Of skins and hearts
Marie Ryan RAM, 29 July 1987
No, this isn't another worthy women-in rock feature although it is about a rock'n'roll woman. This woman is both feminist and feral six foot tall, intelligent, loudmouthed and wild as a polecat. Lindy Morrison, Go-Betweens' drummer, all of 35 and she still hasn't slowed up or settled down, she still won't shut up.
This might sound like the sort of person you would walk a mile to avoid, except for the fact that Ms Morrison is also very charming and believe me, Lindy could charm the pants off the Ayatollah if it wasn't for the fact that she frightens most men shitless.
At times Lindy even frightens me, so full is she of unfettered energy almost like it's only her skin holding it all in. She has this spirited, animated way of talking which is difficult to convey via the printed page. It's sometimes hurried and breathless, often excited and excitable. You tend to get wound up and enthused with her, and a long session can be quite debilitating. Couple that with her prodigious capacity for alcohol and any attempt to keep up will see you seriously wrecked and out of action for the next week, while she forges on unaffected. I speak from experience.
Why write about the female drummer of a semi-famous expatriate Australian band? Well, I think it's high time we redressed the imbalance in female role models. Boys have plenty of nasty rock'n'roll heroes to emulate and be inspired by, but girls mostly have wimpy, figure-perfect, flawless looking femmes who know how to behave and toe the line.
People wax on about Madonna being a right-on role model for young girls, with her sussy, street-smart, boy-bossin' attitude to life. Lindy has all of that and more, plus she's the antithesis of everything girls are encouraged to be unlike Ms Ciccone, who simply plays the game to her own advantage.
Female drummers are even now not your everyday item, but when Lindy started out bashing the skins, they were on a par with hens' teeth. It wasn't an obvious occupation for her to pursue, upper middle-class daughter of a respected Brisbane medical family that she was. In fact, she began her working life decorously enough as a social worker. This led her into contact with the emerging radical black movement of the early 70s an experience which she says fundamentally changed her life.
"I completely changed from being a protected middle-class girl to just discovering what an incredibly racist country Australia was. Remember when the Labor government set up all those services run by blacks for blacks, like the Aboriginal Legal Service and the Aboriginal Housing Service? Well, I was the first white social worker in Brisbane involved in those kind of groupings.
"People didn't want to come to offices so l did most of my social work over pool tables in pubs. I passed on an incredible amount of knowledge about how to pick up benefits or how to get their kids out of homes or how to get a house, but I learned more from meeting them than they learned from me. It was fantastic, but really, it was a mistake to be a white person working in those black set-ups."
Lindy was ultimately unable to shake the conviction that, despite good intentions she was still essentially an establishment figure, working in support of the status quo. Matters were complicated by the fact that she was involved with a black man and "what was a black man doing with a white woman at that stage when blacks were solely fighting for themselves, and had every reason to be?" It was time to move on
She spent a couple of years overseas 'dabbling in theatre' and then returned to live in Brisbane, sharing a house with radio man Stuart Matchett (then with 4ZZZ, later 2JJJ and now 2SM) and a set of drums. Learning to play them seemed a natural step, and gigs came quickly and easily. "It was so lucky for me that punk happened then anyone could play a musical instrument. I was such a basic drummer and girls were suddenly accepted. Everyone wanted to ploy with girls because it was groovy, so I had no trouble getting lots of gigs."
Then in 1978 she met three girls at a party, "really, really tough lesbians" who formed the nucleus of feminist band Xero. Convincing them that she was a hotshot drummer, they tried her out and she joined them the next day.
"We were a great band, but we couldn't get a gig because we were too crazy. The girls lived by shoplifting. I was constantly in trouble for attending right to abortion rallies and demonstrations; I even had my drums confiscated. I took my drums down to Queen Street (Brisbane's main drug) and we did a performance in the street and the police confiscated my drums! That was a huge drama for me, because I didn't have my instrument for months."
It was shortly after this incident that Robert Forster strummed his way into her life and heart via a mutually shared rehearsal room. ("It didn't take long for us to fall in love," she recalls.) Joining his group was an obvious step the Go-Betweens needed a drummer and Lindy needed a ticket out of Brisbane, which she increasingly loathed.
"There was one thing in it, one decision for me, and that was that I desperately wanted to get out of Brisbane and they were moving. They gave me the gateway out of that hell. It was such a small town for me, and I was so unpopular because I was just too aggressive and forthright and I saw it exactly for what it was, I could see so clearly how parochial it was and I hated it for it. And I couldn't stand the politics I still can't stand the politics!"
