The Sound of the City

Just Between Friends

At their second New York appearance together since the Go-Betweens' breakup, Grant McLennan and Robert Forster played to a packed Merc June 8 with no backup, little patter, and the bemused geniality of former allies in a lost cause.

In the postpunk '80s, the Go-Betweens were like farmers battling cowboys over homesteads in Nebraska. They wanted to stay in one place and make things grow. They were wrestling with feminism and funny about it, always losing arguments with women who wanted to take other lovers (though satisfied with them). Spiking grubby credibility with irrational elation and plainstyle poetics with a radiant sound McLennan once dubbed the "striped sunlight effect" (as through Venetian blinds), their struggles were so sharply delineated fans could believe the songs were about themselves.

The Merc fans gave back keen attention, effortless sing-along, knowing nods at fine phrases, a communally drawn breath as McLennan uttered his plaintive rallying cry, "Faithful's not a bad word." But the mood was hardly slavish; nor was that what either performer seemed to want. When McLennan asked the crowd, "How did that sound?" after the song was over, it was a pleasantly businesslike question.

"Bachelor Kisses" was certainly a high point, though the hour-and-a-half, three-encore set was consistently strong. It made room for solo material, songs they'd just written, and lots of titles from the new (but never cited) best-of Bellavista Terrace. My own favorite was Forster's "Danger in the Past," where, moved by the crowd response to his rhyme of "curse" with "Perth," he fell into a spasm of comic miming. While McLennan, now a cute, graying middle-aged man, was dressed more stolidly than anyone else in the room, Forster was foppish in cream suit and lipstick. In the old days, while his bandmates wore street clothes or Sunday best, his hair color changed and leotards made you wonder what tensions that caused, or expressed- though it was tensions with the pair's musical and romantic partners, Amanda Brown and Lindy Morrison, that proved terminal. Yet a peculiarly kindred spirit remains at the band's old core. As to full-scale reunion, was there anything they could do? Probably not, but on this scale there might be something.

Village Voice, June 22, 1999