The final chapter of Robert Forster’s book “Grant and I” is titled 6 May 2006. This is the day that Grant McLennan had organised a gathering at his place. Robert arrives early and finds that Grant has gone for a lie down as he is feeling unwell. Peeved that things aren’t organised, he visits a bookshop to kill some time. Upon his return there is an ambulance outside. Grant has died and may have been dead when he first arrived. It shocked me that his “connection” with Grant’s death was so close. I was also gripped by sadness that their journey together since university and their many attempts at finding commercial success for their music was over.I believe it’s testament to the quality of the writing and the candour in his writing that I felt this way.
Forster is clearly a bright and articulate fellow.his writing skills have been honed with his regular music reviews for the Australian magazine the monthly (some are included in the book 10 Rules of Rock N Roll). The style is clear and uncluttered- really easy to read.
Forster and McLennan met at university and this book is the story of their relationship. As Forster, contrary to popular perception McLennan is the quiet nerdy, introverted type and Forster was the more outgoing party animal. McLennan hailed from Western Queensland. his family owned a property that included a racetrack whereas Forster came from suburban Brisbane. An amusing anecdote is when Grant purchases a Toyota which runs out of petrol. Apparently Grant was unaware of the need for refuelling. The next day they return to collect the car and it has been stolen. Grant never drives again. GM is obsessed with film and it is Robert that introduces Grant to playing music and pop music. Dylan and the Monkees are high on the playlist, a bit of Iggy ,Sweet Jane …
Forster notes the rapid improvement in Grant’s guitar playing he takes to the instrument. He also comments that, in the band, Grant first played bass and this informs his songwriting and guitar playing subsequently. Listening to their records I kinda get what he means.Presumably riffing off Dylan’s “thin wild mercury sound”, Forster coined the term that “striped sunlight sound” to describe their music and is pleased to know that the term has endured for the “Brisbane sound”, if there is one. I get the the imagery: glaring bright sunlight forcing its way into the room in angular swathes across awnings and blinds as budding musicians hide from the heat, strumming away. Brisbane at the time was very conservative, the deep north with a neo-fascistic government.The music community would have been close-knit.
I enjoyed Forster’s tales of gigging in Australia, of living in Melbourne and the musical divide between north and south of the Yarra River. Along with the Birthday Party, they were in St Kilda (south of the river). On to the UK, their time with Orange Juice, the hopes of Rough Trade, the association with the Smiths and his frustration at the Smith’s success and the GB’s lack.He claims their line-up 2 front men, female drummer etc defied the conventional expectation and this thwarted their success. He also notes how their studio time was often very limited and they rarely got the sound they wanted. Re-listening to their records, as one does when reading a music bio, I came to the view that they really weren’t top drawer. Some wonderful, wonderful songs (Forster and I generally agreed on the standouts), but quite a few also-rans. This brings me to the matter of collaboration. The records were split 5 songs Grant ,5 songs Robert. Forster admits to a lot of pressure and anxiety at times in coming up with songs good enough to make up his 5. For a band more driven by the need for success than I thought, this strikes me as surprising. Why not just go with the best songs? Furthermore, it seems they didn’t collaborate in actually writing songs. Surprising given the closeness of their relationship.
Robert, for quite a long time, was with Lindy Morrison the distinctive drummer and Grant ended up with Amanda Brown- possibly his first girlfriend. I really love that period when Amanda joined. As you’d expect, things get messy in the band when things get messy outside the band. Remarkably R&G seemed to think that they could sack Lindy and Amanda without this affecting Grant’s relationship with Amanda. She gave him the boot straight away and Grant was shattered. Forster suggests he never recovered from this and it may have triggered an escalation in Grant’s drug taking and drinking.
Drug taking has been a matter for comment regarding this book. The first I knew about it was when Steve Kilbey of the Church said it was Grant McLennan who turned him on to smack Who’d have thought. Sweet old Grant ! I’d have expected tall, stern, gaunt Robert but no. There are some references, hash cakes screwing a performance and Forster mentions how he contracted Hep C due to drug use but largely the topic goes through to the keeper. Forster in interviews defends himself, saying he would never write about another’s drug use but it is hard to think that drugs weren’t a significant part of their scene- after all Nick Cave and Anita Lane , and other Birthday Party members slept in their lounge for extended periods during their most drug fuelled period. Surely this would have had an effect on the music.
The Go-Betweens fold ,Grant and Robert put out solo records – Grant’s poppier, Robert’s more angular. G and R perform again under the GB name and put out more records to critical respect if not adulation. Robert continues to hope that “this time” we might get there. But you know it ain’t gonna happen.
I last saw Robert Forster at Womadelaide playing with a string quartet and Jherek Bischoff. It was excellent and if I can ever upload the clips to YouTube I will provide a link in the comments.
Afterwards Robert was scheduled to do CD signings. As I headed over there was this long long queue.As I get closer I see the lonely figure of Robert Forster in his trademark dark suit, as I approach I see he is reading one of those old style penguin classics books. The queue next to him is for septuagenarian Buffy Sainte Marie. “Just no competing with a 60’s hippy is there” I comment. “No” says Robert, “it appears not”.
Length of Read:Medium
Might appeal to people who enjoyed…
Well written, pithy music biography, the Go-Betweens
One thing you’ve learned
Robert and Grant were much more driven by the need for commercial success than I thought.