iSing’s summer read: The Go-Betweens memoir Grant & I

If you’re a fan of music memoirs then you must read Grant & I: Inside and Outside The Go-Betweens. Robert Forster’s bittersweet book charts the indie band’s 30-year history and a powerful musical partnership.

Have you heard of The Go-Betweens? Not many have. The cult Aussie band had the unerring knack of flying under the radar no matter how good their music got.

For three decades they wrote great songs – their hits Cattle and Cane and Streets Of Your Town often make it onto lists of the best singles of all time – and won praise from critics and fans alike. Yet they never quite broke through into the mainstream.

The Go-Betweens’ Robert Forster isn’t bitter about this. His book Grant & I: Inside and Outside The Go-Betweens is eloquent, wry and illuminating. It details the band’s ever-changing fortunes and provides a fascinating glimpse into the peripatetic lifestyle of a professional musician.

Like all good memoirists Forster drops plenty of names (Nick Cave, U2, Cate Blanchett, Michael Stipe) but what sets his book apart is its insightful exploration of his creative partnership with bandmate Grant McLennan.

 

For 30 years the two men were best mates and songwriting rivals; kindred spirits and sparring partners. After bonding at the University of Queensland over a shared love of literature and arthouse cinema (in sleepy 1970s Brisbane they were anomalies) they became pivotal figures in each other’s lives.

While the line up of The Go-Betweens changed many times over the years, with various band members coming and going (more on that later), two things remained firm: Forster and McLennan. They did the bulk of the writing and had a gentleman’s agreement that they would each contribute the same number of songs to every album.

They wrote separately and then, in sometimes tense sessions, shared their creative efforts. Each was desperate to impress the other. Yet this wasn’t a game of pure one-upmanship; both men were profoundly aware that songwriting was an act of intimacy and implicitly trusted the other’s judgement.

As Forster explains: “We created the most romantic thing two heterosexual men can, a pop group.”

This helps explain the book’s only jarring moment: Forster’s account of how the band’s two female members, Amanda Brown and Lindy Morrison, were unceremoniously dumped in 1989. McLennan was in a long-term relationship with Brown, and Morrison, a sharp-tongued drummer, was Forster’s ex. Things got messy. Of course. Brown, furious at being kicked out of the band by her own boyfriend, left McLennan (a scenario neither of the usually astute men saw coming). The break-up sent McLennan into a depression that lasted years.

Even after all this time, Forster is bewildered that the women were so irked. His insistence that McLennan was the real innocent of the situation reads as more of an act of loyalty than acute observation.

Perhaps this episode best sums up The Go-Betweens. It was really the Forster and McLennan show all along. And this makes the final chapters, detailing McLennan’s last years, even more poignant. Forster’s handling of his friend’s final hours (we’re not giving too much away, as the subject is broached early in the book) is handled with love and grace.

 

 

Bronwyn Bidwell is an Australian journalist and editor based in London. She enjoys writing about music, books, history and popular culture.