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So Set ’Em Up, Joe

Robert asked me to write some liner notes for the box set, G Stands For Go-Betweens: The Go-Betweens Anthology, Vol. 1 and I was happy to do that, to talk about the band's early years, 1978 to 1982. Robert gave it this title, a tip of the hat to one of my favourite Frank songs, “One for My Baby”, that perfect Johnny Mercer lyric set to the unforgettable music of Harold Arlen.

So Set ’Em Up, Joe

1978 “I just want some affection.”

from a 1978 notebook:
‘Ran through “Who are the mystery girls?” with R&G. Toowong lounge room, Thursday afternoon, tea & biscuits. Could be first time the Dolls have been played in such circumstances.’

I left this bit out, but luckily have just remembered—‘“We’re having snaggies for dinner!” (Robert claps his hands in excitement).’

It seems pointless to say that I found Robert and Grant—the preposterously boisterous, happy-go-lucky pair of them—completely fresh, particularly in contrast to the bottom of nowhere types I liked to hang around with at the time. Anyone else I knew who was into the New York Dolls was likely—twenty will get you fifty on this—to be lost somewhere in the hurricane of drugs, drink and drama that was then howling through our lives. Robert and Grant had not yet stepped into that particular wind. They were waiting for life to begin.

So while we had some differences about how to live, I felt an immediate affinity with them, their jokes and jump-cut chatter and profoundly defamatory gossip. Robert was writing like Pollock painted—grab your material, throw it down fast and move on. Everything that could not be had in life was put into the songs. Songs were a way of wishing. I just want some affection.

With Summer in ’78 on its way, I was looking to name the band I'd just gotten together. In the cool gloom of Toowong Music where Grant was “working”, (never once, when I’d visited, had the store been troubled by any actual customers), he suggested a name. The Mosquitoes. “You know, Summer's coming. Here come The Mosquitoes—like on Gilligan's Island”.

Again, Gilligan's Island was not entirely where I was coming from—of course he knew this—so I asked instead what he thought of The Apartments. He said, "Ha! The Apartment. Billy Wilder—the cynical and the romantic. That's perfect for you! Perfect!"

I wished I'd said ‘Nobody’s perfect’, but thanks to Grant, I was sold. It was not the last time he'd help me. The Mosquitoes would anyway have been fatal: I found out later that not only was the name Robert’s idea, but that he’d already used it.

I was completely taken with the lyrics of The Sound of Rain, a song I got to record with them, playing guitar. “He walks through the park. Past the butcher shop and the telephone booth where couples talk in the dark”. The plainness of the images and language only heightened the poetry for me. The song’s beauty was perhaps slightly qualified by the fact that in the end, the guy wearing—like Marlowe—a trenchcoat and hat in the rain, murders his girlfriend. 

The track was part of the 8 album contract that had just been signed with Beserkley Records, home of Jonathan Richman. Robert came round to my place, announced the contract, and invited me to join the band. It meant a ticket to England, a contract, money, and playing all the time. Robert had other things in mind. “You know what this means, don't you?”..."Our own hairdressers!". And he clapped his hands.

1980 “the town without trains”

A first stop at a bottle shop, followed by a steep climb through the hot December streets of Spring Hill to St. Paul's Terrace where Robert and Lindy, now a couple, lived. Or onto Grant's place in Dahrl Court, just around the corner. 

These were either/or destinations we’d head to after time in our respective “practice rooms”, mine in the Valley, theirs at the foot of the city’s business district. 

Grant, Robert and Lindy led separate lives outside the band, but came together in the name of the Go-Betweens, a cause that might outlast even love—and they’d stand by one another for it without ever having to think about it or even say it. Wherever we ended up, nights were divided in three: joints, records, drinks.

It hadn’t occurred to me before but it was now clear that Robert and Grant had quite different takes on the world. A series of firsts, love and loss, filled both their new songs. Grant was cautiously dipping his toe into the waters of relationships while Robert had dived full fathom five into life with Lindy Morrison. I thought this took took so much courage it was practically showing off. What have you gotten yourself into? Didn’t you just want some affection? The man finally decides to furnish his house and his first choice turns out to be the electric chair. 

Pre-Lindy, his method with songs had been purely speculative, imagination and observation. Andy's Chest. Like a wedding photographer, he seemed perpetually witness to other people’s hopes and happiness. If there was an intimacy missing from the songs it was because it was missing from his life. Suddenly, the door slams on all that with Lindy and the songs aren’t filtered or scripted anymore, but lived. 

Lindy Morrison. Her great, upending, tumultuous, machinegun laugh and incessant beating of a rubber practice pad (a rare species of torture) was now everywhere in his life. SHE SPOKE, IF NOT LIVED, EXCLUSIVELY IN CAPSLOCK, a Klieg light in a roomful of 40 watt bulbs. Describing her quickly exhausted all possible weather metaphors. Gales of laughter, gusts of enthusiasm, a storm of personality that broke in every room. For years to come, in so many places and for so many people who adored the Go-Betweens, she would recast perceptions of the band and add to the love people felt for them.

