Saturday, May 13, 2006

In the Core of a Flame

[warning: contains cliches]

I first became aware of the Go-Betweens when Three Triple R, in Melbourne, started playing a song called “I Need Two Heads” on high rotation. It stuck out amidst the post-punk sturm und drang for being fragile, melodic, and alive to the values of space in music, and for having an instantly memorable yet simple guitar solo. It set the tone for the Go-Betweens’ future, and for my own, as well: it was one of the earliest “grown-up” records I bought, and I love it still, even as the glue holding the cover together grows weaker and weaker. (It was also the sound of an Australian band finding its own feet; their earlier songs were essentially false starts in the wrong direction - although, to their credit, never disowned: a raucously joyous rendition of “Lee Remick” closed their set in Canberra the tour before last.)

But then Grant McLennan wrote “Cattle and Cain”. Everybody knows “Cattle and Cane”. It was the common reference point in every obituary of Grant (and how incredible, and telling, that he “starred” on the obits pages of the London Independent, the Guardian, and even the New York Times) (and in many ways I still can’t believe, let alone accept, that he is dead) (brief pause while I compose myself)


“Cattle and Cane” marked the appearance of a genuinely Australian sense of place in popular music. Yes, we had had Greg Macainsh’s location-specific Skyhooks songs, but there was always a sense that they were really only imported songs with the place-names changed for a bit of local colour. And Sherbet had written a song about infidelity using cricket as a metaphor. (The younger and more naive of us believed for many years that it was actually a song about cricket.) But I don’t think it is mere hyperbole to say that this song changed the way musicians in this country thought about what they were doing. The Triffids’ “Wide Open Road”, a little while later, was the “two” of a magnificent one-two punch.

And in many ways “Cattle and Cane” spoke directly to me. It appeared at a time when I had not long moved to Melbourne, to go to University, and was missing the farm something terrible. The lyrics dug in like a blade. No “cane” in South Gippsland, maybe, but plenty of “cattle”. I had been that schoolboy coming home.

I bought every Go-Betweens album on release. At some point I figured out that each one seemed to connect directly backwards, in some way, with the the album before last; to put it simplistically, their records seemed to move from rough to smooth to rough again. I first saw them play live at The Club, in Smith Street, Collingwood, when they toured Australia on the back of the “Spring Hill Fair” album. We were standing towards the back, but there was a palpable sense of self-confidence and mutual respect amongst the band. Robert Forster, of course, was the showman, but Grant with his quiet intensity almost stole the show as they ended with the feedback-laden song-story “River of Money”.

The story of the Go-Betweens is well enough known to remain unstated, but in a nutshell: an unbroken sequence of critically acclaimed records that sold half a dozen copies each; lack of record company support (I think I am right in saying that, at least in Australia, they never appeared on the same label twice); and a high degree of apparent, but unspoken, interpersonal turmoil. As I wrote previously, the Go-Betweens were never just a band. Then they went their separate ways. I had always been more attracted to Robert’s songs (although, as I have written here previously, it was always Grant's songs that could reduce me to tears, which, I guess, is not a situation that is going to change any time soon), so I picked up each one of his solo records while leaving Grant’s post-Go-Betweens career for others to follow. Then the long wait, seemingly futile but we couldn’t quite let it go, for Robert and Grant to rekindle the flame.

Which they did. Reforming at around the time of a procession of cash-driven “reunion” tours by people who should have known better was perhaps a typical case of Go-Betweens bad-timing-by-association, and there were many, even some of the old faithful, who couldn’t quite get back in the groove. But the rewards were certainly there. “The Friends of Rachel Worth”, the comeback album, was a little bit stitched together, although Grant's “The Clock” suggested that they had really returned, and for all the right reasons. By the time of “Bright Yellow Bright Orange” there was a sense of them becoming, slowly, a seamless unit again.

This was the point, also, at which they played Tilley’s Devine Cafe in Canberra. We thought that we had arrived too late to get a seat, but I happened to spot a former work colleague occupying a table of his own directly below the right-hand side of the stage, at which there were two empty chairs. Adam didn’t seem to mind us crashing his party. As the support band, Architecture in Helsinki, went through their instrument-swapping routine, Grant and Robert were sitting right behind us, in the shadows, watching the band and getting a feel for the crowd. (It was a big crowd; Canberra may not have that many Go-Betweens fans but we were all there, and some of us must have brought along our friends.) When the Go-Betweens hit the stage, Grant was directly in front of, and above, us. I spent a lot of the show watching him, admiring his quiet intensity and the way that he seemed happy for Robert to hog the limelight. It was a great show. The list of songs they didn’t play would have made up a pretty solid greatest-hits package. They were kind and generous performers, and, one thought, grateful, too, for this second chance.

“Oceans Apart” dropped a year or so later. It demonstrated, amply, what the previous two albums had hinted at: that the Go-Betweens mark II were every bit as good as the Go-Betweens mark I. Grant had written something of a sequel to “Cattle and Cane” in "Boundary Rider", and Robert gave us what may be his song for the ages, “Darlinghurst Nights”. It all seemed too good to be true.

They toured Canberra again. Money being, as it always seems to be around here, tight, I decided to pass it up this time, secure in the knowledge that I had seen a great show by them in recent memory, and that they would be back again some day. I was wrong on the second count.

It is impossible, at this point in time, not to think about Robert Forster. Maybe it is possible to imagine a future in which he pursues a sporadic solo career as something of an antipodean Paul McCartney, not too worried about what other people think of what he is doing but also not resting on his past fame as a Go-Between. But it is much too early for any of that. Me, I can’t quite bring myself to put on a Go-Betweens record just yet.