‘Art … gives me a place to go to in this troubled world’
Robert Forster is tall and skinny with a thin face and impeccable posture. Rock ‘n’ roll stars aren’t meant to fade away this gracefully. The Brisbane-based singer-songwriter looks more like an architect.
He wears a tailored blazer and corduroys. The sole traces of disarray? Croissant crumbs that cover his purple turtleneck.
“Art is my faith,” he says, arching a thick eyebrow. “Music, film, literature. The whole shebang. It gives me a place to go to in this troubled world.”
I sit with 65-year-old Forster in a suite on the 16th floor of a hotel in the middle of Sydney. The founder of former indie pop band the Go-Betweens has just finished making a solo album called The Candle and the Flame. His blue eyes are filled with a gleeful bewilderment. They betray his true vocation: the pursuit of beauty. Music was the most egalitarian art form to capture it.
Forster started writing songs for his new release in the middle of 2018. Tender Years is a tribute to Karin Bäumler, a tall, blonde violinist from Germany, whom Forster married in 1990. “Her beauty has not withered,” he sings, “from her entrance in chapter one.” It’s Only Poison and There’s a Reason to Live softly contemplate illness and mortality. He is an accidental clairvoyant.
“I had no idea what was about to happen,” says Forster.
Throughout 2021, as coronavirus swept the globe, Bäumler was plagued by fatigue. Doctors put it down to menopause. The symptoms kept worsening. Then, a COVID-19 vaccine provoked severe swelling of the stomach. After a batch of scans, Bäumler was diagnosed with stage four ovarian cancer, at age 55. “They couldn’t operate,” she tells me during a separate interview in Brisbane. “It was too far gone. Every day was like waking up from a nightmare.”
Plan B was chemotherapy. Bäumler visited hospital every third Friday. Three different kinds of poison were fed into her arm through a drip. Forster pushed her to the car in a wheelchair. She couldn’t walk or talk all that much.
“We didn’t know if she was going to make Christmas,” says Forster.
Meanwhile, Forster’s beloved mother suffered a fall. He visited her at the same hospital where Bäumler was receiving chemo. His mother died at the age of 94.
“I take solace from the fact she lived a long, happy life,” he says. “My father died at 87. These are the kind of ages Karin and I are reaching for.”
Forster and Bäumler live at The Gap, a leafy suburb in the steep sprawl west of Brisbane. Late one night, Forster carried Bäumler from their bed to the living room. They drank tea beside the fire. Forster pulled out an acoustic guitar. “Let’s sing,” he said. He strummed the songs from The Candle and the Flame.
“We looked at each other in the eyes,” says Bäumler. “And just sang very gently. Every moment from [our relationship] came together.”
Robert Forster met the other frontman of the Go-Betweens, Grant McLennan, in a literature class at the University of Queensland. It was 1975. They were creative teenagers in Joh Bjelke-Petersen’s police state. Forster – who could barely strum his own instrument – taught the artsy farm boy to play bass.
“This will sound pretentious,” says Forster. “Great artists need other great artists. Grant was the only person I’d met who was more talented than me.”
They officially formed the Go-Betweens in 1978. McLennan later switched to six strings. They split songs 50:50 on their albums. Some thought the ex-
private schoolboys might be gay. Rather than bongs and shoeys, they swapped novels and French cinema recommendations. The sincerity of their connection didn’t fit the template of Australian mateship.
Soon, the duo was joined by a blonde drummer named Lindy Morrison. A tall, glamorous feminist, she worked as a social worker and mixed professionally and personally with Aboriginal activists. Her defection from punk band Xero shocked the local scene, who mocked the Go-Betweens. Less so when Morrison became Forster’s first girlfriend, despite her being six years older. Until that point, his love songs had been hypothetical.
“There’s something really appealing in a man who hasn’t explored his sexuality yet,” Morrison, now 71, tells me. “They don’t have that male bravado.”
“People in Sydney and Melbourne couldn’t fathom that a group of musicians from Brisbane could string a sentence together. The prejudice was incredible!”
