An evening with Robert Forster
Over the three decades preceding this one, I was lucky enough to see the Go-Betweens in a variety of different venues, ranging from a nose-to-fretboard experience in the Rough Trade shop in Ladbroke Grove to a sit-down affair with strings at the Barbican. But this Robert Forster show is a live performance first for me – he’s playing a Quaker meeting room, specifically the one in the centre of Oxford. The plain, wood-panelled hall is lit only by a chandelier which has eight of its twelve bulbs missing, but tonight it’s packed with Friends of a different kind than those to whom it usually bears witness.
Wearing a dark v-neck and a white shirt, Robert Forster enters the room from stage right and studiously addresses the microphone. ‘Tonight I’m going to be speaking about anthropology.’ Then he gathers himself with a deep breath, and proceeds to play ‘Spirit’, the first number in a set of twenty songs which is never less than captivating, and comes absolutely alive as both the audience and perhaps the man himself realise that he’s still got it, sometime between the end of the first song and the start of the second. Though he modestly intimates that the audience should pipe down rather more quickly than they do, Robert nevertheless responds to the effusive warmth shown him, relaxing into a performance marked by its perhaps surprising range and diversity, given that it’s just him and an acoustic guitar. And they are performances of the songs, nuanced and emphasised in the expressive, actorly fashion that we’ve come to know and love, but which is far more apparent in the context of a one man show.
‘Head full of steam’ is the earliest of his songs given an airing, while ‘The house Jack Kerouac built’ is also delivered to great delight during the encore. Naturally a good half of the songs from Songs to play feature, including its lead-off track ‘Learn to burn’, which Robert tells us was the last he wrote for the LP, adding ‘I didn’t know I could still write a song like that’. Then there is my favourite from the album, ‘Let me imagine you’, whose punchline he delivers with immaculate timing:
‘I heard you went shopping and bought such beautiful things
Let me get calculator and add up the cost of all those things
Otherwise the songs are picked largely from the second phase of the Go-Betweens and the first phase of his solo career, with nothing from The evangelist (somewhat surprisingly, given the setting), perhaps because those will have been the songs that Robert has leant on when performing live over the seven years between it and Songs to play.
The penultimate number is the cartoonish but touching nostalgia of ‘Surfing magazines’, and as Robert strives to do the impossible and simultaneously sing both lead vocal and the ‘da-daaa, da-daaa, da-daaa’ chorus, the audience softly, gently comes to the rescue, gaining in confidence when Robert says, ‘You could go a little louder,’ and so we do, and they’re not an untuneful bunch, his fans. In fact it sounds great, even if I do say so myself, an instance of appropriate harmony in this religious meeting room, a sending up of joyful noise to the heavens. The end of the song is greeted by rapturous applause on both sides.
Robert closes with ‘Rock’n’roll friend’, and as he has intimated, subsequently reappears behind the stall selling LPs and CDs, there to greet a long line of admirers who hang around to have Songs to play signed and be snapped with the great man. I am one of these, managing to be more or less coherent when my turn to chat to him comes around. After he has signed a copy of his book, The ten rules of rock’n’roll, with a dedication to my daughter, he sets himself into a comedic pose for our photo, using those pensive eyebrows to great effect, and (seeing them out of the corner of my eye) making me laugh. I’ve met one of my rock’n’roll heroes. Oh my!
Let me imagine you:
Let me imagine you – fragment of solo live performance at the Quaker meeting house:
A single that to my great and enduring shame cost me nothing. I happened to be round at my friend Robert’s house while he was sorting through his record collection, deciding what he could part with to raise some much needed cash (this being not long after our student days). He’d recently had his head turned by Talk Talk’s Laughing stock and was more quickly making his way into stretched-out avant-garde jazz and electronica than I was. So when I voiced incredulity that he was parting with it, and that I’d have it if he didn’t want it, I guess I gave him no choice. Rob being Rob, he wouldn’t take any money for it – that is, if I offered him any; my memory’s somewhat shaky on that point.
