The Go-Betweens

Not The Go-Betweens, actually. Robert Forster. The Go-Betweens could so easily have been a band the (commercial) stature of a Smiths or R.E.M., you know. Fortunately, they are far superior to either. I found this live review (taken from those heady days when I still held down a weekly Village Voice column) while I was idling away, looking for source material to use for my Classic Rock review of the new Robert Forster book Grant & I, Inside and Outside The Go-Betweens. It’s the book he promised his former partner, the day after his death. I started reading the book yesterday, finished it today, skim-reading past the sections where Robert merely quotes lyrics and with tears prickling hot during the final one or two chapters. Oddly, the book gives little insight into its main protagonist and rather more into the thoughts of its author. Maybe that is not so odd, after all.

The start is very evocative, made me feel bittersweet sad yearning for our joint chosen hometown of The Gap, an outlying suburb of Brisbane. It was different when he grew up there in the early 1960s, of course.

Anyway, I wanted to share the following review with you. The final line is uncannily prescient and I can still recall the exact time and location of that sunset, with the bank of trees looming on the hilltop high above the city.

I have interviewed Robert a couple of times – once on the deck of our Queenslander in The Gap (a few blocks away from his house).


Hugs and Kisses 56: Robert Forster, formerly of the Go-Betweens

Mostly, I sat entranced, lost in a reverie. I was appreciating the restraint being exercised in front of me on stage. I was appreciating the dry humour. I was appreciating the solid, good sound. I was remembering watching Elvis Costello perform at Brighton’s Dome when my wife Charlotte was pregnant with our son Isaac, and appreciating the good, solid sound then. I was watching the shadows—a deep, lustrous red and welcoming, lighting up the wall of Brisbane’s Powerhouse space the way the sun hits the deck in the evening. My mind was flickering through the years, I was 19 or 20 again and not quite sure what to make of that awkward, downbeat Australian trio The Go-Betweens when all around was fire and clamour: they sang of dust and shadows and street lights in the rain. And it touched upon a time a few years thence, and how angry I was that I amended my best lyric—my best damn lyric, “Like the middle-eight from a Go-Betweens song”—in its recorded version, because I figured it was too specific. Of course, when I was 23, 24 I didn’t even begin to register why people who read Dostoevsky look like Dostoevsky, and I had no way of knowing how central Go-Betweens would become to my life.

So I looked at the shadows. And I listened to the performer, former Go-Betweens singer Robert Forster, recount a story about going down to the Serpentine Gallery in Hyde Park to see Patti Smith play a live show, and how all these famous journalists from across Europe turned up and he was stuck outside with his partner. And I was thinking, I could have been one of those famous journalists he was referring to, it was the right year, but I wasn’t. I wasn’t into classic rock then.

Now, I am. In fact, now I so am I’d be prepared to listen to Bob Dylan—something I’ve never been prepared to do my entire life. Now I am, have been ever since The Go-Betweens returned several years back with an album, The Friends Of Rachel Worth which I swear remains my favourite, and not just because Janet Weiss drums on it, but because it features a glut of Forster songs—“German Farmhouse,” “Surfing Magazines,” “He Lives My Life”—that kill me. He performs them all tonight while I’m gazing at the swirling shadows, and it’s my world. Right now, it’s my world. We both live in Brisbane now and it seems less than coincidence, more like predetermination. Man. That’s some heritage right there, former rotten totalitarian state government or not.

And I’m enjoying the classic rock, kept under wraps. (That one solitary harmony on “He Lives My Life” is the most perfect solitary harmony this side of Joey Ramone.) Robert’s a great band, augmented by that kid from Flamingo Crash. The lady drummer from I Heart Hiroshima (acolyte of Weiss) is two seats across and she’s consumed with envy. She’s great too, but has way too much personality to be down there on stage. My mind is a hive. I think of former Cannanes drummer David Nichols and his book of The Go-Betweens which I’ll never read, and the way he coaxed me back into making music. I think of my UK band’s failed attempts to record a song for the Grant McLennan tribute album, mainly cos we kept picking on Forster songs by accident, but also because…well, you’ve got to realise. I don’t want to be Robert Forster (to paraphrase an Aussie pop star).

Before “Born To A Family,” Forster announces that “this is the story of my life, in three minute, eight seconds pop song” and then the microphone breaks, and he adds “this really is the story of my life” and then no one comes on to fix the mic and he has to switch with his guitarist, and the guitarist and that wonderful former Go-Betweens bassist make like “George and Paul” on the one remaining mic, even bobbing their heads and grinning inanely like they’re on Ed Sullivan… and there are many moments like this, moments like the terrifyingly resonant “121” (second encore) which I mistook for “From Ghost Town” with its full-on rocking and references to “tombstones/cobblestones/those old bones that lie beneath this city,” moments where Forster does a soft-shuffle like Nick Cave with his arms above his head, moments like the opening acoustic set where the band is introduced on stage one by one, or third encore “People Say,” which remains a favourite Eighties moment… it’s weird how often Forster references the weather when you consider how little Brisbane’s weather changes from day to day.

The following evening, driving down Settlement Road, we witnessed the most glorious sunset, a cascade of fiery reds and ambers and inclement purple. It was the sort of sunset that could change a life.

(AUGUST 21, 2008)

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