Morrison and Forster moved into a unit. Forster’s mother baked them a fruitcake each week. Morrison’s unique drumming seamlessly synchronised with the others. They produced DIY pop music infused with literature and UV rays.
“People in Sydney and Melbourne couldn’t fathom that a group of musicians from Brisbane could string a sentence together,” says Forster. “The prejudice was incredible! They expected us to be meek. But you weren’t going to get meek from Lindy Morrison, Grant McLennan and Robert Forster.”
Behind the scenes, Forster was caught in a love triangle of sorts. Suddenly, McLennan was competing with Morrison for Forster’s company. Reticent McLennan developed an intense dislike for the opinionated drummer. “Grant carried a lot of baggage that not everyone saw,” says Morrison. “He escaped into books. He escaped into drugs, too.”
The band bypassed Sydney and Melbourne to head to the UK. Morrison, McLennan and Forster spent much of the 1980s living in London share houses. The singer Nick Cave was a fixture of those early years. So was heroin. “I was a dabbler,” says Forster. “Heroin just made me want to drink tea and go to sleep. There was no pain in my past that needed to be dulled.”
Forster crafted a sexually ambiguous persona, inspired by David Bowie. He donned lipstick and women’s clothing. In press photographs, he looked like a prickly tortured artist, McLennan a gregarious optimist – as if a young Patrick White and a young Clive James had formed a rock band together.
Privately, McLennan remained traumatised by the death of his father, a doctor in Rockhampton, when McLennan was four. In London, McLennan composed Cattle and Cane on a guitar belonging to Nick Cave. It was a paean to lonely train rides home to Cairns from a boarding school in Brisbane.
“I recall a schoolboy coming home through fields of cane to a house of tin and timber,” he sang. Later: “His father’s watch. He left it in the showers.”
Cattle and Cane was a single on the Go-Betweens’ second album, Before Hollywood. Forster and McLennan rarely peaked on the same LP. The highlight of 1984’s Spring Hill Fair was Forster’s Part Company, one of the great break-up songs. Then he produced two brilliant singles – Spring Rain and Head Full of Steam – on 1986’s Liberty Belle and the Black Diamond Express.
In Townsville, Paul Kelly was listening religiously to the Go-Betweens’ first masterpiece. Careless borrowed chords from McLennan’s Apology Accepted. And Dumb Things was his attempt to sing like Forster. “The Go-Betweens are right up there in my personal pantheon,” says Kelly. “It was one of those happy accidents. A group of people start a band and produce something no one else could make. They were awkward and beautiful.”
On 1987’s Tallulah, McLennan hit back at Forster with Bye Bye Pride and Right Here. The band had been joined by multi-instrumentalist Amanda Brown. The 1980s recording techniques evoked the hugeness of the Australian continent, spliced with the precise beauty of Brown’s violin and oboe parts.
In the twilight of the 1980s, Brown and McLennan fell in love. Morrison and Forster had already ended their relationship. The romantic frictions and musical innovations produced a second masterpiece: 1988’s 16 Lovers Lane. Recorded in Sydney, it perfected what Forster once described as “that striped sunlight sound”.
16 Lovers Lane was one of the only Australian LPs listed in 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die, published in 2005. Revered American music critic Robert Christgau called Forster and McLennan “the greatest songwriting partnership working today”.
“Lovers Lane was one of the greatest albums ever made,” says Steve Kilbey, lead singer of Australian rock band the Church. “It’s marvellous McLennan and Forster cropped up in the same group. Just like it’s marvellous McCartney and Lennon cropped up in the same group.”
“We had just made the perfect pop record. And in terms of financial comfort, it had brought us nothing. I was poor and exhausted.”
The LP slams open with McLennan’s Love Goes On!, a tribute to Brown, and gently shuts with Forster’s Dive for Your Memory, a requiem to his failed relationship with Morrison. But the highlights were tracks six and seven. McLennan’s Streets of Your Town segued into Forster’s Clouds. “We had just made the perfect pop record,” says Forster. “And in terms of financial comfort, it had brought us nothing. I was poor and exhausted.”
