On the eve of shows in Wellington and Auckland – his first in New Zealand since the death of his long-time musical partner Grant McLennan – songwriter Robert Forster talks to Russell Baillie about life in the Go-Betweens, and his new book, Grant & I.
Most rock memoirs peter out at the end. The fun’s been had. The first rush of excitement is long gone. The big songs are up in the early chapters. The nostalgia rolls on.
Robert Forster’s Grant & I: Inside and Outside the Go-Betweens isn’t most rock memoirs. It ends with the death of his musical partner Grant McLennan in 2006 just as the possibly the most timeless indie pop group the southern hemisphere ever produced is enjoying a second wind.
McLennan was 48. He died of a heart attack at home in Brisbane, just as he was about to throw a house-warming party. Forster arrived as a guest to be told the news.
The two had met at Brisbane University. They formed the Go-Betweens in late 1978 and released their first single “Lee Remick” later that year. It was the start of a partnership and recording career that took the band through many record labels, countries, minor triumphs, disappointments, romances, splits and reunions.
Grant & I charts it all via Forster’s sharp eye, dry wit and lyrical writing. The book is a reminder that music’s couldabeens tell better stories than those who made it.
It’s not Forster’s first book. A collection of his music reviews for Australian magazine The Monthly, titled The 10 Rules of Rock & Roll, was released in 2010.
Now, with Grant & I just out after last year’s release of his sixth solo album Songs to Play, Forster is coming to New Zealand. They will be his first shows here without McLennan. I rang him in Brisbane to talk about writing the book, his trans-Tasman solo excursion, and absent friends.
So, I finished your book last night. I have just read about your entire life. Therefore, I don’t have any questions. Bye …
I can well understand that.
Now that it’s finished, how do you feel about it?
It was a massive thing to do. It was probably the biggest undertaking I have ever done. It drove me to a point of virtual nervous breakdown in the end. It seemed to get more intense as time went by. So, there is a sense of relief that it is done and a great happiness that it is out. The actual book itself will take me a year or two to get distance on it. But I’m very happy that it’s done, that it is bouncing around in bookshops and libraries and out in the world. It makes me feel very happy
When you were writing, was Grant’s death always looming on the horizon as you went through the happier memories of your own life and the band’s early days?
This sounds bizarre but the most emotional parts I found the easiest to write because I was on certain ground. I knew exactly what had happened. I knew exactly what I had to say. As a writer that’s really good.
I found the hardest bits were when there might be a languid phase in the group’s career or Grant and I might not have seen each other for a certain amount of time. I found those corners of the book harder to write than the parts of high emotion.
That sort of stuff I just knew – when Grant died, or when the band got back together, those sorts of pivotal points I found secure and that’s really good for a writer. When you don’t know what you want to say and you are grasping at events, that is when it can be a little tougher.
It’s a good fit. The Go-Betweens and your song-writing has always been regarded as literate. So, to finally have something literary to go with all that reputation is a good thing.
It is a good thing. You are exactly right. Grant and I go back to Queensland University and both of us were doing English courses and so it was there from the very start. I think one thing about the Go-Betweens when we started, we decided to take it into the band. We decided that well, we’ve been reading Doris Lessing or TS Elliot and we’ve started a band. Do we suddenly disregard that and start writing about roadhouses and the highway and murder which were things that we didn’t know about?
And, also, right at the start, we were very basic musicians and we had to play to your strengths and one of our strengths was lyrics – that came from this tradition and this study that we had done.
You seemed to set some sort of Australian record for the number of labels one band can be on.
I don’t think anyone else comes close.
Whose fault was that?
I wrestle with this in the book. There was one line “we might not have had hit singles but boy did we have some labels.” A lot of it, I think, was bad luck. It was good luck that we got signed to Rough Trade and made “Cattle and Cane” and Before Hollywood. It was bad luck that we got dropped – the record label was running out of money and decided to put what money they had on The Smiths. If there was someone far-sighted enough who in 1982 had said “look we want to support you the way that good labels have supported artists in the past which means you get four or five albums and let’s just see how we are going after the third album”… which was the approach back in the 80s when the industry had a lot of money. But we never got that.
What always amazed me was there was always someone to pick us up. That is the extraordinary thing as well. It wasn’t as if we would get dropped and no one would be interested. We would get signed again which made you wonder why you got dropped in the first place. At the same time, it was undermining your career because there was no consistency.
So, if there is a movie of the book, record labels become the equivalent of Spinal Tap drummers?
Ha ha ha exactly. A puff of smoke and then they are gone.
Who is going to play you in that movie?
I am hoping Benedict Cumberbatch.
That’s funny, I saw a movie of his last night.
See, you read my book and saw the movie last night so you are already putting it together in your head.
How about I start writing it?
That would be wonderful.
I don’t know Brisbane that well but I am sure I can fake it.
