Shane Danielsen RAM, September 1988
There are many people, in this country and in others, who have done a great deal of their growing up to the soundtrack of the Go-Betweens this writer being one of them. Have laughed/cried, won love only to lose it again, and retired to their bedrooms hurt or ecstatic, to listen again to the songs, and find some comfort in the belief that they might have been written for themselves alone.
And you see them at every concert, these emotional veterans; a host of familiar faces sometimes mouthing the words silently, like a shared secret, whispered; sometimes with eyes lightly closed. Most often grinning inanely, crescents of teeth bared and a tracery of lines converging at the corners of their eyes. Wrapped up tight in a pleasure as complete as it is incapable of articulation.
Theirs is, indeed, a music for 'quiet times in thought' to quote a familiar lyric. It has, at its best, a space and a beauty that stands head and shoulders above most everything else in sight. For those uninterested in what passes for teenage rebellion in these days of designer-culture, it remarks upon adolescence in a way more inherently personal, more meaningfully, than any acne-broken agglomeration of hardcore skatepunks ever could.
The Go-Betweens have consciously stood apart from what has come to be accepted as the conventional rock ethos their reliance on acoustics, their apparent disdain for the trappings of the Great Australian Pub Rock Slog, their famed arrogance. Have grown up in public in a way few others would dare.
Recent history has seen a number of developments, in both personnel and in craft. After the unquestioned triumph of Liberty Belle, it seemed what was to follow could only be a disappointment or a further triumph surprisingly, Tallulah was neither, and recalled nothing so much as the slightly wayward slant of Spring Hill Fair. Its moods were contradictory, often frustrating Robert at once offered the wilful obscurities of The Clarke Sisters (almost a Patrick White short story set to song) and I Just Get Caught Out, perhaps the cleanest, purest pop he had written since Lee Remick, years before. Grant, for the first time, was inconsistent while Bye Bye Pride was a near-masterpiece, others, such as Someone Else's Wife seemed rushed, almost unfinished; while Hope Then Strife simply missed the mark altogether, lapsing into a musical and lyrical banality to which he (and we) were unaccustomed. That was last year.
Now it's mid-morning, late August, and two separate halves of an interview await. First up is Lindy Morrison, perhaps the most disarmingly articulate woman in this industry, uncompromisingly honest, admirable as much for the strength underlining her convictions as for the intelligence that has formed them. She appears friendly, wants first of all to dispute (kindly) the veracity of an unfavourable live review in the recent past.
Yet Robert Forster, by contrast, seems slightly cooler than usual perhaps for the same reason. His replies are, as always, carefully considered, his lips purse and a perpetual frown creases in parallel between his eyebrows. It's hard not to like him, nonetheless he seems not so much arrogant as simply insular: one is immediately aware of aspects to him that no questions however ingenious will reveal. As ever, he refuses to open up, sometimes letting the merest hint of mockery colour his replies. This is only a game, he seems to say, and I refuse to take it seriously.
To him, we speak primarily of music it is, after all, his domain, as one of the two principal songwriters of this band. To her, we talk of this band and its constituent parts. She is probably the more adroit social commentator.
So to the present day, and the latest work:
16 Lovers Lane sounds at first disappointing, the songs seem nowhere near as memorable, appear at first glance to possess little of the inspired craftsmanship of previous efforts. Yet repeated listenings reveal depths hitherto unsuspected the phrase perhaps most applicable is that of a 'deceptive simplicity'. From the opiate feel of Grant's Quiet Heart, with its long, sighing violin and gorgeous chorus, to the vaguely countrified flavour of most of Robert's contributions, it surrenders itself only slowly to appreciation. The weeks pass, bringing slow familiarity, and with it comes affection of the kind reserved for a child less immediately attractive than its older siblings, but no less deserving of one's love.
"Yes, the melodies are simpler," says Robert, "and that was very much they way I wanted it, because it was so very obvious to me what I wanted to sing about. And this time I just wanted flat, melodic planes which I could sing over, and not have to be forced to curl a lyric around a particular melodic bent. I want people to be able to hear the words.
"And, yes, they are more direct, more immediate a lot of these songs I wrote up in Brisbane, at Christmas time. I was living in my parents' house for the first time in ten years. Now you must try to imagine how that was for me: I'm in the same room I wrote Lee Remick and Karen in, for the first time in a decade. Both my parents would go off to work; I'm out in the western suburbs of Brisbane. And this is what I wound up writing I'd wake up in the morning at eight o'clock, and pick up the guitar. And that's what the songs are."
Do you think a writer is totally dependent on environment?
"No, I don't but it certainly helped me. This time. And I knew it would be like that. After we returned here in October last year, I knew I'd go back to Brisbane, I knew my parents would go to work and leave me alone for the day; I knew I'd have my acoustic guitar. So I was on the back porch strumming the chords "
He allows himself a moment's conceit, though his face remains perfectly impassive:
" those beautiful, golden chords and just singing out into the valley. And I wasn't in November London in a cold attic, where it's getting dark at 3.30 in the afternoon, and everything is on top of me.
