Review: John Encarnacaoon Robert Forster

One Tank Of Gas: Grant & I by Robert Forster

Sometime in the wilds of 1972 I was home sick, and my mother had skipped work to care for me. I was sitting in a loungeroom chair enjoying the luxury of listening to the radio by day and not a snatched half-hour at night, and the dust in the air from my mother’s sweeping was creating a glittering storm effect when from the radio came, ‘Didn’t know what time it was the light was low oh oh’ . . . Immediately there was something different about this record. It was knowing, and confidential, the voice pitched somewhere between male and female, no gruff Fogerty or Lennon this time. The verse exploded into a chorus of tower-high melody and romanticism purposefully built to stun a fourteen-year-old. ‘There’s a starman waiting in the sky.’ Ah! I was gone.

This account of being introduced to the music of David Bowie at an impressionable age comes early in Robert Forster’s memoir, and it tells us much about what’s to follow. There’s the power of glam and androgyny to Forster’s generation, and with it the influence it had on punk and post-punk. There’s the sensuality of experience that lies at the heart of many of Forster’s tales in the book. There’s the setting of the 1970s as a formative period, where music is glimpsed fleetingly on the radio and the ghosts of pre-war life in Brisbane are hovering. And perhaps most tellingly there’s the drama of Forster’s persona, developed over decades of song- and prose writing.

In Grant & I, Forster gives us an inside perspective on The Go-Betweens, essentially a partnership with another ambitious youth he met in literature and drama classes at the University of Queensland: Grant McLennan. Forster and McLennan led the band until the latter’s death ten years ago. The strong presence of drummer Lindy Morrison was the other mainstay of their initial run through the 1980s. The book is the second substantial account of the band, the first being David Nichols’ engaging and authoritative The Go-Betweens (1997/2003).

The Go-Betweens is one of a handful of post-punk Australian bands – The Birthday Party and Laughing Clowns are among their peers, with The Triffids following a couple of years later – who moved to London in the early 1980s to pursue opportunities that it seemed remaining at home would deny them. Although musically quite disparate, each group was seen by the UK press as articulating something both peculiarly Australian and not particularly beholden to rock archetypes. In turn, each group was, to varying degrees, received back home as conquering heroes. The main players of these groups now have diverse cultural profiles: The Birthday Party’s Nick Cave commands a global cult from a base in London, while the group’s influential guitarist and other main songwriter Rowland S. Howard died of liver cancer in 2009; Ed Kuepper, who co-led punk group The Saints before forming Laughing Clowns in 1979 has pursued a solo career since the mid-eighties. He is perhaps slightly overlooked because of the unglamorous fact of being alive and well in Brisbane. Not so David McComb, dead at 36. His band, The Triffids, recorded Born Sandy Devotional in 1986, and that album is widely seen as both the high point of his songwriting and one of the great Australian albums of the era.

Go-Betweens songs by Forster such as ‘Spring Rain’, ‘Twin Layers of Lightning’, ‘Draining The Pool For You’ and ‘The Clarke Sisters’ helped to define Forster’s as one of the most distinctive personas in Australian rock. In ‘Spring Rain’, he exclaims, with incredulity ‘People are excited/by their cars!/I want surprises.’ In ‘Twin Layers’, an uncomprehending bouncer with ‘no brains’ is told, ‘Don’t you know I’m a star?’ The narrator of ‘The Clarke Sisters’ returns repeatedly to ‘their lovely steel-grey hair’. Although I am loath to read autobiography into these or any songs, in each instance we are offered subject positions that revel in their difference, assume glamour, stature, and the superiority of their aesthetic senses; all this done playfully. However, the two best-known Go-Betweens songs – ‘Cattle and Cane’ and ‘Streets of Your Town’ – were both written by McLennan. The competition between the two is described in this book as productive; even as McLennan becomes more remote from Forster towards the end of his life, they understand that their whole is greater than the sum of their parts.

The narrative of Grant and I is strictly linear, taking us through the various stages of The Go-Betweens’ evolution. There’s Grant and Robert as a two-piece entity, rehearsing knee-to-knee at home and eventually finding themselves in Scotland recording a single in 1980. They met their match in Glasgow’s Orange Juice, fellow post-punks unafraid of melody and a skeletal approach to pop arrangements. Grant and I takes us through the ‘Big Ask’, as Forster calls it: will Grant accept Robert’s drummer-girlfriend Morrison into the band? Forster’s description of their sound and approach once Morrison joined is typically bracing:

[Grant’s) role was no longer restricted to bass playing and harmony singing; he was a songwriter singing more of his own songs, with his wiry, melodic bass lines at the centre of our sound. A challenge eagerly taken up by Lindy’s wildly inventive, percussive drums. Drums and bass were undergoing a re-evaluation and prominence in rock music, post-punk in particular – The Pop Group, Joy Division, Siouxsie and the Banshees. Guitars were scratchy and off to the side, singers screeched and yelped, as if the tips of swords were being prodded into their bodies. I had to adjust everything, my guitar playing, my singing, my position in the group.