From its intro onwards, the song echoes down the years like the memories remembered within it. ‘And the waste – memory wastes…’ sings Grant McLennan, poetically and clinically crystallising with that play on words what it is about recollecting our pasts – and in particular our childhoods – that is so affecting. There’s a performance of the song on the That striped sunlight sound DVD, and in the context of Grant’s death the following year, it’s heart-breakingly poignant. Grant’s not properly miked, so you have to strain a little to hear his vocal, but to see them playing this truly great song in the living room of one or the other of them, Robert Forster relaxed and urbane, Grant wry and ever so slightly on edge – to see the depth of their understanding and mutual admiration – well, it’s testament to a great friendship and a great band. Faced with the first song of Grant’s to best his own efforts, Robert describes his epiphany: ‘He’d done childhood… why didn’t I think of that?’
Until I read David Nichols’ excellent book about the Go-Betweens, it had always seemed something of a mystery to me as to why Grant would allow Robert lyrical room within one of his most personal, deeply felt and memorable songs. Here’s how Grant, speaking to Virginia Moncrieff in 1983, explains it:
‘I don’t like the word nostalgic, to me it’s a sloppy yearning for the past, and I’m not trying to do that in that song. I’m just trying to put three vignettes of a person, who’s a lot like myself, growing up in Queensland, and just juxtaposing that against how I am now, and that’s the reason why at the end of the song I asked Robert to do four lines, of his impressions, of me and what the song’s about, and that’s why his voice comes in at the end of the song.’
So the singing of the song is not just a telling of the memories of childhood, but a sharing of them, and sharing leads to conversation, and Robert chips in with what he recalls, and it serves to give the song still more emotional weight, and to induce you to remember your own childhood, your relationship with your own father, and to want to share that too.
I recall… the week he came back, the house was filled with unfamiliar smells, it had been so long. In the mornings, aftershave and marmalade on toast. In the evenings, cigarettes extinguished in the toilet and whisky and dry. It seemed a miracle that he was there at all, given all the previous, the fortnightly Saturday afternoon wrangles. It lasted no longer than a week…
In one of the vignettes, Grant famously sings about leaving his father’s watch in the shower. The early death of his father is the unspoken and haunting subtext of the song (and of another song on Before Hollywood, ‘Dusty in here’), and the heft of its sadness has only broadened as a result of Grant’s own early death. But it’s not simply a sorrowful song; there’s warmth in there too, which adds to its unique and enduring appeal. Written in London on Nick Cave’s guitar in 1982, it forcibly brought Australia to mind for its writer. As he says on That striped sunlight sound, ‘it carried sunshine in it’.
PS Rob, if you’d like the record back, it’s yours the next time we meet up. Might be worth a bob or two more now.
Robert Forster’s collected music writings 2005-09, The 10 rules of rock and roll has found its way here from Australia. The piece which gives the book its title is appropriately succinct, covering less than a page. My favourite of the ten are:
o The second-last song on every album is the weakest.
o Great bands tend to look alike.
o The guitarist who changes guitars on stage after every third number is showing you his guitar collection.
o The three-piece band is the purest form of rock and roll expression.
Reading this piece and the rest of Robert’s writings (together with having been at this game myself in some form or fashion for over twenty years) suggested the following 10 rules of rock and roll criticism.
1. Three facts and a gag.
My friend Mark Morris once told me that this was Steve Lamacq’s rule for reviewing an album or a gig. It’s a method that underpins Robert Forster’s criticism, only in a rather more refined and artful sense than you suspect Lammo was after from his NME freelancers. Robert takes his duties seriously, gives you the salient facts, and has the same dry humour in print as he does when crafting lyrics.
2. Tell the good from the bad.
Throughout this collection Robert demarcates between the good songs on a record and the fillers or missteps. He’s generous with his praise and sharp with his criticism.