"I can hear that atmosphere, listening now, on a lot of our records. And this one is completely the opposite, we've left all that behind us now, with the move back to Australia."
What of the justifiable accusation that Lindy and Amanda have been handicapped from this approach?
"Well, even I don't play much on the album: having John (Wilsteed) with us now, there's really no need, because he can play very much in traditional styles. He's been playing much longer than I have, and is much more versed in classical technique. Take a song like Love Is A Sign John plays some acoustic on it which everyone has mistaken for mandolin. And you can say to him in the studio, I want something like The Band in 1968 you know, all woody and smoky. And he can do it. Whereas I might have the idea, and the guitar in my hand, and maybe come close, but not quite "
"These days I just play rhythm the way I wrote it when I came up with the song, and everyone puts things on top of it." A brief flicker of a smile. "It's quite ironic: on the first album, I played virtually all the guitar; here we are on the sixth, with four guitarists in the band, and I'm probably playing the least. Which suits me fine: I'm a songwriter and a singer, not any kind of virtuoso."
Lindy Morrison has asked for an opinion, an honest opinion, and the answer has surprised her slightly. (It's still early days, and the artifact-in-question has not yet begun to concede its virtues.) She lapses, not into defensiveness, but simply into an explanation:
"It's an acoustic album. And that's because it was approached in an entirely different manner to any other Go-Betweens record. What happened was, Robert and Grant did the demos by themselves with acoustic guitars. That's the first time that's ever happened: the demos have always been done with the band, with all of us sorting out the arrangements. They just wanted to work together and by themselves again, and take it back to the grass-roots.
"Then these demos, with acoustic guitars only, went to the producer, and he took everything from that. So that there were no specific rhythm structures written in or anything, no specific bits worked out between Amanda and I as we'd done on Tallulah no real bottom put on everything. He wanted everything light, light and straightforward. We were working with a producer and we had decided that, if we were going to pay for a producer, we were going to listen to him. Now, a lot of people are going to love that but if you see the Go-Betweens strictly in an ordinary 'rock' genre, then you won't like it as much." She grins. "I call it our Peter, Paul & Mary album, if you want to know.
"And I admit that that way of doing things with just the boys demoing things on their own really didn't find much favour with Amanda and I, to be honest. It certainly put us at an enormous disadvantage when we went into rehearsals with the producer, because he already knew what he wanted, and that was nothing like what the two of us had in mind. And I think our contributions do suffer accordingly."
A sigh though it seems rather more of resignation than reconciliation: "But the boys were happy the boys are very happy with the songs." And then, all in a rush: "And to me the songs sound wonderful. You must stress that above all the other things I say: that the songs do sound wonderful, that they are great songs."
The Boys. It's a term which will dominate this interview we turn, perhaps inevitably, from a discussion of the new record, to Lindy's pet subject contemplation of the dichotomy eternal: gender and roles. Boys and Girls. Their relationships. Firstly, that existing between the songwriting partners.
"The thing to remember is they are boys, and boys in any working environment tend to compete. And I don't think they're necessarily any different to any other men in work situations. Yet they're also capable of what Amanda and I refer to as 'the great shift-around' where, when it's necessary to work together on a project, they understand there's no need to compete anymore. It's a very male thing, and its a language that Amanda and I don't understand whatsoever, because we say when we've got a grudge we hold it forever.
"I think they have a definite symbiotic relationship. They go back to when they were adolescent boys together, and that kind of male bonding is very important, and not easily put aside. I don't know, its a very unusual situation: there are very good friendships within all the band, but they tend to be on a sibling level, where you can really give as much shit to one another as possible, because you know that there's something deeper there it's not a blood-bond, but it's not dissimilar to a blood-bond. I really can't describe it."
(Later, Robert will say only of his co-writer: "We are not Keith and Ronnie. We don't put our heads on each other's shoulders and have scarves dangling around our necks and sweat all over each other. It's not that kind of relationship. But this supposed distance between us people remark on, it's not something I'm particularly aware of we're singing on each other's songs more these days " It trails off into a shrug, a make of that what you will gesture. And that is all.)
Lindy chooses, as she does all morning, to be slightly more forthcoming. "It's an expression of our feelings for each other that we are still together. There aren't many bands with two songwriters who've lasted as long as we have, and that must say something. But the tendency toward pairings in this band mean there's something of a gang element there. The bedroom scenes, the post mortems there's a lot of that. There is a very interesting psychodynamic in the band. Robert and I, being ex-lovers, are still very close."
To continue a working relationship: that doesn't tend to happen very often.
"Well, I know but we had the Go-Betweens as a baby to keep nurturing together." Her laughter is loud, though passes quickly. "But it was still very hard for both of us and miserable for the rest of the band. It happened during Liberty Belle, and songs like Bow Down are an example of what he was thinking at the time.
