Tagged: Michael Hutchence

The mythologist

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.”

Legendary, perhaps.

First published in Spectrum (The Age/Sydney Morning Herald), 11 September 2015

The Great Australian Songbook III (30-21)

Following on from the previous thread, as the title suggests, here’s tracks 30-29.

30. YOTHU YINDI – Treaty (1991)

Did this song start a national conversation, or just get people dancing? Actually, scarily, it managed to get politicians dancing, spurring some very awkward shuffling by certain members of the ALP after Paul Keating’s famous “victory for the true believers” in 1993. I’m sure there’s incriminating evidence of Ros Kelly and Gareth “Gareth” Evans out there somewhere. But buried under the Filthy Lucre dance remix is a great song sung in both English and Yolgnu/Matha, written by Mandawuy Yunupingu with help from Paul Kelly and Peter Garrett. It was the first song by a predominantly Aboriginal band to chart in Australia (reaching number 11), and peaked at number six on the Billboard dance charts in the US. In 2009, the song was added to the National Film and Sound Archive.

29. DADDY COOL – Eagle Rock (1971)

I’m nowhere near as crazy about this song as those who routinely put it in the top 10 of these kinds of lists (APRA had it right up there at number two, behind Friday On My Mind), but I’m not about to deny its charms either, from Ross Wilson’s opening exclamation “NOW LISTEN!” down. Word is that Sir Elton John was so inspired by the song after an Australian tour that he wrote Crocodile Rock in response. It’s also considered traditional at the University of Queensland to drop your daks when it’s played on the local campus bars. Maybe that’s why it, too, is in the National Film and Sound Archive. You just can’t argue with that level of cultural significance, can you?

28. RADIO BIRDMAN – Descent Into The Maelstrom (1977)

Ann Arbor, Michigan native Deniz Tek isn’t solely responsible for bringing the Detroit rock action of the MC5 and the Stooges to Australia when he founded Radio Birdman as a medical student in Sydney in the mid 1970s – there were many other record collectors who had already picked up on it, not least a guitarist from Brisbane called Edmund Kuepper. But Tek still deserves a huge amount of credit. This song, for me, is their finest four minutes. It’s pure excitement, from the rolling thunder of Ron Keeley’s opening drum salvos to Rob Younger’s adrenalised vocals, telling a Tek tale about a surfer dragged out to sea. It’s a pretty good metaphor for the song itself: you think you can ride this monster wave, then Tek’s extended pipeline lead break sucks you under. (Check out the video – half the audience at the Marryatville Hotel in Adelaide is going bonkers, while others can be seen covering their ears!)

27. EDDY CURRENT SUPPRESSION RING – Which Way To Go (2008)

There’s something about Eddy Current Suppression Ring that reminds me, inescapably, of Midnight Oil. Like Peter Garrett, Brendan Huntley really can’t sing. Nonetheless, he’s a great frontman, with a unique dance step to boot. And like the Oils, each member of Eddy Current perfectly complements the other. You won’t get a better example of their chemistry than this seamlessly constructed song, where the bass carries most of the melody, the guitar adds texture (until Mikey Young drops in the most exquisitely logical of solos) and the drumming matches Huntley for urgency. There’s something both universal and comic about the singer’s inability to make up his mind, and the fact that he can barely keep time with a band that’s otherwise in perfect lock-step somehow only adds to the charm.

26. KYLIE MINOGUE – Can’t Get You Out Of My Head (2001)

Like Which Way To Go, the beautiful symmetry of this song’s arrangement is the key. Like Giorgio Moroder’s production on Donna Summer’s I Feel Love, its strength is its minimalism, reducing dance music to a pulsebeat. At just the right tempo, with just the right amount of melody, and a lyric that seems to be about pop music itself, it’s a song that lives up to its name – but in that good way.

25. THE AVALANCHES – Since I Left You (2000)

A sound collage composed entirely from samples, it’s hard now to divorce this song from its iconic accompanying video – a story of two trapped coal miners which perfectly captured this wistful song’s odd, ineffable beauty. But it still works a treat on its own. Moving away from the late 1990s Big Beat electronica/plunderphonics of the Chemical Brothers and Fatboy Slim, the sound of Since I Left You is gentle and nostalgic, conjuring the Beach Boys and obscure French pop records. The song reached number 16 in the UK charts, with the album of the same name featuring high up on end-of-year (and end-of-decade) lists around the world. Oz rock didn’t end here, but Since I Left You finally forced the local industry to recognise dance music’s artistic legitimacy.

24. GOD – My Pal (1988)

Teenager Joel Silbersher had this song’s circular five-note riff in his head for years before one day, in the shower, the lyric came in a rush: “You’re my only friend / You don’t even like me!” Recorded when most of the band were 17 (the video above captures Silbersher with braces still on his teeth), My Pal was GOD’s first single, and it was such a towering feat that, unfortunately, it overshadowed everything else they ever did. Tim Hemensley joined Bored! before going on to form the mighty Powder Monkeys; he died in 2003. Guitarist Sean Greenway, who went on to the Freeloaders and Yes Men, died in 2001. Both barely made it out of their 20s.

23. ICEHOUSE – Great Southern Land (1982)

Iva Davies has always sounded like a poor man’s David Bowie to me, but this song still puts me under a spell wherever I happen to hear it. Like some Antipodean Born In The USA, it’s often mistaken for a cheesy patriotic anthem, but in actuality it’s no more nationalistic than any of Sidney Nolan or Russell Drysdale’s more nightmarish landscapes. Perfectly paced and executed, Great Southern Land’s sparse arrangement and echoing vocals add to the impression of vast, empty space, giving the track a panoramic feel. A few years later, the Triffids’ Wide Open Road replicated this song’s single-note, droning keyboard intro to similar effect.

22. INXS – Original Sin (1984)

For INXS, this was the track that launched them from Australia’s beer barns onto the world stage. Produced by Chic’s Nile Rodgers, it’s a muscular funk track, underpinned by Andrew Farriss’ opening keyboard hook and with Michael Hutchence’s voice at its best – his falsetto leap at 3.12 remains startling and spine-chilling. This is a song where every part serves the whole, right down to Kirk Pengilly’s excellent closing saxophone break. Check the video for the best collection of mullets the 1980s ever tossed up.

21. NICK CAVE AND THE BAD SEEDS – The Mercy Seat (1988)

In a word: epic. Nick Cave’s tale of a man facing the electric chair for a crime of which he’s “nearly wholly innocent, you know” is his Like A Rolling Stone, tackling the big questions: life, death, good, evil, truth, guilt and innocence. Sonically, it’s an overpowering assault: leading off the album Tender Prey, the song is seven minutes plus; the single is more powerful for being slightly condensed. Later covered by Johnny Cash, leading Cave to proclaim something along the lines of “Johnny Cash has covered one of my songs, so the rest of you can fuck off.” Fair enough.