Yesterday, in the opening part of this interview with author and musician Tracey Thorn , she explained the personal genesis of her book, My Rock ‘n’ Roll Friend, about the decades-long relationship with Australian musician, Lindy Morrison, borne of friendship, awe, respect and challenge.
In today’s conclusion, Thorn talks through balancing history and truth-telling with friendship and mythology, and provokes a broader evaluation of how the music industry, and those of us around it, have learnt – or not learnt – lessons when it comes to the role of, and the respect for, women.
As a lyricist or a memoirist, Tracey Thorn is not afraid of digging, nor of exposing.
Rereading her diaries, and then putting those early and unformed, or indeed later fully formed and frank revelations before us, has been the basis of a number of her books. Excavating herself in effect.
Both Bedsit Disco Queen and Another Planet, among the three books she’s written since the band she formed with partner Ben Watt in the early ‘80s, Everything But The Girl, ended at the turn of the century, bared her fears and stumblings, the recriminations and the regrets, alongside moments of great joy and shared success.
She is no less open in her new book, My Rock ‘n’ Roll Friend, which while principally a chronicle of the life of the Australian musician and activist Lindy Morrison, lays open Thorn’s own troubles (at home, at work), insecurities, and moments of anger and frustration through the past 40 years.
However, rereading her correspondence with the Australian, whose prominence came in the hugely influential Brisbane band, The Go-Betweens, and then going further to trawling Morrison’s diaries, letters and private confidences, is considerably bolder as a book concept for Thorn because she is excavating Morrison – still alive, still a public presence, still a friend.
Did the impudence of this ever have her hesitating?
“Yeah. As you say, I’ve done this about myself before and exposing yourself is one thing, and is scary. But I felt a real sense of responsibility here that I’m now doing it about our friendship and I’m doing that level of, as you say, excavating about someone else,” says Thorn. “And as we know, Lindy is a great believer in openness and honesty and self-expression, so I knew if anyone was going to be able to live with this, she would be able to. But I also thought that until you’ve kind of seen it on the page, you don’t really know what it feels like.”
Lindy Morrison at rest
Thorn didn’t show Morrison the book in progress. “I said right from the start, I can’t write this book by committee, and it’s not a joint-authored book. I am writing a book from my point of view over here and if you are happy to share the raw material with me, by diaries and letters, then it will be a richer, better book and I can tell your story better."
After the first draft there were a few things that were taken out at Morrison’s request. However, the bulk of it, and its explorations of the teenage Morrison as much as the adult one, were relatively unscathed. As uncomfortable as they might have made Morrison feel.
“She said to me ‘no one is going to be interested in this, it’s so boring people reading this stuff about me talking about my glasses’. But I think it’s essential that bit. If I was going to try and convey to people that this two-dimensional version of Lindy – the ‘witch’ of the early days, or this brash force of nature - then I’ve got to be able to show that vulnerability. Then, okay, how might she have transformed into that person; what might be underpinning it?
“To me, those letters that she wrote to herself - that she sent me - I just thought, this is gold. Again, it’s not me having to tell people, I can just literally show you: this is what she was like, this is what she wrote.”
Morrison will not talk about the book now, refusing all requests for interviews. Not out of any dissatisfaction or resentment though - in fact she facilitated this interview with Thorn - but rather a reluctance to be at the centre of attention, and the person who has to explain herself again.
“Her point has always been ‘I’m the subject of the book, not the author’, and she feels that it’s not normal really for the subject of the book to be interviewed. And I think perhaps she wants to let it settle. It’s only been out a short while. Let it do its thing, be out there, be received by people, be, I don’t know, argued about by people.”
It’s one thing to be asked about yourself and asked to explain yourself, it’s another thing to then talk about somebody else’s interpretation and explanation of you.
“The quote at the front of [My Rock ‘n’ Roll Friend], from Margaret Atwood, which says this is not the story she would write - you can’t write the book someone would write about themselves. All you can show is how they look from the outside.”
Tracey Thorn afoot in the ‘80s
In the context of this long friendship, and the openness of the book, it’s worth seeing the Atwood quote in full. “She will have her own version. I am not the centre of her story, because she herself is that. But I could give her something you can never have, except from another person: what you look like from outside. A reflection. This is part of herself I could give back to her.”
While friendship is the book’s raison de’etre, looking beyond it, Thorn’s tale is also a story about two professional artists in an industry that is constructed to destroy you. An industry that for women is almost by design meant to take away all the things about you that are valuable. And then destroy you.
Having emerged herself in the early ‘80s as part of The Marine Girls, in the wake of female-centric, politically and socially-driven bands like The Raincoats and The Slits – and the close example of Morrison who daily confronted the stubborn refusal of large sections of the music world to accept female musicians as equals - Thorn may surprise some readers by revealing that she and others then were working on the basis that they would be different within this male-centric industry, not with plans to change the industry itself.
