Like A Ghost: Remembering Grant McLennan
By Thom Jurek
Dead of a massive coronary at the age of 48 while napping, the silence that Grant McLennan leaves in the world of pop music is a roaring one, an unfillable void in its creative heart. In the mainstream press, McLennan's passing has been regarded reverently and empathetically as a footnote into the ever deepening well of pop obituary. It's true that McLennan's identity as an artist is inseparably tied to the Go-Betweens, the band that he and fellow songwriter Robert Forster created in 1978 while at university in Brisbane, based on their joint love of music ranging from 1960s pop to the Velvet Underground. But McLennan's songwriting stands on its own in lieu of the band that executed his sweet yet melancholy vision. The Go-Betweens story is well known; they were the watermark of indie pop excellence and influenced everyone from Belle & Sebastian to Saint Etienne, from the late Elliott Smith to Conor Oberst, from Deacon Blue to Aberfeldy -- and many more.
McLennan's contribution to both the Go-Betweens and to pop at large is inestimable. Though he and Forster were songwriting partners, they really didn't write together. Each had a separate voice and identity that were fused as a whole within the Go-Betweens; it created a tension and a balance that grounded the flightier Forster and spurred McLennan to loftier heights. McLennan spoke plainly, without metaphor or artifice within his songs, and wrote more pop-oriented material with tight, unadorned melodies. They were creative foils and inseparable friends even during the Go-Betweens' ten-year hiatus from 1990 to 2000. Forster's view of the world came from the point of view of a true aesthete, an unabashedly romantic poet whose words were filled with studied elegance from the European tradition. McLennan, in contrast, offered an Everyman's view: of love, loss, grief, reverie, and even survival, sung in a pleasant and convincing voice that was world-weary yet tender. His sensibility was closer to a country songwriter's than a European poet's. Still, while McLennan's voice and lyrics may have been plaintive, they carried authority in their grain and never failed to get to the meat and bone of the matter at hand.
McLennan came from the outback in Queensland. It was frontier land, a place where some of Australia's cowboys still dwell. It's more than country; it's wild, untamed, and full of a strange wonder. McLennan documented his upbringing well in "Cattle and Cane," a Go-Betweens single from 1982 that was a bona fide hit and established not only the band but also McLennan as a songwriter. The song has been voted officially one of the ten greatest Australian songs of all time by critics and fans alike -- that stipulation, by the way, is shared by many, including Bono of U2.
I recall a schoolboy coming home / through fields of cane
To a house of tin and timber / and in the sky
A rain of falling cinders / from time to time
There is a great and terrible irony in McLennan's passing that would have fit perfectly into one of his songs. Earlier in life, McLennan had done his share of hard living and even had a bout with heroin. He was well on the other side of all of that nonsense and never let it spoil his work ethic or his view of the world (perhaps it was melancholy enough). The cruel twist of fate here is that McLennan had been truly enjoying the fruits of a long career for the first time since 1978, when he and Forster formed the Go-Betweens. The band's 2005 album, Oceans Apart, sold more than any recording in the band's history. In addition, the band issued a live album, recorded in Brisbane, with a concert DVD in the package, and it, too, had been doing phenomenally well. Add to this that the Go-Betweens' catalog had finally been remastered and reissued definitively -- including the truly magical 16 Lovers Lane. McLennan and Forster had done a number of guitar pulls together both during the band's absence and after the Go-Betweens reunion. (It was during one of these shows in France that the idea had been put on the table to re-form the unit.) The sheer number of new fans buoyed by the reviews of the older and current material was growing in leaps and bounds, and McLennan was writing like crazy. For decades McLennan had been a nearly inveterate pauper, but now he had real money in the bank. He had also moved back to Brisbane permanently after being an intercontinental nomad for over a decade. And finally, in maybe the greatest irony of all, after so many years of troubled relationships, McLennan had found the partner he had always sought in Emma Pursey. On the evening of the day he passed, he was to propose publicly during his housewarming party.
Years before, McLennan had written "Dusty in Here," a song dedicated to his late father, whom he lost at the age of four. But it is those very words that ring so loudly here, leaving devastation and sorrow not only for fans, but especially for Pursey and Forster, whose entire life now has been altered, handed to his own will and the dark humor of gods for sorting out. That verse now carries all the immediacy of grief, of loss, of something too big even for the song itself to contain:
You won't write; no, you won't write / that's all I ask, that you just write
And you say, no, that you can't speak / you've lost your voice, you let it go
You let it go / like a ghost
Wow, this is really sad. I just came across this and I'm strangely shocked and moved. A friend and I had quite an affinity for "GW" as we called him. On many a road trip his tape "Watershed" would be the first cassette to take us out on the road. What memories.
RIP GW McLennan