Why front man for the legendary Australian band The Go-Betweens, Robert Forster, still demands your attention.
Anyone writing a history about independent music in the late 20th century, when it came to surveying exemplary Australian contributions, would find themselves automatically reinventing Robert Forster. Cool, charismatic, formidably intelligent and probably one of the most eccentric songwriters this country has ever produced, Forster is a kind of meandering chronicle of everything from Creedence Clearwater Revival to The Monkees, LP Hartley to Jack Kerouac, post-feminism to postmodernism. Forster himself, having left his native Brisbane with University of Queensland band-mate Grant McLennan, became front man of one of Australia’s most quirky, hip, left-of-center bands – The Go-Betweens. Like so many indie musicians of the 1980s exiled to London – the Birthday Party (Nick Cave), the Triffids (David McComb), the Laughing Clowns (Ed Kuepper) and the Moodists (Dave Graney) – Forster had been rejected by Australia and its pop culture of Countdown. The Go-Betweens were anything by a pop cliché. Against the grain of mainstream fame, Forster penned beautifully poetic, luxuriant songs such as Spirit of a Vampyre, The House That Jack Kerouac Built, Rare Breed and Love is a Sign. His songs had an uncanny knack of making, say, suburban Sundays or surfing magazines sound raucously exciting. Despite the absence of commercial success, Forster and The Go-Betweens won critical acclaim in spades. In time, they came to be showered with honors – especially following the death of McLennan in 2006 from a heart attack. Cattle and Cane, co-written by Forster and McLennan, made the Australasian Performing Rights Association’s Top 30 Australian songs of all time. The Go-Between’s 16 Lovers Lane was included in 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die. The band even had a bridge named after them, which spans the Brisbane River. The golden age of The Go-Betweens is now long past. Forster’s solo work, spanning five albums from Danger in the Past (1990) to The Evangelist (2008), has received widespread critical applause and commercial attention, especially in Europe. Not content as a solo artist, however, Forster developed new career paths – most recently as a journalist, writing the kind of burnished prose for The Monthly that even Greil Marcus would hanker after. His book The 10 Rules of Rock and Roll is a must-read for music fans, and he was the recipient of the Pascall Prize for Critical Writing in recognition of his sharp music journalism. And this is why Robert Forster still demands our attention: there is a relish and energy about his prose (both as composer and journalist), a radical probing of modern culture and its discontents. At the center of Forster’s work lies the influence of Romanticism – particularly a conception of the artist as poet, or critic. In the face of the profound anti-intellectualism of Bjelke-Petersen’s Queensland, Forster dropped references in his early songs to, amongst others, Brecht, Genet, Hemingway and Joyce. Forster did not so much introduce poetry to Australian music as reconfigure it through a cleverly, crafted literary sensibility. This is about as far away as one can get from the kind of Aussie pub rock which thinks that lyrics are merely a fill-in between guitar solos. But the result was more than just a mixing of the languages of pop and literature. Forster’s poetry is, in fact, contained in the wholeness of his art. There is the sense, with Forster’s songs, that one encounters a constellation of diffuse thoughts or angles, after which ‘reality’ will always look different. “Why do people who read Dostoyevsky look like Dostoyevsky?” he wonders in a song about modern city living. Forster may display a striking poetic sensibility, but he’s a poetic maverick. He always delivers the unexpected – “Can I come to your place, and can I wash your hair?” he casually intones in one Go-Betweens classic. At his best, Forster’s work is a cross between pop/rock, poetry and the circus. Forster shows few signs of slowing. He has a new studio album out later this year, Songs To Play. There is also a book in the pipelines charting his time with The Go-Betweens. He appeared at this year’s Adelaide Festival in Eric Mingus’s reinvention of The Who’s classic rock opera, Tommy. He recently narrated Big Gold Dream, a film of the post-punk indie scene in Scotland. Later this year, he will appear in a “provocation on Yeats” – Blood and the Moon – at the National Concert Hall in Dublin. Outside of perhaps only Nick Cave, Forster is demonstrating that he’s capable of taking on projects that no other Australian singer could aspire to. His work (music, journalism, plays) disdains all bounds, crossing effortlessly from David Bowie to Samuel Beckett, the culture of 70s soft rock to the metamorphosis of fame. Forster is, to be sure, a rare breed indeed. The Hawke Research Institute presents Danger In The Past: An Evening with Robert Forster on Thursday, August 20, at the Adelaide Festival Theatre. Admission is $20. Anthony Elliott is Director of the Hawke Research Institute and Executive Director of the Hawke EU Centre at the University of South Australia. His book The Routledge Handbook of Celebrity Studies will be published in 2016.