The Go-Betweens stayed bereft of mainstream success. They were too sloppy to be pop stars, and too feminine to be testosterone-fuelled rock stars. Too Australian overseas, too cosmopolitan for the local market.
“Is this the most underrated group in rock history?” asked French culture magazine Les Inrockuptibles in 1996. The wantaway Queenslanders had cultivated that most Queensland trait of all: underdog status.
In 1987, Forster met the love of his life outside a Go-Betweens gig in Germany. Karin Bäumler was a dazzlingly pretty psychology student. She was also a singer and violinist in German rock band Baby You Know. They stayed in contact. “People thought I was a groupie,” says Bäumler. “It was nothing like that. We just met. And sent letters. It was very slow and beautiful.”
During the tour for 16 Lovers Lane, Forster sabotaged a breakthrough in the US by wearing a red dress on stage in Los Angeles. A music executive called them “faggots”. In 1989, the Go-Betweens toured Europe with R.E.M. Forster and Bäumler reconnected in Munich. She asked to see the infamous red dress. “The dress is what finally got us together!” says Bäumler, laughing.
Bäumler’s father was a German brewmeister. After the tour, Forster spent three months with Bäumler at a farmhouse in the Bavarian countryside. It was a haven from the creative, financial and romantic strife of the Go-Betweens. “It was the longest time that I’d been apart from Grant since we started the band,” he says. “But I had found a woman who I loved and adored.”
Forster flew to Sydney to record the next album. The sessions went terribly. McLennan still couldn’t stand Morrison. Forster, meanwhile, had an uneasy relationship with Brown. The male singer-songwriters secretly decided to dissolve the Go-Betweens and form an acoustic duo, à la Simon & Garfunkel.
“I could list 20 or 30 reasons why the band needed to break up,” says Forster. “The simplest being that Grant told me he wanted to leave.”
They broke the news to the female members of the band simultaneously. Forster informed Morrison, who was apoplectic about the premeditated break-up. McLennan informed his companion Brown. She unceremoniously dumped him.
“Both of us refused to be defined as the girlfriends,” said Lindy Morrison in the 2017 documentary The Go-Betweens: Right Here. “And that’s what they did when they dumped us: they treated us like ex-wives. And that was the greatest insult.”
Morrison and Brown subsequently sued Forster and McLennan over royalties. McLennan reneged on the acoustic duo with Forster. He tried to reunite with Brown, the love of his life. She spurned him.
In Bavaria, Forster was detached from the ramifications of the break-up. He married Bäumler in May 1990. They spent evenings drinking German beer, smoking cigarettes and listening to Bob Dylan. He played her his new songs, the way he once had to McLennan. They became a series of solo records. “I always felt if I was with Karin, and we’ve got a roof over our head, and I’ve got a guitar and a notebook, everything’s going to be okay,” says Forster.
Forster and Bäumler moved to Brisbane. In 1997, Forster was diagnosed with hepatitis C. “It’s like AIDS,” said the doctor. He hadn’t injected heroin since 1989. Treatments were hit-and-miss. Forster permanently gave up drinking. “I found that really clarifying,” he says. “It could all be over. I decided I wanted to write 10 great songs. And have children. And just see what happens.”
In 1998, Forster and Bäumler returned to Germany for the birth of a boy named Louis. Soon afterwards, Forster and McLennan decided to reunite the
Go-Betweens for good. The Friends of Rachel Worth was released in 2000, with a Brisbane bassist named Adele Pickvance. She was a nurse from near Manchester, England.
“Robert would take a bag of apples and carrots on tour with him,” says Pickvance. “Grant would eat a meat pie or a souvlaki at two in the morning.”
After the birth of their daughter, Loretta, in 2002, Forster and Bäumler bought their first home in The Gap, the Brisbane suburb where Forster had grown up. Their little house was filled with books and musical instruments. “Robert was a very dedicated father and husband,” says Bäumler. “When the kids were little, he was worried about how long he might be around.”
