Robert Forster's Long Goodbye
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.
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.
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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."
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."
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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