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 inSpectrum (The Age/Sydney Morning Herald), 23 September 2017
The ABC news radio announcer’s incredulous tone said it all. “An unknown band from Brisbane, by the name of the Saints, has earned rave reviews in England for a record it made itself,” he said. It was September 1976, and the words, complete with the plummy delivery, were loaded with cultural cringe – all the more so for the fact that the band hailed from the backwoods of Brisbane.
That record, (I’m) Stranded – dubbed “Single of this and every week” in a hyperventilating review in the UK’s Sounds magazine – turns 40 years old this month, and it is no exaggeration to say that it changed Brisbane forever, both from within, and in terms of its external perception. And it was true: outside of a small clique, the band was all but unknown in its hometown at the time of the song’s release.
The Go-Betweens’ Robert Forster once wrote that punk hit Brisbane like no other city in Australia, for two reasons: we had Joh-Bjelke Petersen, “the kind of crypto-fascist, bird-brained conservative that every punk lead singer in the world could only dream of railing against”; and we had the Saints, the “musical revolutionaries in the city’s evil heart” that gave a city that usually chased music history its own place in it.
Australia didn’t even have its own national anthem in 1976. (I’m) Stranded was more like an anti-anthem, with its central theme of alienation. The singer, Chris Bailey, with the gritty sneer of a young Van Morrison, is marooned “far from home”. The literal meaning was actually more prosaic, the song’s music coming to guitarist Ed Kuepper on a midnight train home to the Brisbane’s far-flung suburbs.
Then there was the video, which begins with the unintended metaphor of drummer Ivor Hay kicking open a door. The band are playing in an abandoned building on inner-city Petrie Terrace, Bailey singing in front of a fireplace with the words “(I’m) Stranded” daubed above in red letters, which would form the backdrop for the cover of the Saints’ debut album of the same name, released in February 1977.
The cover is as much a harbinger of the Blank Generation as the first Ramones album. But there are no uniforms in sight, much less leather jackets. The band stares sullenly back at the camera, a large hole in the floorboards beneath their feet in front of them. In the ensuing years, countless bands and fans – including Brad Shepherd (then of the Fun Things, later the Hoodoo Gurus) and Mark Callaghan (the Riptides, later Gang Gajang) – had their own photographs taken in front of that fireplace until the building’s eventual redevelopment.
The Saints were seers. They’d formed in mid 1973, the same year as the release of the first New York Dolls album and Iggy and the Stooges’ Raw Power, and while they hadn’t beaten the Ramones onto record (the New Yorkers had released their first album four months earlier), they were ahead of all the UK punks (the Damned’s New Rose was released a month later, in October 1976) and Sydney’s Radio Birdman.
But arguably more important than chronology and the Saints’ place in the bigger scheme of things was their determined independence. There were no venues to play in Brisbane, so the band hired out suburban halls. No local record company was interested in what they were doing, so they hired out a local studio, paid for the recording themselves, and put out the song on their own label, Fatal Records.
This fact was noted in Jonh (John) Ingham’s review in Sounds: “This Queensland combo had to record and release on their own label; for some reason Australian record companies think the band lack commercial potential. What a bunch of idiots.” EMI in London – partially in an attempt to claw back lost credibility after sacking the Sex Pistols – duly instructed its baffled representatives in Sydney to sign the band.
In the wake of the band’s inevitable decampment to England in early 1977, a local scene began to take root in Brisbane. There were archetypal punk bands like the Leftovers and Razar, whose song Task Force was the first in a long line of singles to take aim at the local police state. Then there were the more cerebral Riptides, the Apartments and the Go-Betweens, soon to leave for England themselves.
All had been inspired by the Saints’ willingness to “seize the sea of possibilities” spoken of by another seer, Patti Smith, a couple of years earlier. Brisbane now has a Go Between Bridge, as well as Bee Gees Way on Redcliffe Peninsula, where the Gibb brothers began their performing career. But (I’m) Stranded was a foundation stone in Brisbane’s cultural history for which the Saints deserve similar recognition.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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
Robert Forster, co-founder of the Go-Betweens, writes that in the small, but febrile post-Saints Brisbane music scene of the late 1970s, everyone knew each other. That should be no surprise: really, they still do. But even back in those days, he says, he and the late Grant McLennan knew of Peter Milton Walsh before they had met him; he was a man with “whispers and claims on his trail”.
