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