Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Robert Forster


"We broke up at the exact right moment."

The Go-Betweens' look:
Jeans and school shoes
"Slightly collegiate"
Full-collared, cuffed shirts (a bit groovy)
No tie

For twenty-eight years, Robert Forster and Grant McLennan of the Go-Betweens maintained one of the most fruitful and long-lived partnerships in pop-music history. Their collaboration began when they met at the University of Queensland in 1977 and continued until McLennan died suddenly of a heart attack on May 6, 2006. Amid disbanding and re-forming, the Go-Betweens released six studio albums in the '80s and three more in the '00s, several of them masterful and the rest at least solid. Which are which is a debate still thrashed out by a passionate cult of fans that includes R.E.M., who headlined the grueling 1989 megatour that finished off the band's first phase; Sleater-Kinney, who lit a fire under their 2000 comeback album, The Friends of Rachel Worth; and Jonathan Lethem, who declined to review said comeback, on the ground that it couldn't possibly equal the early work with which he'd bonded. Oceans Apart (2005), their best-selling and final album, won them their first Australian Grammy.

We don't hang out much with musicians, but with the Go-Betweens this proved difficult. For instance, we have all of two friends in the British music business, and both signed the Go-Betweens. So when their devoted U.S. publicist invited us to a pre-Oceans Apart dinner with Grant and Robert, we couldn't resist. Robert discussed band lore. Grant talked novels and charmed our nineteen-year-old daughter, a fan since she was six.

Barely a year later Grant was dead, and Robert didn't return to the States until early 2008, to promote The Evangelist, his first solo album in twelve years. There was another dinner, and this time we proposed dessert at our East Village apartment, which developed into a three-hour record-sampling bull session. Amy Rigby, Tom T. Hall, Lil Wayne, Todd Snider--Forster was a voracious and alert listener. He also tossed back half a crate of clementines.

Forster returned to our dining room seven months later for the lunchtime conversation excerpted below. The perfect guest, he brought four bottles of Pellegrino and former Go-Betweens bassist Robert Vickers, who returned to his day job forty-five minutes into the conversation. It was September 15, the day after Lehman Brothers went under. So we launched a time-tied discussion of the end of the world and segued into the news from Germany, where Forster's sixty-five-year-old mother-in-law had turned suddenly and gravely ill. The interview proper began with the Go-Betweens' beginnings. It continued until Forster had to leave for a sound-check at Joe's Pub three hours later.

--Robert Christgau and Carola Dibbell

CAROLA DIBBELL: Why did this music scene start up in Brisbane?

ROBERT FORSTER: In a way it's like Akron, Ohio--cities in the middle of nowhere.


RF: No one made records.

ROBERT VICKERS: It was like the beginning of the world.

Rest of interview not online . . .

Believer, July/August 2010