PopMatters Music Interviews Editor
I didn’t think I should be giving Grant McLennan his memorial. After all, I don’t own every album in the Go-Betweens discography, I know only one of his solo albums, and I’m a relatively new fan. Upon reflection, though, maybe that’s exactly the type of fan who should be writing this tribute. It’s been inexplicable to me that the Go-Betweens never reached wider success. Every single person I’ve ever played them for has liked them. Yet somehow they never got the listening public to fall in love with them.
Well, I fell. The first time I heard Oceans Apart, the group’s 2005 release, I immediately knew this was a band I wanted to know more about, to track down every album and maybe even know the words to some b-sides. The problem is that McLennan, and Go-Betweens partner Robert Forster, write songs that you get bogged down in. They move so easily, and yet they call you back again and again. I’ve been slow to pick up more albums because I can’t seem to finish the ones I have.
McLennan’s art, like most memorable art, looks like it’s easy; he doesn’t deliver grand poetic pronouncements, he simply tells you things. That conversational intimacy in the group’s music helps the duo (truly a duo, despite whomever they surrounded themselves with in the band) do something better than anyone else in pop: create setting. McLennan doesn’t need to describe the street you’ve been on, because you’re invariably on the street he’s describing. His success doesn’t rely on precise descriptions, but on the inviting nature of the songs — you very quickly arrive where the Go-Betweens take you. You don’t need to have spent time on a horse to join McLennan “on the five mile fence” with the “bloodwood, bones, and steers” in “Boundary Rider”? You end up in places when you listen to the Go-Betweens whether you know it or not.
That arrival comes most powerfully on what’s bound to be McLennan’s most referenced song in the next few weeks: “Cattle and Cane”, from the Go-Betweens 1983 album Before Hollywood. McLennan’s song, built around one of those perfect and soft guitar hooks the group never ran out of, would be nostalgic if the narrator ever went there. McLennan builds his lyrics around recollections of growing through childhood and leaving, distancing the lyric by putting the memory in the third person. With loss beautifully wrapped in a train ride “Through fields of cattle / Through fields of cane,” you can forget to cry, but the pinpoint moment of “His father’s watch / He left it in the showers” reminds you that this is a person. The character at the center of the song might be filtered through several layers of narration, but he is nonetheless a person completely real.
This complete grounding never denied the directly harsh side of life. In my favorite McLennan song, “Black Mule,” he tells the story of a man whom a nun rescues from a life-threatening beating. After cleaning him up, she tells him, “Go into the world and take a look.” In the next verse a car bomb blows him up. McLennan is direct: “Life can be cruel. Nothing to interpret here; this is just the song that keeps coming back to me since I heard the news of McLennan’s death.
If you’re concerned about the McLennan’s artistic output, it might mean something that McLennan and the Go-Betweens, on their third album after re-forming from a lengthy breakup, were as good as ever. In a recent interview with Stylus Magazine, Forster said, “Our relationship’s changing all the time. We’re still discovering its magnitude.” That statement works in a songwriting context (if you’re concerned about the art), but it also reminds us that McLennan was a real person, just one who was unusually gifted.