The spirit of Grant McLen­nan and the Go- Be­tweens lives on in Robert Forster’s new solo album The Evan­ge­list , the singer and song­writer tells Iain Shed­den ‘ Grant and I had a grand plan, which was half- joked about: the three- act ca­reer’

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Cover -

THERE’S a touch of the­atri­cal­ity in Robert Forster’s man­ner. He likes a sharp suit which, com­bined with his nat­u­ral flam­boy­ance and easy elo­quence, draws at­ten­tion to his ev­ery word, just as any good ac­tor would be able to do from the stage or screen.

Forster is not an ac­tor, of course, but a mu­si­cian. Thirty- one years ago he and his friend Grant McLen­nan formed the Go- Be­tweens, one of Aus­tralia’s most revered rock ’ n’ roll ex­ports. As re­cently as two years ago that part­ner­ship was at its peak, as the Bris­bane band’s noughties re­nais­sance brought it greater com­mer­cial suc­cess than in its first phase dur­ing the 1980s.

Trag­i­cally, May 6, 2006, is when the GoBetweens ended, when McLen­nan, 48, died of a heart at­tack, just as he was about to host a party at his home. Sud­denly the part­ner­ship that had forged in­ter­na­tion­ally ac­claimed al­bums such as Spring Hill Fair ( 1984), 16 Lovers Lane ( 1988) and the ARIA award- win­ning last album Oceans Apart ( 2005) was over.

That tragedy still sur­rounds Forster. The 50- year- old singer lost not only his clos­est friend but also a col­lab­o­ra­tor with whom he had planned a long and suc­cess­ful fu­ture. That sen­ti­ment is summed up in lyrics to one of the songs from Forster’s new solo album, The Evan­ge­list . The track, De­mon Days , was the last he and McLen­nan wrote to­gether. Sparks to be sung in places so bright but some­thing’s not right some­thing’s gone wrong. Some­what prophet­i­cally, the last two lines were McLennnan’s. ‘‘ Grant and I had a grand plan, which was half joked about: the three- act ca­reer,’’ Forster says. ‘‘ Six al­bums in the ’ 80s, then we were go­ing to do a bunch of al­bums start­ing in 2000, fin­ish­ing when we were about 60 and then com­ing back when we were 70 and mak­ing one album that would be our mas­ter­piece. Com­ing back as old men with the great­est album we ever made.’’

As he sips cof­fee in his Syd­ney ho­tel, Forster can af­ford a lit­tle laugh at that unattain­able achieve­ment. But the hu­mour makes way for se­ri­ous con­tem­pla­tion as he ex­plains the ad­just­ments and con­sid­er­a­tions he had to make to move on from the Go- Be­tweens and rekin­dle a solo ca­reer that has been on the back­burner since his pre­vi­ous album, Warm Nights , re­leased in 1996.

‘‘ I thought we were deep in the sec­ond run ( of the three- act ca­reer) and in the vague mad­ness of that plan, maybe when I was 65 I’d do an­other solo album,’’ he says. ‘‘ But when­ever the GoBetweens were go­ing, Grant and I never thought about solo al­bums. It was to­tal con­cen­tra­tion on the band.’’

The band that was in place from 2002 in­cluded drum­mer and multi- in­stru­men­tal­ist Glenn Thompson and bassist Adele Pick­vance. Forster had no hes­i­ta­tion in ask­ing both of them to play on The Evan­ge­list , and even­tu­ally de­cided to record it in the Lon­don stu­dio where Oceans Apart was made and with the same pro­ducer, Mark Wal­lis, who also worked on 16 Lovers Lane .

Af­ter 18 months of griev­ing, Forster be­lieved it was bet­ter to con­tinue as the Go- Be­tweens would have done. He says, how­ever, that one im­pulse to­wards mak­ing his first album since McLen­nan’s death was to ‘‘ run away, to get a shed at the back of Bro­ken Hill, or go to the beach and get a Por­tas­tu­dio and make a howl of a record away from ev­ery­thing’’.

‘‘ I de­cided to go back to the scene of the last album, where we had recorded with Grant and Mark, and in ev­ery way it was the right de­ci­sion,’’ he goes on.

‘‘ I think if I’d recorded at the back of Bro­ken Hill I’d have been think­ing about Grant the whole time. Whereas — and this only oc­curred to me while we were ac­tu­ally there — ev­ery­one en­joyed be­ing back in the same place. It was to­tally bizarre and ev­ery­one was happy that, af­ter what had hap­pened with Grant, we were all back to­gether again.’’

That em­pa­thy and warmth comes across on the album, as does McLen­nan’s pres­ence. Along­side De­mon Days , two other songs, Let Your Light In Babe and It Ain’t Easy , are Forster- McLen­nan com­po­si­tions.

