Robert Forster – Grant and I (Inside and Outside the Go-Betweens)

It wouldn’t be a surprise to learn that Grant and I took its title from the phrase that recurs most in the book. It describes perfectly what you get within. It’s certainly not a full account of the Go-Betweens as a group of people. They are there, but so frame-filling is Robert Forster’s account of his relationship with his fellow songwriter Grant McLennan that even such important figures in their life and band as Lindy Morrison and Amanda Brown fade a little into the background (something you suspect Morrison in particular has never done in real life). That’s not a problem, it just means there are other stories to be told.

It does tell a story of the band though – a fairly historical account (as far as a single perspective view on anything can be) with little score-settling. A record could have been pushed harder here or there, but in the end there’s a sense that what stopped the Go-Betweens being massive was probably an indefinable oddness in their songs that could never quite be polished out – a quality that probably accounts for their stand-out excellence in the ears of devotees.

And, despite the band’s clear early debt to the Velvets and rise through non-more-indie labels such as Rough Trade and Postcard, there is no alternative credo holding them back. Forster confidently asserts the quality and even superiority of their songs (good job that he’s right really…). Thoughts are not of scenes (though their value is acknowledged) but of how to succeed as a proper rock band. As told here there’s a measured, almost studious, approach to doing so – mindful of rock history and unashamed to wish to be part of it. (Anyone who has read Forster’s collected music journalism will know that he has rigorous views on how music should be done – it’s not called the 10 Rules of Rock ‘n Roll for nothing – they’ll also know he can write.) This means that the tales of excess that make up more tedious band tomes, while nodded to, are again footnotes (heroin use only getting a passing, mention as an explanation for Forster’s Hep C diagnosis – which itself is mainly mentioned to provide a counterpoint to McLennan’s health issues). Instead there’s a certain delight at a chance to be connected to some of the more illustrious US major labels, to spend time at the Capitol building…

It’s de rigeur to flag up with a book like this whether it’ll be of interest to the general reader. I suspect it will – at least to the general music fan. All the band stuff is secondary to the story of two little boys making their way from the Brisbane suburbs to, well, back to the Brisbane suburbs essentially, but with a trail of wonderful music in their wake. Forster’s account of the relationship and the roots of their art isn’t especially psychological and certainly not sentimental. There are elements of classic male relationship – genuinely close and caring but with important things unconfronted. Similarly, while Forster stands back and reflects from time to time, he largely lets events, recounted in clear, pacy prose, paint the picture of a superbly talented friend who probably never properly grew up – with all the good and the bad that can go with that. And whether you’re a fan or not, you’ll be left with a real appreciation of McLennan’s talent and a sense of what more he might have done were it not for his tragic early death.

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