A short time ago, I went along to a cultural gathering in my home city.
Robert Forster was appearing at Mono, a location that is part music-venue, part vegetarian cafe and part record-store that is owned and run by Stephen Pastel. Robert was going to take part in an interview to promote his recently issued book Grant & I : Inside and Outside The Go-Betweens and in the process sing a few songs. It was an event that I’d have more than willingly paid a fair bit of money to get to and yet the tickets were free.
It was, as you’d expect, packed full of folk who had been Go-Betweens devotees at one time or another. I knew a lot of people in the room,many of who have become close friends in the near eleven years since I began this blog. It was always going to be a special and emotional evening, not least as the Australian band were indirectly responsible for me getting my finger out and launching TVV and I’ve still never quite gotten used to the fact that Grant McLennan is no longer with us.
It turned out to be everything I could have wished for and more, thanks to the opportunity to meet Robert at the end of the night, have a photo taken with him and have him sign a copy of the book, with the dedication to The Vinyl Villain. I’ve only one other book with such a dedication and it came from Grace Maxwell and Edwyn Collins; I tend to shy away from having my records and books ‘defaced’ with signatures.
The following day I started reading the book and soon found it all-consuming. Robert is an extremely talented and entertaining writer and of course the story he gets to tell is rather extraordinary. The blurb on the back nails it perfectly:-
Beautifully written – like lyrics, like prose – Grant & I is a rock memoir akin to no other, Part ‘making of’, part music industry expose, part buddy-book, this is a delicate and perceptive celebration of creative endeavour. With wit and candour, Robert Forster pays tribute to a band who found huge success in the margins, having friendship at its heart.
It’s easy to forget that this was a band who never enjoyed the success in the 80s that their collective talents and output deserved. The albums were well received but their singles all flopped despite most of subsequently proving to be timeless classics (unlike many others from the same decade). They recorded for numerous labels, finding themselves dropped all sorts of strange and unrelated reasons looking on as so many of their contemporaries hit payola. But not once does the author feel the need to settle any old scores or cast aspersions on those who did get rich and famous – indeed I think there was just one swear word within its 330 pages and the profanity was followed by an immediate apology in brackets!
Instead, it is a celebration of the fact the band had a lengthy career, initially from 1977 -1989 and then again when they reformed in 2000 through to Grant’s sudden death from heart failure in May 2006. The book has a strong supporting cast including long-standing band members Lindy Morrison, Robert Vickers and Amanda Brown, various friends, family and band associates. There’s also many wonderful cameo appearances dotted throughout from other leading Australian musicians, the Postcard Records cognoscenti and all sorts of producers and artists.
Much of the book is set in Australia, and at different times paints wonderfully evocative pictures of the cities of Brisbane, Melbourne and Sydney, It certainly made me want to get on a plane and go see these places for myself. It is rich in its description of life in London in the 80s, getting across the bizarre notion of musicians who were hugely respected and appreciated by just about everyone in the industry and yet rarely had more than £50 a week per person to live on. There is a lot of self-deprecating wit on display throughout, punctured occasionally by a sentence or two that is genuinely shocking with revelations about personal circumstances that a sharp reminder that rock stars are human beings and suffer from the same type of frailties that impinge on the rest of us mere mortals.
But here’s the thing. Having devoured the first 80-90% of the book in a matter of days, it took me weeks to pick it up again and finish it. It was all down to knowing that the hero dies in the end and I just didn’t want to face up to that. I had to be in the right frame of mind for finishing it off…but despite my best efforts I did find myself upset and crying.
I am delighted that Robert Forster has produced a masterpiece, as fine a music memoir as I’ve ever read, and given I have about 200 such books lying around the house I’m in a reasonable position to make such a judgement. Even if you know little or nothing about the band, there is much to enjoy from the writing and the telling of what is a wonderfully played out story of two soul mates who perfectly complemented one another.
The book has given me an idea for a new, occasional (at best monthly) series and that is to look at the music and offer up some of Robert’s words as an accompaniment. Staring right back with the debut single, released originally in 1978 on the Australian indie Able Label and restricted to just 700 copies. If you want one nowadays, be prepared to shell out almost £1,500.
The latter was just about the first song the university student Robert Forster wrote. By this time, one of his best friends was fellow student Grant McLennan; Robert had been rebuffed by Grant in an effort to form a band as Grant was far more interested in and occupied by cinema.
Robert had instead formed a three piece called The Godots who were down to play in a Battle of the Bands competition in Brisbane. The set had to comprise one cover and four originals, one of which would be Karen, receiving its first ever public airing.
“My songwriting had also improved, taking a lion-sized leap with the completion of a simple, predominantly two-chorded number, a paean to the female librarians at the university – helpful, distant women I idealised – that swelled and built over three choruses to end in a shouted climax of the song’s title”
“An attentive silence came over the room as we began the song, brought on by the hypnotic beat of the long introduction; I was sensing a power I’d never known as I stepped up to the microphone to deliver the opening lines.”
Grant McLennan was in the audience watching his friend perform, perhaps sorry that he had declined to be in the band. They didn’t win the competition – in fact they weren’t even billed as The Godots, a misunderstanding with the organisers leading to the band being introduced as the less pretentious sounding The Go-Dots. By the end of the year, that band were no more and Grant, having been aware that Robert was writing other songs, including one that was all about Hollywood actress Lee Remick, said that he was willing to take away a cassette copy to listen to back home during the Xmas/New Year break of 1977/78. The rest, as they say is history.
Worth mentioning too that Lee Remick herself, many many years later, did meet Robert Forster and accept the gift of one of the singles that bore her name. She revealed that she was aware of its existence and was charmed by it. Robert, in the book declares the meeting as one of the highlights of his entire life.