On the surface, My Rock ’n’ Roll Friend is a biography-memoir. But Tracey Thorn’s story of Lindy Morrison, best-known as the drummer in Australian indie-rock band The Go-Betweens, is also an ambush on received music history. It is about sexism, redress and who is allowed to give definitive accounts.
The Go-Betweens’ heyday was the 1980s. They were all jangly guitars and bookish, introspective lyrics about love and girls. Like many clever but reticent pop bands, they were sidelined by the euphoric force of the Smiths, with whom they shared a UK label. But they were also talented, acclaimed and achieved cult status — not least in the US.
Five years ago, frontman Robert Forster wrote Grant & I, a well-received memoir about his creative partnership with Grant McLennan, with whom he founded the band in 1977. Their songwriting bromance lasted three decades until McLennan’s death in 2006.
In Forster’s book, Morrison has not much more than a walk-on part. She is older than the founding members and his girlfriend for a while, but is mostly a hired hand who “fitted the group’s unorthodox story” and allowed them to stand out in a sea of fey, indie boy-men. A woman on drums was transgressive and made The Go-Betweens more interesting. But the title of Forster’s book made clear who he thought was important.
Thorn sees things differently. In My Rock ’n’ Roll Friend she suggests Forster revised The Go-Betweens’ story to undermine Morrison’s contribution, diminish Morrison’s power and “ultimately reframe [Forster and McLennan] as always having been a duo”.
To complicate matters, Thorn casts herself as narrator amid all this dysfunction, “both outside and inside this story”. She, too, is a successful musician with the platinum-selling Everything but the Girl in the 1980s and 1990s. She has since become a best-selling memoir writer.
Morrison and Thorn have been friends for nearly 40 years, and the book draws on their letters, diaries and accounts from others to reframe the sidelined woman as the beating heart of The Go-Betweens: talented, driven, magnetic. It is clear Thorn thinks the band would not have troubled history without Morrison. This woman was “a revelation” full of “unkillable energy”. For Thorn, Morrison was The Go-Betweens.
The author’s anger on Morrison’s behalf is barely contained — though she does contain it. Her history of an acclaimed but frustrated band is compelling, and Thorn’s emotional investment lends force to her argument about how women’s contributions to music history — from Ronnie Spector to Yoko Ono or Angie Bowie — are ignored. But Thorn’s unwavering affection for her subject raises another question: how reliable a narrator is she?
Perhaps not entirely. Thorn makes much of Morrison’s drive and work ethic: “nothing has ever been handed to her on a plate”. But Morrison is the privately educated daughter of a wealthy Brisbane doctor, who abandoned a brief career in social work for a leisurely jaunt around Europe. An entire chapter is given over to Morrison’s lengthy holiday itinerary.
And while Thorn at no point criticises her friend, the gobby Morrison can be casually cruel to her. She blurts Thorn’s secrets to others in public. Reunited after more than 20 years, Morrison’s greeting is cool to the point of detachment. At a spa, she shouts: “Tracey, your tits are tiny!”
Yet to Thorn their friendship is a deep mirroring: Morrison’s loudness to her awkwardness. It is also validation of each other’s lives and work when the men around them push them to the margins.
My Rock ’n’ Roll Friend is less gentle and more sophisticated than Thorn’s previous books, which also drew on diaries and letters but were more self-reflexive exercises. Her ability to be both self-deprecating and assertive is intact, and she digs into human failings in the same expansive style. But we sense there is more at stake: Morrison’s story is emblematic and its telling is a matter of principle.
Would a biography of Morrison have been commissioned had Thorn not taken on the task of writing it? Probably not. But Thorn, once famed for her awkward reticence, now has a voice. She has set herself in opposition to — and written a much better book than — Forster, and she has seized control of the narrative on behalf of another woman. That is some redress.
My Rock ’n’ Roll Friend, by Tracey Thorn, Canongate, RRP£16.99, 256 pages
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