Tracey Thorn’s ‘My Rock ‘n’ Roll Friend’, newly published by Canongate, tells the story of her 37-year friendship with Go-Betweens drummer Lindy Morrison. Melissa Harrison reviews.
It’s a no-no, in the broadsheets, to review books written by one’s friends: too much mutual back-scratching, too great a risk of offence, and most importantly, far too little objectivity brought to bear. So I’ll begin by saying that Tracey is a friend of mine: in fact, she is my rock ‘n’ roll friend. But as well as a perceptive and complex account of a long friendship, her fourth book is about the way an older woman can light the way for a younger one, as she and others do for me; in addition, it’s a book that challenges the whole idea of ‘objectivity’ when it comes to culture, and thus the authority of the voices that act as gatekeepers. Because we know now – don’t we? – that anyone who believes their opinions are objective isn’t worth listening to: every one of us is a bundle of blind spots and biases, personal associations, memories, fears and wounds. My Rock ‘n’ Roll Friend makes clear that the refusal to acknowledge those biases is partly what’s made the male-dominated music industry (and many others) so poisonous for women for so long.
Tracey Thorn met Lindy Morrison, the drummer in Australian indie band The Go-Betweens, backstage at the Lyceum in 1983. Still at university, a nervous Thorn was about to go on stage with the Marine Girls following a bruising encounter with a road crew; Lindy, tall, loud and 11 years older, was in search of a lipstick before her band’s set. ‘You looked like confidence ran in your veins. You looked like self-belief in a mini-skirt,’ Thorn writes. They would forge a deep, sustaining and transformative friendship, first in London where The Go-Betweens shared a flat with some of The Birthday Party, and then, when the band returned to Australia, via visits, holidays and letters sent from tour buses and gig venues all over the world. Along with her diaries and some of the teenage Lindy’s letters to herself, this multi-decade correspondence is a gold mine which Thorn draws on to tell the story of their relationship, full of love, humour, books, and the slower, richer, unrecoverable texture of the pre-internet world.
The book also sets the record straight about The Go-Betweens. Because Lindy was effectively written out of the story: three years after splitting up with the lead singer, she was sacked from the band, and since then, their creation myth has been transformed to almost entirely erase her. In righting the wrong Thorn strikes a blow for all the women who have seen their lives reduced to a cameo in a man’s story. I suspect this clear-eyed retelling will make a lot of people uncomfortable. I hope so.
In I Am A Cliché, the Poly Styrene biopic, Poly is shown responding to various reductive questions from male interviewers who seem unable to see her as fully human: to them she is a novelty, a freak, ‘othered’ with every exchange, trapped like a specimen in a shatterproof glass vitrine – a situation many female musicians will have recognised, but which might have been new to male viewers, unused to the centring of female experience and the uncomfortable light it casts on the world. But there was one scene in particular that stuck with me, in which Poly goes to a party at her heroes The Sex Pistols’ house. It’s full of creative, brilliant misfits, like she is: mostly male, but all people who should have been interested in her, should have had her back. What she finds there, though, is in-jokes, laddish banter and a dismissive atmosphere; she can’t find a way to join the conversation not because she has nothing to contribute, but because they won’t let her in. When she slips away into the bathroom, she isn’t missed. She shaves her head: it is the beginning of a breakdown. When she emerges, the men laugh.
The reason the scene stayed with me is not its shock value but its banal familiarity, after 13 years spent working at a music magazine. Both I Am A Cliché and My Rock ‘n’ Roll Friend ask us to witness the creation of a subtle dynamic from which women are excluded unless they are given the dubious honour of being ‘one of the lads’, a game whose invisible rules shift along lines designed ultimately to create and protect a narrative being told by men, about men. That narrative is one in which women can only ever be objects, never subjects: whether reviled or revered, we are deviations from the norm. And that distorts everything, skewing our own, lived reality and tugging it out from under our feet. For women in male-dominated worlds, fighting to retain a sense of our differing, innate value can be exhausting. Some of us switch sides, or learn to tune out the labour – but even that takes its toll.
My Rock ‘n’ Roll Friend is a joyful account of female friendship and a fascinating insider’s account of a musical era, and it sparkles with Thorn’s customary insight, humour and eye for telling detail. It also offers a glimpse of a different reality from the one we’re usually offered, and that kind of glimpse can open a door. Because the fact is, it matters when the history of pop and rock is predominantly written by men and boys who can’t help but centre the stories that make them feel good, or that they recognise. It matters when the contributions women make are reduced, glossed over, or excised. It matters when female artists are asked more questions about motherhood or sexism or their personal lives than about their creative process; when the people sent to interview women talk over us, fail to listen, fail to do the basic imaginative legwork to meet us where we are. It adds up to a subtly pervasive form of social gaslighting that keeps us largely at the margins, and we can’t escape it if we can’t see how it works.
In liberating the story of the extraordinary, unique, brilliant Lindy Morrison from the dreary distortions wreaked on so many of us, Thorn offers her readers a challenge, and a question: what if women were just… people? What would the world look like then?
‘My Rock ‘n’ Roll Friend’ is out now, and available from your local independent bookshop, or via bookshop.org.
You can read Tracey Thorn’s archival writings for Caught by the River here.
Melissa Harrison’s debut children’s book, ‘By Ash, Oak and Thorn’, is published on 1 May. Pre-order a copy here.