3. Make the reader want to hear the music.
The obvious one. What is it that makes this a great or a great but flawed record? Put across its particularities and peculiarities; what it does both for you personally and what it might therefore do for anyone that goes out of their way to listen to it. There are at least half a dozen records I would never have sought out that I want to listen to as a result of reading Robert’s pieces about them: Sarah Blasko’s As day follows night, Espers’ II, Beth Orton’s Comfort of strangers, Paul Kelly’s Songs from the south, Neil Diamond’s 12 songs, and Kasey Chambers & Shane Nicholson’s Rattlin’ bones.
4. Don’t get so excited that you lose all sense of measure; equally don’t be so measured that you lose all sense of excitement.
It’s a difficult balance which Robert almost always gets tightrope-wire perfect. Bloggers are prone to the former; journalists the latter.
5. Bring the knowledge you have to bear.
In Robert’s case this means a thorough understanding of the value of production and the way songs are arranged and rendered; and what might be thought an old-fashioned – or a recording artist’s – concern for the balance of an album, its rightness as a set (Cat Power’s The greatest gets this wrong in Robert’s eyes, despite the great songs it contains). This gives his criticism a revealing edge. He is also honest about what he doesn’t know, a rare trait among critics.
6. Don’t be a snob (or a knob, for that matter).
Robert writes with openness and fondness for Australian rock and pop music, and in so doing gives the measure and depth of it on terms that I’d not previously encountered. There are many ways to be snobbish (or knobbish) about music; disdaining your own is one of them. As is pooh-poohing the efforts of allegedly less fertile pop musical cultures.
7. Don’t ignore the lyrics.
That means pointing out their infelicities as much as their wonders. As a lyricist himself, Robert treats the words with a seriousness that isn’t common among music critics.
8. Don’t give way to sentiment.
A great album doesn’t make the next great. A hero can develop feet of clay.
9. Don’t let yourself be bought, whatever the currency offered.
This is what damages music and music criticism most.
10. Surprise the reader, at least every now and again.
It’s the pieces about artists whose records you suspect the reviewer would not ordinarily have gone out of his or her way to listen to that are often most revealing, both about the critic and the artist. So, like Robert, challenge yourself, and your readership.
There are two presents I would like for Christmas. The first is a McLennan Monkees t-shirt. The second is a copy of Robert Forster’s book, The 10 rules of rock and roll, which collects together the music criticism previously discussed here. There’s a new piece in the book called ‘The 10 rules’. That I can’t wait to read – the 10 rules in the opinion of the man who wrote ‘Rock’n’roll friend’.
In other Go-Betweens news, brought to us by the ever dependable Go-Betweens.net, the group are having a bridge named after them in their home town of Brisbane. It’s called the Go Between Bridge. Not the Go-Betweens Bridge plural, but Go Between singular. More of a referencing bridge than one named explicitly after them, I suppose.
This post is also an excuse to post the cover of one of my most cherished CDs. The Go-Betweens, Robert Foster, Grant Mc Lennan & me was given away as a cover-mount CD with French music magazine Les Inrockuptibles in 1991, and comprises six songs by the group, and three each from Grant and Robert’s first solo LPs. It doesn’t have anything a Go-Betweens nut wouldn’t have these days but at the time the remixed, alternate version of ‘Head full of steam’ was notable for the extra lines that Robert sings: ‘Steam may rise, steam may dare / Can I come to your place, and can I wash your hair?’
And it would be a dereliction of duty not to point you in the direction of a later Go-Betweens CD for Les Inrocks, which gave the French-speaking world a chance to hear acoustic demos for 16 Lovers Lane. These didn’t make it onto the enhanced version of the album released by Lo-Max Records in 2004, so I’m guessing that if you’re a fan, you’ll want to head down under and visit our friends at That striped sunlight sound.
Just about living up to my promise of spending more time in the 21st century, here’s an edited version of my review of the Go-Betweens’ The friends of Rachel Worth, which mysteriously disappeared from the Tangents archive (probably during one of Alistair’s well-documented technological meltdowns). It was one of our three-way jobs, but the other two have also sadly fallen down a virtual crack as well.
NB I actually quite like Sleater-Kinney these days.
