Exile on Man Street: On Tracey Thorn’s “My Rock ’n’ Roll Friend”
By Gina ArnoldSeptember 7, 2021
My Rock ’n’ Roll Friend by Tracey Thorn
My Rock ’n’ Roll Friend is many things, including a straight-up biography, an ode to female friendship, and a recounting of a specific time and place in the global indie-rock landscape. But it is also a harsh and insistent comment on the inherent sexism in the rock press. The book’s stated thesis is that Thorn’s “rock ’n’ roll friend,” Lindy Morrison, has been erased from the story of The Go-Betweens in the same way that, more broadly, women are often written out of the narrative of rock music in general. Thorn argues that this is because their stories get told — when they get told at all — by men and male writers, both in songs and in rock journalism, which relegates women to the status of girlfriends at best, and judges them harshly even then. In fact, as a female musician, Thorn’s career has been far more successful than Morrison’s, and this book seems to be an attempt to use her position as a best-selling author to reinsert her friend back into the story of The Go-Betweens. That’s a tall order, but Thorn dives into the task with a will. Although it is really a retrospective, the book is written entirely in the present tense, as if, by so doing, one can reinsert a person into an already written history.
Moving erratically between the past and the present day, from London to Brisbane, from the late 1970s to now, My Rock ’n’ Roll Friend is a kind of pastiche, along the lines of the nonfiction work of Olivia Laing. It cobbles together all kinds of sources, including Thorn’s own memories of hanging out with Morrison in the 1980s, Morrison’s current impressions of her past, literary allusions from feminist writers, and items taken from scrapbooks and press clippings — print ephemera, left over from a time before the internet called memories up at the touch of a button. The result of Thorn’s excavations into the past may be of limited interest to people who haven’t already heard of The Go-Betweens, but as a cautionary tale about the perils of gender nonconformity, and as a guidebook to the way that women are erased from cultural narratives, it offers many object lessons. Above all, it shows how the relentless portrayal of female figures in rock music as passive and often gnomic muses with little to say and no real role in the creative side of things has been detrimental to the form itself.
The Go-Betweens are, or rather, were, an obscure Australian band whose reputation has grown larger as it disappears into the rearview mirror. The band began in 1977 in Brisbane, Australia, and unusually for that time and place, it included one woman, and later two, whose performances have become integral to its wider perception. Lindy Morrison, the drummer, was a formative and formidable presence who turned a wimpy folk duo into an actual power trio; Amanda Brown, who joined the band later, added female backing vocals and wind instruments to what would otherwise have been a fairly faceless four-piece rock band. Sonically and visually, it is impossible to imagine The Go-Betweens without either of these women, and yet, as the band’s fortunes fell, Thorn contends that its two front men and songwriters, Robert Forster and Grant McLennan, increasingly blamed the two women for their problems and dismissed their accomplishments, both in the music press and, eventually, even in record contracts. McLennan died in 2006, but Forster’s 2016 memoir Grant & I: Inside and Outside The Go-Betweens frames the band (as its title indicates) as a duo, as does the 2017 documentary The Go-Betweens: Right Here, which all but eliminates Morrison’s role in the band, focusing instead on the two front men as songwriting geniuses in the Lennon/McCartney or Jagger/Richards mold.
In both those texts, Forster comes across as somewhat bitter and sad — and no wonder, because, for the majority of the time The Go-Betweens existed, they did not exactly prosper. One of the more poignant passages in Thorn’s book is a list of itineraries and expenses that tells the story of a hard-working band all too well:
Days and days on the road, spilling over into months and years.
Here is a 1986 Australian tour itinerary, with four gigs in Sydney, five in Perth, three in Melbourne, and then more in Noosa Heads, Byron Bay, Canberra, Bunbury, Geelong and Adelaide. […]
Here is an itinerary for a European tour, May 1986. Seventeen gigs, with “more dates to follow.”
Here is a tour from 1987 — with nine dates in California alone.
If you read between the lines, you can discern a lack of career progress, evidenced by the unchanging venues.
