Lindy Morrison and Tracey Thorn, possibly the early '90s
TRACEY THORN'S’ My Rock ‘n’ Roll Friend, is a book that goes far beyond music in its story of her near-40-year relationship with iconic Australian musician and former Go-Between, Lindy Morrison. It explores what it means to be different, and the price you pay for that; what we want in others who fill our lives, and what they pay to be there; and how women can be shut out even when they’re standing there shouting at the door.
In the first part of two-part interview with Thorn, we talk friendships – hers, yours, others’ – hero worship, and learning to bend.
Towards the end of 2019, author, musician and columnist, Tracey Thorn, arrived in Sydney for a 10-day trip that was publicly work, and privately an escape.
As she was to write later, home life with her partner of 38 years, fellow musician and author Ben Watt, was in a state of tension and dissatisfaction just as the last of their children prepared to leave home. And decades of being the “good girl” had started to feel problematic for Thorn.
“I feel myself coming adrift, unsure of what I want, unmoored from where I am,” she later wrote: searching for meaning, sure, but also independence, comfort, euphoria, while recognising a coalescing of “unspecified rage”. Taking a kind of comfort in the epigrammatic thoughts of artists such as the novelist Anita Brookner and poet Kim Addonizio, she finds a line from filmmaker Agnes Varda that “In all women there is something in revolt that is not expressed.”
That’s the emotional churn within her as she headed to Sydney to see if there was both weight in, and support for, an ambitious book she has begun, her fourth, after two memoirs and a treatise on singing.
This book is to be a kind of biography of her friend, the iconoclastic Australian musician, activist, academic, social worker and feminist figure rarely thought of as a “good girl”, Lindy Morrison. It will also serve as an examination of the exterior and interior life of a woman going through the music industry – in Morrison’s case as the anchor (in every way), of the beloved if never hugely successful indie pop group, The Go-Betweens - at the same time as Thorn’s own career in Everything But The Girl.
So, a broader story built on the personal one. Or the personal one expanding. Or maybe both. Too many ideas were bubbling up to be left aside, if this book could happen that is.
Although they had not been in each other’s presence for some years, they’d been talking online, some letters had been exchanged, and the idea broached before this trip. All with the knowledge that if Morrison, the tall, vibrant, funny, full-forced character whose drumming was contrastingly subtle and unusual, didn’t want to share her memories, diaries and letters, the project would be off.
So, yes, this trip was vital. But in keeping with the state of flux in Thorn’s life, underneath that was another question, or series of questions, running through her mind as she travelled straight from the airport to Sydney’s eastern suburbs where Morrison lives: “Will I still know her after all this time? Will she still know me? Will I still like her? What will happen if I find I don’t?”
Rather than beginning My Rock ‘n’ Roll Friend with this moment, Thorn saves the reconnection until quite late in the book. The awkwardness and tension as they talk that first day is a reminder that they are quite different people, but also that the Lindy Morrison she has been describing for the preceding 189 pages –- is now vividly present and very real.
“A large part of the impetus of writing the book, one of the things that I kept coming back to, was I had to make her a three-dimensional character. She has to be real,” says Thorne today, via Skye from the home she shares with Watt – their relationship intact, refurbished and surviving the months of Covid lockdown.
“If it’s going to work and if I can convince people who have never even heard of The Go-Betweens why they want to read a book about their drummer, it’s got to be like a novel … she has to be three-dimensional, which means showing her in all her glory and her faults, and the things about her that I always loved and the things about her that I always found really difficult. It’s got to be as complete a picture as possible.”
And there is the real nub of the book: beyond the biography, beyond the history, My Rock ‘n’ Roll Friend serves also as a record of their friendship, begun 38 years earlier though latterly made a bit more tenuous by distance, work, absence, family … you know, life.
In the Everything But The Girl song, Blue Moon Rose, Thorn sang of “a friend and she comes from the high plains/Wise as the hills and fresh as the rains”, a friend who “taught me daring/Threw back the windows and let the air in”. It’s a song of joy really.
