Robert Forster's Long Goodbye

A Go-Between re-emerges with maybe the best song his dearly departed bandmate ever wrote

The first go-round for Australia's Go-Betweens lasted six albums and nearly a dozen years—call it the '80s with a running start. And though band founders Robert Forster and Grant McLennan professed harder-edged influences like the Saints and the Velvet Underground, their resulting partnered sound emanated with a harmonious polish, like a more optimistic version of the Cure or the Smiths. Soon enough, Forster and McLennan—like Squeeze's Difford and Tilbrook—were inextricably and positively compared to Lennon and McCartney, but the expected correlative commercial success proved elusive. So following the soft landing of 1988's 16 Lovers Lane, the consensus pick for best Go-Betweens album and the group's last, best chance for ecto-Australian stardom, Forster and McLennan parted professional ways. The duo stayed friends, at times even touring together as each launched a career alone. Forster recorded four solo albums, and McLennan recorded four solo albums. The pair, it seemed, was always in lockstep.

But while critical notice kept pace with their individual ventures, the decade-long dalliances drew to a close. In the year 2000, Forster and McLennan reclaimed the Go-Betweens name and, backed by Sleater-Kinney, recorded Friends of Rachel Worth, the first of three albums of original material for the new century.

At the end of this month, Forster will release The Evangelist, his fifth solo album and his first since the Go-Betweens reunited. But the partnership, the lockstep, has been broken. On May 6, 2006, while napping prior to a party, Grant McLennan suffered a massive heart attack, cutting short a brief life and long collaboration.

Robert Forster, fresh from his latest—and most difficult—collaboration
Stephen Booth
Robert Forster, fresh from his latest—and most difficult—collaboration

It's a blustery day on the Lower East Side. By mid-afternoon, the remains of unexpected early-morning snow showers have reanimated as puddles of gray, slushy water bouncing against the curbside in the wake of passing cabs on Avenue A.

We're here, of course, to discuss The Evangelist. But we're here, at the Hi-Fi, because two trips ago—not the Go-Betweens' last New York show (a Mercury Lounge gig attended by Glenn Close dressed in so much white she could've re-created her role in The Natural), but the trip before that—McLennan and his label's publicist came to the Hi-Fi, a bar owned by the publicist for 16 Lovers Lane, to drink. A lot. And so, quite possibly, the Hi-Fi is the last bar in New York City where McLennan imbibed with dedication and fervor.

Lost somewhere in all of this is Robert Forster, a tall and proper sort who affects a mannered air of British Empire reserve, a man whose appearance and demeanor more closely fit the stereotype of professor and headmaster than songwriter and guitarist. Forster did not accompany his bandmate and their publicist on that last drunken New York night. Forster, in fact, doesn't drink and, truth be told, doesn't particularly care for bars. Nonetheless, we are here in the all-black back room of the Hi-Fi—such is the palpable absence of a songwriting partner for 25 years, a friend for 30, now that he's gone.

Though McLennan died nearly two years ago, Forster is mere steps onto an uncharted path as much out of character as a late-season snowstorm. The romanticized solitary artist in a garret no longer exists, so Forster must interact with the world, both in interviews before The Evangelist's release and the performances that will follow. In both he will be charged with expectations, to fill a void that he himself still feels while balancing the promotion of his own work with the respect and attention that his longtime partner's passing deserves.

"I see this as a one-time situation," he says. "This year, in a way, is going to be just capturing the situation. You know, someone in a partnership, someone carries on solo, and then how do you do that live? It's a situation that's not going to happen again, so it's going to have to be something that's going to play out this year. But I feel like I've got the balance right on the record and that I can do it, you know, live."

"He's made solo records," Forster says of McLennan. "His work is out there. Cut tragically short, you know, at 48. But he's still done a fair amount of work, and a lot of it's great, and we have a degree of fame or recognition that will probably keep him in the spotlight to a good extent. But at the same time, I have to not let that drown me. And I guess I'm going to learn how to do that."

Thus far, Forster has processed through activities both concrete and abstract.

He served as a pallbearer at McLennan's funeral and obtained his partner's songwriting notebook for one last artistic mining expedition. And since McLennan's death, Forster, now 50, a husband and a father, has accepted a position as music critic for The Monthly in his native Australia. One of his first essays, "A True Hipster," served as "a remembrance" of McLennan; the piece won the 2006 Pascall Prize for Critical Writing. It took the notoriously slow-working Forster weeks to pen the 3,000-word piece. Then again, prose writing—like so many other activities these days—represents a change. "My idea of what the future's going to be and what's going to come has gone completely out the window," Forster says. "I can no longer predict things."

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