When the Go-Betweens got back together and recorded a new album, I entertained fantasies of writing something about it. My first thought was to pitch it to Rolling Stone. I'd written an essay for them recently, and for reasons too elaborate to go into here, I've lately resurrected dormant fantasies of being a "rock writer." The truth is it'll never happen. I'm too paralyzed by reverence, both for the musicians and for writers like Greil Marcus and Lester Bangs, and conscious anyway that research and interviewing aren't really my strengths. Plus I suspect, or at least don't understand, my own motives. But my reasons for not pitching a Go-Betweens piece weren't only generic ones. They were strong and specific and they far outweighed the self-aggrandizing urge to announce myself in public as the Go-Betweens' biggest fan, or to meet the band. In a sort of Dylanesque "my weariness amazes me" way I found myself compelled by my own resistance to writing or thinking about the Go-Betweens reunion to even buying the new record compelled to such a degree that I began to want to write about that.
Before I start, I need to say that this form is strange. I hope it's not too soon for Open Letters to run a letter which acknowledges the existence of Open Letters. I've always had trouble with "sincere" first-person anyway, except in genuinely personal letters, ones with a single recipient in mind, and I don't remotely know how to pretend this isn't written for publication. It seems to me you've invented a very odd and exemplary new form, one which I find irresistible to read and consistently disingenuous: the fake private. It's very "web-like," I think, and if I were a better abstract thinker I'd tell you what I mean by that. Maybe it would even sustain a labored comparison to "Survivor." All I can say for sure is that when I wrote that bit above about "self-aggrandizing urge to announce myself in public the Go-Betweens' biggest fan," I'd stepped into a very odd writerly space, because though unlike a Rolling Stone piece this won't be read by teenagers stealing free reads from Borders' magazine racks, it will be read by most everyone I know in New York.
Anyway, here's why I can't write about the Go-Betweens reunion.
1. The Go-Betweens are my favorite band. I listened to them in two distinct periods in my life: in the mid-eighties, when they existed and when I was living in California, and in the mid-late-nineties, when their entire messy, elusive catalog was reissued on CD for the first time. Their songs are characterized by a complexity and self-awareness I want to call literary in fact I'll do that. Their songs are beautiful and strange and emotional, but a lot of rock and roll is like that. The Go-Betweens are also smart and hesitant and not obvious. Not so much rock and roll is like that. There are a lot of historical facts surrounding the production of these songs: the punk context (they began in the late seventies, couldn't play their instruments at first, etc.) and the fact that they're from Australia but took up residence in England. I care and I don't care. I just don't want to shift my attention from the enduring, rewarding confusion of being the songs' devoted listener.
2. I have notions about the people in the band which are probably false, but they matter to me. Robert Forster and Grant McClennan are the Lennon/McCartney team at the heart of the band: they both write songs, they write some together, and they both sing. The third original member was a drummer named Lindy, and she's not on the reunion record. In my mind and this is gleaned from reading bits of journalism about the band and from seeing them live, once, which I'll talk about in a minute the friendship between these three people is beautiful and complicated. In a rich, fascinating evolution over the course of the six "original" Go-Betweens records these three people welcomed four new members (and learned to play their instruments), but that triangle always felt to me like the band's emotional and musical core.
3. Triangle, a key word. Here comes my falsely private confession: I've always imagined that Robert Forster and Grant McClennan were each Lindy's boyfriend in turn, and that the difficulties and ambiguities of this long arrangement and disarrangement are the impenetrable knot at the core of the music, the mystery that keeps me coming back. I know that the rock band love-triangle is a Fleetwood Mac cliché, but glimpsed (if I'm right that I glimpsed it) through the prism of the Go-Betweens sensibility, it felt profound to me. In the eighties, when the band existed, when I saw them play live, my own life was shaped by a long, devoted love triangle one which persisted, though it was never static. I won't say anything more about this, except that if we three had been a band our six albums would have sounded as different from one another as the Go-Betweens' did. And we would have been as unmistakably the same band playing.
4. In Berkeley I lived on Chestnut Street, three blocks from a homely rock club called Berkeley Square. Every poor, scraping-along act touring California would get stuck there for a night, and it was rarely a full house. For years of afternoons I'd sit at home writing with the radio tuned to KALX, the college radio station, and when they gave away tickets to shows at the Berkeley Square I'd call up and answer a trivia question and get my name on the list, then walk over a few hours later and see the show. I'm good at trivia. I saw the Proclaimers and the Violent Femmes and the Throwing Muses there, along with other bands whose names I've forgotten. I was once one of literally five people at Berkeley Square for a My Bloody Valentine show on a Tuesday we stood at the lip of the stage and endured the harshest volume I've ever experienced. When the announcement came that the Go-Betweens an Australian band, whose very existence seemed mythical were coming to the Berkeley Square I don't know whether I purchased or won my ticket, only that I wouldn't have missed it, you know, for the world. They played to about twenty-five or thirty people, a loosely-packed herd of worshipers, but our worship couldn't console the Go-Betweens, not this night. They were at the end of a tour that must have been some kind of disaster, and twenty-five bookstore clerks in Berkeley weren't going to turn it around. The band had been arguing, I think, before the show even began, and Lindy, the drummer, the original Go-Between, had been drinking. Really drinking, so she was lurching and obvious and couldn't keep time. By the fourth or fifth song Robert and Grant were both glaring at her in turn, and expressly showing her their hands on the guitars to try to dictate the tempo. The violinist, another woman, wouldn't look at her. They were miserable. They made it through a song, argued again, and then Lindy stormed off, between the two singers, towards the bar. She weaved. At the bar she got something another drink? Water? Carrying it she lurched back to the stage, and as she moved through the crowd she brushed me, a butt-against-lap-swipe, the kind which happens late at night at crazy parties, when intentions are blurry. I know this seems ridiculous, but it happened. She was taunting one or both of the men onstage by making physical contact with men in the audience, and in the small, loosely-populated room it was apparent that it was having an effect, though what sort I wouldn't presume to say. The horrible intimacy, the unexpected access to the band's unhappiness, was wrenching. It was also terribly sexy I learned something that night about how vivid a smashed woman can be.
5. Lindy, as I said, isn't on the new record. I bought it and took it home today, and I listened to the first three songs in the car before I started crying, for myself and who-knows-else, and took it off. "The Go-Betweens" are now Robert Forster and Grant McClennan and a bunch of names I don't recognize (they've also got the help of Sleater-Kinney, a good sign, probably, in a general sense). Now, forget love triangles for a minute, there's something I've always liked about Led Zeppelin's refusal to exist for even one minute after John Bonham's death. And I'd always felt the opposite about The Who that they betrayed their audience by carrying on after Keith Moon. And that the saddest single fact about the Beatles' decline was that Paul McCartney played drums on some of the tracks on the White Album. Poor Ringo. I mean, songwriters come and go, but the drummer is the band. I'll certainly play this record, and I may come to like it, but I guess if I had to give you one reason why I'm not going to try to write about the Go-Betweens reunion, it's that I'm carrying a torch for Lindy. Her name isn't even in the thank yous. There's a story there, I know there is, and the thing is, having come as far as I have with the idea of the Go-Betweens standing in for so much I've felt and lost, I don't want to know it.