Grant & I: Inside and Outside the Go-Betweens

Robert Forster

Grant & I: Inside and Outside the Go-Betweens
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Grant & I: Inside and Outside the Go-Betweens

Robert Forster

Grant and I is the story of the friendship and collaboration of Grant McLennan and Robert Forster, who gave Australia The Go-Betweens, one of our best and most influential bands.

The 1980s songwriting partnership of McLennan/Forster was a little like an Australian Lennon/McCartney. The pair wrote all the band’s distinctively original material and, like their more famous counterparts, shared the credits and alternated on lead vocals; both also played guitar. They formed The Go-Betweens in Brisbane in 1977, in possibly the quirkiest of all rock-band beginnings, before disbanding in 1989. A second incarnation, with Robert and Grant the constant in both lineups, endured from 2000 to 2006, the year of Grant’s premature death.

Grant and I is an extraordinary portrait of an intense, creative, sometimes fraught friendship that represented a genuine meeting of artistic minds. Robert and Grant were arts undergraduates at Queensland uni in the seventies, where they bonded through a shared passion for literature and film. (Their band name was taken from L.P. Hartley’s novel of the same name, and much of their material was inspired by other cultural works.)

In this book the reader is given a front-row seat at the sessions that produced an incredibly prolific and diverse song catalogue, and is also taken backstage to the sometimes troubled rise and fall of the band itself.

A cult band in the eighties, The Go-Betweens were described at the time by a critic for New York’s Village Voice as having ‘the greatest songwriting partnership working today’. Jonathan Franzen is a fan, and in 2001 their song ‘Cattle and Cane’ was selected by the Australasian Performing Right Association as one of the top thirty Australian songs of all time. The band released nine studio albums, including their best known, 16 Lovers Lane (1988), and three live albums.

Just as The Go-Betweens were like no other Australian group, so this book is like no other music memoir. It is wise and witty, poignant, insightful, self-deprecating and knowledgeable. Robert Forster is as natural a storyteller and prose writer as he is a songwriter, and Grant and I is an unforgettable ride.

Review

As Robert Forster tells it near the end of his affecting, up-tempo memoir, the decision to write Grant & I was not his. The morning after his death by heart attack in 2006, aged 48, the voice of Grant McLennan – co-founder, with Forster, of the beloved Australian rock band The Go-Betweens – rung out in his bandmate’s head, telling him: ‘Put to paper everything that happened to us, write our adventures down’.

A lyricist par excellence, known for peppering his songs with the fittings of his life, it’s only to be expected that Forster should apply a twist of poetic license to this momentous event; think of it as a final act of self-mythology from a band who put it on almost-equal footing with the crafting of their ingenious, infectious pop and rock and roll songs.

Considering the high concentration of red-letter episodes in Forster’s story, he is to be admired for the way he cuts through much of the lore surrounding himself and the group; nowhere to be found is the po-mo legerdemain of his hero Bob Dylan’s slippery Chronicles. Instead, we get Forster as drolly eloquent observer to his own life, McLennan the unquiet heart of it all. Even when life sees them pulled in different directions – both artistically and geographically – the man he first met at 17 in an undergraduate literary studies classroom is never far from centre frame.

The current vogue for all things of 1980s vintage makes Forster’s long-gestating memoir well-timed. Key episodes detail Forster’s time of impoverished squat living in ’80s London with then-girlfriend Lindy Morrison, drummer in the band’s classic line-up, as part of the same exodus of Australian post-punk bands that saw The Moodists, The Triffids and The Birthday Party all vying to crack the lucrative UK and European markets. The move would briefly position The Go-Betweens as label-mates to a young band on the ascendant named The Smiths, a group whose meteoric success stands in stark contrast to The Go-Betweens’ career of near misses and thwarted ambitions, frustrations attended by withering financial implications.

It’s startling to read of this now justly revered group hopping embarrassingly from label to label through no apparent fault of their own. Of course, due credit caught up with the The Go-Betweens, slowly accreting both internationally and at home. As Forster outlines amid a fond recollection of the day he pitched the band’s name to McLennan, he attended the opening of Go Between Bridge in their native Brisbane in 2010.

As a survey of a sui generis career, as a glimpse into the formation and working methods of a superlative songwriter, and as an ultimately poignant chronicle of a friendship, Grant & I weaves a memorable story with wit, art and heart. Not unlike a Go-Betweens song.


Gerard Elson works as a bookseller at Readings St Kilda.

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