Before hearing The friends of Rachel Worth, I confidently predicted to a friend that Sleater-Kinney’s involvement would not have a detrimental effect on the album. He raised a large eyebrow, the very soul of scepticism. Never to my knowledge having heard Sleater-Kinney, it was a rash thing to say, but showed at least my faith in Robert and Grant’s judgement. On the first few listens, I was ready to concede that he was right. It seemed that just about any of the musicians Robert and Grant have worked with since the group raised a headstone to themselves in 1990 would have helped create an album more characteristic of the Go-Betweens. I thought that the reminders of Pavement – or does it all go back to Sonic Youth? – in what I take to be Sleater-Kinney-influenced elements of the sound was unfortunate. I don’t mind Pavement, you understand, I just didn’t want to hear echoes of them on a Go-Betweens record. It makes for jarring images in a familiar landscape; maples among the eucalypts.
In any case, it’s not a comeback, because they never really went away. Each have turned in fine solo efforts since 1990. I’m particularly fond of Robert’s Warm nights, with its aura of straight roads, motels and diners. This is a reunification, a resurrection of an identity Grant and Robert have carried with them throughout their solo years. Here are two well-travelled musicians, with influences from across the Western world, who have forged their own sound in records made on three continents. By fourth or fifth listen, the jarring images have faded into the background, and the opening twangs of ‘Magic in here’ start to resemble nothing so much as the Go-Betweens themselves. Further in, there are echoes of the Able Label singles, and of Before Hollywood rock’n’roll toughness, and perhaps that’s what the well-intentioned young American helpers were encouraged to evoke. Having been bowled over by their performances as a duo last year, I was hoping that Grant and Robert would use this chance to go or stay acoustic. But the temptation of being a band again must have been too strong, and since this is an album which is as at ease with itself as 16 Lovers Lane, I can’t complain.
I read that they were drama students. I never knew that, although Robert’s desperate pelvic banging of the podium on which Lindy Morrison sat drumming during a rendition of ‘Draining the pool for you’ at the Astoria in 1986 told you all you needed to know on that score. It shows in Grant’s approach too, comparatively and characteristically understated as ever. His knack for storytelling and his understanding of the weight a small detail can carry is that of a dramatic poet.
Both offer songs which could easily have been written when they were starting out. A goofy optimism combines with typical dryness on Robert’s ‘Surfing magazines’, as ephemeral as its title suggests, while Grant’s ‘Going blind’ is effortlessly pop, alarmingly sing-along. More often than not, the prevailing wind is the familiar one, the heartfelt reflection on loss and the past that also permeates the novel from which they take their name. ‘Orpheus Beach’, for example, immediately joins the ranks of bruised McLennan classics, with its yearning chorus and brooding verse.
The best Go-Betweens albums have stood the test of time as well as any made in the 1980s. Through the nineties, the memory of the majority of their peers faded while Grant and Robert’s music continued to remind us what evocative, pin-sharp song writing there could be, if only good hearts were married to individual minds. The friends of Rachel Worth has ten gems of the Forster-McLennan variety, songs I expect to find endlessly fascinating, with an edge that once again ensures the Go-Betweens dip their collective chest to win at the line.
Mediating Health Information: The Go-Betweens in a Changing Socio-Technical Landscape edited by Nadine Wathen, Sally Wyatt & Roma Harris. Palgrave Macmillan, August 2008.
Don’t know about you, but I’ve always got the information most important to my health from Forster and McLennan. And their longevity certainly makes it meaningful to talk about them in the context of a changing socio-technical landscape… I like to think that one of the editors was up against a wager that she couldn’t get the name of her favourite group into a book title.
While we’re on the subject, there’s a great version of ‘Right here’ from the Barbican show in 2004 downloadable from the Go-Betweens’ library, strings and all. You can also pick up ‘He lives my life’ from the same night there, though owners of the double CD edition of Oceans apart will have that already. I wrote about that night in a somewhat uneven fashion for Tangents, but at least I got one thing right:
‘The consistency of their song-writing as a pair is staggering. Every song has something about it that lifts it far above the ordinary: a sun-dappled pop melody, a lyric you might like for your gravestone or your screensaver, a guitar figure which illustrates exactly what music means to you, time shifts which make you want to take up drumming, a chorus that fills your heart, instrumental shading that fills your eyes. Frequently their songs have all of these, and more.’
