Tagged: The Monthly

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

You can’t have me: why I said no to Crikey

Nearly 20 years ago, my first piece of journalism was published. For a music fan, it was an auspicious beginning: I saw a young You Am I supporting rock behemoths the Beasts of Bourbon at the Mansfield Tavern, one of those great suburban beer barns that gave up on live music long ago. One band was at its peak; the other scaling theirs. My review appeared in a Brisbane street paper, and I was paid $35.

My path was set. Before the cheque had cleared I had spent it, down to the last cent, on an anthology of rock & roll writing. In it, I was introduced to all the greats of the genre: Nick Kent, Lester Bangs, Deborah Frost, Ellen Willis, Greil Marcus and the godfather of music criticism, Crawdaddy! founder Paul Williams, who had a significant personal impact on me. Collectively, these writers taught me everything I knew.

I could always string a decent sentence together, but it still took me years to find my own voice. Like most writers, musicians and artists, I derive little enjoyment from looking back at early work. There can’t be too many rawer forms of growing up in public, and while I still enjoy writing about music, it’s not often these days that I write straight reviews of records or shows, as I did with this piece on Television.

I was pleased with the piece and sent it to The Monthly, who knocked it back on the perfectly reasonable grounds that they already had a music writer. Undaunted, I then offered it to Crikey’s Weekender section. It wasn’t right for that, either, but encouragingly, they handballed it to the just-appointed editor of The Daily Review, Crikey’s newest forthcoming offshoot.

On the same day, a piece written by Tim Kreider for the New York Times appeared on my Facebook feed. I read it with interest. His story was depressingly familiar. “I now contribute to some of the most prestigious publications in the English-speaking world, for which I am paid the same amount as, if not less than, I was paid by my local alternative weekly when I sold my first piece of writing for print in 1989,” he said.

Readers of this blog will know that additions have become rarer in recent times. That’s because it’s almost always unpaid work. When I do get paid, it’s because a piece has been picked up and run elsewhere. Others are sad orphans, rejected by all and sundry, with nowhere else to go. Occasionally, I write something purely for its own sake, but not too often. There is too much other work to be done.

The other reason new entries have been sparse is more personal. For the first half of this year I was caught up in another one of those annoying battles with depression that flatten me from time to time. And a big part of that malaise was the dire state of my industry. I was 42, about to get married (my partner and I accomplished this milestone three weeks ago), and still driving a cab two nights a week to keep going.

The editor of The Daily Review contacted me with what appeared on the face of it to be a plum gig. Writing like mine, he said, was exactly what he wanted to publish. He’d seen the Television piece, and knew of my book. Would I like to be the website’s music writer, covering everything from big stadium events to smaller shows that might be worthy of wider exposure? Jobs such as this are rare indeed.

What’s more, I adore Crikey. A day is not complete without a good laugh (or occasional cry) at cartoonist First Dog on the Moon and a hot, caffeinated shot of federal politics from Bernard Keane. It’s smart, acerbic, funny, and asks questions the old media often won’t, or has forgotten how to. And Eric Beecher, the chair of Private Media, is one of the smartest media minds in the country, as well as a deadly earnest chronicler of journalism’s decline.

What’s coming will probably surprise no one. The Daily Review had no budget for contributors. Submissions would be accepted on a copy-share basis, so that anything published on the site would also appear here on Friction. There was the vaguely hopeful prospect, but not a promise, that I might be paid “something at least” when advertising increased at some time in the undetermined future. I’ve heard that one before.

Twenty years, I thought, and my asking rate has gone from $35 to zero.

Do I need to add it would be great exposure? I have no doubt plenty of eyeballs would have been drawn to this blog that weren’t looking before. And of course, there were all the free gigs I could handle, which actually was reasonably enticing, what with Leonard Cohen touring and the summer festival season at hand. But I have been doing this too long to be in it for the tickets.

What was implied, but unsaid, was that I would also attract eyeballs, and advertising, to The Daily Review. Is it arrogant to point out that I have 20 years’ experience, and have built a reasonable reputation within my field? Isn’t that what normal people do when they fill in selection criteria, submit resumes, and attend interviews? In this case, there was no need: for the first time in my working life, I’d been headhunted.

The sealer was this: the editor (a decent fellow who’d been around the traps for long enough himself; none of this epic complaint letter is directed at him) had sent out a plea on Twitter for a Brisbane-based music writer, and received many enthusiastic replies from people who frankly sounded a lot like me 20 years ago. But that wasn’t what he was after: he wanted “a Crikey-quality writer/reviewer”. And apparently I was the man.

