- Grant McLennan
Some deaths are tragic: Buddy Holly, Otis Redding, Ronnie Van Zant, and Stevie Ray Vaughan. Some are inevitable: Frankie Lymon, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and, later, Kurt Cobain. Then there are those deaths that seem strangely poetic in there happenstance, as though orchestrated by the gods, neither inevitable nor tragic, just matter of fact.
At the age of 48 Grant McLennan was seemingly at the apex of a career that had already once been reinvented. The six albums he and his partner Robert Forster had put out in the 1980s as the leaders of The Go-Betweens had done more than just deliver some of the wittiest and most mature songwriting of the decade; they single-handedly were responsible for creating a whole new genre of music that is now referred to as adult alternative. Groups like Belle and Sebastian, Luna, and even Yo La Tengo were quick to adopt elements of their style; a style that to this day still defies categorization. The band broke up in 1989 and both McLennan and Forster released notable, if somewhat inconsistent, albums throughout the 1990s.
In 2000 the band reformed, and it was during this period that McLennan’s song-craft soared to new heights. The two partners complemented each other as never before: Forster the more methodical and analytical paragon of reason, McLennan the hope-less but more often than not hope-filled romantic. It was a singer / songwriter partnership seldom seen in music – a latter day Lennon / McCartney, if you will. Somehow without Amanda Brown, whose backing vocals on Tallulah and 16 Lovers Lane – easily the Go-Betweens most commercially successful albums of the ‘80s - left an indelible if charming impact, the nakedness and vulnerability of the songs took on even greater prominence. 2005’s Oceans Apart was their crowning achievement as a tandem. In less than a year it had outsold all of their previous albums and had earned the band an Australian Grammy as best Adult Contemporary group.
Life could not have been more fulfilling for McLennan who was set to marry his girlfriend, Emma, and settle down in his native Brisbane, when on May 6th of this year he was struck down by a massive heart attack and pronounced dead.
Almost immediately the outcries began: “cruel, untimely, tragic.” But at the risk of sounding, well, sacrilegious, I’m not at all sure I concur with such outpourings, no matter how genuine the sentiment. Not that I’m not saddened by the loss of one of pop music’s most accomplished lyricists, I just choose to celebrate his genius. For it was Grant McLennan’s optimism, his profound sense of modesty, and his passion for life, all of which exuded throughout his music that made him the artist he was. And if that artist left us a bit earlier than he should have, in deed a good deal earlier than we would have preferred, well then at least he left us a whole lot richer for having been down the road.
In the end, I’m left not mourning his loss, but treasuring his accomplishments and contributions. If anything, the man I mourn for is his partner Robert Forster, who after 25 years will somehow have to reinvent a wheel none of us thought would need fixing for quite some time. Partners are hard to come by, especially partners as gifted as Grant McLennan.