeter.” As always, what Forster lacks in melodic variation he makes up for with deft phrasing and droll humour: “Wild mountain sound!” he remarks over the fast country picking at the end of I Love Myself And I Always Have (the album was recorded at Mt Nebo, outside Brisbane).

Lyrically, that song is a kind of postmodern update of Skyhooks’ Ego Is Not A Dirty Word, but it’s also a return to the earliest years of the Go-Betweens, when the influence of Jonathan Richman loomed large. “I hold myself in high regard / And loving yourself shouldn’t be so hard,” Forster says, completely matter-of-fact. The humour in this song shouldn’t mask its deadly serious intent.

For all its antecedents, though, Songs To Play (the allusion to Leonard Cohen in the title, surely, is deliberate) is Robert Forster at his most singular. Perhaps most of all, one feels the absence of McLennan here, but not in the painful way he overshadowed The Evangelist, which featured three of his unfinished songs. It’s the sound of Forster starting anew, and the spring in his step is welcome.

First published in The Guardian, 18 September 2015