This crash course he’d taken had an immediate effect on Robert’s material. A town without trains, he runs to meet you. Rehearsed a first line—it's left him, thank goodness. He was living more instinctively, less in quotation marks. Songs bloomed with all he was discovering. Every temporary madness, illusion, disappointment or ecstasy that love/Lindy threw at him, was now permanently rendered in them.

Running through Grant was a strong current of what Soupault described as Blaise Cendrars’ “most stunning gift: enthusiasm”. Hesitantly, I played a new song, No Resistance, to him one night and up from the well of mutedly sung lines he instantly drew one, “the evening visits and stays for years...”.  Shaking his head, he told me he loved it. Loved it. That emphatic repetition. Did he sense the line might one day come true for him?

His flat in Dahrl Court matched his mind. A bed that was always made, plain white linen. Typewriter, table, magazines in a stack, lines as straight as a ream of paper. Vodka in the freezer, St-Rémy brandy on the shelf, next to it a box of crackers. Nothing but a rind of cheese in the fridge. Books, singles and albums in alphabetic rows. It was austere, clean, and spoke of discipline, a single devotion. Bare, dark wooden floors gave the room great reverb. In the stillness and quiet of night it was a brilliant setting in which to trade songs on acoustic guitar, listen to records, read out loud.

Only once did I visit during the day, to return a book Grant had insisted I read. The Horse's Mouth by Joyce Cary. It wasn’t a coincidence that he loved the story of painter Gulley Jimson who, though he knows that a price will have to be paid for it, that so many of the pleasures of ordinary life will be denied him, insists on living for his art. Like Jimson, Grant led an internal life far richer than any external one that was available to him, and that was the point: if the dream had not yet turned up, he possessed an eternal hopefulness that one day it would. Meanwhile, he would lead the life he wanted to, inside his head.

Out of the smoke of memory, his books and records rise and fill the page. Grant had a Blaise Cendrars collection—each of us, of course, convinced we were the only ones who did—Anna Akhmatova, the usual French suspects Apollinaire, Verlaine, Baudelaire (a relentless Francophile, a European son), Adrien Stoutenberg's A Short History Of The Fur Trade, Françoise Hardy's Greatest Hits, Lenny Bruce’s American LP with the black & white cover, every Dylan '66 bootleg that had ever existed, Frank O’Hara, Sylvia Plath, Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano and October Ferry to Gabriola (rarely did you see both) Big Star’s Third, the 1978 vinyl with the two faces on the front, a stack of singles as high as the Eiffel Tower. This was all code, it all seemed important. Even as late as the furnace years of our early Twenties, that ridiculous sense that you were in on a secret that other people didn’t get, still mattered. Why do they call it the narcissism of small differences?

Yet no matter how hard we tried to make it feel different, Brisbane still seemed just a long, empty Saturday afternoon kind of town, a place that people died in but did not yet believe in. 

By then, we were dreaming in the same direction, of other cities, other countries. Our eyes were on the exits. 

1982 “on the Atlantic, we’ll all climb.”

By ’82, the Go-Betweens had moved to London. I’d moved to New York. At times I felt I had escaped from a burning house—but everything I loved had been left inside. 

I was living in an illegal basement beneath the Joe Junior diner on the corner of East 16th & Third Avenue. The basement had no fresh air except via the elevator shaft. It was like a dungeon or a ship, heatpipes running across ceiling ticked and clanged like clocks. Steel girders, prefab walls and a concrete floor. 

Winter was round the corner, and Robert had posted me a pre-release cassette of Before Hollywood from London. I waited till I got home around 2am to listen to it, putting the cassette on in the dark, so it would ring off the cold walls of the room. I immediately fell for it. Disappearances and longing dominated the songs. It was a long goodbye to the country of exile, a kiss blown from a train window. It was not simply despair but, like something by Antonioni, the most beautiful kind of despair. 

Once they had been like children who spoke precociously well, but with Before Hollywood  they suddenly became fluent with the syllables of loss. They would never be the same again. 

Atget, who photographed Paris as it was racing along in the early 20th century and traces of its past were being swiftly erased, used to write on the back of his prints “will disappear.” The Hollywood Grant and Robert had chosen to write about—the one before the movie industry had even begun, that was still orange groves, barley fields and streetcars was, like Grant’s childhood and Robert’s innocence, a vanished world... “there’s no routine, I’ve never lived like this.”

In That Way, Grant sang “there’ll come a time one day, someone will turn and say: It doesn’t have to be that way…”. The next day, on a New York postcard, I wrote out Berryman’s The Ball Poem, trying to keep my handwriting neat enough so he could read it, and mailed it to him. For a few years, it stayed on a pinboard in his Hackney room.

Up until a certain point in your life, if you think back to times you shared, days that have your friends in them, you believe that they still exist somewhere. That they’re still available to you. That we are all just in different places on the ferris wheel and that when it comes round again, you will see them again. That you’ll take up where you left off. And it’s true, the wheel does come round again—but sometimes, the carriage is empty.

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