Books

Robert Forster
Grant & I

In the 1960s, Robert Forster lived next to the Smiths – not the band he’d eventually tour with, but a normal family. Deadpan, he also reports having told his mother that when he grew up, he wanted to be just like Mr Smith. Mr Smith was retired.

The Go-Betweens, which Forster formed with Grant McLennan, were icons of this kind of low-key, self-amused attitude, which found the profound in the mundane but didn’t push too hard with it; akin to American-style slackerdom but cut with a laid-back quality special to Australia. But this is a serious book, a detailed record of the band’s history. Readers learn that in a share house McLennan once occupied in the Brisbane suburb of Toowong, not only had he “a room at the front of the house”, but that “next to him was Andrew Wilson (a medical student and friend of his from north Queensland) and his girlfriend, Karen Byatt, who studied social work. In a third bedroom on the other side of the house, past the kitchen, lived Ian Lilley (an archaeology student and school acquaintance of mine) …” It continues.

But the main focus is as admirable as it is surprising. Forster’s topic is rarely himself or McLennan. Instead, it’s the stuff of which their days were made, the music of The Go-Betweens. Forster and McLennan always seemed from the outside like reasonable, work-focused people, revising their ideas about how to make good music and putting those ideas into steady practice. It looked a good life, and that sense is borne out here. Their relationship is sometimes close, sometimes they’re just band mates, and they’re always recommending books and music to each other. Forster is not at all sentimental about their friendship, until he has to be – when he contends that he and McLennan “created the most romantic thing two heterosexual men can, a pop group”. And their relationship is not at all dramatic, until, of course, it is, at which point, it is gutting, sudden and tragic.

Before that ending – McLennan’s sudden unexpected death – when Forster does his friend very good service, his best topic is Brisbane, which is not surprising. Brisbane storms (at least on Fridays) are “lightning-jutting beasts that pelted the city with an hour of tropical rain, washing it clean and giving to the vegetation an intensity of colour that was almost psychedelic”. If that doesn’t sound familiar, listen to some Go-Betweens.  CR

Hamish Hamilton, 352pp, $35

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 10, 2016 as "Robert Forster, Grant & I". Subscribe here.

Reviewer: CR

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