Tagged: the Go-Betweens

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

Love’s shadow

A piece of paper stuck to the entrance of the Coburg RSL in Melbourne reads “cash only (dark ages)”. It’s not much warmer inside than the freezing July night outside. A lonely few returned servicemen and their wives prop up the bar. At the far end of the hall is a makeshift stage, instruments and amplifiers waiting for a crowd that would never normally be here. Images of soldiers watch like sentries overhead.

The first person I see is Melbourne singer and songwriter Jen Cloher, one of the main reasons a large crowd will soon pour through the doors. The other is her partner and lead guitarist in her band, Courtney Barnett. Cloher is stirring two large vats of pumpkin and black bean soup for the soon-to-be huddled masses. “Gotta serve something to warm up the troops,” she says cheerfully.

She’s on first. Her bass player Bones Sloane, who also plays with Barnett, plays the opening notes of a new song, Regional Echo. “We’ve got a new album coming out,” Cloher says when it’s over, to polite whoops from the crowd. “We’ve got a launch coming up in a couple of months and all that jazz.”

“August,” Barnett says.

“September 8 at the Howler [in Brunswick],” Cloher corrects her sternly. “Are you my manager now too, Courtney?”

“It’d be a bit disorganised,” drummer Jen Sholakis quips.

“Imagine if Courtney was my manager,” Cloher says, the crowd giggling awkwardly. “She’d be like, ‘I’m about to play to 20,000 people in Chicago and I have to organise a gig for Jen at the Corner Hotel in Richmond.”

I MEET Cloher the next day for lunch in Thornbury. Asked why she decided to play in a decaying RSL – part of a month-long residency of sold-out gigs being staged by the independent label she runs with Barnett, Milk! Records – she says it’s a symbol of an older, inner-urban Melbourne disappearing fast under the pressure of gentrification that Barnett captured in her song Depreston.

“We see parallels between something like an RSL, which is a community-run not-for-profit voluntary organisation and Milk! Records, which is quite similar,” she says. Cloher talks about community a lot. In a dark period early last year, while Barnett was touring overseas, she volunteered with the Friends of Merri Creek, raising $25,000 to plant indigenous shrubs and trees for the native blue-banded bee to pollinate.

In a blog post published on Medium, she also wrote of the importance of mid-career artists who could no longer rely on the support of radio and media to find their own artistic community of peers and fans, slowly building the profile of Milk! Records “to the point where we can just announce a show, sell 900 tickets and no one needed to know about it beyond our mailing list and social media”.

In the same post, she also wrote candidly of the envy she felt towards Barnett, who is 15 years younger (a subject they addressed on the duet Numbers). In 2013, Cloher released her third, highly acclaimed album In Blood Memory, which was shortlisted for the prestigious Australian Music Prize, only to watch as Barnett’s career took off in the wake of the viral success of her single Avant Gardener.

For Cloher, it was a difficult time. It’s another freezing day outside. “You know, it’s winter, and I did two of these [alone], watching Courtney’s career from afar,” she says. “There were some moments where I was literally sitting at a table with friends weeping, going, ‘I don’t know if I can do this’ … Most human beings would stop that relationship and go, this is actually not good for my mental health.

“But I think that would have been a really premature response based on the short-term pain of missing someone and feeling very lonely. And being on the road touring with someone – it’s not what people think it is. It’s not a holiday with a few gigs. It’s relentless lack of sleep, late nights and early mornings, and I’m amazed that Courtney came through it relatively unscathed, because it’s fucking hard work.”

I point to the wedding band on her finger, and ask if she and Barnett married overseas, when Cloher joined Barnett for a stint on the west coast of the United States. “We haven’t got married,” she says. “We feel very much married, but the law in this country won’t permit us to get married, so we’re just wearing the wedding bands and calling each other wives until the law catches up.”

In a way, their union was preordained. Barnett first saw Cloher at the Falls Festival in Hobart, when she was still in high school. “Will you marry me?” she yelled at Cloher (who says she didn’t hear her from the stage). Later, when Barnett moved to Melbourne, they became acquainted. “We led very different lives when we first met, so I don’t think either of us thought it would be a plausible option,” Barnett says.

Both have since written extensively with and about each other – love songs, some devotional; others humorous. Barnett’s Pickles From The Jar writes of their chalk-and-cheese personalities: “We couldn’t be more contrary if we tried.” It culminates with these lines: “You say Christopher, I say Walken / You love, I love Christopher Walken / I guess at least we have got one thing in common.”

