Friday, 6 May 2016

Who will remember your tunes?

Photo © Bleddyn Butcher 1985 


I posted this six years ago. May 6th, 2010. Later, accidentally, I deleted it, then realised I didn't have a copy. But someone sent it to me last year as if to say, look! the lost can sometimes be found. Today, it's 10 years since Grant died. A decade. A day for remembrance. 


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, Eight 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 seemed 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. Grant's 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 that night, 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
the phone
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
my wallpaper,
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

forever.

Wednesday, 6 May 2015

There'll come a time one day...

Photo © Bleddyn Butcher 1985 


1980 the town without trains

A first stop at a bottle shop, followed by a steep climb through the hot December streets of Spring Hill to St. Paul's Terrace where Robert and Lindy, now a couple, lived. Or onto Grant's place in Dahrl Court, just around the corner.

These were either/or destinations wed head to after time in our respective practice rooms, mine in the Valley, theirs at the foot of the citys business district. Wherever I ended up, nights would be divided in three: joints, records, drinks.

Grant, Robert and Lindy led separate lives outside the band, but came together in the name of the Go-Betweens, a cause that would outlast even love—and theyd stand by one another for that cause without ever having to think about it or even say it.

It hadnt occurred to me before but it was now clear that Robert and Grant had quite different takes on the world. A series of firsts, love and loss, filled both their new songs. Grant was cautiously dipping his toe into the waters of relationships while Robert had dived full fathom five into life with Lindy Morrison. I thought this took so much courage it was practically showing off. What have you gotten yourself into? Didnt you just want some affection? The man finally decides to furnish his house and his first choice turns out to be the electric chair.

Pre-Lindy, his method with songs had been purely speculative, imagination and observation. Andy's Chest. Like a wedding photographer, he seemed perpetually witness to other peoples hopes and happiness. If there was an intimacy missing from the songs, it was because it was missing from his life. Suddenly, the door slams shut on all that and the songs arent filtered or scripted anymore, but lived.

Lindy Morrison. Her great, upending, tumultuous, machinegun laugh and incessant beating of a rubber practice pad (a rare species of torture) was now everywhere in his life. SHE SPOKE, IF NOT LIVED, EXCLUSIVELY IN CAPSLOCK, a Klieg light in a roomful of 40 watt bulbs. Describing her quickly exhausted all possible weather metaphors. Gales of laughter, gusts of enthusiasm, a storm of personality that broke in every room. For years to come, in so many places and for so many people who adored the Go-Betweens, she would recast perceptions of the band and add to the love people felt for them.

This crash course hed taken had an immediate effect on Roberts material. A town without trains, he runs to meet you. Rehearsed a first lineit's left him, thank goodness. He was living more instinctively, less in quotation marks. Songs bloomed with all he was discovering. Every temporary madness, illusion, disappointment or ecstasy that love/Lindy threw at him was now permanently rendered in them.

Running through Grant was a strong current of what Soupault described as Blaise Cendrars most stunning gift: enthusiasm. Hesitantly, I played a new song, No Resistance, to him one night and up from the well of mutedly sung lines he instantly drew one, the evening visits and stays for years…” Shaking his head, he told me he loved it. Loved it. That emphatic repetition. Did he sense the line might one day come true for him?

His flat in Dahrl Court matched his mind. A bed that was always made, plain white linen. Typewriter, table, magazines in a stack, lines as straight as a ream of paper. Vodka in the freezer, St-Rémy brandy on the shelf, next to it a box of crackers. Nothing but a rind of cheese in the fridge. Books, singles and albums in alphabetic rows. It was austere, clean, and spoke of discipline, a single devotion. Bare, dark wooden floors gave the room great reverb. In the stillness and quiet of night it was a brilliant setting in which to trade songs on acoustic guitar, listen to records, read out loud.

Only once did I visit during the day, to return a book Grant had insisted I read. The Horse's Mouth by Joyce Cary. It wasnt a coincidence that he loved the story of painter Gulley Jimson who—though he knows that a price will have to be paid for it, that so many of the pleasures of ordinary life will be denied him—insists on living for his art. Like Jimson, Grant led an internal life far richer than any external one that was possible to him, and that was the point: if the dream had not yet turned up, he possessed an eternal hopefulness that one day it would. Meanwhile, he would lead the life he wanted to, inside his head.

Out of the smoke of memory, his books and records rise and fill the page. Grant had a Blaise Cendrars collection—so did I, and we'd each been convinced we were the only ones in town who did—Anna Akhmatova, the usual French suspects Apollinaire, Verlaine, Baudelaire (he was a relentless Francophile, a devout European son), Adrien Stoutenberg's A Short History Of The Fur Trade, Françoise Hardy's Greatest Hits, Lenny Bruces American LP with the black & white cover, every Dylan '66 bootleg that had ever existed, Frank OHara, Sylvia Plath, Malcolm Lowrys Under the Volcano and October Ferry to Gabriolararely did you see bothBig Stars Third (the 1978 vinyl with the two faces on the front), a stack of singles as high as the Eiffel Tower… This was all code, it all seemed important. Even as late as the furnace years of our early Twenties, that ridiculous sense that you were in on a secret other people didnt get still mattered. Why do they call it the narcissism of small differences?

Yet no matter how hard we tried to make it feel different, Brisbane still seemed just a long, empty Saturday afternoon kind of town, a place that people died in but did not yet believe in.

By then, we were dreaming in the same direction, of other cities, other countries. Our eyes were on the exits.

1982 on the Atlantic, well all climb

By 82, the Go-Betweens had moved to London. Id moved to New York. At times I felt I had escaped from a burning houseand left everything I loved inside.

I was living in an illegal basement beneath the Joe Junior diner on the corner of East 16th & Third Avenue. The basement had no fresh air except via the elevator shaft. It was like a dungeon or a ship, heatpipes running across ceiling ticked and clanged like clocks. Steel girders, prefab walls and a concrete floor.

Winter was round the corner, and Robert had posted me a pre-release cassette of Before Hollywood from London. I waited till I got home around 2am to listen to it, putting the cassette on in the dark, so it would ring off the cold walls of the room. I immediately fell for it. Disappearances and longing dominated the songs. It was a long goodbye to the country of exile, a kiss blown from a train window. It was not simply despair but, like something by Antonioni, the most beautiful kind of despair.

Once they had been like children who spoke precociously well but, with Before Hollywood, they were suddenly fluent with the syllables of loss. They would never be the same again.

Atget, who photographed Paris as it was racing along in the early 20th century and traces of its past were being swiftly erased, used to write on the back of his prints will disappear. The Hollywood Grant and Robert had chosen to write aboutthe one before the movie industry had even begun, that was still orange groves, barley fields and streetcarswas, like Grants childhood and Roberts innocence, a vanished world... theres no routine, Ive never lived like this.

In That Way, Grant sang therell come a time one day, someone will turn and say: It doesnt have to be that way…” The next day, on a New York postcard, I wrote out Berrymans The Ball Poem, trying to keep my handwriting neat enough so he could read it, and mailed it to him. For a few years, it stayed on a pinboard in his Hackney room.

Up until a certain point in your life, if you think back to times you shared, days that have your friends in them, you believe that they still exist somewhere. That theyre still available to you. That we are all just in different places on the ferris wheel and that when their carriage comes round, you'll see them again. Youll pick up just where you left off. And it’s true: the wheel does turn and the carriage does come round again—but sometimes, the carriage is empty.