Grant McLennan: 1958 -2006

Waking to an overcast spring morning, thankful the pollen can’t fly like yesterday, there’s news; the passing of a musician I’d been taking for granted. There was a time when Grant McLennan’s music was all I could stand.

And then the clock turns/ and it’s now

It wasn’t always shits and giggles. When McLennan returned to the Go-Betweens in 1999, I was turned off by the obvious aging of their charms on The Friends of Rachel Worth, despite his two nifty songs there, “The Clock, and “Orpheus Beach.”

I don’t want this heart/I don’t need this blood

Now there’s guilt. Why be embarrassed to join the receeding-hairline-set (not me) I mingled with in 1999 at one of the first (the first?) Go-Betweens shows in the US in 15 years, back before Rachel Worth dropped? 2003’s Bright Yellow, Bright Orange was a total flop in every way, and that’s maybe why I failed to find 2005’s Oceans Apart, with “Boundary Rider,” McLennan’s sadder and probably more personal rewrite of “Cattle and Cane:”

the sky so deep you can’t find your sleep

So with a brick of a heart this morning I made it to the job, greeted by a phone call, from a student, from the delivery room of his soon to-arrive-infant daughter, his baby’s moms already doped up, numbed waist-down, and three minutes apart.

a teenage rasputin /takes the sting from her gin.

The Go Betweens always threatened to take over my personal catalogue, but they didn’t conquer it until 1994, when I went all out: Before Hollywood, formally their second album, became my favorite very quickly, especially since it reunited me with “Cattle and Cane” and introduced me to “Two Step, Step Out:”

I started cutting marble in a quarry/I worked my hands, I wasn’t in a hurry

And then on to Liberty Belle and the Black Hat, a masterpiece, McLennan’s title song just a swirling gem, supreme melodies subverting the pretentiousness always risked by this sort of storytelling:

Five years down the road/the railroad’s melted down/ten years further on/a husband in the ground

“Apology Accepted” didn’t leave my turntable for almost a year.

You said leave the light on / don’t be frightened

I’m still pretty sure “Love Goes On,” off of 1988’s 16 Lovers Lane is McLennan’s best song, an acoustic rain forest of obsessive love, and as good as a pop song gets. I stole this cassette from my much cooler younger sister, ashamed I hadn’t bought it, and lost it again myself, in college, hopefully stolen from me by another initiate.

Late at night when I want you / I lock you in my room /Because I know a thing about darkness/ I know a thing about lovers/I know a thing about lovers/lovers want the moon

Seven years later, in grad school, I scored a cheap vinyl copy of 16 Lovers Lane and songs I hadn’t earlier appreciated hit me like a shudder. “A Quiet Heart.” For some of McLennan’s songs, you just have to be older, in deeper, and coming to know complex joy. I was 25. It’s the song that makes me think of my wife.

I try to tell you / I can only say it when we’re apart

But despite “Love Goes On,” his crowning achievement remains “Cattle and Cane,” first brought and lost to me via a midnight radio taping done on my first Sony stereo, a cassette that might languish in my parents’ basement to this day. I was 17, freshly moved from my childhood town and abandoned into acquaintanced days but friendless nights, connecting with a slightly sympathetic, unapologetic nostalgia trip back to McLennan’s childhood home.

the railroad takes him home /through fields of cattle/through fields of cane

Yesterday, McLennan probably returned to those fields, cutting through the kind of dream you only have if you’re not going to wake up.

As the poet said:

Sometimes, an absence can be a presence.

I saw you up there lighting fires

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4 thoughts on “Grant McLennan: 1958 -2006

  1. hey, great tribute to Grant. “Love Goes On” very well might be his best-written song, if “Cattle and Cane” is his most essential.chris

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  2. bright yellow, bright orange…”a total flop in every way”?woh. i think not. go back and listen to all 3 of the re-formed GB’s discs. There’s some beautiful stuff on each one.Thanks for the Grant memorial. Also, I saw the full band in Chicago when they toured for 16 Lover’s Lane, mid 80’s?GWM shall be missed, indeed.

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