Books, Music, Non-Fiction, Reviews

Behind the Go-Betweens: ‘Grant and I’ by Robert Forster book review

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The Go-Betweens are one of those bands, like The Pixies, whose influence on music has always massively outweighed their success. Despite having negligible sales and profile (especially in the USA) they’ve been name checked by performers from Sleater-Kinney to The Church and Edwyn Collins.  Their legacy continues long after their original creative burst flamed out in the early 1990s.

The untimely death of Grant (GW) McLennan in 2006 as they were entering a better recognised late career phase (in terms of ARIA awards and sales) brought a complete halt to the band but Robert Forster continued his own career. Grant and I by Forster pays some homage to Grant, the person who constituted one of the two most important relationships in Forster’s life, (his wife is the other).

The book is primarily Forster’s autobiography. Its central focus is Robert, and the genesis and path of The Go-Betweens through the ’80s, ’90s and beyond. Grant McLennan is a continuing, ghostly presence in the book, but as it seems in life, a mysterious one. His spirit hovers over the story but the book is not particularly enlightening about him.

Forster’s writing is assured but with a fragility that one also senses in his public persona. The tale of his early years as a misfit is a portent of times to come but large chunks of territory are skimmed over or unexplained. He arranges the story around some recurring themes – his grandparents place in The Gap (Brisbane); the nature of his and Grant’s relationship and how they could communicate simply through nods and winks, and their interest in movies.

Forster continually talks around touchy subjects rather than leading us into them narratively, or exploring his own feelings with any detail. He refuses to speculate too much on Grant’s motives, thoughts, fears and desires and treats his own perfunctorily.

This is no dish the dirt revenge memoir but a thoughtful reflection on the events of Forster’s youth.

This is the major flaw of what is an otherwise honest story about a near-miss rock star life. His writing is painfully honest and direct at times while at others his respect for his friend dominates the narrative. It’s as if his responsibility to Grant’s legacy trumps any other concerns.

Still, there are surprising revelations. One is the band’s penury during its lifetime. They never received huge advances or toured enormous stadia, but remained in debt to a record company for a modest advance against sales back in the early ’90s.

It’s only after their initial and middle career successes that Forster and Grant made a reasonable living, if £30-£50 per week could be considered reasonable 25 years ago.

Such meagre income was commonplace enough for indie and moderately successful band members in the ’80s and ’90 and Forster recalls that friends regularly gave him records and cassettes because he couldn’t afford to buy them.

Forster provides some fascinating insights into his and Grant’s public and private personas — Grant as the smiling, easy-going everyman vs Grant the disorganised layabout who never acquired a driver’s licence; Forster the dyed-blonde mid-’80s dandy flirting with crossdressing vs professorial Robert, the one who seemed to keep the group together despite his excesses.

There’s also some great material on the various cross relationships between the band members, even if Lindy Morrison and Amanda Brown appear mostly by virtue of their relationships with Grant and Forster, The bass players (Robert Vickers and John Willsteed) are barely visible.

This is no dish the dirt revenge memoir but a thoughtful reflection on the events of Forster’s youth and the rise and fall of The Go-Betweens, with some accounting for actions and consequences, regrets and failures, along the way.

It works as a great companion piece to the 16 Lover’s Lane instalment in the Great Australian Albums series of videos– watch it before or after reading this – as it gives voice to others in the band and adds some new flavours to Forster’s meal. The two documents make for a rich historical sequence and by implication a “How Not to Become a Rock Star” morality tale.


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