The Go-Betweens released two more albums: 2003’s Bright Yellow Bright Orange and 2005’s Oceans Apart. The latter won the Adult Contemporary category at the ARIAs. It was their best album since the 1980s. Some things, however, had changed. After tours, Forster went home sober to Karin, Louis and Loretta. McLennan was skinnier every time Forster saw him. He occasionally lost feelings in his arms.
“You can f— around all over town in your 20s and 30s,” says Forster. “But it catches up with you. I made adjustments to my lifestyle. Grant didn’t … As horrible as it sounds, I think he knew what was going to happen.”
In 2006, Forster began a new hep C treatment that proved more effective than those to date. McLennan started seeing an actress named Emma Pursey. He threw a party to celebrate her moving in. Friends speculated that he was planning to propose to Pursey at the shindig. “Grant was on fire with his new songs,” says Adele Pickvance.
“I had lost my best male friend. When Grant died, the Go-Betweens died. I couldn’t imagine being on stage and not seeing him.”
When Robert Forster arrived, there was an ambulance in the driveway. Grant McLennan had gone for a nap and was discovered, unconscious, by a friend. He had suffered a fatal heart attack. Moonlight gleamed through the kitchen windows. Forster stood with Adele Pickvance. She made endless cups of tea.
“Grant was upstairs on the floor, with a sheet over him,” says Pickvance.
A thousand people attended the funeral in Brisbane. Forster delivered the eulogy. He subsequently knocked back lucrative offers to reform the Go-Betweens without McLennan. “I had lost my best male friend,” says Forster. “When Grant died, the Go-Betweens died. I couldn’t imagine being on stage and not seeing him.”
Forster’s grief was exacerbated by the side-effects of the drugs for hep C, which included lethargy and depression. It was a double-edged suffering but they still had their new music. In 2008, Forster released a solo album titled The Evangelist, including three unreleased songs by McLennan. “There were hearts,” sang Forster on From Ghost Town, the final song. “There was help. But he couldn’t love them. Because he didn’t love himself.”
Robert Forster, six foot three, saunters across Vulture Street in Brisbane eating a bahn mi. Spring is in full swing. The sky is an undiluted shade of blue. Jacarandas bloom in the humidity. Forster wears a polo shirt, corduroys and black leather shoes, not a T-shirt, shorts and pluggers like me. He will be a dandy until the day he dies.
“I’m eternally grateful that Grant agreed to join the Go-Betweens,” he says between mouthfuls. “Otherwise, we wouldn’t be speaking here today.”
We sit on the back patio of Avid Reader bookstore. Forster knows the booksellers. He is writing a novel about the music industry set in 1991, the year alternative rock went mainstream in the US, too late for the Go-Betweens. This is the last place Forster came before McLennan’s ill-fated house party. “The raw grief has receded over time,” says Forster.
Intrigue about the cause of McLennan’s death has continued to linger within musical circles. Forster wholeheartedly rejects rumours that he died of a
heroin overdose, and not because he is trying to sanctify the guy. “It seems ludicrous to me that Grant would shoot up heroin at 4pm, just before a hundred of his friends came over,” he says. “Maybe at 11pm when the party was dying down … I think alcohol killed him. It ate away at his body.”
Forster is pragmatic for someone who initially presents as such a dreamer. This is one reason he was able to transition from London heroin dens to domesticity in the suburban sprawl of Brisbane. Another reason was love. “Meeting Karin is the stream running through my life,” he says. “It’s something I wish Grant had found. But I don’t think he was wired for it.”
Forster was defined by the love he got; McLennan by the love he lost. The latter chased fleeting infatuations as a replacement. His notions of romance were shaped by the impossibly perfect ingenues within French films. “Grant kept reality at a safe distance,” says Forster. “He was heartbreakingly romantic.”
In 2010, the Go-Betweens were etched into Brisbane’s traffic grid. A bridge across the river was named The Go Between Bridge. Lindy Morrison caught a taxi to the opening with Amanda Brown. The first thing that Morrison spotted was Robert Forster, towering over the politicians. Afterwards, they walked alone over the bridge. “We caught up on everything,” she says. “My mother dying. His mum and dad. It was the first time that we’d been alone together for a long time.”