All you need is a couple of dark rooms.
With the shows you are doing over here, do they reflect the book?
How do you do that?
Because the songs and the songwriting are the bones of the book. That is what I learned when I wrote it. That lyrics are a pathway. It was almost like Grant and I were keeping these secret diaries. That is what these songs are. They are diary entries. If I want go get Grant in 1986 or 1984 or 1992 or 2004 I just have a look at his songs.
And so, the book is in a way an ode to songwriting and that creative process. If I am standing on stage with a guitar and singing these songs that go back to 1978, that is the frame of the book and those lyrics are in the book too.
Are you singing Grant songs?
Yeah I might sing a couple. Yeah.
How do you feel about that?
Good question. His songs are little bit difficult for me to sing. He had a voice in a different key and a more melodic voice than mine. So, it’s not so I can jump straight into his songs easily. I have to work on them and pick the keys and see if it’s inside my vocal range. But there are a couple, yes, and so I will be singing them.
Why call the book Grant & I? Why reference him in the title?
I wanted that to be the frame of the book and his death prompted the book. I wouldn’t have written this book if he hadn’t had died. He being alive and me writing this are not compatible. I wouldn’t have done it and so that just sort of thrust him into the title. It’s the frame of the book and his passing prompted the book.
Which makes it more than a rock memoir.
Yeah that’s true. I also think my creative life started with him and we started the band together and, through writing about Grant and I, it enabled me to go to other areas as well. But you are exactly right. It wasn’t “The Go-Betweens played to 602 people in Adelaide, we got on the bus and we had a good hamburger out of town and drove to Perth and we played to 284 … “. You know what I mean? This wasn’t some endless rock odyssey. We all know in 2016 what a rock band on the road is.
It’s a videogame.
Yeah it’s a videogame. It doesn’t have the mystery that it did back in the 70s.
Your hepatitis C diagnosis is quite a bombshell late in the book.
It was a bombshell in life. I wanted it to be a bombshell in the book. It realigned things. It was something of shock for me and I wanted that to echo in the book. I didn’t really see a place earlier to bring it in. I just thought I would play it out in real time. It was a piece of knowledge that I received when I was 39, which is of a certain age, and I wanted that to be reflected deeper in the book as well.
That’s quite a candid thing. Were you tempted not to be?
I did consider it. Really, taking hard drugs in the 80s was something that I could have not even mentioned because it didn’t impact on anything really. We made the albums. We did the tours. It was more of a recreational thing but when I found out I had the hep C the first thing they tell you is it affects the liver and we highly recommend that you stop drinking. So, I stopped drinking. Alcohol had always played a part in [Grant and my] relationship. He was still drinking more intensely than ever. This affected the Grant and I dynamic.
Primarily, why I put it in was because of the effect it had on the very title of the book and our friendship. It was a huge development, not so much artistically, but between us personally. I couldn’t have omitted it. It wasn’t possible.
You stake a claim for the Go-Betweens being as rock and roll as the next group with the passage: “On many occasions dark rock bands would encounter The Go-Betweens expecting namby-pamby, book-besotted, cocoa drinking wimps, to find themselves partied under the table.” You didn’t name any names though.
No no no. It was almost whoever we came into contact with. Because bands carry around reputations and other bands know them. It can be very strange when you check into a hotel and you are in the bar that night and anyone can walk in and suddenly you find yourself talking with Motley Crue or Boney M.
You can have some preconceptions of them and they of you, but once you are around a table it all fades away and you just get on with partying into the night and you’ve got odd bedfellows. That is when the surprise came, on occasions.
But now you are probably on the verge of being named an elder statesman of Australian music. Are you enjoying the status? Does it come with any perks?
No. I wish it did. I wish someone would drop off a hundred thousand dollars as my fee for being an elder statesman. I almost don’t see myself as such, I am still in my fifties. So, I think I’ve got a way to go before I am an elder statesman. I think you’ve got to appreciate and cherish the past and, at times, there is no one more nostalgic than myself. But as an artist, you’ve got to be engaged with today and tomorrow. I am always interested in new things and creating something new and presenting that to myself and to the wider world.
And getting up on stage all by yourself, how do you find that?
I must say I enjoy it a great deal. I very much enjoy being on stage with an acoustic guitar and people looking at me and wondering where is this going to go? What can he do? And me just working from that position and doing that for an hour and a half.
This will be the first time you would have played solo in New Zealand which is sad but good.
You are exactly right. I have been wanting to get over to New Zealand for a number of years and the book has been the final click.
Will books be signed afterwards?
Books will be signed and I will be taking questions.
I will have to bring my Kindle along and get you to sign the screen.
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Robert Forster plays at San Fran, Wellington, on November 10 and the Tuning Fork, Auckland on November 11
The best of Robert Forster – a Spotify playlist by Russell Baillie
Spotify link here.
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