When did it become clear to her that she could reformat this business into something that might be more tolerable for artists like her?
“I don’t know. Did I ever? People asked me a lot in these interviews at the moment, ‘you are writing about the music business the way it was, 30 years ago, do you think it’s changed?’. I say I’m partly a bit detached from the music industry now, but I read interviews with younger women now and they describe exactly the same things I was describing happening 30-something years ago,” Thorn says.
“I don’t know if any of us have managed to actually change the shape of things. Young women now were more outspoken, speak out more immediately about things that we tolerated for longer, and then spoke out about after the event. In a way, progress is being made in that there is a kind of quicker reaction from younger women who will say ‘no, shit, I’m in my workplace, I don’t have to put up with this’.”
As recent research in Australia - Tunesmiths and Toxicity: Workplace Harassment in the Contemporary Music Industries of Australia and New Zealand - by University of Technology Sydney academic, Dr Jeffrey Crabtree, confirms, the music business is still a bottomless pit of exploitation and abuse, whether physical, financial or emotional.
That doesn’t appear likely to change any time soon, not when some of the people ostensibly leading the industry are the worst abusers, and some of those monitoring the business are among the most blinkered or compromised.
Maybe the best thing, and it’s no small thing, is that people like Thorn and Morrison had shifted the conversation enough so that the next lot through had a little more reason to say ‘hold on I don’t have to put up with this’, before the generation after them might cut it off at the start and say ‘I’m not gonna go quietly’.
“That’s why it’s so important that the stories get told,” says Thorn. “We are back to another of my motivations, which became an even stronger motivation as I got going in the book: 'why are you telling the story?; Yes, the number one reason is Lindy is an amazing character, and like writing a novel you just want to tell stories about amazing characters.
"But as I was writing I began to think of her more and more as a kind of representative, an amazing woman whose story has slipped. And I began to feel even more this kind of responsibility that every single one of those stories should be told really.”
Was Morrison, a significant figure in many ways for Australian music, but even less known to the wider public than her band, The Go-Betweens, the best vehicle for this?
“In its own right it’s kind of a small story: The Go-Betweens were not massive; Lindy was, some people might say, only the drummer; and that’s what happens, nobody interviews the drummer,” Thorn says. “Well, yeah, I guess, but all these stories on their own are quite small and if they are all left out you read the history of rock and it’s just a history that is 80 per cent the achievements of men and 20 per cent the achievements of women, and it remains hard to change. And remains hard for young women to picture themselves joining this industry.
“We have to tell these stories because every little retelling just shifts the conversation a bit.”
Just as importantly, each time the stories are told, are exposed, it’s a teaching moment for people like me and other men who write about music, who spend their time immersed in the history and the great names, or the lost and revered names, but much of it in the same narrow range of mythology and truth.
Reading My Rock ‘n’ Roll Friend as a fan of The Go-Betweens since their early days, and as someone who has written about them since the mid ‘80s, I was forced to examine myself and my responses as a fan and critic. Did I ignore or slide by Morrison? Was I one of those seduced by the mythology of the sensitive genius upfront in my focus on singer/songwriters Robert Forster and Grant McLennan?
Lindy Morrison at work
I tell myself that I used to talk about Lindy’s drumming and its rhythmic presence in the appealing difference of the band - something else Thorn does effectively in her book, showing how Morrison’s musical presence reshaped what might otherwise have been a fairly conventional and simple form, and about how her worldliness dragged the others out of themselves.
But I also know that I spent much more time explaining the meanings and shadings of “the boys”, chasing them for interviews, and working as if they were the band. It’s a good thing to be reminded how easily we just fall into those old tropes.
“I have been interviewed by some other men who have said similar things, and that’s been fantastic because the worst thing when women speak up about anything is if men get really defensive. Because they can hear another man being even gently criticised, they kinda think ‘the criticism’s coming at me, it’s me’ and they leap up in defence and say ‘no, what you are saying here is not what’s happening’,” says Thorn.
“And you kind of go ‘okay, okay’, but that doesn’t get us anywhere really. That gets us so stuck in this place where something happens, women try to speak up about this thing that happened, men get defensive and put their fists up, and everyone retreats to their respective camps of hostility.”
How would this book circumvent that?
“What I’ve tried to do is write this book in such a way that hopefully the things I’m saying can be heard. They are not just heard as this shitty bloke did this shitty thing,” she says. “I’m trying to write in a little more nuanced of a way: I’m talking about unconscious bias and blindspots that we all have, and that sometimes men have about music. And the way even people who think they are quite progressive in many ways can slip into traditional, stereotypical ways of behaving.
“What you want is to move on from these things and I’m saying, look I haven’t written a book to tear down The Go-Betweens, I’m not trying to trash their memory; I’m trying to add to the story and say look I honestly think there’s a danger that you have actually diminished the story of The Go-Betweens by turning them into this band, but they don’t seem to me to be as interesting as the band they really were.”
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