CLOHER’S new album is self-titled and features her nude on the cover, back to camera, cradling her guitar. The meaning is so obvious it hardly needs spelling out. “The main objective was to be as honest as I could be. Unflinchingly so,” she says. In several songs, she addresses her jealousy and admiration of Barnett with the same emotional honesty of her Medium post.

“I checked in with Courtney when I was writing the first draft of these songs [and] she was like, just go for it,” she says. “That’s the great thing about Courtney. She gets that it’s not our relationship; it’s just a song. It’s a little picture postcard of one aspect, but no one will really ever know what our relationship is … The more open and transparent you are, the safer you are. There’s nothing unsafe about telling the truth.”

Later, I ask Barnett if a song like the lead single Forgot Myself – which features the lines, “There’s only so much you can say in a text / Reading between the lines is hazardous / A slow reply can really mess with your head / I was feeling kinda free, now I’m desperate” – caused more than the usual degree of angst around the dinner table when she got home.

“I’ve never really taken offence to it because it’s all honest,” she says. “I get the parts that might seem a bit brutal, but I think it’s very fair and intelligently spoken, which just makes me love it. So, I don’t think so. And she was pretty open about writing them around me and singing them, so I heard them develop over time as she sat around writing.”

FOR a number of years between her first and second albums, Cloher left Melbourne to care for her mother in New Zealand, who was dying of Alzheimer’s disease. The long goodbye – as the illness is colloquially known among support organisations, carers and family members – took the wind out of Cloher’s career, although it gave her many songs.

One of them, Hold My Hand, revolves around a circular conversation between her parents. Her mother asks her father how they met. He explains: “Well my dear, it was cold / Shivering, nearly snow / You wore my favourite coat.” But her mother forgets the story as soon as it is told: “Did I dear? I forgot / Did our love begin there? / How did we meet again?”

Love, Cloher says, is not merely a reward, or a balm we use to soothe. The last song on her new album is called Dark Art, and it is about selflessness: “The other side to love’s joy is shadow / Jealousy, fear, loss, anger, sorrow / If we never stay to sit in love’s shadow / A part of you will always be hollow.” It could apply to caring for an ailing parent as much as it could to supporting a partner in their career.

Surely, Cloher must have wondered when she would finally get her turn. “Growing up means suffering,” she says firmly. “The human experience is full of suffering, and yet we have this weird idea that life should never have any hard times, that it should just be this lovely rainbow paradise.” She quotes another line from her album: “Life is the great leveller. No one will escape.”

The previous night at the RSL, the band tore through a song by the Go-Betweens, Love Goes On! Uncharacteristically, Cloher forgets a few lines: “The people next door got their problems / They got things they can’t name / I know a thing about lovers / Lovers don’t feel any shame / Late at night when the lights are low / The candle burns to the end / I know a thing about darkness / Darkness ain’t my friend.”

But, as the chorus goes, love goes on anyway.

First published in Spectrum (The Age/Sydney Morning Herald), 29 July 2017

Ed Kuepper honoured with re-naming of Brisbane park

The cultural contribution of Ed Kuepper to the city of Brisbane is set to be formally recognised, with a park close to his childhood home in the south-western suburb of Oxley set to be named in his honour.

Ed Kuepper Park – the sign for which is now being made – adjoins Oxley Road and Lawson Street. The name was approved by the council after a petition by local resident Maurice Murphy quickly gathered more than 800 signatures.

Kuepper, who was born in Bremen, West Germany before migrating with his parents to Australia in 1960 aged four, co-founded the Saints with singer Chris Bailey and drummer Ivor Hay in 1973. The group wrote many of their classics in the Kueppers’ garage.

Their single (I’m) Stranded and the subsequent album of the same name, recorded in 1976, is recognised as a cornerstone of the punk movement, even though the band was quick to disavow any association with it.

The band recorded two more internationally lauded albums for EMI, Eternally Yours and Prehistoric Sounds before splitting in late 1978, although Chris Bailey continues to record and tour using the Saints name.

Kuepper went on to the post-punk Laughing Clowns and a prolific solo career, nudging the top 40 with his 1991 album Honey Steel’s Gold and its accompanying single, The Way I Made You Feel.

