Grant & I

Grant & I: Inside and Outside The Go-Betweens
By Robert Forster
[Omnibus Press]

In 1983, an up-and-coming band released an album of smart, jangly music way outside the mainstream that somehow found an audience and presaged a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame career. I’m referring to R.E.M.’s Murmur.

The same year a promising Australian group called The Go-Betweens released Before Hollywood, a stunning work of similarly poetic, melody-dripped guitar-based rock. Did anyone notice? Yes. Then The Go-Betweens’ British label, Rough Trade, became infatuated with a new signee, another band combining angular guitar and literary lyrics: The Smiths. Rough Trade declined to release a follow-up Go-Betweens LP.

That’s rock ‘n’ roll. R.E.M. and The Smiths are canonical, while The Go-Betweens, when remembered outside Australia, are a footnote. You can’t even find Before Hollywood on Spotify. Yet that album stands as a timeless work of the post-punk era, along with much of the 1980s output of the band’s two writing and singing talents: Robert Forster and Grant McLennan. Go-Betweens music is gorgeous and personal, urgent and catchy as hell – a well-crafted Australian combination of Lou Reed, Ray Davies and David Byrne. Their songs are also off-kilter, plaintive and often folksy, which is what doomed the band to the periphery in a decade defined by drum machines and Wham! There’s only so much space in the charts for moodiness and idiosyncrasy.

“The era of the obsession with time-keeping was upon us, automated recording and mixing desks and synthesizers forcing the requirement of absolute accuracy in the drums; no ‘feel’ was allowed,” Forster writes in Grant & I: Inside and Outside The Go-Betweens.

Forster, 60, the surviving member of the pair, has developed a second career as a music journalist. A collection of his pieces, The 10 Rules of Rock and Roll, was published in 2009. In writing Grant & I, Forster could have penned a bitchy memoir about being underappreciated. Instead, he’s written a beautiful book about songwriting, his friendship with McLennan and their music career, in which nothing went quite right financially. For The Go-Betweens, being in a rock ‘n’ roll band meant modest sales and getting dropped by record labels. For Forster, it meant walking around London with plastic bags on his feet because his Chelsea boots leaked. That was in 1986, the year R.E.M. released Lifes Rich Pageant, their first gold album.

Forster mentions reading, libraries and magazine stands in this book more times than I recall Keith Richards referencing groupies in his memoir, Life (seriously, check the index). So Forster cites Richard Ellmann’s biography of James Joyce to explain his acceptance of the idea that devotion to art potentially means a life of sacrifice. “Joyce, committed to his work and vision, leaves his hometown Dublin for a life of travel, exile, money struggles, and the slow recognition of the greatness of his work. This immediately sounded familiar to me. The story of the Go-Betweens wasn’t going to be mirrored in rock biographies in the life of The Rolling Stones or Pink Floyd, with the flush starts and fame. Our path would follow another model, ‘the wrong road,’ as Grant would one day sing – progress made in zigzag shape, foreign cities seen in poverty, all nerves tested.”

Here is a major theme of the book, which lifts it to a level well above the typical rock memoir: To be an artist is to burn with creative passion, regardless of payoff possibilities. Funny how that message gets lost in memoirs written by the inhabitants of Northern California ranches (Neil Young) or Connecticut mansions (Richards).

Forster further addresses this notion in “Born to a Family,” a 2005 Go-Betweens song about himself and his bandmate:

Born to a family, a family of workers
Born to a family of honest workers.
Then I came along, golden boy who belonged
And changed the system of honest workers.
I was square into the hole, there was something in my soul
What could I do? But follow the calling. 

Forster and McLennan were a superb pair of songwriters who clicked in the magical way partners sometimes do. McLennan penned smoother, poppier tunes, but to my mind, his “Cattle and Cane,” written in a crazy time signature, is the most evocative song about Australia this side of “Waltzing Matilda.” Forster’s output was sharper, darker, more Dylanesque.

The book’s climax is McLennan’s death in 2006 at age 48, ostensibly of a heart attack. There are rumors it was drug-related, but as Forster noted in interviews, the only drug use in the book he references are his own (he contracted Hepatitis C). Of McLennan’s death, Forster wrote: “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?”

The Go-Betweens had one last shot at fame in 1989 after the release of 16 Lovers Lane. Trying to parlay the single “Streets of Your Town” into a desperately needed hit, the band accepted record company tour support to play a string of gigs in Europe with … R.E.M. Tour support is an advance on future royalties, a bet on success.

How badly did their bet go? For 26 years afterward, Forster writes, The Go-Betweens collected no royalties outside Australia for three of their albums because they were still paying back the 40,000 pound advance.