Monday, July 02, 2007

The Go-Betweens, My Past, and Two of the Best Songs


When I was 16, I went to a new school and made friends with a boy my age that liked the Smiths. Well, to be honest, he seemed to like Morrissey and then in retrograde the Smiths. We both read Morrissey and Marr-The Severed Alliance—which was probably the only non school-related book I read in high school, and bought Smiths records on vinyl even though neither of us had the means to play them. This boy and the Smiths helped to save me from the perils of the then burgeoning modern rock radio.

Now I hardly listen to the Smiths except for the occasional nostalgia jag, but I have sought out their echoes wherever I could find them, most notably in the Go-Betweens. To be fair, the Go-Betweens were Australian-born contemporaries of the Smiths who should not be reduced to an echo, but I came to them by way of attempting to fill a Smiths-sized hole rendered by over listening.

There is an obvious similarity between the two groups, but perhaps the echo is only faint. The Go-Betweens had two lyricists—Grant McLennan and Robert Forster—as sophisticated and idiosyncratic as Morrissey, and where Johnny Marr displayed the Smiths’ musical ambitiousness stylistically, the Go-Betweens exhibited an elegant, eclectic classicism.

Lyrically, the Smiths spoke explicitly to adolescent frustration; so much so that it seemed as if Morrissey was not only tortured, but a kind of lyrically gifted Peter Pan whose solipsism appealed to sensitive and self-centered teenagers who engaged primarily with their own dark feelings. The Go-Betweens however, who wrote no less about the disappointment of not getting what they wanted, utilized a richer, more adult lyrical palette.

The Go-Betweens over the course of their career garnered absolutely no chart attention, making them the kind of band that I have been naturally drawn to. Unlike say, the Homosexuals who hung upon the skeleton of pop the rags of contrarianism, sloppiness, and obtuseness, the Go-Betweens crafted a version of refined pop that bested the efforts of their more mainstream contemporaries like U2, the Cure and Echo and the Bunnymen. But sadly—for them—they made no commercial dent, subsisting only on the crumbs of critical acclaim.

I came upon them from, I think, a review in Magnet, but I can’t remember. The first thing I heard was Bellavista Terrace, and I warmed to it slowly. Though the fourteen-song disc has been generally derided, there is not a bad effort on it, and for a few dollars it is a treasure of an introduction. In a way, I entered through its back door, through the two closing tracks: Spring Rain and Dive For Your Memory, which I liked the most.

Spring Rain opened their 1986 album, Liberty Belle and the Black Diamond Express, with a kind of gaping joyfulness that had theretofore been somewhat avoided. With its breezy multitude of guitars and reverentially nostalgic lyrics—“Dressed in a white shirt, with my hair combed straight,” and “Driving my first car, my elbows in the breeze”—Robert Forster and the Go-Betweens crafted an almost winsome, past-obsessed song that though bittersweet, shook the bones with its primal pop spirit.

Dive for Your Memory closed the Go-Betweens final album, 16 Lovers Lane (not counting their late nineties second act) an elegiac farewell from one of the finest pop bands to ever emerge from Australia or otherwise.

Their final track is a bit spare, with a four-chord repeating acousitc guitar figure augmented by atmospheric organ and reverb-thick plonks of electric guitar percolations; it’s saddest moment occurs in the opening stanza, a blast of doleful regret: “If the cliffs were any closer, if the water wasn’t so bad, I’d dive for your memory, On the rocks and the sand.”

For those of us who have let friendships and other relationships go by the wayside because of stubbornness and blind fits of raging pride, it is a bitter mouthful—and a fitting end to a wonderful lyrical partnership.



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