Wednesday, May 5, 2010
Who will remember your tunes?
Grant McLennan of the Go Betweens died on a Saturday afternoon, May 6th, four years ago. He was sleeping. No one got to say goodbye.
The Apartments and the Go Betweens started in Brisbane around the same time. Getting my band together was simple. Followed the classic lines for a two guitar, bass & drums lineup: arrogant lead singer/guitarist, friend from high school on bass, drug buddy on guitar. Three-part harmonies. Throw in a stranger who turned up out of nowhere to the first rehearsal & could really play drums.
In those early days, at most of our shows, I would look out from the stage into the crowd and see two silhouettes, one tall, somebody shorter beside him. Robert and Grant. Fans & friends.
I'd liked the Go Betweens from the first time I saw them play two songs. Karen, 8 Pictures. I heard in them some of the same records I'd soaked up. I would deal with a very different world with my own band yet what I liked most about them and the world of their songs, was its immaculate innocence.
A childlike world, radiant with hope. Huge, huge hope. Daydream believers. In the howling chaos that seemed to be my life at the time, there was nobody like that. I’m not sure there ever had been.
Their lives were uncomplicated by love - or at least love beyond the screen, the record, the page. Grant liked my girlfriend at the time, not for all that was real about her - her luscious carnality or rapid, merciless wit - but for the mythical in her: her chain-smoking, pale black-haired resemblance to Anna Karina. If you put Ray Bans on Grant at the time and caught him in rich black & white, you might have seen Godard.
I would see some of that hope get mislaid in later years. That's how the second act goes. The world we got into demanded something else and you learn how to wear the disguise to just get through it. Things would never again be the same.
Back then though, I would find myself sometimes wishing I could have just a piece of that sunnyside-up thing they both had. Grant thought this was impossible. "Walsh is night,” he said in an interview round then, “we are day".
1979 came and went, and with it, that first Apartments. Within a couple of years, the Go Betweens headed to England and a career and I moved to New York with other things on my mind. All I wanted was in New York. The promise of the city seemed large, its nights, its possibilities - all of it felt so easily & beautifully fulfilled. Strangers, as Tennessee Williams knew they could be, were kind to me.
This is a Charles Bukowski poem I know Grant loved. Bukowski talking to a girlfriend, I suppose, avoiding yet not avoiding. I know he loved the poem because of what happened when I read it to him one night a long time ago. He wanted to read it himself of course, but I refused to hand it over, I said it had to be read, and that only I knew how it should be read.
I remember the night - about 4am, a riot of birds & hot Summer morning would soon be upon us. His place up in Spring Hill, a two storey block of 12 flats. A Tudor front, and a long flight of wooden stairs up to the back door. A piano player in the front flat who was obsessed with Scriabin. You'd hear Scriabin at all hours, pouring out into the sunlight, floating like ribbons of smoke in the night. A typewriter and a wooden table. We would play a lot of guitar, acoustic guitars. Wood turns electric, he later wrote. Sing & drink & smoke & talk - mostly books and movies, poems, songs - and always listen to records. Record after record. Album tracks & singles, he really was such a great DJ.
When I read this poem, I locked into it, looking intently down at the page. But then I got to a point when I felt something happening in the room, in that 4am quiet, and I halted just before those lines that follow "I wish to hurt nothing". Before the big close. I looked up. Grant had his face in his hands, in tears. For that moment - it came & went - he looked like a man whose fortune had just been told. Or maybe someone who'd caught a glimpse of a feeling that might one day come knocking on his door. I finished the poem, and put on another record. Drinks were poured & nothing was said. Nothing needed to be. It wasn't until after he died I found out how few people he ever let in on this side of him.
Time and distance did their usual work in the years after that. Worlds that are lost to us must now live on in handwriting, blue aerogrammes with red stripes around the edges, postcards, letters addressed to Avenue C in New York, Morning Lane in London, wherever I was living. What he would write about my songs in those letters was invariable; they were generous, full of encouragement to keep going. He had formed a faith in my talent so long ago and it had long outlasted my own. Do we choose what to remember?
By May 2006, for my own reasons, I had slammed a door on that old life. Then, when the telephone rang early that Saturday night and the news came in, the door was kicked open & that 4am poem and its night came rushing back in.
And around this time every year - just as it did with that first May 6th with that phone call - it's that night that I remember. The in between years don't seem to figure at all.
And the richness of a vanished world, when the whole thing still stretched out before us - the world of songs, moving away & moving on. New towns to go to, farewells & futures. All the people who would be in and out of our lives, a long, regretless rush.
And that poem within which he heard - as if for the first time - that knock on the door. We had no idea what was on its way.
I wrote to Grant once in the 90s. He'd moved back to Brisbane. But it was an old address, and the letter came back one day, unopened. It still is.
Grant McLennan of the Go Betweens died May 6th four years ago.
Who will remember your tunes? I will.
don't come round but if you do...
yeah sure, I'll be in unless I'm out
don't knock if the lights are out
or you hear voices or then
I might be reading Proust
if someone slips Proust under my door
or one of his bones for my stew,
and I can't loan money or
or what's left of my car
though you can have yesterday's newspaper
an old shirt or a bologna sandwich
or sleep on the couch
if you don't scream at night
and you can talk about yourself
that's only normal;
hard times are upon us all
only I am not trying to raise a family
to send through Harvard
or buy hunting land,
I am not aiming high
I am only trying to keep myself alive
just a little longer,
so if you sometimes knock
and I don't answer
and there isn't a woman in here
maybe I have broken my jaw
and am looking for wire
or I am chasing the butterflies in
I mean if I don't answer
I don't answer, and the reason is
that I am not yet ready to kill you
or love you, or even accept you,
it means I don't want to talk
I am busy, I am mad, I am glad
or maybe I'm stringing up a rope;
so even if the lights are on
and you hear sound
like breathing or praying or singing
a radio or the roll of dice
or typing -
go away, it is not the day
the night, the hour;
it is not the ignorance of impoliteness,
I wish to hurt nothing, not even a bug
but sometimes I gather evidence of a kind
that takes some sorting,
and your blue eyes, be they blue
and your hair, if you have some
or your mind - they cannot enter
until the rope is cut or knotted
or until I have shaven into
new mirrors, until the wound is
stopped or opened