I sit for tea with Morrison in the Sydney beachside suburb of Coogee. There is a box of letters on the table. One of the folders is titled Miscellaneous Men. Morrison sits with a stack of old correspondence from Forster in her lap. In one letter, he rejected the regimented rebellion of the punks and hippies.
“I want a new culture that is slightly ambiguous,” Forster, then 23, wrote to Morrison from Paris in the opening days of 1980. “It shall be a thin veneer across a city. Dots. Pinpricks of individuals. Not cold, Orwellian robots, but thinking, feeling people. Four friends in happy isolation.”
Morrison silently reads Forster’s creative manifesto. A trickle of tears smear mascara across her cheeks. Suddenly, 1980 must seem like a week ago.
Morrison cries for the naïveté of the dreams that the Go-Betweens achieved. “The Go-Betweens was the greatest achievement of my life,” she says. “It was worth the bitterness of the break-up to make those six albums.”
The clock on the wall ticks frantically. Ageing is generally seen as a strictly negative experience. But it can give a person time to reassess their relationships. “I’m glad that I got to this age,” says Morrison, tears gone. “Where I can see the joy of that period so clearly. There’s no resentment or anger anymore. I only feel a great love for the Go-Betweens. And for Robert. I love Robert.”
Morrison doesn’t mean she still loves Forster romantically, but as an old artistic comrade. Life does its best to disillusion a human being. None of us get out unscathed by woe. Yet Grant McLennan – Lindy Morrison’s old foe and Robert Forster’s dead best friend – summed it up perfectly: love goes on anyway.
Forster’s desire for ambiguity has been a success. His failure to produce a radio hit means he remains a stranger to the vast majority of the country. Nonetheless, he has continued to make brain-tingling music. His 2015 album, Songs to Play, contained the Lou Reed-esque I Love Myself (and I Always Have), a mental manifesto.
“Robert is undoubtedly one of Australia’s finest songwriters,” says John O’Donnell, an ex-music editor of Rolling Stone Australia and the former head of EMI Records Australia/NZ. “He deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as Paul Kelly and Nick Cave.”
In older age, Forster doesn’t have Kelly’s laid-back, Australiana-infused charm, nor Cave’s alluring otherworldliness. He is vulnerable but somewhat apart. Odd in a polite way. Still an acquired taste four decades later. “If you met Bob Dylan, and he was aloof, you’re not going to throw his records out,” says Steve Kilbey. “There’s no one else like Robert, that’s for sure.”
Forster’s Inferno album reached number 17 on the German music charts in 2019. In the chorus of its song No Fame, he embraced his lack of mainstream success: “I don’t need no fame.” Being a quiet achiever has some unexpected economic benefits. “His European tour in 2019 drew bigger crowds than the Go-Betweens ever got,” says Bernard Galbally, Forster’s manager. “The audiences listen to his new music. They aren’t waiting to hear three hit songs from 40 years ago.”
The Candle and the Flame is Robert Forster’s greatest creative risk. Bäumler’s diagnosis with ovarian cancer during the COVID-19 outbreak forced him to improvise. They collaborated on songs. Not just singing them together late at night, but discussing better ways to arrange them. She went to bed feeling more alive. “[This] is the only time I forget I have cancer,” said Bäumler.
Soon, son Louis – a guitarist in Brisbane band the Goon Sax – was joining them, along with his sister Loretta. Their trips to Europe were waylaid by COVID border closures. Bäumler’s diagnosis intensified the general sense that the world was ending. Adele Pickvance delivered lamb shanks. Bäumler told Pickvance to bring a bass along to the impromptu sessions. They had got a band back together.“In a strange way, Louis had taken on Grant’s role,” says Pickvance.
Forster stopped writing new music altogether, except for a short, upbeat rock song called She’s a Fighter. It contained only two lines: “She’s a fighter. Fighting for good.” Bäumler caught her humiliated husband playing it to himself. “I didn’t want to create any art out of the situation,” he says. “I thought this was such a catastrophic event, it overwhelmed any way I could express it.”
“Music was a refuge. It was like taking an amnesia tablet.”