There is what Thorn calls “the weight of this history between us”. History that was begun in admiration (especially on Thorn’s part, after Morrison breezed into a dressing room where Thorn, then in the band Marine Girls but soon to start Everything But The Girl with Watt, sat and wondered). History that grew on difference (one a self-described small-town girl unsure of her place; the other “a tall, angular woman who seemed to reflect the light”). And history that never really wore away the edges of their contrasting personalities.
“[This connection] said something interesting about friendships and how they work, that often you’re not looking for someone who is exactly like you. Especially when you’re young,” says Thorn. “I do think it’s very important the age I was when we met and the age gap between us. I was 20 and she was 31 and I was still at that stage in my life where I felt that I was quite unformed and trying to work out who was I going to be as an adult woman, especially an adult woman maybe working in this music business.
“Was I going to work in this music business? I wasn’t sure. And there was Lindy, she was 31 years old and was working in this music business and also projected this image of being just entirely on top of things, able to deal with things, and confident and loud where I was quiet, and all those things.”
If at first it looked an unlikely start for a friendship, they did have common ground, whether it be working surrounded by men, both being well read and voracious reader, both with an academic background, both feeling that “we were now moving in a world where that wasn’t necessarily what was wanted of us, or no one was going to be interested in it”.
As Thorn observed of Morrison, she was far less “seen” by writers, critics and fans of The Go-Betweens than the two awkward/charming/guileless/calculating songwriters, Robert Forster and Grant McLennan, who courted and were courted by writers, critics and fans.
“When she did interviews no one was asking her about the books she’d read and the films she’d seen. She had all that inside her and I think she was grateful to find someone else to talk to about all that.”
As might already be clear, Thorn’s book is such a beautiful book about friendship in its shifting phases, and one of the reasons it is such a captivating read is it doesn’t pretend to be presenting a perfect friendship and doling out innate wisdom. Instead, what is described is multifaceted and emotionally complex, a bold thing to do when we might expect some veneration of an older and in her own right iconic figure, or for some claim of a unique bond and special understanding.
“But that’s not how I write about anything really, in an idealised way,” Thorn says. “I think a friendship is just another relationship and what have I always written about relationships? How fucking complicated they are and how difficult they can be and how it’s incredibly hard to fully connect with another human being because we are all partly inside our own heads and obsessed with ourselves.
“And yet, they are brilliant and we take enormous strength and resilience from our relationships, whether they are romantic ones or family ones or friendships.”
With the awkwardness anticipated but the looming book a hovering presence over any interaction, how did Thorn manage the re-connection in Sydney? Was she conscious of not coming across as some kind of – perish the thought! – grubby journalist?
“I was trying not to make her feel like I was there interviewing her; I wasn’t sitting there with a tape recorder or notebook. But literally every time I was out of her presence I was writing everything down,” she laughs. “That chapter of us reconnecting is just a few little snapshots scenes. I don’t do very much analysing of the situation: it’s here we are at a party, here we are in a restaurant, here we are in someone’s house, here we are walking down the street try to find our way. I tried to do lots of showing, not telling.”
Lindy Morrison behind the drums with The Go-Betweens in the 1980s
What made analysis at that point unnecessary was that everything in the book that has led to this point had done the work for us. By the time we “meet” Morrison we have her history, Thorn’s history, the flesh and bones of their friendship, and a musical and historical context. All we need then is the fullness of Morrison’s company to embody it.
“What’s interesting is it’s the friendship in action but it’s us 30 years on and we are both older and a bit set in our ways, and we have all these years of life behind us that we’ve lived when we weren’t in touch with each other,” Thorn says of this reunion. “So there’s all sorts of stuff we don’t know about each other, and yet, within a couple of days we were making private jokes and I was just remembering how much fun she is.
“I do think a lot of the time a lot is made of Lindy’s larger-than-lifeness and that she can be intimidating, and all those things. But I think too often it she was painted this slightly villainous, scary character. Obviously a lot of those qualities are incredibly attractive and just fun to be around. You don’t have to be exactly like a person like that to be very drawn to them.”