Walsh is the near-myth behind the Apartments, the group he named after one of Billy Wilder’s greatest films. It speaks of him. He wore impeccable suits and shades under a big mop of blond hair in Brisbane’s sweltering heat. He had a taste for the arcane and the exotic. His music is of another time: of post-punk, certainly, but also of Burt Bacharach and Jacques Brel; Françoise Hardy and Serge Gainsbourg.
He is a star in France, yet all but unknown here. He lives quietly in Sydney, rarely performs, and has just made his first album – his fifth overall – in 18 years. The man himself is no mystery; just not one to make a noise about himself. He deadpans he has been “hard at work developing my sitting still and keeping quiet talents, which to me are a little bit neglected in this world”.
Walsh had a very brief stint in the Go-Betweens in 1979, but he already had the Apartments, and he quickly returned to them. (The Go-Betweens honoured him with two songs: That Way, from Before Hollywood, and an early B-side, Don’t Let Him Come Back, with the lines: “Who’s that dressed in black / Who’s that in his apartment / With his crazy walk / Don’t let him come back!”)
In the years since, following the release of the Apartments’ debut album The Evening Visits … And Stays For Years on the prestigious Rough Trade label in 1985, he has slowly built a reputation as a songwriter’s songwriter. One song from that album, Mr Somewhere, was covered by British ensemble This Mortal Coil (keeping company with tunes written by Tim Buckley, Big Star, Syd Barrett and Gene Clark). A later single, The Shyest Time, featured in the John Hughes film Some Kind Of Wonderful.
In the 1990s, Australian soul legend Renée Geyer tackled another of his songs, Knowing You Were Loved, on the recommendation of another fan, Dave Graney. That song had come from Walsh’s second album, Drift – a record which reputedly sold some 25,000 copies in France, but less than 200 in his home country. It amounts to, one critic wrote, “one of the great crimes of neglect in Australian music”.
Graney, who first met Walsh in the early 1980s while the latter was serving a brief stint as bass player in Ed Kuepper’s band the Laughing Clowns, describes Walsh as “a great songwriter, very individual. He has dark and shifting tones, with a pop default, but epic peaks and falls. Great to talk with – always talk laced with references to arcane literature and music. Always carried a dramatic back story about him, impossibly authentic. You can’t make that shit up.”
But the back story to The Apartments’ new album No Song, No Spell, No Madrigal – released after a crowd-funding campaign on a tiny French label, Microcultures – is so traumatic that, by Walsh’s own estimation, it is a miracle that it exists at all. It begins a full 18 years ago, in 1997, on the last day of mixing his fourth album, Apart, when the family GP rang.
It was about Walsh’s son, Riley, whose blood tests had come back. The doctor told Walsh to take him to the Sydney’s Westmead hospital immediately where, he was told, a specialist would be waiting for them. Riley had been diagnosed with a rare auto-immune disorder that meant his body wasn’t producing white blood cells to fight off infections. The Walsh family spent the next two years “on a death watch, basically – the cold that another child gets and beats back, is the cold that will kill yours”.
Riley lost the fight he was never going to win in 1999, aged just three years and eight months.
Walsh was eviscerated. A pall descended: to borrow a line from the song Twenty One – a lament for all the birthday parties that would never be held for his son – he’s been “stuck in the same quicksand since 1999”.
Not that Walsh has been inactive. He continued to write songs for himself, and for Riley – just never with the intention of recording or releasing them. One of the first to arrive was Swap Places, where he recounts: “Walking round the hospital, Friday afternoon / Other children going home / Wondering if the day will come when that might be you, if you’ll ever come home?” It ends with a chant: “Where’s the God in all of this?”
He quotes lines from a poem, Old Marx, by Polish writer Adam Zagajewski: “He still had faith in his fantastic vision / But in moments of doubt / He worried that he’d given the world only / A new vision of despair.”
