‘Twin Layers of Lightning: a review of Robert Forster’s “Grant and I”’, by David Nichols

In his recent memoir The Summer of ’82 comedian Dave O’Neil describes his first trek from his parents’ home in the Melbourne suburb of Mitcham to St Kilda and the Seaview Ballroom. Arriving at 7:30pm, he and his similarly seventeen-year-old friends stumble on The Go-Betweens playing to an empty room and revel enthusiastically as they imagine a rock audience should, only to be told by the band’s drummer, Lindy Morrison (“What a nice lady!” O’Neil bubbles) that they have arrived so early the band is actually just sound checking. It’s a minor anecdote but one which speaks to those of us (I’m O’Neil’s age) who were both captivated by the charisma of innovative and experimental post-punk musicians and their accessibility and rootedness.

Grant and I is Robert Forster’s detailed and guarded yet essentially honest overview of his relationship with Grant McLennan, with whom he recorded nine albums under the name of The Go-Betweens. It is published a decade after McLennan’s death, during which time—to no-one’s great surprise, particularly in the context of their celebrated comeback in the first decade of the twentieth-first century—his and the band’s lights have shone ever more brightly. Like the best groups, The Go-Betweens are not just a sentimental pleasure for people like O’Neil and I, who saw them ‘at the time’ and without a doubt associate them with hormones and early alcohol experience; but also for people only recently attaining adulthood. They have a universality that transcends all the things that once, in the more narrow-minded eighties, seemed destined to hold them back (their Brisbane origins; their Australianness; their sound; the gender mix within the band; the unfocused nature of a group with two singer-songwriters; their oft-criticised musicianship). In respect to the last of these, it is still perplexing (not to mention galling) to me that Morrison in particular, one of the best drummers of the late twentieth century with an approach that so beautifully combined technical skill with feel, is so often the subject of scorn. This comes largely from un-reconstructable misogynists whose dislike of articulate women transcends whatever their ears tell them about Morrison’s work. Forster, though at least once scathing about Morrison’s personality in the book, exalts her performances.

Forster is rightly proud of The Go-Betweens’ legacy, not least because—for the reasons outlined above and more—it is the consequence of his and McLennan’s single-minded purposefulness. As artists, they sought to describe their emotional environments honestly. With minor missteps that only highlight their dedication (I’m thinking particularly of occasional concessions to the marketplace, such as the unsuccessful ‘Cut It Out’ single of 1987 – which, oddly, Forster claims was not released!) they followed a course which was more meaningful than a mere career, or a means to an end. The body of work—from the first single ‘Lee Remick’ to the final Forster–McLennan songs on Forster’s post-Go-Betweens album The Evangelist—is unique, insightful, and brilliant.

Forster does not mention in Grant and I my own narrative of The Go-Betweens’ career, first published twenty years ago and revised twice since. It was largely well-received at the time and remains popular; a labour of love, it is heavily dependent on his and McLennan’s testimony. I think I have reason to be grateful, however, that he ignores it, as I know he did not like the book, not least for some detail he correctly considered invasive and gossipy and also for weight given individuals he (and McLennan) considered minor players. I mention the book here for two reasons: firstly, as a declaration of interest, and secondly to remind or alert the reader to the fact that Forster has told much of this story before – alongside McLennan. In Grant and I, he has the floor.

Briefly, it’s a tale of two men in late-seventies Brisbane who discover each other and a shared love of not just music but also the angular, refracted wider world of art cinema and the avant-garde: a world which was distinctively apart from the everyday and yet infused their daily lives. The thing that first attracted me to the story was a recording of two interviews they had given at public radio station 4ZZZ in the late seventies: they were simply comedy gold, riffing on each other and ripping the rest of Brisbane to shreds. Having taken it down and related it myself, let me tell you: The Go-Betweens’ narrative is a compelling one.

One criticism of Grant and I in the first weeks of the book’s release has been the way that drugs are handled—or, rather, largely avoided—as a topic. I remember visiting McLennan in his apartment in Bondi Junction in the early nineties when he was, without doubt, a serious heroin user. Whereas in early discussions he had cautioned me against publicising his drug use, he was clearly now beyond caring (during the book interviews he was more concerned that I was not to approach his family, which I took to mean his musician sister, Sally or their mother; I have since considered he might have been protecting his son, whose existence was unknown to me at that time). Certain people in The Go-Betweens’ circle have confidently stated to me that McLennan’s death was directly drug related (that is, an overdose or a reaction to a stimulant). Many more people have asked me for the real story, as if I’d know or even feel it’s my place to pronounce or opine on the matter. What is peculiar though is that Forster simply does not cover any of these issues; McLennan’s drug use (freely explored in other books, such as Steve Kilbey’s recent autobiography) is barely acknowledged. Forster’s own dabbling is discussed, in passing.

I feel comfortable bringing this up because it is so freely discussed elsewhere, and in my opinion it’s a peculiar Forster stubbornness that makes it an elephant in the room. That he goes to such lengths to ascribe McLennan’s death to a simple disregard for his own health seems like painting the elephant with fluorescent polka dots. While in terms of content there is no comparison—Freud’s books were preposterous even without the core lie—one might wonder whether there is scope for Grant and I to be followed by an update, in the manner of James Freud’s I Am the Voice Left From Drinking. Freud’s first autobiography testified to his victory over alcoholism. A follow-up book with a similar title announced that the first had been an alcoholic’s denial.

Forster may well have felt that his first duty as a memoirist was to members of McLennan’s family who needed reassurance that he was no junkie wastrel. He may otherwise—and this is more justifiable—have felt that to dwell too much on such issues would be to steal the gilt from the legacy of a great songwriter. He’s right, it would, but Forster is sufficiently skilled as a writer that he need not have elided this part of McLennan’s life altogether, and by doing so, leave a hole in his narrative. I would have preferred not to spend so much of this review on this topic, but I console myself that it’s the subject of what’s missing—particularly when it’s not missing from related narratives—rather than the subject of drug use, that troubles me as a reader.

This is particularly concerning as the rest of the book is so fine. Forster is, of course, the world’s best authority on Forster. He has lived his life—at least, nine tenths of it—as a public exemplar of the rock star artist, with no doubt some notion of how such a life might play out in narrative. Thus his notion of The Go-Betweens’ story as a movie (exemplified both in the text and in the division of the book into ‘Reel I’ and ‘Reel II’ – so it’s a film, but only a two-reeler).

Perhaps the most intriguing figure in the book is Grant McLennan himself. A keenly intelligent, well-read, dignified, and engaged man, McLennan was sensitive and—except when bothered—exceptionally polite; he could be described un-ironically as a gentleman. Forster seems to know him less as time goes by, and while he describes McLennan as his best friend, he also seems on occasion to wonder what elusive qualities made him so. It’s testament to Forster’s abilities as a writer that, rather than detract from the work, this makes the book all the more satisfying.

David Nichols is a historian and senior lecturer at the University of Melbourne’s Faculty of Architecture, Building, and Planning. His forthcoming book is Dig, a study of twenty-five years of Australian pop music from 1960–1985.