THE GRANT McLENNAN LIBRARY
I once met Grant McLennan for lunch in a Thai restaurant in Sydney in 1991 with Annette Shun-Wah (a Queenslander, like him). I didn’t realise he was compiling The Grant McLennan Library at the time.
Annette was hosting the Australian music TV show The Noise for SBS. I was writing about both music and astrology for Elle magazine. Grant was working with Steve Kilbey on Jack Frost.
The restaurant was just down from The Bookshop at 207 Oxford Street, Darlinghurst – and Grant had a suspicious-looking bag under his arm. I suspect one of these mighty tomes, below – perhaps Outback Women? – may have been hidden within. (These is just a small selection of the Grant McLennan library, below, featured on the band’s British website).
THE MAN WITH THE SERIOUS BOOKSHOP HABIT
I’m fairly sure inside Grant’s bag that day, was a book. I know, I know, it might have been drugs. People talk a lot about Grant McLennan’s use of heroin, after Steve Kilbey’s revelations. Never mind the drugs, though, what about the bookshop habit? We now know that Grant left behind 1800 books in his 48 years on the planet, when he passed so suddenly in 2006.
PETER PAN AND PETER CAREY
Nobody knew about Grant’s vast library, until 600 books (many signed, or with autographed bookmarks from Robert Forster) were given away to early purchasers of the G Stands for Go-Betweens box set. Fans were then told there were 1200 more.
Those who were first in the queue to buy the box set sometimes ended up with not one – but two – of Grant’s paperbacks. On Twitter, one fan ended up with this, below (Image @country_mile on Twitter).
ADDICTED TO BOOKS
By my reckoning, that means Grant McLennan was buying one book every week – at least – from the time he first learned to read. Now, that’s quite an addiction.
When Grant’s stash of paperbacks and dog-eared hardbacks was given away, randomly, to the first purchases of the box set G Stands For Go-Betweens, writer Greg Adams was fortunate enough to end up with a signed Angela Carter novel.
Other people unwrapped everything from Peter Pan, to Peter Carey. Greg’s compiled a list of all the books here.
Grant McLennan was a songwriter’s writer. Also a reader’s songwriter. This was part of his one-time muse, partner and colleague Amanda Brown’s statement at his funeral:
“Grant’s songs captured an Australia that was influenced by his love for contemporary American writers like Cormac Macarthy, Richard Ford and Raymond Carver and songwriters such as Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen and Patti Smith. These writers inform his images of Australia, which range from the landscapes tinged with nostalgia and loss (Cattle and Cane and Bye Bye Pride), suburban life (Streets of Your Town), epic narratives (The Wrong Road, Black Mule) and of course, exquisite love songs like Quiet Heart, Stones for You, and Bachelor Kisses.” (The Sydney Morning Herald).
THE AUSTRALIAN MUSIC HISTORY INSIDE GRANT’S LIBRARY
What is really interesting about Grant’s vast library is that it’s a window into Australian music history. His own, and the band’s. His interest in everything from the bush, to Ted Hughes, turns up in the songs too. And what songs.
Former Prime Minister Julia Gillard put a Go-Betweens single on an iPod for former President Barack Obama. The current Australian Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, was in the audience for the last concert The Go-Betweens ever played.
Years after that lunch with Grant, I found myself joining the campaign for an Australian Music Museum. It was 2013 and like so many other people I was concerned about the way historic venues were being demolished – and everything from rare singles, to rusty old badges – were ending up on eBay, rather than in the nation’s archives.
Grant had been gone for 7 years by then (although of course, the spirit remains). By that time, a copy of People Say, the second single by The Go-Betweens, was selling for hundreds of dollars to private collectors. Not to the nation, though. By 2017 the asking price for People Say was $835. (The current asking price for a vinyl edition of the box set, G Stands For Go-Betweens, is over $2000).
Fortunately, as I write this, it now looks as though we may have a potential home for at least some of The Go-Betweens’ possessions. Melbourne and Sydney have at last begun finding permanent spaces for – what it’s hoped – will be a proper archive.
The Go-Betweens were so much more than a band. Yet – 11 years after he passed and left all those books behind, Grant McLennan’s only presence in Australian galleries, museums and the rest – is a recording of Cattle and Cane in the National Film and Sound Archive, and a handful of photographs held by the State Library of Queensland. This is one of them, taken by Paul O’Brien. It’s wonderful. But really – is that it?