I spoke to him on the phone the next day – after less than a full night’s sleep, having already changed my mind half a dozen times – and told him as politely as I could that if that was the case, then it was reasonable to ask for Crikey-quality rates. These are, by industry standards, rather low, but I said that would be OK, because I respected and believed in the publication, and loved the idea of writing for it regularly.

The editor understood, but there was nothing he could do, other than suggest that if content also suited the main Crikey site, I could be published on that as well, and thus be paid for those pieces. That amounted to the status quo. I suggested a three-month trial – doesn’t everything have a free trial period these days? Again, the spreadsheet said no. I didn’t want to waste any more of his time, or mine, so we paid our regrets, and left it at that.

I’d like to say this was an easy call. It wasn’t. After a while, one gets desperate for the smallest morsel of validation; even the most opaque promises of future reward can make the pot of gold seem close at hand. The desperate are just as easily exploited as the young and keen. But I have spent enough time in my life chasing rainbows. Besides, how would I justify working for free, at my age, to my newly betrothed?

I also thought of my peers, friends and colleagues. If I took the job, I would become complicit in undermining their careers, as well as mine. It felt like providing scab labour, just when so-called content creators were beginning to man the picket lines. I accept that, in writing this, I’m unlikely to get too many more offers from Crikey, but it feels more important to join the chorus of voices saying enough is enough.

I don’t know anything about the business models or balance sheets of Private Media, who publish Crikey. But I think it’s fair to assume that at some point, its principals, Beecher included, sat down in a room together, made a conscious decision to expand their arts and culture coverage, and sallied forth on this new adventure with no budget to remunerate the people best qualified to do the job. This is journalism on credit.

I fail to see how such a strategy does not leave Private Media in the same murky territory as, say, Mia Freedman’s Mamamia (see note and clarification below). Freedman (whom, incidentally, Keane never misses a chance to give a good kicking on Twitter) has done extremely well out of creating the sort of personal cult around herself that her followers are sadly only too honoured to pay homage to in the form of free content.

Unfortunately, I am sure The Daily Review will have no trouble attracting some bright young thing to do the job. There is always someone out there talented and enthusiastic enough, possibly still living at home, unburdened by the responsibilities of adult life. I’ve been watching them skate past me for years. But, while I can’t eat integrity, I couldn’t swallow what was being served up here, either.

(Update: this piece has been reprinted by mUmBRELLA, where Crikey editor Jason Whittaker has left a response.)

(Update #2: this piece has also been reprinted by Collapse Board.)

(Update #3: Mia Freedman has left the following response on mUmBRELLA):

“Hi Andrew,

I agree with Tim: don’t do anything for free if you don’t see a mutual benefit.

However you are incorrect in stating that Mamamia does not pay for content. We do and have been for some time now.

Mamamia and ivillage also employ 10 full time journalists, 8 part-time journalists and a growing number of regular columnists.

We are in the process of hiring more journos at a time when most major media organisations are making them redundant.

Would appreciate you correcting that.”

Apologies to Mia: I missed the news last July that, following prolonged criticism, Mamamia would begin paying its contributors a flat $50 fee for articles. However, as someone who was paid exactly ten times that amount – in 1995! – for my first op-ed column in a newspaper, and never less than $350 since, I have to say (as many others have already) that Mia’s insistence that “newspapers and magazines have traditionally not paid writers of opinion content” is simply not true. I find that a baffling assertion from a professional with so many years in the industry. I’m also sceptical that a profitable and exceptionally popular website that employs 18 journalists is somehow absolved from paying its contributors a fairer rate because it is “not a big media corporation”. Less than 12 months ago, Freedman defended not paying her contributors on the grounds that they were instead receiving, you guessed it, valuable “exposure”. Unfortunately, judging by the comments stream, many of Mamamia‘s fans still consider it an honour to write for the site for nix. So I’m letting that second-last paragraph stand, with a direction to this clarification…

(Update #4: A group of long-serving Crikey bloggers have penned an open letter to freelance writers, imploring them NOT to contribute to The Daily Review. One of the bloggers, Bethanie Blanchard – founder of Liticism – has had a planned paid piece on writer Christos Tsiolkos spiked by Crikey, although Crikey claims this is coincidental. The story has also been reported by The Australian (paywalled).