The best piece that Robert Forster has penned for the Monthly is ‘A true hipster’, about his friend and song writing partner Grant McLennan. But there’s also this Sunday Times piece which appeared around the time that The evangelist was released – Robert on how he finished off the songs that Grant left behind.
‘Old age suits him. It suits him the way being young did. It’s a natural fit, for both are the traditional places where wisdom can flower: the fired minds of the young and the dusty, wily utterances of the old. It’s all the time in between that’s the trouble. Dylan, though, survived all the crashes and the madness of his years, and survived well enough to leave himself fully stocked for a fruitful and significant late period.’
If, like me, you have struggled with Bob Dylan post-Blood on the tracks, then you might find this enthusiastic primer by (award-winning critic) Robert Forster useful. It’s one of a series of monthly articles he has been writing for the (Australian) Monthly, which may or may not become available for free after a year to eighteen months. Robert listens with a potential producer’s ear, and writes with a great lyricist’s gift for metaphor. Unless you feel driven to take out a subscription, you’ll have to wait a while before you can find out what Robert makes of Vampire Weekend, but in the meantime there are pieces on the pop genius of the Monkeees, Joe Boyd’s White bicycles, Augie March, and even Nana Mouskouri to enjoy.
In the spirit of the fifty word fictions currently being posted by Chan over at A wild slim alien, here are some reviews of exactly that length – tips of the hat to my long-player listening so far this year. With the odd hand gesture or wrinkled nose thrown in.
The Shortwave Set – Replica sun machine
Seduced by the alethiometeresque cover, but disappointed by the frequency with which the wan, characterless vocals of Andrew Pettitt displace the considerably more elegant singing of Ulrika Bjornse. Danger Mouse production? Check. Van Dyke Parks string arrangements? Check. Tunes? Mostly. ‘Glitches ‘n’ bugs’, ‘Distant daze’ and ‘No social’ stand out.
Elbow – The seldom seen kid
In the last couple of years Elbow’s records have been surreptitiously stealing their way to the centre of my listening world. This confirms their place there with its high musicality and wry humour. Guy Garvey’s songs are lugubrious and beautiful, even managing to reanimate the corny image of the mirrorball.
DeVotchKa – A mad and faithful telling
Romany Mexican indie with Greek or Klezmer undertones, anyone? Not forgetting occasional forays into chamber and oompah band territories? Singer Nick Urata looks like a roughed-up cross between Clooney and Morrissey. One song – ‘The clockwise witness’ – is truly great, throwing off excessive stylistic colouring for an affecting shade of blue.
Carl Craig – Sessions
How long it’s been since I was lost in niteklub rhythm. For all that Craig is a master of dancefloor dynamics, Sessions ultimately feels relentless, at home or in car. It’s a relief when the end is near and the unpredictable rhythms of ‘Bug in the bass bin’ take hold.
Four Tet – Ringer
A river whose flow is as relentless as Sessions, but out of the current more is going on. I wish I had more time to relax into ‘Swimmer’’s patterns; fretted less about the time Kieran Hebden takes to develop his swirls and eddies. Moments of life that won’t come again.
Neon Neon – Stainless style
After the Rhys-Boom Bip collaboration on Blue eyed in the red room, and Gruff’s loveable Candylion, a disappointment. In evoking the worst aspects of the eighties, it’s loud, shiny, and as attractive as the boxy lines of the De Lorean car. But ‘I lust u’ achieves a Depeche Mode-esque melancholy.
Colin Meloy – Colin Meloy sings live
Just occasionally in these solo performances, Colin Meloy is one note short of a melody. Otherwise he conveys the best of the Decemberists – as well as Shirley Collins and the Smiths – with songwriter’s conviction, stand-up comedy and helpings of the ‘campfire singalong’ spirit that he declares he is aiming for.
