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Grant McLennan, 1958-2006

The Go-Betweens' sweeter, darker half succumbs to the undertow

book cover

Grant McLennan was in a grand mood May 6, with every reason to believe he had his best work ahead of him. Renowned and beloved though the Go-Betweens' six '80s albums are, 2005's Oceans Apart, third fruit of their 2000 reunion, had outsold them all. It also won them their first Australian Grammy, and if the category was Adult Contemporary, fine. McLennan had money in the bank. Songs were pouring out of him. That night, during a huge housewarming party that would root him in Brisbane once and for all, he'd planned to publicly propose to his girlfriend, Emma Pursey. At 4:30 that afternoon, he went upstairs for a nap. Early arrivals found him in his bedroom a few hours later. The autopsy revealed a massive heart attack. He was 48.

"One of the last real romantic bohemians. No watch, wallet, or drivers licence," recalled one of a thousand bereaved on the band's message board. McLennan reportedly went through a heroin phase and had trouble sustaining relationships with women; his melodic grace concealed a dark thematic undertow. His father, a doctor, died of cancer at 38, when Grant was just four: "You've lost your voice/You let it go," he literally moaned on "Dusty in Here" 20 years later. But the songwriter was famously modest, generous, polite, courtly. There seems no reason to attribute his loss to anything more esoteric than cruel fate.

McLennan is survived by his girlfriend, his mother, a stepfather he was close to, two siblings, and an adult son. But just as painfully, he is survived by Robert Forster, his Go-Betweens partner since 1977, who played and worked with him even when they lived oceans apart with band kaput. They didn't compose together, and both recorded notable solo albums--in the early '90s, McLennan's output was obsessive, unstoppable. But they were stronger in tandem; they complemented each other's tone, with McLennan's graver and sweeter. And even as naive new wavers, both conveyed a maturity--an adult contemporaneity--all the stranger for its origins in supposedly uncouth Oz. In retrospect, maybe it was too mature for its intended audience at the time.

Admittedly, McLennan's pick hit came early, in 1982: "Cattle and Cane," about childhood in the outback, shows up on many greatest-songs-of-all-time lists, including U2's. But now that he's lost his voice, remember 2005's "Finding You": "What would you do if you turned around/And saw me beside you/Not in a dream but in a song?" Or 2000's "The Clock": "But then the clock turns/And it's now/And its you-ou-ou-ou-ou-ou."

Village Voice, May 23, 2006