While the record­ing of the album aided the heal­ing process, Forster be­lieves the real test will come when he goes out on the road for the first time with­out his great foil.

Much of the Go- Be­tweens’ beauty stemmed from the con­trast­ing song­writ­ing and per­son­al­i­ties of its two pro­tag­o­nists. They rarely wrote to­gether. Forster’s songs flit from angst to whimsy, whereas McLen­nan’s approach was more in­tro­spec­tive.

On stage, Forster’s awk­ward dandy played up to McLen­nan’s more earthy hu­mour and ro­man­ti­cism. ‘‘ I think I’m go­ing to con­front him a lot more when I go out and play live,’’ Forster says. ‘‘ That’s go­ing to be the most cathar­tic thing I’ve done.’’ FORSTER met McLen­nan when they were stu­dents at the Univer­sity of Queens­land in the mid- 1970s and their com­bined in­ter­est in film, lit­er­a­ture and in par­tic­u­lar Amer­i­can punk mu­sic in­spired them to form a band.

By late 1979 the Go- Be­tweens had moved to Bri­tain and gar­nered pos­i­tive re­views for their first two al­bums, Send Me a Lul­laby ( 1982) and Be­fore Hol­ly­wood ( 1983). The lat­ter fea­tured McLen­nan’s Cat­tle and Cane , a song long con­sid­ered to be an Aus­tralian clas­sic.

Four more al­bums fol­lowed dur­ing the ’ 80s, but by the end of it, de­spite be­ing hailed by crit­ics, the Go- Be­tweens’ sub­tle gui­tar pop re­mained com­mer­cially un­suc­cess­ful. Ten­sion be­tween the two song­writ­ers and their re­spec­tive part­ners in the band, drum­mer Lindy Mor­ri­son and vi­o­lin­ist Amanda Brown, also took its toll. By Christ­mas 1989, the GoBetweens had split up. Forster looks back on that

pe­riod of song­writ­ing with a sense of pride and achieve­ment. He hasn’t changed much as a writer or a per­former, he says.

‘‘ Lyri­cally I’ve prob­a­bly got a lit­tle bit leaner and more pointed. I’m not as showy as I used to be or as un­nec­es­sar­ily flam­boy­ant. But if you’re 26 or 27 in Lon­don and on the street you’ll do any­thing to get no­ticed.’’

It was to­wards the end of the Go- Be­tweens’ first pe­riod that Forster says he found his voice, which would serve him well, cre­atively at least, dur­ing the next decade.

Dur­ing the ’ 90s Forster and McLen­nan pur­sued solo ca­reers. Forster re­leased four al­bums: Dan­ger in the Past ( 1990), Call­ing From a Coun­try Phone ( 1993), a cov­ers album called I Had a New York Girl­friend ( 1994) and Warm Nights ( 1996). Again, none of them bankrolled a man­sion with a gui­tar- shaped swim­ming pool, but they main­tained Forster’s pres­ence on the Aus­tralian and Euro­pean cir­cuit.

For most of this pe­riod Forster was based in Ger­many. He moved back to Bris­bane with his Ger­man wife, Karin Baeu­mier, and their two chil­dren in 2001, af­ter he and McLen­nan had set the Go- Be­tweens Mk II in mo­tion with their come­back album, The Friends of Rachel Worth ( 2000).

The tri­als of be­ing in a mar­riage with fam­i­lies spread across two con­ti­nents forms the ba­sis of the ti­tle track on Forster’s new album. The Evan­ge­list , for the most part, is a love song. The ti­tle has no great sig­nif­i­cance, he says. It sim­ply re­flects his way of work­ing.

‘‘ I have a book, like a diary, where I put down po­ems, ideas . . . come back from the beach and write a cou­ple of lines. I col­lect song ti­tles. I’ll write two or three a month. I had that one that hit me months be­fore and then I wrote a melody and then a lyric.

‘‘ But it has no big­ger mean­ing, re­ally. It’s a love song about a man mov­ing from one side of the world to the other side. At the bot­tom of it there’s a cer­tain amount of guilt at­tached to bring­ing your part­ner, who is from a dif­fer­ent coun­try and cul­ture, to where you live and work. My wife and I meet a lot of peo­ple who are in that sit­u­a­tion. There are al­ways peo­ple left be­hind and it’s a messy busi­ness.’’

His diary wasn’t the only book he con­sulted be­fore pro­ceed­ing with his new album. Forster and McLen­nan had been work­ing on songs for a new Go- Be­tweens album just be­fore McLen­nan’s death. ‘‘ I’d go over to his place and he played some songs he had. One of them was De­mon Days . Then we met prob­a­bly six times over Fe­bru­ary, March, April be­fore he died. Him and I play­ing songs.

