Robert Forster’s memoir of Grant McLennan is a love-story, pitch-perfect in its telling of the story of their early years and of McLennan’s slow decline. Forster and McLennan were the two singer-songwriters in Australian band The Go-Betweens, active from the late 1970s until McLennan’s death in 2006. I’ve been fond of their best-known songs for a long time, but never an obsessive or completist fan, and so I might not be the target audience for the book; but the extract that appeared in Rolling Stone hooked me in.
What’s perfect in the early chapters is the balance he strikes between being judging the young Forster for his naivety, foolishness, and idealism, and presenting a sympathetic account. They arrived in London in 1979 without a clue about how the English music business worked: ‘We’d travelled sixteen thousand kilometres to advance the career of the band without bringing one telephone number.’ Forster never completely robs the young muscians of agency or intelligence, but he also gives a sense of how out of their depth they potentially were.
Throughout the book Forster is completely confident in his belief in the value of what the Go-Betweens achieved, and in the relative merits of their albums. Memoirs of this sort can sink into score-settling with critics and other musicians, but Forster has a settled and clear-eyed evaluation of the band’s work and complete confidence that the reader shares it. He recognises that some albums suffered from the standard practices of the music industry at the time, and gives a very revealing account of the making of Spring Hill Fair at Miraval studios in the south of France: confident and subtle drummer Lindy being replaced by a drum-machine; the painstaking and painful recording process sucking out the band’s unity and spontaneity. He’s also clear about the problem the band had in a market where most successful bands had a clearly identifiable front-man who would engage with the media and in other ways be the voice of the band: The Go-Betweens had two singers writing songs in distinct styles and singing them in very different voices. Yet while he’s clear about these things, some things about The Go-Betweens apparently remain a mystery to him, as if the whole constituted something greater than the sum of its parts (as is always the case with great bands) and he doesn’t know how it came to be.
There’s also an interesting double-vision about McLennan. Forster and he worked closely together from first meeting in the late 1970s through to the split of the band in 1989; and again from 1996 to 2006, and in some respects Forster has great clarity about McLennan’s qualities as a person and as a songwriter. But as a person he was also profoundly private in some respects, and throughout Forster also conveys a sense of his unfathomability — ‘mystery’ would suggest that he was putting on an act. Forster never comes across as frustrated by this quality; he seems early on to have accepted it.
Even the most uncommitted of fans of the band will know, as I did, that McLennan died of a heart attack at the age of 48, quite unexpectedly, and this event hangs over the entire account, darkening every moment. Forster makes clear that McLennan wasn’t mentally or physically in good shape in his final years — in particular, he was drinking more frequently — but the shock of his death is still there. The narrative of the final third of the memoir is shaped by a sense that Forster had left behind his wilder years, having been given a wake-up call by a hepatitis-C diagnosis and by meeting his wife Karin, while McLennan became the more reckless and wild one.
In spite of McLennan’s unfathomability, the narrative comes across as a platonic love-story from the beginning, and Forster hits the nail on the head in the closing pages. He reflects on the last time they spoke face to face, with no expectation that McLennan would die days later. The last words were casual words, Forster having noticed a copy of the New York Review of Books in McLennan’s letterbox: ‘I’ll lend you some’.
I’ll lend you some. Our friendship was grounded in that. And more often than not, the outstretched hand was his. The first thing I gave him, I think, was the sight of a person he knew doing something artistically valid: playing ‘Karen’ in a Battle of the Bands competition, at a very particular point in his life. He then did what I did — wrote and sang songs — and we created the most romantic thing two heterosexual men can, a pop group. Between us it was always an exchange, and his last words to me in person honoured that.
Although the memoir ends with McLennan’s death and funeral, and Forster doesn’t dwell on the loss, he is also moving in his account of it.
I found out that when someone dies the conversation with them doesn’t necessarily end there. How can you listen and talk to a close friend, exchange songs with them, for almost three decades, for their voice to vanish in a moment? There’s an echo. For four days I had Grant in my head. It was as if an earpiece were plugged in, with him intermittently on the line.
I’m not sure Grant & I would appeal to someone who knew nothing at all of the band: it was particularly powerful for me because, when Forster discussed the songs that I know, they came back into my head; and so much of my reading of it has been mentally accompanied by ‘Cattle and Cane’ and ‘Bachelor Kisses’. But it doesn’t assume intimate knowledge of the band’s history or their songs; what matters is the relationship.
(To my great surprise, the book hasn’t been published in the UK, but it can be obtained through bookdepository.com)