“That poem absolutely haunted me for ages,” he says. “And I just thought, OK, I’m not going to do anything with these songs.” He didn’t share them with anybody – not even his wife, Kate, with whom he has two other children.
But that, Walsh says, amounted to “another kind of death”. For years, silence had seemed like the only way to suitably honour his son’s passing, but the more songs that came, the more they weighed. “I [couldn’t] go on if I didn’t do them,” he says. “It was like a necessity because here he lives, in these songs – do I just throw them away, so that’s another thing that’s forgotten?”
In 2007, he began to dip his toes back in the water: first a few very low-key gigs in Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane; then, a couple of years later, he played a sold-out show in a Parisian club, L’Européen. There he was introduced to a young French singer, Natasha Penot, who had covered his song Sunset Hotel. A duet was organised, and his first music since Riley’s death – a song called Black Ribbons, recorded by Sydney producer Wayne Connolly – was released as a seven-inch single by Melbourne label Chapter Music in 2011.
Connolly had first met Walsh in 2004, when they met to discuss the idea of recording. “Peter told me at that meeting that the subject matter of the songs was related to the loss of Riley and that he wasn’t sure if he could ever actually record them. He wrote to me soon after to say that it was unlikely that he ever would,” Connolly says.
But then, seven years later, came Black Ribbons; the following year, Connolly joined Walsh on another tour of France. During the first gig, Walsh unexpectedly threw Twenty One – which no one else inside or outside the band had then heard – into the set. “It’s impossible to describe what I felt, but I had never stood on a stage with tears streaming down my face before,” Connolly says.
Finally, late in 2013, the pair entered the studio. Sometimes, songwriters talk of writing and performing songs as reliving a kind of trauma; few, surely, have lived through anything approaching Walsh’s. “The songs were very hard to play, very hard to record.”
“At some point we had a discussion about his doubts, and it was evident how close to the surface the pain of [Riley’s loss] was,” Connolly says. “But, as it is for so many involved in music, it’s possible to find joy in a beautifully played hi-hat or piano or a nice bass line. Peter loves to be immersed in sound – as long as there’s a generous amount of reverb! – and I got the sense that he began to appreciate it as a therapeutic/cathartic process.”
In September, Walsh will return to France, where he’ll be confronted with a new challenge: playing the songs in front of an expectant audience. In the meantime, there are press duties, which he is understandably keeping to a minimum. It is, he says, “like a mountain I haven’t yet climbed, so I’ll just have to see what it’s like. But that’s part of the deal I made when I made the album. Songs are like windows, sometimes they’re trapdoors, and memories come cartwheeling out. You just have to deal with them.”
Late in the last week of January 1974, following a flood Brisbane would not see the like of again for close to another 40 years, a 17-year-old Ed Kuepper was on watch in the tough south-western Brisbane suburb of Oxley. There had been looting as the filthy water finally began to recede, and a caravan, from which residents could take turns keeping lookout, had been set up across the road from his parents’ house.
Kuepper – who had formed his first band, the Saints, just a few months earlier with school mates Chris Bailey and Ivor Hay – was a little tipsy. The local alderman, Gordon “Bluey” Thomson, had just visited, bringing beer. He was also carrying a revolver, which he gave to Kuepper. “Don’t drink too much, but look after the gun!” he told him.
Later, as the adults continued drinking, the young Kuepper walked down his street, “gun-slinging”, cockily twirling the loaded weapon as if he were a character in a western. Suddenly, a car turned into the street. Kuepper hailed it down, directing his torch into the driver’s eyes. It wasn’t until the vehicle was alongside him that he realised it was the police.
The driver looked the skinny teenager up and down. Kuepper sheepishly lowered first the torch, then the gun.
“Don’t do anything stupid,” the cop said, before driving off.
THE apple hasn’t fallen far from the tree. In a Poinciana-lined street off Oxley Road, Ed Kuepper lives quietly with his partner of close to 40 years, Judi, and their adult children Karl and Friedrich (whose names should tell you something). It’s just a few kilometres from the old suburban home where his now elderly parents still live, despite suffering through the heartbreak of another great flood in early 2011.