This line-up made the first two Go-Betweens albums. Forster accurately assesses their 1982 debut Send Me A Lullaby as ‘raw bones . . . the songs being of varying quality’ and the 1983 record Before Hollywood as ‘a classic’. The four-piece line-up with Robert Vickers on bass follows. Forster succinctly conveys the tension between his lover and his songwriting partner, which was lessened somewhat by the new arrival: ‘The triangle became a square and I could breathe again’. As Forster and Morrison’s relationship ends after six years, multi-instrumentalist Amanda Brown joins the group and before long becomes a couple with Grant. (There was no overlap between the band’s two romantic relationships. ‘We weren’t ABBA or Fleetwood Mac’, Forster writes). The band breaks up at the end of the 1980s; Forster and McLennan spend the 1990s largely apart, regrouping for three more albums at the start of the new century, before the shock of McLennan’s death in 2006.

Though Nichols wrote in his book on The Go-Betweens that ‘with McLennan’s death, Forster has shed some of the artifice that the two contrived in their public personas’, to my mind Forster inhabits and extends his persona in this book. It continues to be one of the most alluring elements of the band’s output and helped to define the music journalism he pursued as music critic-in-residence for The Monthly from 2005-2013, some of which is collected in his first book The Ten Rules of Rock and Roll (2009). The word to describe this persona might be ‘arch’. There is an understated flamboyance to Forster’s writing, a casual way he has of making extravagant claims or sweeping judgments. It is aligned to his skill in summarising a scene, situation or landscape with a sentence of two that is rich in colour or detail; never exhaustive, never overbearing. Forster has a natural flair for the cadence: a long description followed by a knock-out punch in a single, short sentence paragraph. Early in the book Forster tells a story about McLennan’s first and only car, driven until it ran out of petrol as McLennan was so unworldly that he didn’t seem to know it had to be refilled. Upon returning to where the vehicle had been abandoned the night before, the pair find it has been stolen. ‘Grant never drove again’, writes Forster, concluding with a beautiful metaphor for his friend’s approach to living: ‘His life one tank of gas’.

Grant and I is a coming-of-age book. There are a number of strands to the maturation the book documents:  the discovery of self, the forging of an artistic identity, the negotiation of the music industry and the realisation of artistic goals. As the title indicates, the thread that binds these strands together is Forster’s partnership with McLennan, and in this it seems natural to draw a comparison to Patti Smith’s Just Kids (2010), predicated as that book is on the relationship between Smith and photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. In each memoir, personal growth is experienced and measured by the relationship with a significant creative other. Each deals with an early and formative intimacy, followed by parallel artistic growth and then a period of separation. Each also deals with the early death of that creative partner; McLennan of a heart attack at age 48, Mapplethorpe at 42 from complications arising from AIDS/HIV.

Patti Smith was one of the androgynous pre-punk icons that helped set the scene for The Go-Betweens. ‘The initial impetus of the Go-Betweens’, wrote Forster on a liner note to the 1986 release, The Go-Betweens: The Able Label Singles, ‘was a cross between The Monkees and Patti Smith. The Monkees were pop and bad poetics; Patti Smith poetics and bad pop’. Even so, the tone of each book is quite singular. Smith’s mode is a kind of poetic transcendence, where the gritty and the metaphysical are alchemised in the creative act. Forster instead writes from a self-consciously lofty position: he presumes the status of the artist. However, his pronouncements carry a whiff of self-deprecation. He dares us to challenge his high self-regard. ‘I would have made a great hairdresser’, he writes at one point in Grant and I. ‘Had the salon in Sydney, LA or London. When I hold a hairdryer, it’s the only thing that feels as natural in my hands as a guitar’. (His first published piece of writing was an article called ‘Hair Care’ for Debris in 1987). He is realistic about his limitations, and the times where he has fallen short of the expectations of himself or others. It is this apparent honesty that balances what may at times be received as hubris. So while he does compares himself to Bowie, Dylan and Oscar Wilde in the space of a paragraph, he also compares his voice to Tracey Thorne’s (of Everything But The Girl), who backed him on The Go-Betweens’ ‘Head Full of Steam’: ‘unlike myself, she can hold and bend notes.’

It’s easy to believe that Forster’s expansive view of the world and his place in it was established early in his life. ‘I had pretty much fallen into songwriting, my eye and ego having been on other forms of self-expression: a movie-maker with an eight-millimetre camera, writing fiction or plays, or should I become Brisbane’s Robert De Niro?’ As he wrote in the song ‘Born To A Family’, he always had that artist’s perspective of being different from people around him, aware of the peculiarity of his perspective, and possessed of the feeling of being destined for great things: ‘I was square into the hole/There was something in my soul/What could I do/but follow the calling.’ So, if first and foremost Forster considered himself an artist, the means of that expression being almost inconsequential, he is also aware that the punk/post-punk era afforded someone such as himself the opportunity to get in at the ground floor, with no qualifications. In particular, an early appreciation of the Velvet Underground got him thinking about the strength of ideas; that a roughshod articulation could be an asset rather than a problem: ‘what would a band be like that was not traditionally proficient on their instruments, but astonished by having the best songs in town?’ This evolved into a minimalist ethos that anticipated the genesis of The Go-Betweens and that was entirely of the post-punk zeitgeist: ‘You didn’t need much instrumentation if you were throwing interesting lyrics over hooky chord changes.’

