Not All Critics Are Failed Artists


A selection of Robert Forster’s music criticism in The Monthly has recently been collected in a volume titled The 10 Rules of Rock and Roll. These pieces were written across several years, but I read them in a single sitting. As I did so, I was struck anew by how unique Forster’s voice is in Australian rock writing.

Whether he’s discussing Will Oldham or Glen Campbell, a touring international star or a local indie release, Forster’s tone is clear and conversational — the writing is easy in the very best sense of that word. He has open and infectious enthusiasms and an idiosyncratic, post-punk take on music history.

The 10 Rules of Rock and Roll ranges from canonical stuff like the Velvet Underground and Dylan to his more surprising preferences like The Monkees and Neil Diamond. Like all the best critics, Forster is generous, even when an artist has fallen short of their own standards or those of the audience. The words of philosopher Stanley Cavell on film critic James Agee apply well here: "He had no need for the seedy pleasure of feeling superior to drivel, or for the grudging admiration of those no better than oneself who happen to have gotten the breaks … [He had a] gift for finding something to like, in no matter what yards of junk."

Most importantly, perhaps, Forster is able to talk about records from the perspective of someone who’s been through the record industry mill, and who understands the art and craft of songwriting. In two stints as a member of the Go-Betweens he was one half of what might be Australia’s most renowned songwriting partnership — one that’s up there with Vanda and Young. During the Go-Betweens hiatus, and following the untimely death of creative partner Grant McLennan, Forster has released a series of immaculate solo albums.

It was his criticism, rather than the music, that I most wanted to talk to him about when we met at his hotel by Sydney Harbour. His manner was a little reticent at first but this dissipated fast and turned out to be a lot like his writing — urbane but direct, erudite but warm. Forster is in town for the Sydney Writer’s Festival, and he’ll be playing a show featuring 15 songs about Sydney. What I wanted to talk to him about, however, was this new craft, which he admits coming to in "midlife", having published very little before.

He says in the introduction to The 10 Rules of Rock and Roll that writing criticism came relatively easily, and I asked him about the contrast with writing songs, which he has said many times over the years he finds difficult. While stressing that he still takes quite a while to write his reviews, he tells me that the problem with music is that he’s never felt himself to be a "natural musician", that "with a song you’ve got to pull it out of the air, a song still feels like a miracle to me." The writing, on the other hand, feels more to him like "the thoughts that have been going around in my head all the time". It takes time to get them right on the page, but it’s easier than pulling an angel down to earth.

I asked him about his tendency to find praiseworthy things in places which, on the face of it, seem unlikely to interest him — Delta Goodrem albums, or the touring version of Countdown — and the way in which his criticisms of musicians tend to be balanced and measured. He puts his generosity down in part to the fact that he’s been the subject of music criticism himself and the knowledge that unqualified criticism can be wounding.

He talks about feeling a "responsibility that goes along with the platform" in The Monthly, "especially with younger artists, they take it to heart, and you’ve got to be careful with that." He mentions a young indie band to whom he gave a mixed review, saying that "I didn’t think the album was strong, but I thought the review needed to be written. I tried to be even-handed, but I almost over-justified my criticisms because I thought they needed to be made. But I still think it shook them a little."

The measured tone also comes from the fact that his idea of criticism wasn’t just formed by music writing. His sources for inspiration are not necessarily other rock writers — he’s more likely to regularly read "literary periodicals … the New York Review of Books … and you see that something that has a generosity of tone tends to hit a little bit harder, and tends to be felt more deeply". And then there’s the fact that it’s not his priority to "make it" by means of his column — "I came to this in middle age. It’s written by someone in their late 40s. I think that comes through. If I was doing it in my 20s it might have been a little wilder. But it’s — I hate to say it — it’s maybe a bit more mature. It’s not slash and burn. It has a different tone."

There’s been some serendipity in him coming to writing — as he explains in the introduction to his book — The Monthly‘s request to write a regular column came out of the blue. But he’s grateful: "It’s very rare in your late 40s, late in your career, that you get a chance to have a go at a whole other thing. I’ve found a voice that in a way I never knew I had." It gives him a chance, among other things, to advocate for the artists he loves and believes deserve a wider audience, as in the book where he talks about Texan singer-songwriter Guy Clark’s classic album Old No. 1. Nevertheless, although he has an "almost evangelical desire" to push particular albums, he has to restrain himself to the occasions where the chance comes up.

We move onto the music, and any remaining restraint drops away — he’s very keen to promote his show 15 Songs of Sydney, which he promises will contain songs he wrote when he was living here, and songs of reminiscence, ranging across the Go-Betweens and his solo work. There will be "lots of stories — the show might go for four and a half hours". On the strength of recent shows I’ve seen, anyone who has a chance should go along — he’s in form, and it should be a treat.

As a Queensland boy, I couldn’t let him go without asking him about a major piece of transport infrastructure being named after his band, the Go-Between Bridge across the Brisbane River. "You obviously go into a rock band hoping for certain things to happen, having a bridge named after you isn’t one of them." But he describes himself as "happy, it’s touching, it’s overwhelming". He notes the "blanket publicity we now get, which we never managed to get with our music". He lives back in Brisbane now, in the suburb he grew up in, and acknowledges how important that is to his identity. He might have returned home, but he seems to me like a man who, in midlife, is just discovering what he’s capable of.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.