Bäumler implored him to perform it. In her foggy brain, she conjured a xylophone line. After her second round of chemotherapy, Bäumler was severely immunocompromised. She made a solitary visit into post-lockdown civilisation: to buy a xylophone. It was the only instrument that she was strong enough to play. “Music was a refuge,” says Bäumler. “It was like taking an amnesia tablet.”
The chemotherapy was working. Bäumler’s cancer count grew enough to perform a lifesaving operation. Beforehand, she wanted to make a recording of the songs that they had been playing together, purely for posterity. “We were stumbling from one day to the next,” she says. “We never thought that the recordings would become an actual album. It was just for us.”
Bäumler underwent a seven-hour surgery. Forster picked up Louis on the way home. Upon her request, they lit a candle and played She’s a Fighter, while doctors scraped cancer from her body. She lost a litany of vital organs. When Bäumler woke up, she asked the nurse to call her husband.
“I’m still here!” she said woozily to Forster.
Bäumler was smitten with the recording session. She insisted that two of the songs – I Don’t Do Drugs, I Do Time and It’s Only Poison – were finished. Over the following months, they ventured back to the recording session to fine-tune the others. Nine of them became The Candle and the Flame. “I just wanted to sprinkle my spirit on these songs,” she says. “The kids could go back to the feeling of making music together. It will always be there.”
Karin Bäumler is only slightly shorter than Robert Forster. Her smile lights up the balcony of Walkabout Creek Cafe in Brisbane’s The Gap. It is late October 2022. Mosquito bites foreshadow spring rain. The blue-eyed Bavarian violinist wears a T-shirt tucked into chequered trousers, with white Converses. “Robert has a next-level sensitivity,” she says over a cup of tea. “All my life, I’d been told I was too sensitive. But not by Robert. We just clicked.”
Given the past 18 months, Bäumler is surprisingly light-hearted, and hauntingly beautiful. Her short hair is long enough to pass as chic, rather than the handiwork of ovarian cancer. She repeatedly apologises for “chemo brain”.
“I don’t like to use the ‘C’ word,” she says. “I call it ‘The Situation’. ”
Bäumler did everything in her control to overcome the diagnosis, mixing chemo with meditation. She has started taking an innovative treatment – two tablets a day at home. The hospital visits have been pushed out to every other month. She is grateful to her doctors, but frustrated by the belated diagnosis. “Ovarian cancer is a silent killer,” she says. “Everyone thought it was menopause. There needs to be more government investment in early detection.”
The week before our meeting, Bäumler and Forster publicly announced her cancer battle, accompanied by a video for She’s a Fighter. It is the first single from The Candle and the Flame. In the video, Bäumler plays xylophone and Forster plays acoustic guitar. Louis plays bass and electric guitar, while Loretta plays rhythm guitar. “The last thing on their minds was making an album with Mama and Papa!” says Bäumler. “This isn’t an album that we expected to do together.”
The self-exposure elicits some discomfort. But Bäumler wants to tell the story of her survival. Both to draw attention to the plight of women like her, and so that she can offer hope to those going through similar hardships. “There are gifts from difficult things,” she says.
Forster strolls into the cafe. Bäumler’s German family are soon arriving for their first Australian visit. Contemplations upon mortality are interrupted by yard maintenance. Someone is coming over to whipper-snip at 2.30pm.
“Hopefully we get half an hour done,” sighs Forster, eyeing the clouds.
Bäumler and Forster sit hand in hand. I see Forster the way that Bäumler must view him: as a trustworthy husband and father, not an artist or rock star. True love is more like lighting a candle than a firecracker. It provides a slow, safe glow.
“Robert and I are in love with our own love story,” says a laughing Bäumler. “We still look at each other and just can’t believe our luck. How did we get here?”
To read more from Good Weekend magazine, visit our page at The Sydney Morning Herald, The Age and Brisbane Times.
https://www.smh.com.au/culture/music/for-the-go-betweens-robert-forster-the-beat-goes-on-despite-the-situation-20221205-p5c3r4.html?ref=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_source=rss_culture ‘Art … gives me a place to go to in this troubled world’