That force of nature, as the cliché has it, of Morrison is one thing, but Thorn is just as capable of exploring the vulnerability, the tenderness of her. It shows through the descriptions of a childhood in Brisbane and those early years at university and music, a time where confidence doesn’t come easily, where insecurities erupt over seemingly minor matters. And it extends into the intensity, rewards and failures of Morrison’s relationship with the far less experienced, less intellectually developed Forster (the relationship which sits at the core of his songwriting material) that sometimes seem like a series of small slights building to a bitter climax a decade later.
Really understanding this less obvious side of Morrison is not just important for us as readers, it becomes the true strength of the book. In searching for why that is so crucial, why it feels different to this male observer, I wonder if it is as simple as saying female friendship are different to male ones.
“Well, yes, because women experience the world in a different way. Obviously that doesn’t mean all women experience the world in the same way. We all equally have our own individual perception of things and our own individual experience of things. But we will have certain shared experiences and obviously I focus on some of those, between me and Lindy, which give you a kind of shorthand,” Thorn says.
“Often what women share is their experiences of being left out, or being patronised by people they are working with. Men’s relationships can often be based more on that power dynamic that’s about competitiveness: who is actually the strongest in this relationship, who is going to win, who is doing best at work?”
Lindy Morrison and Tracey Thorn, Sydney 2019
Thorn readily offers that this is another generalisation but she’s not really wrong in the notion that for many men the vulnerable stuff can get buried and you just kind of bond on safe ground where weaknesses are hidden, even if you are not actually competing about your strengths.
“But women, perhaps, more often bond by sharing the vulnerabilities because from that we take a strength. Hearing another woman say oh fuck, yes that happened to me as well, reminds you that you’re not going mad and so gives you a strength because it validates your perception of the world,” Thorn says. “You think oh shit, yeah, this isn’t happening because I’ve done something wrong, or because I’m stupid, it’s because this is the society we live in.”
Is it also too simple to say that one reason why female friendships are different is in some ways they are in response to or in separating from men in the way men can impose themselves substantially in a woman’s life?
“Yes. Sometimes within female friendship to almost have the sense of forming a little secret club that’s like the Resistance [she laughs] and if you are heterosexual it’s complicated, because you are sharing stuff about men at the same time as you have relationships with men and you are attracted to men,” says Thorn. “And Lindy and I definitely shared that, a kind of frustration with men we encountered sometimes, especially in that world of music. And yet within the same sentence we would then be joking about ‘well, yes but he is very attractive’.”
Not so much nobody’s perfect as nobody’s pure?
“That was the other thing I liked about Lindy: we shared a lot of feminist take on the world but you know, she’s not pious about these things. At all. Not sanctimonious. She will be contradictory in her opinions, and again I like that in people,” says Thorn. “I think it is completely valid to have a sort of political take on the world and yet still as a human being you will live in a way that will be contradictory to that. And sometimes you will have opinions that don’t quite sit comfortably within that take.
“And I liked that about Lindy and I think we share that, that we were never rigid particularly in those ideas and we could allow ourselves the freedom to be a mixture.”
Given many, if not most of us are somewhat rigid, pious even, in our certainties about life and the way the world should be when we are 20, 21, we probably all could benefit from having a kind of Lindy in our lives to teach us to bend a bit. Not that I’m suggesting, I tell Thorn, that she was necessarily rigid or pious at 21 and needed some bending.
“But I was,” she laughs. “And I did. Often you don’t really do the unbending until you are a bit older. As much as meeting someone can be good for you and kind of shaking you out of that, it just takes experience really to be able to view the world in a slightly more complex way.”
Tomorrow: in part two of this interview, Tracey Thorn on how she wrote a book that bares so much, and how she and Lindy Morrison survived an industry that takes so much.
PLAYLIST: While you read, a soundtrack to explore the connections in the musical world of Lindy Morrison - with The Go-Betweens, Tracey Thorn, Patti Smith, Yo La Tengo, Waxahatchee, Courtney Barnett and other acts in the orbit, or in the wake of, a Brisbane band that mattered.
Tracey Thorn’s My Rock ‘n’ Roll Friend is published by Allen & Unwin