Grant & I: Inside and Outside The Go-Betweens by Robert Forster
(Omnibus Press, paperback, 352 pages. Out now)
Review by Kevin Pearce
Grace is the word that immediately springs to mind reading Grant & I. It is a book full of grace, leading on to being graceful and gracious.
Remarkably Robert’s story, with him as the narrator, comes across pretty much as one would hope the man might in real life: rather romantic, incredibly charming, very courteous, a little aloof, definitely enigmatic, perhaps elusive, sometimes self-deprecating, often defiantly arrogant, wonderfully wry and pleasingly discreet. How often does that happen when reading personal histories?
Musical memoirs must be big business. There is, after all, a glut of them around. The aristocratic publishing house of Faber & Faber has in its recent catalogue titles relating to The Fall, Sonic Youth, Throbbing Gristle, The Slits and Spacemen 3, which suggests the old way out is very much the new way in. Robert Forster’s book is published in the UK by Omnibus, a rather more downmarket company than Faber, but it is easy to imagine the author thinking: “Well, these people put out Up-Tight: The Velvet Underground Story when it mattered, and there is a Jimmy Webb memoir in the pipeline, so I just might feel at home here”.
That Robert Forster writes well will not really come as any surprise. But in some ways that must have made the pressure on the author far greater. And he would no doubt have sat, with leather-bound notebook in hand, determined to come up with something as special as Patti Smith’s Just Kids, as Bob Dylan’s Chronicles, as Tracey Thorn’s Bedsit Disco Queen. Then there was the solemn promise to Grant McLennan, the vow to tell their story, the pledge to capture the spirit of The Go-Betweens on paper. Now what was that phrase about grace under pressure?
This is the story of Robert and Grant, not just old friends, but for a long time dear companions and creative colleagues in The Go-Betweens, one of the great pop groups. So this is not just a book about a rock ‘n’ roll band and a particular period of time, but an account of a deep, long friendship, its inevitable ups-and-downs, all the round-and-rounds, and effectively it is a story of love.
It is a tale Robert told briefly in his beautiful elegiac essay ‘A True Hipster’, written very shortly after Grant’s death. And he tells it again here in more detail, but not too much. There may be people who will want more gore, but Robert is careful about what he gives away, which is fine for those of us more interested, say, in how Chet Baker sings ‘A Taste of Honey’ than in what he got up to in his spare time.
The book starts with Robert’s account of growing up in suburban Brisbane. His style of writing is beautifully spare, and the tone feels a little like a lost Willa Cather novel. In fact, reading it straight after finishing a couple of Elizabeth Strout titles, Robert’s early years, how he met Grant, how the group got going, the way Robert relates all this makes perfect sense. It would be wonderful to read in more depth about that time. Similarly, selfishly, it would be great to have an entire book, rather than half-a-dozen enchanting pages, by Robert on The Go-Betweens’ short stay in (Funky) Glasgow in the spring of 1980 among the Postcard Records milieu.
As befits an author obsessed by pop trivia, the book provides great detail on The Go-Betweens’ recording and performing career. The group’s very many fans, old and new, will love all this, but at times Robert’s story does emphasise how deadly dull the routine of writing, rehearsing, recording, promoting, and touring can be. Even Robert’s elegant prose cannot hide the fact that the rock ‘n’ roll treadmill must be more tiresome than clerical life in a succession of non-descript offices. How anyone comes out from all that touring sane is a miracle.
Often with The Go-Betweens’ songs, it will be certain lines that seem to jump out and demand attention, rather than, say, a set of lyrics as a whole. And so it is with Robert’s book. There are some fantastic passages, killer one-liners, and very memorable anecdotes, which one suspects will be repeated remorselessly, and rightly so.
There at the start is the young Robert with his blue Dansette record player and three scratched Creedence singles. It is no wonder he felt an immediate affinity with the Postcard gang on arriving in Glasgow and finding Edwyn Collins on his hands and knees in front of an old record player listening intently to John Fogerty’s ‘Almost Saturday Night’. One can immediately imagine those scenes.
Another great story features a one-off Two-Lane Blacktop trip across Australia, stopping off to buy a copy of Playboy featuring a Bob Dylan interview, the one in which he describes the Blonde On Blonde music as ‘that wild mercury sound’ which was adapted by Robert into ‘that striped sunlight sound’ for The Go-Betweens. There is a gentle wistfulness to Robert’s writing about the group’s early days, back when ‘anxiety was waiting on a Magazine LP date’. The arrival of Lindy Morrison changed everything, and she just happened to be the most inventive drummer going – a formidable force who transformed The Go-Betweens’ lives.
