Didn’t Know a Heart Could Be Tied Up and Held for Ransom
rant McLennan was never going to be a star. Look at him. For most of the last five years of his life he’d gained enough weight to resemble a ceramic Buddha; he was even bald like one. While his songs weren’t flabby, the ones he chose to include on the first two records he and Robert Forster released upon reactivating the Go-Betweens suggested that he had either entered a sort of Zen state in which craft dazzled in a way that art couldn’t anymore or had grown lazy (Forster’s songs, on the other hand, had become quiet miracles of illumined offhandedness). His voice had lost inflection. His guitar was content to strum instead of pick. I’d like to think he was in a relationship before he died—a remarkable woman, worthy of his intelligence, at his deathbed; something to explain how the restlessness of “A Bad Debt Follows You” and “Someone Else’s Wife” dissolved into the easy prettiness of “Going Blind” and “Poison in the Well.”
Then he and Forster recorded 2005’s Oceans Apart. With producer Mark Wallis and bandmates Adele Pickvance and Glenn Thompson being obtrusive in the best possible way, McLennan’s songs shook off their verse-chorus-verse fustiness. Wallis’ rococo embellishments tease open, bit by bit, the petals of “No Reason to Cry,” as it approaches its triumphant coda. He played solos again—listen to the searching, soaring lead on “The Statue.” He lost weight and, in the concert pictures I’ve seen, looked fit and content (then again, to expect McLennan to look saturnine is like asking Mick Jagger to look bucolic by posing with a garden hoe).
For the uninitiated, he was simply the most gifted melodist to emerge from the generation influenced by the punk ethos. This means: better than Pete Shelley, Roddy Frame, Morrissey-Marr, Bob Mould-Grant Hart. History will bear this out. McLennan, in Robert Christgau’s succinct words, was “the hooky Go-Between.” Melodies poured out of him. A natural, like the other “Mac”—the famous one who was awakened by a snatch of tune and the phrase “scrambled eggs.” But because he was unusually intelligent for a rock guy he was as incapable of la-la-la banality for its own sake as the other Mac was powerless to resist it. It wasn’t that McLennan was incapable of irony; in the warm light of his truthful-not-mimetic rendering of reality it was simply irrelevant. Forster’s oft-repeated ambition upon forming the Go-Betweens—to merge Tom Verlaine and The Monkeys—culminated in 1983’s “Cattle & Cane,” McLennan’s quiet exercise in Queensland nostalgia, anchored by his Peter Hook-worthy bass line and scalpel-sharp verses (“His father’s watch, he left it in the showers”). Childhood, the song suggests, remains a zone of indeterminacy, a heap of broken images assembled in confusion.
It’s because of “Cattle & Cane”—not just that it exists, but what it says about how we use our past—that I worry most about Robert Forster. I know little about their relationship, but if the songs can be trusted (why not?) theirs is the kind of intimacy for which even the word “love” is inadequate. It speaks volumes about their friendship that it survived the rancor of the Go-Betweens’ first implosion in 1989 (a Rumours-worthy scenario: Forster broke up with drummer Lindy Morrison while McLennan was falling in love with violinist Amanda Brown). But the women were mere muses. The best Go-Betweens songs are missives written by and sung to men whose gradual acceptance of life as a beautiful, sad, and absurd thing was prompted by midnight discussions in the touring van, fueled by Keats and beer, on the perfidy of women. Don’t think Forster was unaware of his debt to McLennan. Shunning the rather forced dolorousness of his early material Forster embraced his partner’s melodic generosity so that later albums like Tallulah and 16 Lovers Lane hurt the ears, triumphant testaments to what three-minute pop songs can say about the elusiveness of comfort and joy. Listen to Forster’s “Dive for Your Memory” and you’ll hear the affirmation “Cattle & Cane” won’t yield. You couldn’t tell Robert and Grant apart, lying in the unmade bed of their songcraft, arms and legs entwined.
I keep forgetting that Grant’s dead. My first thought upon hearing the news was a variant on that famous Billy Wilder line, about Ernst Lubitsch’s death: “Agh, no more Ernst Lubitsch pictures.” No more Grant McLennan songs. Hearing “Bachelor Kisses” on my Discman on a late afternoon stroll around Columbus Circle in 2000; a would-be lover driving away as the exultant chorus of “Bye Bye Pride” chased him; a chilly South Florida night, warmed by the thunderous “Lighting Fires…”