He and Judi had made a point of checking flood levels before purchasing their home. “Even though they said it would never happen again, I wasn’t prepared to get something that went under in ’74, so this was way above it. For this house to be affected, the city would be gone anyway. And yet if you went that way” – he gestures back towards the main road – “the shopping centre at Graceville Avenue went under, and you wouldn’t guess that we were so much higher.”
It’s quiet here. Only the Kueppers’ dog Oscar, who gives me a rousing if suspicious greeting, breaks the silence in the torpor of a warm Easter afternoon. Judi, whose beautiful watercolours line the walls of the home, and whose art has graced her husband’s album sleeves since the days of Ed’s post-Saints band the Laughing Clowns, brings hot-cross buns with jam home-made from a backyard mango tree.
It’s all a far cry from the days where Kuepper’s paint-peeling guitar playing was sufficiently obnoxious to result in a brick being hurled through the plate-glass window of the building on the corner of Milton Road and Petrie Terrace, where the Saints once rehearsed. The window was boarded up, the words “Club ’76” daubed on the slats, and for a short time the house became a venue – until police from headquarters across the road shut it down.
Speak to many in the Australian music industry and Kuepper will be quite casually described as a legend. Robert Forster, whose band the Go-Betweens was among the first and most enduring of the first wave of Brisbane groups directly inspired by the Saints, described him (in The Monthly) as “one of the very few Australian guitar geniuses”, comparing him to both Neil Young and Kurt Cobain; “sonic adventurers who can take sheets of electric noise and get songs out of them”.
As a Saint, he’s a member of the ARIA Hall of Fame, but his musical career spans 40 years, from the sometimes abrasive Laughing Clowns, through an immensely rich and varied solo career. More recently – and briefly – he was a member of Nick Cave’s band, the Bad Seeds. You could practically go broke collecting the sheer volume of music the man has produced, although probably not as broke as he’s sometimes been while making it.
But who is Edmund Kuepper? It’s likely you’d know several of his songs – (I’m) Stranded, the Saints’ first single, has been a Rage staple for 20 years; The Way I Made You Feel was a minor hit from his 1991 album Honey Steel’s Gold, which cracked the Australian top 40 during a golden period for the songwriter. But, while he continues to sell out shows, he’s far from hit machine. (An unkind reviewer once compared his music to some kind of strange and mouldy cheese: an acquired taste.)
His public persona, to many, is akin to how Churchill described Russia: a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma. In fact, as Forster also pointed out, he is “intense and inward, of German extraction”: born in Bremen in 1956, before his parents emigrated to Brisbane at the age of four. (Saints singer Chris Bailey, born in Kenya to Irish Catholic parents, settled nearby a few years later: so often, the history of Australian rock & roll has been made by migrant kids.)
Peter Milton Walsh, singer-songwriter for one of Brisbane’s great lost treasures, the Apartments, talks rapturously about Kuepper’s music. (Of the Laughing Clowns, of which he was once briefly a member, he says: “They were playing poker when everyone else was playing bingo.”) But he demurs when pushed on the man himself. Eventually he offers this: “Rock & roll is filled with people that are very happy to talk about themselves. That’s not really what’s on offer from Ed.”
Others are more forthcoming, though all talk about Kuepper’s singular devotion to his craft. “He’s a very warm person when you get to know him; he’s quite soft and he’s got a great sense of humour,” says Julian Knowles, professor of music and media at Macquarie University in Sydney. Another music academic, QUT’s John Willsteed, describes him as “a quiet, funny, shy guy”.
Everyone attests to his incredible work ethic. Willsteed, who also plays in Brisbane band Halfway, refers to his “Teutonic” side. “He’s very forthright with his opinions, and he knows what he wants when it comes to work.” Knowles: “Once he gets into the groove and he starts working, there’s this incredible focus. He works in popular music, but he has the mindset and approach of an artist.”