Then followed a year of love on the dole with Robert in Melbourne. Compensations were found in a contract with Missing Link and hanging out with the Birthday Party "Boy, did they show us things," she remembers. "I was shocked in the beginning. I couldn't believe how many drugs were going down, or the incredibly loose lifestyles that people held!"
Melbourne proved to be a propitious place in other ways in 1981, the Go-Betweens were offered a deal with Rough Trade, tickets to London, a life in a new town here they've remained on and off ever since.
Right now I'm sitting in Lindy's flat, part of a decaying Victorian house in Highbury, a green and pleasant part of North London. Lindy is being characteristically frank about her personal life, and reassures me that I can repeat her frankness here. I'm grateful. Where do you draw the line between public and private lives with a band like the Go-Betweens? The essence of Go-Betweens music has always been bound up with the relationships which make up the band. At first it was the partnership between Grant and Robert; then it was the coming together of Lindy and Robert currently it is Amanda and Grant's affair de coeur. All three relationships have been reflected in the songs not just in the lyrics, but more interestingly in the music.
Lindy has just come through one of the worst traumas of her life. Some 12 months back, after seven years of monogamy, she and Robert decided to experiment with seeing other people. At first it was Lindy who made all the running, squeezing every last drop of enjoyment out of this new heady freedom that was hers. But the inevitable happened and Robert, after a few abortive flings, eventually found someone he really liked. Lindy's freedom suddenly turned sour. Since Robert lives on the floor above Lindy's flat, there was no way they could avoid seeing each other, despite their so-called separate lives and anyway, they continued to work together.
While the splitting asunder of Robert and Lindy was taking place, Grant and Amanda were, ahem, getting it together. These changes in their personal circumstances are reflected in those dinky choruses on Right Here and the less convoluted beatiness of the new LP Tallulah. Perhaps you'd thought this had come about through a conscious decision by the Go-Betweens to drop the fractured rhythms and go for the throat of commercialism? Perhaps you'd marvelled at how well Amanda has been integrated into the band? Listen to Lindy
"Because Amanda and Grant are now living together, that means they're working that much more closely together. And Amanda is so versatile, she provides such a much more interesting element. For instance, her backing vocals match with Grant so well and the songs he's now writing are accommodating her.
"When Robert and I lived together, we used to work together constantly. He'd play a song and I'd work out the drum patterns and that's why the drum patterns were so bloody intricate! Because day after day we'd work out really precise patterns, and of course that was half our undoing because they were really too intricate. We were throwing in bars of five here and there because we had time to work it all out. But when you're not living with someone anymore, you have to settle for the things that can be learned quickly so you settle into groups of four bars because you've only got two days in the rehearsal room to learn it! So definitely it matters a great deal, the relationships in a band." Another change is that where once Robert wrote about his interaction with Lindy, he now writes about his new relationship. Surely this must sting?
"No, I find it intriguing. I think about how flattered I was when I was younger that he used to write about me, and I think about how flattered she must be when he writes about her. There's always a clue you can always pick it up. It was hard at first, but only in the sense that breaking up with anybody's hard."
It says a lot about the Go-Betweens' staying power that they've survived intact all these years, despite these personal traumas. Think about it eight years of intense togetherness, and no-one has ever left the Go-Betweens. But Lindy then stuns me by saying that if Tallulah doesn't sell in the required large numbers, then the band might well call it a day. Naturally all the members would continue to pursue their own musical bents, but the world would essentially be without the Go-Betweens.
"Most songwriting teams don't go on for this long," she points out. "And I think the work behind us is just brilliant. But it would be terribly sad to see the band finished."
Lindy would have no difficulty in finding other bonds to work with. In Britain, she has accrued an enormous amount of respect, both on a musical and personal level. Casting around for a quote for this article from someone who knows Lindy both professionally and personally I came upon Geoff Travis, head of Rough Trade, at a post gig party. Could he give a succinct summation of Lindy Morrison for RAM? He did not hesitate. On the buck of a crumpled piece of paper fished out of his pocket he wrote "Lindy Morrison: one of the most courageous women I know forever battling against rock'n'roll's fear of being intelligent."
Though Lindy might shudder at the comparison which follows, I think Martin Amis was onto something when, writing about Normal Mailer in The Moronic Inferno, he pondered the roots of the respect this particular tough, wild cookie commanded from even those who hated the guy. "He is," wrote Amis, "spoken of with the reverence customarily accorded to people who live harder than most of us do."
Lindy lives harder than most women are game to, or inclined to and in the full knowledge of the social approbation that hard-living women attract not out of choice, but because that's the only way she knows how. If I were 14, she'd be on my wall definitely.