The Last Shadow Puppets – The age of the understatement
The chief northern monkey and his best mate perform a Dukes of Stratosphearic take on Scott Walker (and indeed Brel through Scott’s distorting mirror); in their turtleneck sweaters they’re photo-fit go-getters. The result is a noirish existential beat group and the second of many reinventions Alex Turner may yet perform.
Goldfrapp – Seventh tree
I lost interest between Black cherry and the insistently decadent electro of Supernature. Fortunately the duo are aware of the benefits of reinvention and return; Seventh tree is closest in spirit to Felt mountain but with added folk sensibility and pop nous. ‘Little bird’ floats and ‘Caravan girl’ drives along.
British Sea Power – Do you like rock music?
Like Open season, this is eight-tenths of the way to greatness; if I were eighteen and at my first Glastonbury, I would wave my flag to it. But it’s as rock as the substance you’d mine were you to tunnel into Mount Blanc, and for me that remains a problem.
Paul Weller – 22 dreams
Press would have you believe that Weller has suddenly emerged from a lengthy spell in rock purgatory. Truth is he rediscovered his touch over the two preceding sets; you could not get more pastoral than ‘Pan’ on As is now. 22 dreams expands the lightness in familiar and fresh directions.
Portishead – Third
Top bombing from Barrow, Gibbons and Utley. The avant-garde attack of the electronics is reminiscent of New Order discovering synthesisers. Next time Portishead can worry less about making it impossible for anyone to countenance putting them on as dinner party listening; this is music with which to greet the apocalypse.
Robert Forster – The evangelist
The healing power of song – I’m so glad RF rediscovered it. But how could the tone be anything other than elegiac, with fragments of Grant’s last songs among Robert’s lyrical responses to his death. As we hear those last tunes, Robert sings ‘it was melody he loved most of all’.
‘I read about your death in the paper, when I was buying tomato seed’. It’s hard not to turn a lyric like this in on its singer when you know he’s gone. Grant McLennan’s songs often suggested an unusually acute awareness of mortality, but he always threaded them with what it meant to be alive. ‘Been waking up early on Sundays watching my soil breathe.’
Intermission: the best of the solo recordings 1990-1997 is the result of Robert Forster and Grant hand-picking a baker’s dozen songs each from four times that number. The character of each disc is striking – if you knew nothing of Robert and Grant, you would never guess from this evidence that they grew up in the same group. Of course, those characters were already long-developed and contrasting by the time the first phase of the Go-Betweens came to an end, but the bond then was stronger than the difference, so that one could easily drop a vocal into the other’s song.
Had the solo works been songs on four extra Go-Betweens albums, Robert’s might have been softened and harmonised by Grant’s presence. Owing to Robert’s greater editorial and conceptual clarity, Grant’s songs could have been more focused, less affected by the sheen of a commercial production. I think Robert survived better than Grant as a former Go-Between, allowing looser inflections of country and country rock to infiltrate his music, and each album (bar the less than successful covers set) has a distinct feel. But throughout his attempts to produce the perfect song for FM radio, Grant retained his poetic sensibility, mourning the fragility of love, or celebrating its greatness and perfection.
Will Robert go on to make more solo records, inspired rather than haunted by the memory of his friend and foil? The signs are that he will. Meanwhile, he has become a prize-winning critic in Australia, writing about Dylan and the Shins for the Monthly, which also published his tribute to Grant, ‘A true hipster’ two months after McLennan’s death in May 2006. In it Robert says that when they met he was ‘falling into music’, while Grant’s obsession was film. ‘We became Godard and Truffaut. Brisbane didn’t know it at the time, but there were two 19-year-olds driving around in a car who thought they were French film directors.’
The ‘acoustic stories’ part of the That striped sunlight sound DVD also illuminates their partnership, with conversation between the pair and great untreated versions of some of their best songs. Grant begins to lose his voice halfway through the session, recorded the day after the Brisbane show also filmed for the disc. You feel for him, a man forever stretching, yearning, reaching for artistic highs and heights. A man very much alive.