The Church’s Steve Kilbey, who once engaged in a memorable online stoush with Kuepper, has called him as “wry and lofty”, and that much seems fair; he’s sardonic, ironic and, by his own admission, can be a bit above it all. He is certainly reserved, but not unfriendly. Get past the imposing size and death-grip handshake, and there’s a twinkle in the eye and a faint smirk lurking behind the pirate’s goatee.
Judi recalls her first impressions after interviewing him for a student magazine in 1979. “I thought he was a lovely, gentle, intelligent person – very intellectual. He’s very open and interested in all kinds of different ideas. He’s very aware of public events. He seemed to be a font of wisdom; he had an incredible knowledge of what was going on; not just in music, but in film and art, and I guess that’s nourished our relationship – just a passion for, and commitment to the arts. And he’s really generous. He really wants to share and connect with people.”
KUEPPER spent most of 2013 on the road, performing a successful run of “Solo and By Request” shows, trying his hand at almost any song from his career that his audience challenged (and sometimes taunted) him to play – a daunting prospect, given his immense repertoire, but he pulled it off. “There were probably only two or three occasions when I declined to have a go at something.”
He had spent a good chunk of the previous year performing as a Bad Seed, filling in for Cave’s long-term musical arranger Mick Harvey. The prospect of what Kuepper might bring to the Bad Seeds’ musical palette tantalised fans of both, but Cave’s last album, Push The Sky Away, featured almost no guitar at all, and Kuepper’s services were not required. There seems little prospect that his tenure in the band will be ongoing.
Kuepper describes working with the Bad Seeds as “very structured”, and it’s here that you get a sense of his constant musical wanderlust. “It was verging on the choreographed in some ways. I kind of decided to do something that was about as removed from that as possible, and that was basically just go out and push it as far we could actually go with it. And by “we” I mean myself and the audience.”
One of the songs that Kuepper was reluctant to play was (I’m) Stranded, the track that launched his career. “I thought there was something really powerful captured in that original recording, and it’s not that easy to capture it again,” he says. “And I couldn’t work out how the fuck I was actually going to just sit there with an acoustic guitar and play the song.” In the end, with the audience calling for it every night, he bit the bullet, and made it work.
The Saints have reformed twice in recent years – first a celebrated one-off show at the University of Queensland in 2007, then a national run for the travelling festival All Tomorrow’s Parties in early 2010. The latter ended in disaster, culminating in a show at Riverstage which Kuepper describes as “incredibly embarrassing, the worst show I’ve ever done in my life”. (The band had been booked to perform the album (I’m) Stranded in its entirety; incredibly, they didn’t even play the title song in front of a bewildered home crowd.)
Still, the experience didn’t prevent Kuepper from reuniting with Bailey, with whom he has had a famously tempestuous relationship, for a run of shows together as a duo the following year. I ask Kuepper if we’re likely to see him on stage with the Saints again. “Probably not.” What sort of relationship does he have with Bailey now? “Not much of one, really.”
There’s a bit of back and forth on this point, and Kuepper obliges, if only out of politeness, but it’s clear the subject of his old sparring partner still makes him uncomfortable. I ask if he’s heard Bruce Springsteen’s cover of Just Like Fire Would, Bailey’s biggest hit recorded under the Saints name, long after Kuepper had left the band. (The song appears on Springsteen’s most recent album High Hopes.)
“I haven’t. The funny thing is, when the song first came out [in 1986], I actually thought it was … Not Springsteen, but John Cougar Mellencamp. When I realised it was Bailey I thought, oh fuck, he’s going to change his name to Chris Bailey Mellencamp! It was kind of ironic that Springsteen’s attention was drawn to the Saints via (I’m) Stranded, but he actually covered the one song that actually sounds like it was ripped off him.”
If this sounds like sour grapes, consider, first, that Kuepper has toiled in relative obscurity for decades, and there have been times when he’s seriously considered chucking it in. “Sometimes, you know, when you’re running at a loss month after month – and I mean no income at all – lots of stuff goes askew. So it’s constantly a battle of how do you make things work.”