MUSIC FOR OUTSIDERS
One of the reasons The Go-Betweens matters, is their role as a channel for outsiders in Australia, from the 1970s onwards. Together with their feminist drummer Lindy Morrison, Robert Forster and Grant McLennan helped to change a nation. Nobody had ever seen a female drummer on the ABC-TV series Countdown until Lindy turned up. I don’t think anyone had seen a man reading what amounted to poetry on Countdown, either.
It went on. Robert dyed his hair Monroe-blonde and occasionally wore corsets. Grant read Angela Carter. We had songs about menstruation and bookshops. Finally, it seemed, Australia had a band to take its place alongside Germaine Greer, on the world stage.
Together with their remarkable drummer, The Go-Betweens were a Mod Squad all of their own, fighting an entire nation’s fixed ideas about what men and women should be. This is another photograph from Paul O’ Brien’s archive, taken from that time.
THE BOOKS BEHIND THE SONGS
Look around Grant’s library, partly distributed with the box set – and it quickly becomes obvious that there are a lot of books behind those songs. I’m sure if you look at the books you will find something that speaks to you personally to the point where it gets you, where you live.
As an astrologer I have always been curious about the lyrics in Quiet Heart: How on earth could Grant McLennan have known so much about one particular sign of the Zodiac on the Ascendant of a natal chart? (Not to mention its association with the Eighth House and reincarnation).
Doesn’t matter how far you come
You’ve always got further to go
Lindy Morrison has since confirmed that the Scorpio Rising lover in Quiet Heart was Amanda Brown. Both women were born in November under the zodiac sign of Scorpio.
Grant owned not only The Birthday Letters by the poet and astrologer Ted Hughes, he also owned at least two volumes in Anthony Powell’s cult series, A Dance to the Music of Time.
Hughes was married to the Scorpio, Sylvia Plath. Powell’s central character in the final book in the series, Hearing Secret Harmonies, was an astrologer called Scorpio Murtlock.
The Birthday Letters is partly a collection of poems about fated twists and turns in the horoscopes and lives of Hughes and Plath. You can read more here, by my friend Neil Spencer, in The Guardian.
Neil, the former editor of NME later became the astrologer for The Observer.
The reason I am picking out this tiny detail which tells a long story, is that Grant had a head like a library and someone will always find their life on a Go-Betweens’ old vinyl shelf. He and Robert found each other and also found us, which is why people will queue – and queue – to talk to Robert today, about the band and about the music. At the Louder Than Words weekend event in Manchester in November 2017, Robert invited people in his audience to come and talk after his gig/interview – no matter if they bought a book or not. Needless to say, the queue stretched out of the door and the waiting time was long, because together with Grant, Robert had/has the personal touch. This is intimate music for people who are outsiders in some way. In Manchester, Robert said he was looking for someone like him – and he found him in Grant. They were two students far, far outside the Queensland/Australian mainstream. Maybe that has something to do with the way so many fans of the music feel included. Both men knew what it was like to feel apart from what was around them.
CHRISSY AMPHLETT’S LANE AND LINDY MORRISON’S DRUMS
When I met Lindy Morrison to talk about an Australian music museum in May 2014, I was there to discuss Chrissy Amphlett’s Lane (Amphlett Lane, Melbourne) and the planned destruction of the historic Palace Theatre, backing onto the lane. Lindy had known Chrissy, of course. This photograph was taken in 1988 by Tony Mott (Sydney Morning Herald/Twitter). It’s just a moment, on a night, but it’s also this wonderful picture of a certain kind of wake-up call in Australian music, and Australia, at the time…
The Go-Betweens marched to the beat of a different drummer, literally. So – the conversation a while back, about a museum, in Sydney turned to Lindy’s Ludwig drum kit, and where to house it for posterity. This is a conversation which will go on for years in Australia, I guess – about so many other iconic drum kits, and guitars – not to mention wardrobe items, posters and photographs.
GRANT MCLENNAN, PAPERBACK WRITER
Speaking at The Sydney Writers’ Festival in 2017, Robert Forster noted, “Grant was going to write a novel and he never did.”
True, but he did become a paperback writer, in the end. My friend Nick Earls asked Grant to contribute a piece to our Penguin anthology Big Night Out in aid of the charity War Child – and you can still read it today, in the latest anthology in the series, Girls’ Night In – The 10th Anniversary Collection.
Party Piece is Grant’s tale of a party that never was.
Nick Earls’ stage adaptation of his novel about a former rock idol, The True Story of Butterfish, features music from both Robert Forster and Adele Pickvance so the Go-Betweens beat goes on. It probably all started with Nick’s classic Bachelor Kisses, named after the song, though – and you can find it here.
