“Further, longer, higher...” but no older. Go-Betweens frontman Grant W McLennan dead at 48.
N.B. UPDATES (MAY 9, 13 & 20) APPENDED
My thoughts always turn to the Go-Betweens when I’m in Brisbane, especially wandering through Spring Hill... wondering if there really was a Spring Hill Fair, that kinda thing.
I can’t really say Grant and I were friends -- I used to hang out with Go-Betweens drummer Lindy Morrison -- but anyone who knew and loved Grant’s songs felt there was a connection, an intimacy, a relationship of sorts. He was like an ideal older brother. Gentle, brave, honest. Exposed.
Coincidentally, I listened to the Go-Betweens first record, Send Me A Lullaby, on my way to Brisbane a day or two before he died.
It’s a mighty album, still my favourite. And Grant’s contributions -- ‘Your Turn, My Turn’, ‘One Thing Can Hold Us’, ‘All About Strength’ and so on -- are quintessential Go-Betweens songs. They’re intense and a bit awkward, more gawky than geeky, but they have an incandescent emotional realism, if I can borrow a turn of phrase from Alison Croggon.
The release of The Go-Betweens’ DVD/CD combo That Striped Sunlight Sound (Capitol) late last year prompted me to dust off my vinyl copies of Send Me A Lullaby, Before Hollywood, Spring Hill Fair and Liberty Belle and rummage around for some ancient 45s: ‘I Need Two Heads’, ‘Hammer The Hammer’ and so on... only to discover that my Luxman turntable doesn’t “do” 45 rpm.
I was also getting match fit for Grant and Rob’s Danger in the Past concert at this year’s Sydney Festival, which turned out to be their last as the Go-Betweens. (See my review, here.)
To be fair, I have to declare an interest. Go-Betweens fans tend to fall into clearly delineated camps. I was early to jump on the bandwagon, pretty much when Lindy joined the band as drummer, and I was early to jump off it. Just as the band were about to make a blip on overseas charts, we parted company. Around the time of ‘Spring Rain’. I hated ‘Right Here’ and the other sticky-icky saccharine stuff.
But I came back to the fold in 2000 with the reformation. Reformation? Hell! That should read ‘resurrection’!
I was one of the lucky few -- part of a tiny invited audience -- who saw a concert at the Czech Club in North Melbourne on September 6, 2000, around the time The Friends of Rachel Worth was released. It was the only concert the boys played in Melbourne that year as The Go-Betweens.
With Adele Pickvance making occasional but sublime contributions on bass and backing vocals, Rob and Grant played without a drummer... as if out of courtesy to Lindy. They were back to their very very best: passionate, stripped-back, thrilling. They revealed, then, that they could do ecstatic joy every bit as well as they used to do abject misery.
Funnily enough, Rob had lost his voice and so Grant did virtually all of the lead vocals that day, even in Rob's songs. They each played acoustic guitars.
I didn't think Rachel Worth did justice to their talent. It didn't capture the excitement -- the essence -- of those concerts. Nor did their next release, Bright Yellow Bright Orange, likable though it is.
And, I have to say, the very last concert disappointed me. Well... The selection of songs at the final concert disappointed me. That's more accurate. It was supposed to be The Story of the Go-Betweens. It wasn't.
The sound disappointed me, too. It was way too loud, way too bright and way too clean. Ear-bleeding stuff.
I've been rummaging through ancient diaries looking (unsuccessfully) for the first time I saw Rob, Grant and Lindy perform. They were a regular (if mind-bogglingly inappropriate) support to Nick Cave's old band, The Birthday Party, in Melbourne.
I saw the best and the worst of them in 1981 and 1982. An atrocious gig at The Oxford in which strings broke, microphone stands collapsed and the audience revolted. A gig with Mister Pierre on vocals at The Tiger Lounge (nee Bottomline) with The Cave Men, a boorish scratch band Nick Cave assembled for the night. (My diary's verdict about the latter: “They played shit.” Eloquent, hey?) A day earlier they played the Astor with the Laughing Clowns and The Birthday Party...
