For my friend Grant McLennan
who died in his sleep
Go-Betweens, 1986; Photo by Richard Mann
left to right: Lindy Morrison, Robert Vicker (back), Grant (front), Robert Forster
by Robert VickersI played in a band called The Go-Betweens with Grant McLennan for five years (January '83 to December '87), but it was much earlier, before that time, when I really got to know him. We had met in Brisbane, Australia in the late Seventies. A cultural starved and politically repressive place where a corrupt government and a violent police force ruled. We were all turning twenty and desperate to 'do' something, and to get out of town. I managed to get out of town first, ending up in New York City, in a popular band managed by the owner of CBGB's and produced by a member of Blondie. It seemed like a dream. When Grant said he'd like to visit, I was happy to share that dream with him. For a month, he shared my tiny apartment and got a dose of the wild, early '80's New York. A bar tab at CB's, free entry into clubs like Danceteria, the art scene, the birth of hip hop and the kind of bohemian urban lifestyle we had only had fantasies about in Brisbane.
When my New York band, The Colors, had run its course I suggested to the Go-Betweens that I join them and play bass. Having heard Before Hollywood, I knew Grant was ready for the move to guitar. I had to learn all the bass parts for the set in a couple of weeks before a European tour. So I spent many days in a dank, London bedroom, with him showing me those clever, intricate parts. Almost like guitar parts but really more like orchestration. Melodies suggested by the chord structure but not present in the vocal. Forever after, that was the standard I strove to meet when writing my own parts. Do everything you can to make the song more interesting, more melodic, better, without stepping on the vocal. He took his ideas on to the guitar and continued in the same vein. He was not a guitarist who dealt primarily in sounds but in melodies. He wrote songs within songs. I've been lucky enough to play with some great musicians but there may have been no greater musical pleasure for me than playing with Grant, watching his delicate fingers moving across the fretboard while we each experimented, finding rifts to work around each other's lines. Looking for weak spots in the song, a couple of bars that needed a hook.
Grant's first love was words but his true genius was with a tune. It seemed he had an endless supply of killer hooks circulating in his head and could at any time glue one to a phrase in just the right way to make it unforgettable. Every time we started work on an album, he would pull out a boatload of great songs. Almost all were presented fully formed, very little arranging necessary. Even now, I can't imagine rearranging any of those songs. They are close to perfect. We always had to discard a couple of Grant's songs that would have been the best songs on many other band's albums. Grant went through an amazingly productive period in the eighties but the extraordinary thing about him is that he never lost the ability to write a hook. His songs in the reformed Go-betweens are some of the best he's written. Very few songwriters in the history of rock music have had that kind of consistency over such a long period.
Personally, he was as close to brother as I had. We had so many common interests. I even played the lead role in a clearly autobiographical film he wrote the script for. We grew up together in many ways. Understanding the human condition and finding our place in the world. We toured together in a rock band for five years. There's not much you don't know about a person after that experience. I forgave his foibles and he forgave mine. He had an amazing constitution. Even when it was snowing, he would wear a T-shirt and jeans jacket, the same thing he wore at the height of summer. He ate sparingly and consumed large amounts of alcohol. And he loved to talk. Talk about music, talk about books, and talk bout film. It's hard to imagine that anything could kill him but I wasn't surprised to hear of his death. He wouldn't have been displeased with what he's left behind and who wouldn't? But you know, just one more year could have yielded so much more.
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