After writing so long in the condensed lyric form it must have been an odd luxury to stretch out in a book, and share so many anecdotes and insights. The reader will be there cheering when Robert nicks a rogue Nic Roeg x-ray (‘It’s as close as Grant & I ever get to the British film industry!’). Many of us will understand what he means when describing Orange Juice as ‘steel-souled’ and his own group’s music as clattering and fractured. We will be with Robert when he recalls hearing Grant sing ‘Cattle and Cane’ for the first time. The Go-Betweens’ fans will know that he is right to say that John Brand ‘rained colour through the group’s music’. And then and then and then.
There is a lovely story about being invited to meet Lee Remick at Elizabeth Bay in Sydney, a setting in contrast to the squats and bedsits that were home in the 1980s amid what Robert describes as the ‘poverty and flash’ of London’s pop underground, with so many kings in mirrors, where The Go-Betweens really were royalty on the scene, massive towering figures, literally, incredibly popular but taken for granted perhaps.
He is very good at describing life in London – how the ghost of Val Doonican, a previous tenant, hovered by the fireplace of their Highbury Grange flat, reinforcing their anti-r’nr credentials; how Robert and Lindy would carry home bags of books from Islington library to devour over long, lazy days. And how by the time they recorded Liberty Belle and the Black Diamond Express they were making music and living lives that demanded strings. Hence the arrival of Amanda Brown, whose beauty had men bumping into walls, with ladders crashing all around: ‘She trailed a sense of destruction behind her, another Go-Betweens virtue’. Wonderful!
One great game to play with the book is to track Robert’s influences and passions, and he knows very well these things matter. It is tempting to recite them now, but that would spoil the fun. What is worth mentioning is a magical morning the group spent visiting the HQ of Capitol Records in LA, where Robert ‘got to talk to someone in accounts in touch with the reclusive singer-songwriter genius Bobbie Gentry.’ That is a lovely detail. And how many people in the music business mention someone from the accounts department in their memoir? Somehow that seems a commendably Robert F. touch, and again almost like a line from one of his songs.
Balance has always been a very Go-Betweens word, and it is fascinating to trace how the balance of the group evolved as the line-up changed. One theme throughout the book, which Robert carefully draws out, is the balance in The Go-Betweens in terms of personalities, and the relationship between Robert and Grant turns out to be more pleasantly complicated than might be imagined. Onstage, yes, Robert was the flamboyant showman, with Grant as the serious straight man, but in real life Robert seems to have been the strategist busy scheming, with Grant the dreamer happy to drift.
At one point Robert writes: ‘I saw more of Grant but knew him less’. It is intriguing that the two together were so reserved, avoiding confrontation, which maybe left too many things unsaid, and allowed issues to fester, but also enabled them to part company at the end of the 1980s without any dramatic recriminations. Is that the best way to carry on? Who knows?
The final third of the book is fascinating. Robert calls it The Go-Betweens’ second act, and he provokes terrible twinges of guilt and remorse here, having left during the interval after the first act, wandering off when The Go-Betweens disbanded for the first time. So this part of the story was pretty much all new, and suggests some special moments were missed and some serious catching up is in order.
Robert is tactful throughout the book, and it must have been tough to describe honestly Grant’s gradual fraying, his unravelling, and the book’s denouement is desperately moving. If the reader ends up crying hopelessly it is partly through a sense of being cheated of the image of two old men, one in a white shirt and black shoes, with his now naturally silver hair combed straight, and another bringing by a recent copy of the New York Review of Books, dressed in a plaid flannel shirt, battered baseball cap, and last year’s jeans. The pair exchange the customary Ian Hunter greeting of ‘allo, and there really is no need to say much more, so they sit quietly on the verandah for a while, sipping something cool, watching the sun set. That’s how the story should have ended. But life eh, what can you say?
Grant & I is available here in the Caught by the River shop for the special price of £15.00.
You can hear Robert Forster perform and talk of his musical life, art and books at the Shaw Theatre in London on Monday 25th September. Pete Paphides will be chairing the chat. Unmissable we say. Buy a ticket here.