Monday, May 15, 2006

A World Of Books And Silent Times In Thought

Yesterday I read, in Entertainment Weekly of all places, that on May 6 2006 Grant McLennan of The Go-Betweens died. This was especially weird because in that same issue there's a feature on Nick Cave, an Aussie-indie-rock contemporary of Grant's; if you were in a death pool you'd have given Cave much shorter odds. After all, it's Cave who's the Baudelairean junkie death-poet while McLennan was just some dude with a sweet voice and a knack for penning the most wistful melodies and poignant lyrics you (maybe) never heard. That McLennan died of a heart-attack in his sleep, at age 48, makes a little more sense; a heart so big that, at age 23, could be responsible for "Cattle And Cane"(scroll down) was too powerful to be contained, in times like these, in a 48 year old body.

I haven't heard the Go-Betweens records which were released this millenium. For me their story ended in 1988 with 16 Lovers Lane, which was satisfactory enough. Their core album discography - Send Me A Lullybye, Before Hollywood, Spring Hill Fair, Liberty Bell and the Black Diamond Express, Tallulah and 16 Lovers Lane - forms what's almost a musical novel recording the evolution of two friends' - McLennan and his partner Robert Forster - understanding of the great big world and everything important in it. They were nominally a "beat group", starting out in the punk-era as a guitar, bass, drums trio, with McLennan on bass because, well, they needed a bassist and in that era you formed a band around ideas and figured out who played what afterwards. Later on the line-up expanded, McLennan switched to lead guitar, and eventually they added violin and oboe. Early material sounds a little bit like Television without the guitar solos and with better songs. As they aged, the sound mellowed but the tension and sophistication in the lyrics and the melodies expanded. They broke up after a decade because McLennan and Forster figured it was time. After the breakup McLennan made solo records, teamed up with Steve Kilbey of The Church in Jack Frost and hung out with Ed Kuepper of the Saints and Laughing Clowns before reuniting with Forster for the Go-Betweens return.

That core discography is one I go back to again and again. At least once a year, normally on a Sunday and normally sometime between September and December (yeah, go ahead and laugh, I don't mind), I pull out the records and listen to them in order all the way through. Then for the next week I'll keep one in heavy rotation. 10 years ago it was the earlier material that stayed on; now it's the later stuff. Their music has that property of revealing itself to you; something that sounded silly or effusive two years ago suddenly makes sense. It's like you have to have as much life experience as they did when they recorded the song in order to get it. And they're one of the very very few bands who's lyrics I actually give one eff about - even though I may not be able to quote them, when I play the records I suddenly find myself having to pull out the lyric sheets and see what they're trying to say with the music. Needless to say I find McLennan's death tragic, but those records are going to be with me forever, and that's a gift for which I'll be ever-more thankful.

Rest in peace Grant, and thanks for the music.

Update: Enjoy the video for "Cattle and Cane".

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