I have in my possession a small mountain of e-mails about Grant McLennan’s involvement in Big Night Out and I’m sure Penguin and Nick do too – but again – the question remains, where in Australia can we find a space to preserve these tiny bits of musical history? There must be so many more. Thousands of saved memories about this crucially important band, some of which may be in your pocket.
Dorothy Parker and Grant’s Party Piece
Party Piece by Grant McLennan in our Penguin anthology for War Child, begins like this.
when dorothy parker and lord byron invite you over, you should arrive early and smell like an orchid, be sure to bring some peaches for your horse, because you can never have enough friends at these kinds of things.
Here Lies by Dorothy Parker was also on Grant’s shelves at the end.
BOOKS DO FURNISH A ROOM
In his tremendously sad/funny autobiography Grant and I (Penguin) Robert Forster remembers his old friend habitually carrying records, magazines, novels and poetry books under his arm at university. At the end, Robert remembers (in Manchester in November 2017) Grant ‘walking towards’ a particular destination, thanks to his drinking, noting that we all have friends like that. They get to their forties, and they don’t stop. Grant also had depression, Robert remembers, as so many songwriters, authors and painters do.
And yet –
Robert Forster’s article about Grant in The Monthly remembers –
“I’d drive over to his place to play guitar and he’d be lying on a bed reading a book. Grant never felt guilt about this. The world turned and worked; he read. That was the first message. He’d offer to make coffee, and I knew – and here’s one of the great luxuries of my life – I knew I could ask him anything, on any artistic frontier, and he’d have an answer. He had an encyclopaedic mind of the arts, with his own personal twist. So, as he worked on the coffee, I could toss in anything I liked – something that had popped up in my life that I needed his angle on. I’d say, “Tell me about Goya,” or, “What do you know about Elizabeth Bishop’s poetry?” or, “Is the Youth Group CD any good?”
The Little Something
Perhaps that is one of the many keys to the success of The Go-Betweens. They had a little something – and it was always intensely personal – no matter if it’s astrology, or Queensland farming, or Eighties haircuts, or heroin, or Frank Brunetti, or feminism – for everyone. When I first heard the line ‘Scorpio Rising’ in Quiet Heart I nearly fell off my chair. And not only that, Grant McLennan actually seemed to know what it meant, as any astrologer would attest. This is one of so many, many personal song stories. I wonder what yours might be? Because…
Australian surfers of a certain age who spent their youth wearing Lee Cooper Jeans and reading Tracks probably feel exactly the same way about the band’s later work – like Surfing Magazines.
It’s The Go-Betweens Effect. It’s from them, to you. Even now, when Grant is physically gone from the world, the music still has that power. Robert and Grant thought the band would be a temporary activity before they moved onto other things, like films. In the end, fans put a stop to that idea. Even after Grant has gone, maybe partly as a result of that, the music seems even more personal and powerful than it ever did.
Queenslander Kriv Stenders’ documentary about The Go-Betweens with unforgettable interviews with later band members, John Willsteed and Robert Vickers, captures that personal touch, perfectly.
BUILDING BRIDGES AND SAVING BUILDINGS
Other bands have plaques. The Go-Betweens have not only a plaque in Brisbane, but also a bridge. The missing ‘s’ in the name is a minor source of regret for fans – and the band – but otherwise, as Robert Forster has said, it’s a beautiful thing.
Speaking to the ABC, he reflected, “The Go-Between Bridge, it’s almost, well, you know, when Grant and I first sat around in 1978 thinking about the things we’d get from being a rock band, a bridge wasn’t one of them. I can’t remember him saying that. And a bridge is a beautiful thing. It’s better than the Go-Between Sewerage Works.”
At Grant’s funeral, Forster delivered a eulogy in which he said McLennan’s songs would last 1000 years. Acknowledging his friend’s presence in spirit at the service, he quickly added: “Grant’s just told me 10,000.”
It would be nice to think that in 1000 or 10,000 years from now, Australians could still see some of Grant’s mountain of 1800 signed books, safely under dim-lit glass.
The house where Grant McLennan lived, in Highgate Hill, may have gone by then. Nothing may remain of the foundations of 10 Golding Street, Toowong, where he began writing songs with Robert Forster. Even so – there are other ways, to make sure we’ll never forget the books that helped make The House That Jack Kerouac Built. Collect, collect and keep collecting.
Grant & I by Robert Forster is available at Booktopia.