In 1997, I heard The Go-Betweens for the first time. In Olympia, Wash., sitting on the floor of a carpeted dining room in the rickety rental house of a friend, the album Liberty Belle and the Black Diamond Express came through the speakers. Each song was my new best friend. In subsequent months, on tour with my band, I tracked down all of The Go-Betweens' LPs, poring over the mysteries that constitute their sound and their scope.
Each album title up through Send Me a Lullaby contained two Ls in the title, and the lyrics were lovelorn and oblique. They were like poems sung from corners — of the world, of a room — and this periphery from which they came kept them from seeming pretentious. Hope and despair always crash into one another in the band's songs. The two guitars stood in for the two singers when there was nothing left to say. And the drums, as played by Lindy Morrison, provided solidity only as much as oars do on a rowboat, with bumpy steering followed by moments of grace courtesy of two wooden sticks.
In some ways, it's easiest just to say that it was Australia's best pop group.
"Cattle and Cane"
So in 1999, the night I flew into San Francisco on the heels of a tour of Japan, despite jet lag and road weariness, there was nothing that would stand in my way of seeing Grant McLennan and Robert Forster perform at the Great American Music Hall. It remains the only time I ever saw the band perform, and it was one of the best shows I've ever seen. Two men and two guitars, each of them trading on their unique styles. The flamboyant and deep-voiced Forster, his narrators fierce analyzers, even as they struggle for certainty. Pompous, but hardly unkind. And McLennan, with his more sensitive vocal stylings, somehow sounded like the search party and the lost soul at the same time.
"Your Turn My Turn"
After the performance, we were lucky enough to meet them. We ended up back at the Phoenix Hotel, half of us on mattresses, the rest of us on the floor, guitars and beers out. I asked Grant to teach me The Go-Betweens' song "Love Goes On," and I played the chords while he sang. I cannot overstate the generosity of this moment. Later that night, I told Robert that my band's album The Hot Rock — or at least my own writing and guitar playing on it — was inspired completely by their music. Before The Go-Betweens, I never thought that delicacy could wield sharp knives.
Below is a list of some of my favorite Go-Betweens lyrics. Feel free to include your own favorites, or to add your own thoughts and feelings about the band.
She comes from Ireland
She's very beautiful
I come from Brisbane
I'm quite plain
Make me last
Through our love
Make me last
In the New West
The orange groves
Grow like a plague
Wherever you go
I told the Heads
We'll show the World
We'll film ourselves in history and chrome
Come and have a look, beside me
A fine line of tears, part company.
That's her handwriting, that's the way she writes
From the first letter I got to this, her Bill of Rights, part company.
And what will I miss? Her cruelty, her unfaithfulness
Her fun, her love, her kiss, part company.
Man O Sand to Girl O Sea
I want you back
Feel so sure of our love
I'll write a song about us breaking up.
Standing on the lawn with cousins and child brides
Caught for the camera on their best sides
Being caught forewarned
their best sides
When will change come
Just like Spring Rain
Blue air I crave blue air I breathe
they once chopped my heart the way you chop a tree.
Told to equate Achievement with Pain
I stole their top prize and paid them back with rain.
Bye Bye Pride
And out on the bay
The current is strong
A boat can go lost.
But I didn't know someone
Could be so lonesome
Didn't know a heart
Could be tied up
And held for ransom
Until you take your shoes
And go outside, stride over stride
Walk to that tide because
The door is open wide
"Was There Anything I Could Do?"