Grant McLennan died in May 2006. I remember hearing the news with shock. He is probably most famously remembered for his song “Cattle and Cane.” To be sure it is a wonderful song. The richness of memory it evokes grabs you in the gut pretty quick from the opening line: “I recall a school boy coming home.” McLennan rejected notions that the song was nostalgic, a sentiment he dismissed as “a sloppy yearning for the past, and I’m not trying to do that in that song.” In the song he tried to offer a series of vignettes from a 1982 present in London looking back to his Queensland childhood. Knowing that his father had died young and that the subject of the song’s story had left his father’s watch in the shower added poignancy to the song. That McLennan himself died young at 48 makes the song difficult to listen to with out tears forming, at least for me.
I was lucky enough to share a small moment with McLennan and Robert Forster in 1987. I had seen the Go-Betweens play at the University of Sydney in 1985 on a bill with the Lighthouse Keepers and Ganggajang two other fine Australian bands. In 1987 I lived in Rochester, NY and the Go-Betweens came to town promoting their album Tallulah. I had been in the USA for six months or so and was mighty home sick. I had a mixed tape of Australian music that was starting to wear out from my constant playing of “Cattle and Cane” and “That Way.” The club in which the Go-Betweens played had a capacity of about 300 or so, but only 50 punters had turned up. I was there with my friend Steve Dollar, then the music critic on the local evening newspaper, and now a critic in New York City. McLennan thanked the crowd for coming and predicted reviews of a small but appreciative audience. I shouted for “Cattle and Cane” and “That Way” and McLennan responded with a comment about a home sick Australian in the audience. The highlight of the night for me occurred later when McLennan and Forster appeared without the rest of the band with McLennan sang and Forster accompanied on guitar. They stepped off stage and approached me and McLennan took the beer from my hand placed it on the table and sang me “Cattle and Cane” and “That Way” standing right in front of me. It was a beautiful gesture. I do not remember my response. But it touched me deeply. I wish I had drunk less that night and talked to McLennan and Forster after the show about film, literature, life, and songs. In 1996 a housemate stole most of my Go-Between cds and all of my cds of McLennan’s and Forster’s solo work.
Last year I purchased Intermissions and Oceans Apart. I have listened to then again and again and “Finding You” is the most played song on my Ipod. I also purchased the DVD that striped sunlight sound, which includes an Acoustic Stories segment where Forster and McLennan sit telling stories about their songs, Forster does most of the talking, and playing those songs. Looking at it today I noticed how old McLennan looked. The skin on his neck had a very old man look. That he would be dead in less than a year probably made me more aware of how old he looked. The last song McLennan and Forster play in that segment is “Finding You.” Forster catches himself at the end of the song, obviously moved he expels a breath and says “beautiful.” It is a great song and that it moved his collaborator of some 30 years when sitting playing an acoustic version is a tribute. The song offers redemption of sorts for a lost drifter in finding a soul with whom to make it through the rainy season and some soft betrayals. It is the song of an older man.
“That Way” on the other hand is the song of a young man on the make. A restless thrusting energy runs through the song and the lyrics with their exclamation of “that way or nothing at all” makes an argument for artistic exploration and integrity. The insistence “that it’s only time away” seems double edged; success is only a time a way, or the narrator is only spending time away. But even here the narrator knows that there will come a time when people look back and say that the experience was not that remembered: “there’ll come a time when someone will say it wasn’t that way.” The song looks forward to success and further forward to people looking back and doubting or reassessing a version of events.
It has been a rainy afternoon here and what better way to spend it that with some old songs by a great writer. Grant McLennan has gone but if Robert Forster plays anywhere near you go see him and if you can, read his criticism in The Monthly.