And, second: around the time of the Saints’ performances at All Tomorrow’s Parties, Kuepper’s manager got in touch with the band’s old label, with the idea of presenting the group with a Gold Record for (I’m) Stranded – presuming that, in the 38 years since its release, it would have easily sold the required 35,000 copies within Australia to qualify. He was astonished to be told that the label had not kept records prior to 1998. The necessary paperwork for an acknowledged classic – for which Kuepper has received very little money over the years – was conveniently missing.
It’s one of the oldest divides in rock & roll: Bailey – so desperate to prove he could make it on his own after the break-up of the original Saints in late 1978 – has the commercial success and, following Springsteen’s endorsement, the money in the bank. Kuepper has the status, the undying respect of his peers and the lion’s share of critical plaudits. Probably, both would like at least a little of what the other has got.
KUEPPER’S newest album is both a return to his roots, and a continuation of his recent solo performances: that is, it’s just him and his guitar. The Return Of The Mail-Order Bridegroom features mainly acoustic re-workings of some of his best-known songs, as well as a couple of covers. (It follows 1995’s I Was A Mail-Order Bridegroom, a similarly-themed album which kicked off a personal cottage industry of mostly live recordings, sold directly to fans through his own label, Prince Melon.)
Opening the album is a song called Brisbane (Security City), originally recorded in 1978 for the Saints’ third album, Prehistoric Sounds. The song painted a vivid portrait of Queensland as a police state during the Bjelke-Petersen years, and captured the oppression of both the heat – “Thirteen hot nights in a row,” goes the opening line – and the political climate. Apathy sits uncomfortably next to paranoia: “With mangoes ripe, who needs to grow?”
Thirty-six years after it was written, the song is more pointed than ever. Kuepper has been vocal about Queensland’s swing back to conservatism. “Part of it I think is that a large portion of the voting public is too young to remember the stench from the previous National government, you know,” he muses. “I just don’t think people remember. Anyone under 40 probably never voted back in the ’80s.”
Kuepper has had, at various times, an ambivalent relationship with his home town; something that he has often addressed in song: Electrical Storm acknowledges that, by staying in Brisbane, he is letting the world pass him by; but he finds himself mesmerised by the lightning and thunder. And on Security City, he confesses: “I don’t want to let down my own hopes for this town.” The family resettled here in the early 1990s.
“There were a lot of really good things about growing up here; I enjoyed a lot of it,” he says. “And I think you always want the place you grow up in to be a good place, to fulfil something worthwhile. Plus, after the Fitzgerald Inquiry, Brisbane in particular went through a bit of a golden age, I think. There just seemed to be this air of celebration for many years; it had a good vibe about it. It had changed.
“The ’80s was the worst time. There was always this sort of weird hostility around the place. The cops – they had power that they shouldn’t have had. I’m all for supporting the local police force and letting them do the job that they’re supposed to do, but once they become a political tool, then that becomes something else.”
And that’s when Kuepper remembers the story of Bluey Thompson, and the unimpressed reaction of the policeman who confronted him – a foolish teenager packing heat, that day after the floods in 1974. Don’t do anything stupid.
“See, I thought that was actually quite a reasonable response, under the circumstances,” he admits, chuckling.
First published in QWeekend (The Courier-Mail), July 26 2014
Note for overseas and interstate readers: The Zoo is a music venue in the quaintly-named inner suburb of Fortitude Valley, in my hometown of Brisbane. It’s 20 years old this week, a startling achievement in an industry where places to play appear and often disappear in the space of 12 months. This is my happy birthday message to one of my favourite places, which changed the face of the Valley, and helped change the way we viewed our own city during a time of great change.
The first time I walked up that short but steep staircase, it was to see former Go-Between Robert Forster. The stairs brought you not to the entrance, but smack into the middle of the venue. There was a small stage in the far right-hand corner; a basic wooden platform less than a foot above the floor. I heard the cracking of pool balls as I walked in.
In the left-hand corner was the serving area. The conditions of the nascent venue’s license at the time meant that food had to be provided with drinks. Being an impoverished student (and a lousy cook besides), there were many times when the Zoo’s cheap, nourishing meals were seriously appreciated.