‘‘ By the end of it the two of us were play­ing about eight new songs to­gether. We were that far into it. Six were his, two were mine. That’s why when he died I knew all the songs.

‘‘ Then af­ter he died, in a very bizarre turn of events, I got his lyric book. I asked his fam­ily. All his worldly goods were go­ing to be shipped to cen­tral Queens­land.

‘‘ I knew I was go­ing to record and I wanted to see what he had, so his fam­ily gen­er­ously let me see the book. Grant tended to write the lyrics just be­fore we did de­mos or went into the stu­dio. Be­fore that he would just do that kind of singer­song­writer mum­ble, you know, scat singing. There wasn’t much in the lyric book.’’

The lat­ter part of Forster’s ca­reer hasn’t been just about mu­sic. In 2005 he be­gan writ­ing a reg­u­lar col­umn in Aus­tralian mag­a­zine The Monthly, mostly, but not en­tirely, on mu­si­cre­lated top­ics. His well- crafted es­says in the mag­a­zine were re­warded in 2006 when he re­ceived the Pas­call Prize for Crit­i­cal Writ­ing and with it a cheque for $ 15,000. Does this mean he has lit­er­ary am­bi­tions? Is there an un­fin­ished novel sit­ting in his bot­tom drawer?

‘‘ There has never been a novel in the bot­tom drawer,’’ he says. ‘‘ That’s what I’m go­ing to do next year.’’ Ac­tu­ally, what he plans to do is write, but it may not be a novel. ‘‘ I can only call it sto­ries,’’ he says. ‘‘ And there’s a fair chance that they are go­ing to be fairly close to me. I don’t think it’s go­ing to be: ‘ It’s 1864 as we pulled into the gold­fields.’ ’’

He ad­mits that he has en­ter­tained the idea of writ­ing a novel since he was 21, ‘‘ and there have been lit­tle starts, times when I’ve gone two or three days in my diary writ­ing 1500 words. But it never leapt off the page to me. And I knew that to do it I’d have to stop mu­sic. If you’re go­ing to be a nov­el­ist, that’s a whole other job. I knew I’d have to stop mu­sic and go some­where and write ab­so­lute garbage for six months or so and then I just might get a be­gin­ning. You can’t write a novel on the run in rock ’ n’ roll.’’

* * * BE­FORE he re­treats to write in his newly built shed out the back of his house in Bris­bane, Forster has his album to pro­mote, here and over­seas. He will tour Aus­tralia in Au­gust, with Pick­vance and a new drum­mer. Thompson will step out front with gui­tar and key­boards.

Al­though he is not as com­mit­ted to life on the road as he once was, Forster still en­joys the live ex­pe­ri­ence. ‘‘ I’d like to per­form for years with­out record­ing,’’ he says. ‘‘ That’s not to say I’d want to spend 10 months in a row on the road. My ca­reer would have to be go­ing gang­busters for me to do that. You know, I’d have to be do­ing three nights at Carnegie Hall at the end of it to do it.’’ And if he’s not ab­so­lutely sure about be­ing a writer, nei­ther is he con­vinced about his cre­den­tials as a mu­si­cian. ‘‘ But I’ve al­ways thought of that as an ad­van­tage,’’ he says. ‘‘ There are thou­sands of peo­ple who are in­cred­i­bly mu­si­cal, and I’m not be­smirch­ing them, but they can’t write a song, or they can’t go side­ways, whereas I can.

‘‘ I come from the punk, post- punk era when the an­gle you had on things was im­por­tant, rather than who could play the best ver­sion of Johnny B. Goode in town. I keep that at­ti­tude.

‘‘ I don’t pa­rade it around that I’m not Tommy Emmanuel. I think it’s good that I’m not, that I’m not this fan­tas­ti­cally rhyth­mi­cal per­son. That’s my an­gle.’’

He’s prob­a­bly not the only one who’s glad about him not be­ing Emmanuel. McLen­nan, you feel, would have been de­lighted.

‘‘ He’ll be there in spirit,’’ Forster says of his friend and the up­com­ing tour. ‘‘ I’m look­ing for­ward to it. It will be quite raw. I just know some of the songs now are go­ing to have a whole dif­fer­ent mean­ing. They will have an­other sub­text. That will be a hur­dle, but I think it has the chance to be fan­tas­tic.’’

The Evan­ge­list is re­leased by EMI on April 26. To watch video of the Robert Forster in­ter­view, go to www. theaus­tralian. com. au.

Still raw: From far left, Robert Forster; the Go- Be­tweens in the late 1980s; Forster and Grant McLen­nan in 2005

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