Robert Forster's Long Goodbye

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

Unsurprisingly, the decision whether to record again—and, if so, when—hovered expectantly. And for eight months following McLennan's death (a period of musical mourning, if you will), Forster's guitar-playing was confined to his own home. But eventually he began to visit Adele Pickvance, the bass player on the Go-Betweens' last three albums. And once a week, he would start to teach her the songs he'd been working on.

"I was prefacing everything I said to people, with, you know, 'This is how I feel now,' " he recalls. "Because the months after Grant died, you just don't know how effective your thinking is. You know, you could say, 'I'm going to be an actor' or 'I'm going to write science fiction,' because you're in this sort of state of mind. But at the end of April 2007, when we'd made the demo, it just felt like: 'Let's keep on going. Let's make a record.' It felt like momentum. I felt like I'd be stopping something when I was enjoying it, and we had a certain amount of joy and momentum going. And so I knew then. Yeah, I knew then."

Maybe it's the melancholy musings of a musician who's lived for half a century, or maybe it's a lighter, more open brush on the lyric sheet. Maybe it's the a priori knowledge of McLennan's passing, or maybe it's just more minor chords. But the result, Forster's Evangelist, is more poignant and more personal than any of his previous solo releases. And no song is as moving as "Demon Days."

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

Just one song co-written by the pair appeared on Forster's first four solo releases. But now that McLennan is gone—and with him the outlet known as the Go-Betweens—The Evangelist features three shared credits.

"These are songs where Grant had written the choruses, the melody, and the song structure," says Forster. "The last couple of Go-Betweens albums—and it probably happened in the past as well—he was writing his lyrics more toward the end. Like just before we'd go into the studio, sometimes in the studio, sometimes when we were doing demos before we'd go into the studio. But this particular one, 'Demon Days,' he'd actually written the first five lines of the first verse. And these were the only lyrics he'd written outside of the choruses."

"You know, singer-songwriters often improvise—you mumble words in the verses. And I could tell he was doing that, but on 'Demon Days' he'd sing these same four or five lines each time we'd play. And then, when he died, I actually got his notebook about a week after, because it was all going to be shipped away. I spoke to his family, and I said, 'You know, we've been working on these songs, and I'd like to see what he had.' It was a very, very strange experience. So I went through his notebook, and 'Let Your Light In, Babe' just had the song title and maybe one line. But on 'Demon Days,' he had five lines. It just stopped at five lines of the first verse. And I had to finish it."

It was, says Forster, "enormously hard."

There have been songs in the Go-Betweens' past, even songs on The Evangelist ("Let Your Light In, Babe" and "It Ain't Easy") where McLennan wrote the chorus while Forster filled out the verses. "But I've never done anything," Forster says, "where I had to pick up; I had to fall into his rhythm."

It was an extraordinary and revealing situation. For the first time in a 25-year partnership, Forster attempted to write as his friend would—something he'd never tried while that friend was alive. "It's definitely the only song I can think of like that," he says.

"Admittedly, it's circumstances, you know—in the past, if Grant had written five lines to a song, he wouldn't stop. If he's got the first five lines that he's happy with, he's not going to turn to me, you know. He's going to finish it.

"This is the only song where he's got intent and he's started and then I've gone on and finished it, trying to keep it a whole and referencing him and continuing it on. Yeah, it's the only song like that. It's a very special song to me. I mean, it's probably the reason I wanted to make the album. It's an incredible song, one of the best songs he ever did. And, you know, it was a major impetus in making the record—wanting to make it—was to record this song."

The last two lines of that verse, the verse Forster was called to finish in his partner's voice, go like this: "Something's not right/Something's gone wrong."

"You know," Forster says, "with Grant passing, there are a million negatives, but the one positive that I take out of it is I now know how things are. The Go-Betweens? That's gone and it won't ever be. And so it's like a whole working relationship—a whole group, a whole era, you know—is now gone. But I know, you know? And I know at 50. And so I just have to go on with that knowledge."

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