I also saw the last performance the Go-Betweens played before leaving Australia for London. It was mid May, 1982. I have the hand-written set list from that concert. On the flip side are lyrics, doodles for a future song. The set started with ‘Karen’ -- a rarity even then -- and ended with ‘I Need Two Heads’. There was only one song from Before Hollywood, the album the band finished in London five months later: Rob's brilliant ‘By Chance’.
They returned to Australia, triumphant, with ‘Cattle and Cane’.
And that song was the second last The Go-Betweens ever played together. An encore at this year's Danger In The Past gig. (‘Danger In The Past’ was the last, in case you were wondering.)
Grant, painfully, sang the last words of that blindingly beautiful song: “further, longer, higher...”
But no older.
I’ll dig up a pic I took of Grant in 1981, have it scanned and post it. [Done, it’s here.] In the meantime, for a fine recent shot of Grant with Rob and Glenn Thompson (who performed with the boys for a song or two at that last Sydney gig), see here.
UPDATE, MAY 9
For more up-to-date news reports, see Bernard Zuel’s report in the Sydney Morning Herald and Scott Timberg’s obituary in the L.A. Times. [Update, August 25: The L.A. Times link is now broken, but the obituary is quoted in full, here.] The latter report, a few hours old [4:31 AM PDT, May 9, 2006], has some great quotations from Robert Vickers, sometime bass player for The Go-Betweens.
Vickers recalls [McLennan] as someone who kept a distance from the world’s pressures. "He lived in a rented house, he didn’t drive, didn’t wear a watch, didn’t carry a wallet. He wasn't a real material person: His wardrobe had like five things in it, and he’d wear them whether it was snowing or sunny. The weather didn’t seem to affect him. He had an amazing constitution."
Besides working at a university cinema and record store, he probably never held a straight job, Vickers said.
But this eternal bohemianism exacted its costs, says Vickers, who says McLennan was overly fond of discussing books and movies all day over beer and cigarettes. "He didn’t change his lifestyle when he got into his 40s, like a lot of us do. I wish he'd done a bit more of that."
McLennan’s musical passions included the Mamas and the Papas, Television and Creedence Clearwater Revival. "He loved pop songs," Vickers says, "but he also loved the poets — Dylan and Patti Smith. That’s what he was going for, a poetic song that would stick in your head."
UPDATE, MAY 13
There's a florid and oddly offensive report in today’s Sydney Morning Herald about Grant’s funeral, yesterday, by resident star-spotter Alexa Moses. Apart from intimating that McLennan was some kind of nerdy art school wanker, Moses gets away with Who Weekly crap like this: “The rock crowd managed a stylish send-off that the aesthete McLennan would likely have approved, with mourners garbed in studs and sequins, piercings, leather, fishnet stockings, velvet, and sunglasses obscuring many faces inside the church.” Ugh! It’s as if Moses is trying to feign some kind of familiarity with the man and his work. Nevertheless, the report has the odd gem. Like this:
Eulogies were also given by McLennan’s girlfriend, Emma Pursey, and the musician’s sister, Sally, who told a story about McLennan wangling his way through airport customs without a ticket, using a CD with his picture on it as a passport.
UPDATE MAY 20
There’s a great piece in the latest Village Voice by Robert Christgau. Here’s a taste:
Grant McLennan was in a grand mood May 6, with every reason to believe he had his best work ahead of him. Renowned and beloved though the Go-Betweens' six '80s albums are, 2005's Oceans Apart, third fruit of their 2000 reunion, had outsold them all. It also won them their first Australian Grammy, and if the category was Adult Contemporary, fine. McLennan had money in the bank. Songs were pouring out of him. That night, during a huge housewarming party that would root him in Brisbane once and for all, he'd planned to publicly propose to his girlfriend, Emma Pursey. At 4:30 that afternoon, he went upstairs for a nap. Early arrivals found him in his bedroom a few hours later. The autopsy revealed a massive heart attack. He was 48.