It reads like a rock prosopography by Fernand Braudel — the longue durée of a band trapped in stasis. “There’s no way to put a positive spin on the life they summon up, no glamour to be found here,” Thorn writes. “Each page bears the details of the slog: that day’s hotel, the hours of travel, the location of the gig, the capacity of the venue, the sound check time, the onstage time. Who is sharing a room with whom.”
Passages such as this truly capture the unspoken difficulties of being in an indie-rock band touring across the 1980s, without the romantic haze that usually fogs the van’s windshield, as in Henry Rollins’s memoir Get in the Van (1994) or Michael Azerrad’s chronicle Our Band Could Be Your Life (2001). Is that haze gendered? Who knows? But surely the fact that My Rock ’n’ Roll Friend works so well as a corrective is at least partially because so little has changed for women in rock ’n’ roll bands. There still aren’t that many of them, and they are still patronized in the press. For example, in 2018, a review of Thorn’s last solo record by the venerated critic Robert Christgau began with the condescending comment that “when a 55-year-old wife and mother claims she’s recorded ‘nine feminist bangers,’ I pay attention.” This incredible sentence is just breathtaking in both its faithfulness to gender norms and its sweeping disregard of Thorn as a highly successful working musician and artist.
Sadly, it is also typical of the attitude that prevailed in the rock press circa 1980, when both The Go-Betweens and Thorn’s band, Everything but the Girl, were starting out. As Thorn writes early in the book, after quoting the endless put-downs of Morrison’s drumming in mainstream rock magazines: “How disappointing, how frustrating, to find that the world of rock ’n’ roll operated along the same lines as a ’60s private girls’ school in a small Australian country town. Your dad wanted you to be more demure, and so did the NME.”
That this attitude hasn’t changed is what makes My Rock ’n’ Roll Friend so relevant today. The book highlights the fact that this kind of indie rock was created by men, for men, and in the image of man — much like John Milton’s famous quote from Paradise Lost: “Hee for God only, shee for God in him,” with “God” replaced by “Bob Dylan” or an ur-band like The Velvet Underground. The Go-Betweens’ music does not just sound like Dylan by way of the Velvets; it sounds like Dylan and the Velvets squared. It’s not a surprise, then, to discover that both Forster and McLennan worshipped at their shrines — nor that, by contrast, Lindy Morrison had rather different inspirations, once listening to the Carly Simon song “You’re So Vain” 36 times in a row or driving 16 hours from Brisbane to Cairns listening solely to Carole King’s Tapestry (two records I also love but was taught as a young rock critic to have contempt for).
Of course, you can be female and love Dylan’s songs without really being able to see yourself in them, just as you can enjoy The Godfather and The Sopranos without actually being, or even knowing, a mobster. But reading My Rock ’n’ Roll Friend underlined a truth that I have long been loath to admit to myself — a squeamish distaste for Dylan’s view of women, which can be summed up in three words: “Lay, Lady, Lay.” Ellen Willis once wrote that Dylan had a “bohemian contempt for women,” and it’s true: the closer you listen, the more you hear. In my favorite Dylan song, “Tangled Up in Blue,” a nameless woman drives the entire narrative, and what does she do in it? She runs off with the singer, works in a topless joint, and hands the narrator a book of poems. Also, she lives with him on Montague Street in a basement down the stairs. I once knew a guy who, upon moving to New Orleans, rented a house on Montague Street specifically because of that line, and I think that level of devotion proves just how deeply Dylan’s work has inspired not only countless musicians but also many, if not most, music writers.
And therein lies the rub. Verbose, sharp-edged, allusive — these are all the things a certain type of early rock writer aspired to be, but I have now spent almost half a century listening to the male version of events in both books and records, and I’m ready to hear any other version available. I’ll always love The Go-Betweens’ music, and I’m thankful that they are better appreciated today. But I don’t think my understanding of the story of The Go-Betweens would have been complete without this particular retelling of it — and the same probably goes for many of the other standard stories we’ve been told about bands.
Gina Arnold is a former music writer and critic. She currently teaches writing and critical race studies at the University of San Francisco.
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