Forster’s book makes clear that although other bands pointed the way for The Go-Betweens, TV, books and film were important signposts too. After all, The Monkees were as much a sitcom phenomenon as a musical one. Completing the group with a female member responded to a visual model presented by TV show The Mod Squad as much as the example of Mo Tucker in The Velvet Underground or Tina Weymouth in Talking Heads. As late as the mid-1980s, Forster modelled his hairstyle on a character from Dynasty. And then there’s James Joyce and Samuel Beckett, who appear sporadically throughout the text, as well as novelist Christopher Isherwood. It’s significant to note that the works of these artists are not fuel for songwriting in the sense of plots or characters, but as exemplars of tone or a way to live. Of Isherwood’s Goodbye To Berlin, picked up in a Liverpool op shop in the early 1980s, he admires ‘a humour never overplayed, a sense of insight never ponderously given . . . certainly no pounded moral outlook’, attributes one might glimpse in Forster’s work.

Many of the musicians who appear in the text are no surprise: Bob Dylan, Lou Reed, Jonathan Richman, Patti Smith, Tom Verlaine of Television and David Byrne of Talking Heads (the last two Forster describes as ‘our two elder brothers of style and songwriting’). It’s telling that none would be conventionally regarded as ‘good’ singers; it has become part of rock history that Bob Dylan’s singing gave artists such as Reed and Jimi Hendrix ‘permission’ to sing. Here we see a fairly familiar trajectory of influence – although to give Forster and McLennan their due, Dylan was hardly a fashionable role model in the post-punk era. The threads being drawn together here are of intelligent, literary songwriting (Dylan, Smith, Verlaine) with attention to the power and salience of the quotidian (Reed, Richman, Byrne). Together with the TV, films and books, we can see a cultural cosmology that has informed Forster’s world and creative output – both his music and his writing. He and McLennan engaged in a dialogue of mutual wonder and negotiation of these sources, their early friendship predicated on each educating the other in their field of speciality (McLennan: films; Forster: obscure rock music).

Forster’s book is generous and warm – but he still maintains a few boundaries. In this way it differs from David Nichols’ book, which is assiduously researched and tells stories from various sources, sometimes contradictory. Written as an independent account of The Go-Betweens’ career, it comes from a very different perspective. A scene that stuck in my mind from Nichols’ book is Lindy Morrison’s account of an early 1980s Christmas in London in a squat shared with her bandmates, members of The Birthday Party and others: she goes to some trouble making Christmas dinner, but everyone else shoots heroin and so the meal goes largely uneaten. While it’s not true that heroin use is completely unremarked upon in Grant & I (‘Heroin and amphetamine use was an occasional social thing with friends; a lot of people did it’ Forster writes late in the book) it seems to me that Forster feels McLennan’s heroin use is not his story to tell. It is a curious omission, though, as McLennan and his decline through the last five years of his life is documented in the final chapters of the book. Steve Kilbey, in his memoir Something Quite Peculiar, is very clear that it was McLennan that introduced him to heroin while they were collaborating on the Jack Frost project, kicking off a nightmarish 1990s for him. With these other accounts well known, and regardless of Forster’s intention of respect for his fallen comrade, this is a hole in a narrative that otherwise reads as relatively factual.

Grant & I is a book for fans of The Go-Betweens, but also for the casual fan of music. The charm of the narrator draws and holds the reader, who may occasionally guffaw at the chutzpah of this or that claim, but ultimately admires the mind at work. Grant & I continues Forster’s slow, nonchalant stroll into the realm of letters.


Forster, Robert (2009) The Ten Rules of Rock and Roll: Collected Music Writings 2005-09. Melbourne: Black Inc.
Kilbey, Steve (2014) Something Quite Peculiar: The Church. The Music. The Mayhem. Melbourne and London: Hardie Grant Books.
Nichols, David (1997/2003) The Go-Betweens. Portland, Oregon: Verse Chorus Press.
Smith, Patti (2010) Just Kids. London, Berlin, New York: Bloomsbury.
The Go-Betweens (1986) Liberty Belle and the Black Diamond Express. True Tone Records (Australia) and Beggars Banquet (UK)
The Go-Betweens (1987) Tallulah. True Tone Records (Australia) and Beggars Banquet (UK)
The Go-Betweens (2005) Oceans Apart. Lo-Max Records (UK).