On the walls, covering most of the available space, hung paintings by various local daubers. So The Zoo was a gallery space, too, as well as a pool hall and venue. The dedication to promoting Brisbane’s musicians was matched by its philosophical alignment with, and commitment to the city’s artistic community.
That word: community. That was what made The Zoo different. When you went to see a show there, you felt like you were part of something special, vibrant and new.
Part of it came down to timing. The early 1990s was an era of transition for Brisbane. Queensland itself was in a process of profound social change. Musical change, too. The punk generation had grown up; the grunge generation was moving in. There was a feeling of political and cultural renewal.
Part of it came down to place. The venue was in Ann Street, Fortitude Valley, which a corrupt alliance of cops and criminals had called home for decades. The Fitzgerald Inquiry had seen them off – to exile, or to prison – but the Bjelke-Petersen years were not yet a distant memory, and the Valley could still be a little scary.
It was the middle of a recession, too. It seemed like every second shop in the Valley was vacant. The ultimate example was the old Target building, in the middle of the decaying, neglected Brunswick Street mall. That was where many of the bands that played at The Zoo – and would soon become household names – honed their craft.
That was important, because the cheap rents then available in the Valley allowed the musical community to set up house. The Zoo was among the first in, and it quickly became the new face of the changing district and, in hindsight, an early harbinger of its gentrification.
Anyway, I remember sitting on the floor with the attractive young lady whom I was (hopelessly) trying to woo. There were maybe 100 people sitting in a semi-circle around the stage, watching Robert hold court. He was playing an acoustic guitar. “I want to be quiet,” he sang. That was quite a statement in a post-Nevermind world.
The Zoo liked acoustic artists. Amid the tide of grunge, there was something of a folk revival happening. Mexican-American songwriter Rodriguez was as important a part of Powderfinger’s early makeup as Soundgarden, and arguably it was the former’s influence, more than the latter, that eventually turned them into million-sellers. Others, like ISIS and Paddy Dempsey, were beloved acts here.
Women always found a voice at The Zoo, too. Women ran the venue, after all, and there was a distinct absence of machismo in both the presentation and the atmosphere. There was no balding publican pulling beers with a tea towel slung over his shoulder; no security guards built wider than they were tall.
Instead there were two young ladies – Joc and C – who had a vision of the kind of place they wanted to run, and they had strong values. They didn’t sell cigarettes, or rum, and preferred not to book metal bands. The venue had no dress code, but you were expected to mind your manners. All of this commanded respect.
I have countless gigs and memories to cherish. The Dirty Three, just before their relocation overseas, with Nick Cave sitting in comes to mind. A young and messianic Ben Harper. The so-called Australian Go-Betweens show, marking the debut of the new line-up with Glenn Thompson and Adele Pickvance.
Even some of the less palatable aspects of the venue – like the unrelenting heat of a full house in summer – had its virtues. Perhaps my strongest recurring memory of being at The Zoo is just standing by the big timber sash windows, sucking in the fresh air while a storm raged outside; the rain making the city sparkle afresh in the night.
Over time, The Zoo grew and changed. Soon there was a real stage, and a real bar. You no longer had to order a meal to get a drink. The paintings on the walls disappeared. More and more international acts played there, though the commitment to local artists remained.
These days, Fortitude Valley might be regarded as a victim of its own success. Tens of thousands of revellers swamp the entertainment precinct every weekend. There’s more alcohol, more drugs, more violence, and I wouldn’t like to ask how much higher the rent is. But The Zoo has endured. Indeed, it’s something of a haven.
That’s because, despite the aforementioned alterations, what hasn’t changed are the values the venue embodies. Those values, above all, give The Zoo its atmosphere and warmth. It’s a culture, which everyone who works there buys into. There’s still no dress code, and you’re still expected to mind your manners.
So, with that, there’s really only one thing left to say.
Thank you, Joc and C, for the gift you have given Brisbane: from all the musicians who have performed on your blessed stage, and all the punters who have enjoyed so many wonderful nights here. May The Zoo endure another 20 years.