I don’t know much about the Australian band The Go-Betweens. In fact I just learned that Grant McLennan, one of the two singer-songwriters in the band—along with Robert Forster—died in 2006. More ghosts.
Today's song dates from 1988 and the original band’s final LP: 16 Lovers Lane. It’s a fairly upbeat album and, for Eighties pop, is a bit folkier than most. The song that tried to be a hit, “Streets of Your Town,” has more of the Aztec Camera sweep that occasionally caught on. Most of the Go-Betweens songs that I like best are more subdued and have odd flashes of lyrical brilliance. My favorite on that score is “The Wrong Road” from Liberty Belle and the Black Diamond Express (1986), the band’s best.
But today’s song is in-keeping with yesterday’s. It’s another retrospective song, only this time I don’t have to go all the way back to 1971 to remember its effect. In early 1989 I began my final semester of college and my buddy Tim put this track on a tape he gave me. The tape accompanied me on a long drive from the University of Delaware to the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and I played it for most of the drive back to Philadelphia. The trip was for an interview for a graduate fellowship which did indeed pay off. A memory that isn’t at all melancholy, really, even if I can’t say I’ve exactly lived up to what I was hoping to accomplish when I applied to graduate schools. Still, the song’s “we stood that chance” had a great “we’ll take whatever comes” feeling to it that was apropos for my hopes of the time.
The song is about a relationship, but not necessarily a romantic relationship. And already by 1989—the year I turned 30—there were enough of those “in my life” occasions as people one was close to, or at least in regular company with, were starting to fall to the background. Kids and studies will do that. So there was some harkening to old friendships in the admission “Deep down I’m lonely and I miss my friend.” The directness of the statement makes it seem rather unguarded, and the thoughts that go along with it, to me—in terms of memory—are a questioning of the qualities that made for the friendship in the first place. I’ve always been one who has believed that friendships are entirely unique creations, formed by the “meeting of the minds” of two individuals. What two people forge together can’t easily be translated to others, even other friends and relations. Certainly there can be “group friendships” where there’s camaraderie among several—as in coteries. That always seemed to me the basis of working creative relationships as one finds in bands, or in the theater.
But I’ve spent little of my time in such scenes. For me friendships are closer to what this song seems to be getting at: “I’d dive for you / Like a bird I’d descend.” Delving into memory for the sake of what one particular person—again in one’s presence—brings to mind. “We stood side by side / Strong and true”—that part seems vivid to me because I think of so many photos of bandmates standing together. It’s interesting to see the connections between people caught in a photo. Except I don’t believe that photos really get at the life of a relationship, which mostly goes on in eye contact and the matching of voice tones.
“When I hear you saying / That we stood no chance / I’ll dive for your memory / We stood that chance”: this seems to me—and the backing vocals help to add poignancy—a conjuration of memory: you said we stood no chance, and that’s a memory I have of you. But in fact we did stand that chance. The experience counteracts the uncertainty, or even the loss, if there is loss. That’s the part that gets me about memory of time with others. You seem to be looking on at two other people, but one of them is you. And it’s you as you are only with that other person. That’s why it’s also not you, or not you as you are alone, or with someone else.
The song feels tinged with melancholy but not actually sad or defeated. “The waters of her dream / Are black and forgetful / I’d like to make them clean.” Maybe that’s possible. But, though you can give them things you hope are worth remembering, you can’t make people remember. The diving metaphor works both in the sense of having to go “deep” to retrieve these things, but also with the “waters of her dream” being a figure for something the speaker can’t really speak to. She said they stood no chance, and doubtless she had her reasons. And of course the song starts with a conditional: “If the cliffs were any closer / If the water wasn’t so bad / I’d dive for your memory.” It’s a risky business—you might not surface again into this daylight world or, if you do, you may come up trailing who knows what slime of the depths. Black and forgetful things lurk down there. Forget it.
Bad times don’t get you through