He is touring in October under the name The Aints, a wry moniker he used on three albums in the early 1990s.

Murphy said councillor Steve Griffiths, of Moorooka ward, had not previously heard of either Kuepper or the Saints, but had been supportive and helped him through the application process.

On top of the park, there are further moves to have the Saints’ pivotal place in Brisbane’s musical history recognised.

John Willsteed – a multi-instrumental contributor on the Go-Betweens classic album 16 Lover’s Lane – has applied for state government funding to mark the band’s second rehearsal space, on the corner of inner-city Petrie Terrace and Milton Road.

This was a share house for Bailey, drummer Ivor Hay and Jeffrey Wegener, who went on to be a virtuoso drummer with the Laughing Clowns. It became a rehearsal space for the Saints and a place to play, since no one in Brisbane would book the band.

When someone hurled a brick through the front window in protest at the noise, it was boarded up with plywood, with Kuepper daubing the words “Club 76” on it.

Despite the club’s location, directly opposite police headquarters in what was then a notorious police state, Kuepper said the club was actually shut down by health and fire inspectors.

“I know that sounds funny, but it was because we didn’t have adequate toilets – there was only one toilet downstairs. And also the fire department; there were just issues in terms of general safety.

“What brought things to a head was … There wasn’t a lot going on in Brisbane at the time, so we starting get a whole bunch of people [we didn’t know] crashing it and we started experiencing problems.

“It started to get violent, there was a degree of unpleasantness, so we would have stopped anyway, had we not been planning on moving out of town.” The band left Brisbane for Sydney, then London shortly afterwards.

The Go-Betweens have already been officially immortalised in Brisbane via the Go Between Bridge, which links Hale Street in Milton to Montague Road in South Brisbane.

Willsteed said it was time the Saints were given similar credit.

“When we look at Brisbane’s cultural history in the last 50 years, internationally, the Saints [and] the Go-Betweens, whether we like them or not, they’re the names that always come up, so I think they’re inextricably linked,” he said.

“We have some kind of international reputation, thanks very much to them, and so I think we really should acknowledge it. People come from overseas knowing that this is the place where the Saints and the Go-Betweens came from.”

Willsteed said that if successful, the application would fund a mural on a wall along Upper Roma Street, a stone’s throw from Club 76 and around the corner from the location the cover photo and parts of the film clip for (I’m) Stranded were shot.

Kuepper said he was flattered, saying he thought it was important generally that artists were recognised in any city’s history.

“When I was a kid, I liked being pointed towards where certain things happened. A friend of mine was living across the road from Tony Worsley, who was a local hero, a 60s garage singer [with The Fabulous Blue Jays].

“That kind of thing really impressed me. So yes, I do think it’s nice having little plaques around to point out that such and such a person did this at a certain place, or this incident happened here or there. Be it arts or history, I like it.”

First published in The Guardian, 10 July 2017

(I’m) Stranded turns 40: the song that changed Brisbane

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.

First published in The Guardian, 14 September 2016

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.

“An absolute masterpiece”: the Triffids’ Born Sandy Devotional

Widely regarded as one of the finest Australian albums ever made, the Triffids’ second album Born Sandy Devotional turns 30 this month. Most famous for its beloved single Wide Open Road, the album uses the empty desolation of the Australian landscape, and particularly the band’s native Western Australia as a metaphor for loss and loneliness. To gauge its enduring influence, The Guardian asked 10 Australian musicians – both peers of the Triffids, and those that have grown up in the band’s shadow – to discuss one song each from Born Sandy Devotional’s 10 tracks.

Ben Salter (solo artist) on The Seabirds

“David McComb’s tempestuous holler kicks in immediately: ‘No foreign pair of dark sunglasses will ever shield you from the light that pierces your eyelids, the screaming of the gulls…’ That thousand-yard stare sensibility, that Australian feeling which permeates the entire album is firmly established. There’s a devastating electric guitar refrain which finally flattens out to one plaintive, repeated note, and the song ends with McComb’s anguished cry: ‘So where were you / Where were you / Where were you?’”

