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Article  •  18 August 2016


Inside the go-betweens

Five surprising facts from Robert Forster’s unforgettable memoir, Grant & I.

The 1980s songwriting partnership of Grant McLennan/Robert Forster was a little like an Australian John Lennon/Paul McCartney. The pair wrote all The Go-Betweens' distinctively original material and, like their more famous counterparts, shared the credits and alternated on lead vocals; both also played guitar. Grant & I is Forster’s extraordinary portrait of this intense, creative, sometimes fraught friendship – a genuine meeting of artistic minds.

Wise, witty, poignant, insightful, self-deprecating and knowledgeable, channelled through Robert Forster’s unforgettable storytelling, Grant & I shines light on all the ups, downs, hits and missteps of life in The Go-Betweens. Here are just five of the many insights we gained from the pages of the book.

Robert Derwent Garth Forster is named after Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s son
Robert only discovered this after reading one of his own early poems aloud at his grandparents’ fiftieth wedding anniversary in 1972. Post-poem, Robert’s Aunt Sibbie took him aside, revealing something of her appreciation for poetry, and the secret of his literary namesake. From the pages of Grant & I, this is how  Robert remembers it going down:

‘Did you write that?’ she asked me in the garden.

‘Yes I did.’

‘Have you heard of a poet called Samuel Taylor Coleridge?’

‘Um . . . yes.’

‘He wrote a poem called “Kubla Khan” and another one called “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”.’

To hear such words coming from my aunt.

She paused to give me a withering look of consideration, then pursing her lips she went on, ‘Samuel Taylor Coleridge had a son and his name was Derwent. And he was a teacher. Before our family came out from England, Derwent Coleridge was our family tutor. He was a good man and our family liked him a great deal. So much that it was decided to name the eldest child of each generation after him.’

I am Robert Derwent Garth Forster. Destiny had tapped, a pat to encourage stirring feelings I had of being someone with a gift for words.

Robert Forster, prompted by Bob Dylan, coined the phrase ‘striped sunlight sound’, associated with Brisbane pop music
It was a rare Bob Dylan interview in Playboy magazine that planted the seed. Robert was driving as Grant read aloud – the two poring over Dylan’s answers for laughs and attitude lessons. The big-bang moment arrived when Dylan described the sound achieved on his Blonde on Blonde album as: ‘…that wild mercury sound.’ It’s a memorable scene painted in the late-afternoon sun by Robert in Grant & I. And Dylan’s brief description of his own band’s sound left a subtle mark on Brisbane music for years to come. This is how Robert describes what happened next:

[Dylan’s description] got me thinking of descriptions for our music. A few weeks later I came up with ‘that striped sunlight sound’. It was a Brisbane thing, to do with sun slanting in through windows onto objects in a room, and the feelings that evoked. Years before, I’d taken photos of the Suzuki leaning against a wall with the sun on its honey-coloured body, and somehow all of this got linked to the sound The Go-Betweens made. We stuck this description onto the sleeve of our single as an answer to an imagined interview. The phrase endured, and became a term referencing a bright poppy Brisbane sound with winsome or witty lyrics attached, which our first single helped to inspire.

Grant McLennan only ever drove a car once
When Grant returned from a trip to his family’s country property in 1979, Robert was surprised to learn Grant now had a driver’s licence. But his driving career was to be short-lived. In Grant & I, Robert sets the scene:

Soon a car arrived, a white second-hand Corolla – a gift from his mother. It was strange to see Grant behind the wheel, it just didn’t seem right for him to have so much hands-on engagement with the world; stranger still to be a passenger as he drove me through the western suburbs. We were close to Golding Street one afternoon, not long after the car’s delivery, when the engine began to splutter. Grant managed to guide the vehicle into a ditch. A look at the dashboard showed the problem. No petrol. He didn’t know you had to put it in. He probably thought you could drive the car forever.

We walked home, and with my car in repair we had to hitchhike that night, appropriately enough, to a beatnik-themed Tom Waits show at the university. The next morning we returned with a can of petrol to find the car gone. Stolen. Grant never drove again. His life one tank of gas.

The Go-Betweens have a bridge named after them in Brisbane
Here’s the official spiel from the Queensland Government website:

Hale Street Link renamed
Go Between is the result of 5800 responses from a community vote in August and September 2009.

Go Between was short-listed as it reflects the purpose of the bridge; allowing motorists, cyclists and pedestrians to easily go between some of Brisbane’s most popular recreational, cultural, educational and residential precincts…

The name is also a tribute to The Go-Betweens; an internationally influential band from Brisbane.

The bridge was officially named by founding member Robert Forster, and six other members of The Go-Betweens, at the Community Market Day on Sunday, 4 July 2010, the day before the bridge opened to traffic.

As it turns out, it’s a fitting tribute to a band whose name was first uttered while crossing the Brisbane River some decades before, as Robert reveals in Grant & I:

We were driving across the Grey Street Bridge, Grant in the passenger seat, when he turned to ask, ‘Have you thought of a name for the group?’

I knew I had the right name, but I also realised that the band, however long it lasted, would be a contest and configuration of our wills. And be the stronger for it. I drew breath and as evenly as I could said, ‘The Go-Betweens.’

He waited a few seconds, letting the name ring in his head.

‘Good,’ he said.

Thirty-two years later and five hundred metres downriver, I would open the Go Between Bridge, the first new bridge to span the centre of Brisbane in forty years.

Robert Forster got to meet the subject of his early song ‘Lee Remick’
And the actress proved to be as charming in real life as on the screen. The meeting took place in Sydney in 1986, nearly a decade after the song was recorded as a single, and that evening Lee was a guest on the Mike Walsh Show. In Grant & I, Robert writes:

The first verse of the song rang out as she walked onto the set. Walsh explained the context of the music and the name of the group who’d made the record. Then, with a raised eyebrow to the camera and a theatrical clearing of the throat, he read out the lyrics to the second verse. ‘“She was in The Omen with Gregory Peck/ She got killed but what the heck/ Her eyes are like gems/ She’s an actress for Screen Gems.”‘ I was being humiliated on national television. Lee smiled coolly; having met the song’s author that day, she knew his sincerity.

The creation of Grant & I was assisted by the Australian Government through the Australia Council for the Arts, its arts funding and advisory body.

Feature Title

Grant & I
Grant & I is the story of the friendship and collaboration of Grant McLennan and Robert Forster, who gave Australia The Go-Betweens, one of our best and most influential bands. It was named Book of the Year 2017 by Mojo and Uncut magazines.
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