Monday, September 4, 2017

Pop Culture Books # 7 Grant & I by Robert Forster

                                                       'I just want some affection...'

In Karen, his first song of note, his breakthrough moment, Robert Forster sang of the idealised female figure that he yearned for, a librarian. More than any other band, perhaps that there's ever been, The Go-Betweens, (the Brisbane, Australia grounded group Forster formed with Grant McLennan shortly after writing the song), were bookish. Virtually everything they ever recorded was essentially literary and it's fitting now that Forster, forty years after he first met McLennan has now written and published a book chronicling their adventures together, the story of a deep but strange friendship.

It's taken a while for Grant & I to find its way to British bookshelves. Initially published last year in Australia, then in Germany, (where the band always found an appreciative audience and Forster met his wife), now here and eventually in the coming months in the States. For those like myself, who revere this band as much as any other, (this blog takes its name from a Go-Between song), it's been a deeply impatient wait, but now I have it, have devoured it in a couple of sittings, and can attest to its being a fine and satisfactory memoir, sure to find favour with devotees of the band.

The Go-Betweens are famously the most critically acclaimed Rock and Roll band that never had a hit record. There are reasons for this, which Forster describes accurately and honestly but he's never remotely unsure about their greatness. Since the untimely, early death of McLennan in May 2006, he's taken on the role of the bands archivist, in the compiling of their first box set, G is for Go-Betweens, a series of articles and interviews, and now with Grant & I.

The book itself is free of the blocks of photos you generally expect with Rock memoirs and biographies. All you get is white paged prose. It's fitting, laying down a claim for the Go Betweens as a band apart and one to treasure for their wordy, poetic ambition and endeavour, a labour of love.

Not unnaturally, Forster writes beautifully in clipped, lyrical prose that comes across as quite effortless. On the front cover there's apt and touching tribute to his gifts from Nick Cave, (a man who should know), 'the truest and strangest poet of our generation'. He along with the Birthday Party, The Go-Betweens, The Saints, The Triffids and many others was part of a brilliant flowering of Australian talent at the end of the seventies and throughout the eighties. Forster documents it all with incredible detail and generosity, bringing that period alive again from the inside for fans like me who appreciated the records so much and constructed our own personalities round the sensibilities detailed within them in our late teens and early twenties.

Here, we get the whole history, the early days in Brisbane where Forster and McLennan first joined forces, their first visits to Europe with dreams of fame and acclaim, their period in Glasgow as Postcard Record recording artists and their gradual emergence as a band supplemented in turn by Lindy Morrison, (Forster's partner for many years), Robert Vickers and Amanda Brown.

Forster places them very much in the context of their times, first with groups of like-minded vision, Orange Juice, The Smiths, (who they supported when they were supplanted in Rough Trade's Geoff Travis's affections and were dropped from the label), Aztec Camera, the Bunnymen and R.E.M. He's magnanimous to one and all, never uses the book as an opportunity to settle scores, instead placing his band squarely within their historical time-frame. Unfailingly honest about the strengths and weaknesses of their eighties albums, his assessment of them is very close to my own take and I imagine that of many devotees. Send Me a Lullaby is flawed and transitional, (strangely for a debut album), Before Hollywood their first great record, Spring Hill Fair, slightly unrealised despite containing some of their finest moments, Liberty Belle & the Black Diamond Express another classic, Tallulah marred by poorly judged songs, unworthy of the band and 16 Lovers Lane their late pop masterpiece.

Forster writes about the authors, poets and bands that inspired him and McLennan with a clarity and precision that is inspiring in itself. He pays tribute to the people who passed in and out of their lives but most of all he writes about Grant, their friendship and working relationship. This more than anything is what has brought the book into being and it's deeply touching in this respect, particularly as it draws to a close to the band's reformation and towards McLennan's sudden passing as you know it will. The last few pages are traumatic and retelling them still clearly deeply  painful for Forster, even ten years down the line.

Forster doesn't delve into the murky depths. Drugs are brought up only upon his diagnosis with Hepatitis C. McLennan's more troubled dabblings are not mentioned, his drinking is touched upon but Forster mentions how he always maintained his poise and cool even as he seems to descend towards darkness after the Go-Betweens split. In this he remains essentially a friend first and foremost and this determination to pay tribute to McLennan's gifts as an artist and to his incredible character and to guard him from a more critical judgement is understandable. The records they made deserve appreciation most of all. A pop band that was different and could not be easily placed. The most beautiful band in the world. Grant & I does everything it sets out to do and more. It's simply wonderful, like the Go-Betweens themselves.

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