Robert McComb (guitar/violin, the Triffids, older brother of David McComb) on Estuary Bed

“Sometimes I feel like it’s my life, growing up in Perth. Which is why [David McComb] got some credit as an Australian songwriter, because he used those images – the hot sand, the salt on the skin, the sun on the sidewalk, burning their feet. It’s just my childhood, as it was his.” (From The Great Australian Albums documentary series)

Lindy Morrison (former drummer, the Go-Betweens) on Chicken Killer

“From the first snare beat at the end of the first line – ‘I knelt, I aimed, I missed, I ran’ – Martyn P Casey and Alsy Macdonald set a cracking, rolling rhythm that carries this wild tune to the finish line. Nick Mainsbridge was the engineer on the album, and I swear you hear his touch – ‘Just let them go,’ he would have thought. And David is as big and blustery and confident as ever as he sings for his lost love, with gorgeous imagery. It’s a shocking, sad, violent song of love and revenge.”

Sarah Spencer (keyboard player, Blank Realm) on Tarrilup Bridge

“Is this a live song? No, that’s spooky-as-hell canned applause at the start. So weird. Then a xylophone that mirrors the strange and beautiful elocution of Jill Birt’s vocals. Is she singing from beyond the grave? Yes, she drove off the bridge: “They say I’m going to be a big star. They’re making a movie about my life. And you’re going to play the starring part.” It’s the most gothic song on a goth album. Perhaps it’s a love song, or a dedication, to those driven over the edge.”

Steve Kilbey (the Church; solo artist) on Lonely Stretch

“You could not find a more Australian song than Lonely Stretch. Have you ever been lost at night in the bush? It all looks the same. The imagination starts to play its tricks. Ghosts of your former darlings seem to appear and your headlights pierce the night to reveal … Nothing! A monstrous epic of a song, Martyn Casey’s engine-like bass propelling it all along. Dave McComb, if you’re out there listening somewhere, I declare this to be the most vivid, crucial, exciting Aussie song of all time. Oh man, one that I really wish I could have written myself. An absolute masterpiece.”

Mia Dyson (solo artist; Dyson/Stringer/Cloher) on Wide Open Road

“I heard Wide Open Road as a kid, totally free and dancing around the living room. Years later my dear friend Jen Cloher re-introduced me to it and I fell in love all over again. It’s timeless, even though the production is very much of its time. It gives me the feeling that anything is possible and there’s a strength and defiance that I can carry with me as I navigate the endless forks in the road I encounter in my own life.”

Tamara Bell (guitarist, HITS) on Life Of Crime

“This aches, musically and lyrically, with those first young dalliances with lust – of desire’s convincing reassurance that giving in to it will reward a future brighter than any punishment. ‘I believe you will lead me to a life of crime’ is the utterance of the consentingly doomed. The lyric ‘My chest burning, rising, falling’ just stabs me – they speak of involuntary propulsion, addiction, and a lover’s regretful, inexorable abandonment of their better selves to whatever prize desire will yield, at whatever cost.”

David Bridie (Not Drowning, Waving; My Friend The Chocolate Cake) on Personal Things

“It’s not my favourite track off the record, but it has that Jacques Brel/Bertolt Brecht vibe that the Triffids occasionally tapped into, which I like – a slightly theatrical German cabaret feel. It’s got the cheesiest organ sound I’ve ever heard in my life, but the drums really kick it along. It’s like a waltz. I like the line ‘Some secrets of love you take to your bed, and others you take to your grave.’ The album works as a whole; there’s all these characters and short stories that made up the whole collection.”

Gareth Liddiard (the Drones, solo artist) on Stolen Property

“I sang this song for the Triffids gig [at the Perth International Arts Festival on 15 February]. It’s quite similar to what we would do because it runs on about three chords and then gets really abstract at the end. There’s a shift halfway through that always sends chills down my spine, where Dave sings, ‘Maybe lost possessions, maybe stolen property.’ It’s Dave losing someone, but regaining himself – like he’s had to steal himself off someone. He’s not lashing out aggressively, but he’s taking a stand – he’s sort of telling this person off, saying, ‘You know what – you’re fucked!’”

“Evil” Graeme Lee (keyboards, pedal steel, the Triffids) on Tender Is The Night (The Long Fidelity)

“I love the final part of that song, where he says, ‘Where you are, it will just be getting light.’ Which is an amazing way, in so few words, to say you’re not here, and I miss you.” (From The Great Australian Albums documentary series)

First published in The Guardian, 31 March 2016

“He was like a god”: Australian musicians mourn David Bowie

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.”

First published in The Guardian, 12 January 2016

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

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