"And, as for Grant and Amanda, that's complicated in that Amanda and I are very close, which in a way mitigates against the bad feeling that might sometimes occur between Grant and Robert, because she and I are as thick as thieves, and it shows.
"This thing, this whole dynamic, it could never have happened unless Amanda was a girl there's a a girlish sympathy between us, and it's extremely strong. That was everything behind me recommending her for this band: we needed another woman in the band I was sick of being perceived as some symbol of womanhood, which is something I couldn't possible sustain. I can't possibly represent all women, yet I was being more and more expected to do so not by fans, who have always taken me as I am, but by outsiders, who really seemed to expect I'd be 'the woman' of this band. And, though I don't think the boys will ever admit it, I was definitely being treated as The Woman. It's very subtle, in the negative ways that comes out but it was there, nevertheless."
In light of such reluctance to carry the banner of a stereotype, the choice of faire Amanda the cornflower blonde hair; the long, peasant frocks: visually representing a more overt, traditional femininity seems an inspired one, establishing something of a synthesis between the two most popular conceptions of 'woman' at work in the general community.
Lindy half-smiles, admits, "When I saw her, I suppose I actually sort of fell in love with her, in a way. Not just how beautiful she was, or the music she was playing she was playing music when I first saw her, doing an acoustic show in a café just up in the Cross. It was the beauty of her female-ness, combined with the beauty of her music (which I thought was very female) which made her so attractive.
Such an admission is unsurprising, considering this band's exclusive domain, and the subject matter of virtually all their songs, lies firmly in the region of the heart as Woody Allen once said, 'A tough little muscle'. A love that transcends the occasional hints of specifics the streets, the names (Karen, Ruth, Tallulah, et al).
"To me, because the songs are about love and love affairs, they're universal, based in the conventional western world. They write about loving someone, or being dropped by someone that's the gist of all the songs. and people everywhere should be able to relate to those feelings, to falling in and out of love, and what you go through when you're in love with somebody. To me, the specific geography is unimportant although I do believe that love is geography, and that one only falls in love with people in the environment one is in. In fact, Amanda and I wanted to call the album Love Is Geography, but we were outvoted."
By now, this seems an almost sickeningly harmonious camaraderie. It begs the question: Is there anything you two don't agree on?
She looks almost surprised "Well, yes, we do disagree strongly about certain things. Like for instance, Amanda likes men to look like men and women to look like women; whereas I'm much more into androgyny than she is. She would obviously find Grant the more attractive I sort of always suspected she would." Then laughing, "And, anyway, it could never have been Robert she's not as tall as I am!"
What of the impression that the Go-Betweens are too deliberately æsthetic?
She shrugs, unconcerned. "Well that's just the way we are there's nothing contrived about it. Grant and Robert are extremely bookish; I'm well read, but I've always thought my image was more rough than that. If it's not, I'm very pleased to hear that. I often think I come across to people as very rough, even coarse so I'm always glad to hear when people think otherwise.
"But our audience tend to be people who are interested in the arts, in cinema and theatre and literature. And to me, that's both the reason we don't have broader appeal, and why I'm glad that we don't. I'm very pleased with the kind of fans we have they seem to be an interesting group of people who think about things a lot, and who are always very interesting to talk to, and who you can sit around and " Her hands grapple the air for an example, " bring up Sylvia Plath in the first sentence without fear."
I must admit, I've always believed Ted Hughes to be far and away the superior poet and that's not just because I'm female.
"Oh, but you can talk about Zelda Fitzgerald and I'll always take her side. The same goes for Plath I always take the woman's side. I'm dreadful like that. But as I'm getting older, I'm beginning to think I have over-sympathised with Fitzgerald and I'll always take her side. The same goes for Plath I always take the woman's side. I'm dreadful like that. But as I'm getting older, I'm beginning to think I have over-sympathised with women, and I'm only just beginning to understand recently how vulnerable men are. I mean, God, here I am in my mid-30's, and I'm only just beginning to realise that.
"I think I expected far too much from Robert, in terms of sensitivity I really do. And only now am I discovering that not all men, when they treat you badly, do so because they're necessarily sexist but simply because they just don't know how to behave with you, because those worlds between men and women are so incredibly different.
"Yet on the other hand, there is still that language that only men understand and use, and that's the controlling language. The language used by those in power. All men know it, instinctively, but I don't think women quite understand it, or know how to use it." She pauses, adds, "I've often noticed in all-boy bands that it's always the girlfriends that seem to give the bands the problems. And when there's a scapegoat needed, it's always the girlfriends.
"But with us, those kind of problems have always been internal which both simplifies and complicates things. The bedroom is always there in the background. But I don't think the band could have continued had those partnerships not been of some length. It's incredibly difficult to sustain a relationship in a touring band and Robert and I ended up just being bored with each other, because we'd spent 24 hours a day with each other for seven years, which was just unnatural."
And she smiles, rather sadly.