At 243 pages, in a relatively easygoing font size, Tracey Thorn’s latest book doesn’t look like a particularly subversive tome. Inside, though, is quiet fury, with ramifications well beyond what is, at a glance, a narrow milieu.
Thorn found fame as half of Everything But the Girl in the 80s and has since published a celebrated series of memoirs and nonfiction books. Here, she turns her clear-eyed candour to dissecting her long friendship with Lindy Morrison, an Australian musician, now 69, who played drums in a band called the Go-Betweens.
Never heard of them? No matter. It helps to know this: the Go-Betweens were wonderful, if chronically underappreciated; originally two guitar-playing singer-songwriters and a drummer, later joined by other members. They remain a cult concern among aficionados and music journalists; often bookish, sensitive males who identified with songwriters Robert Forster and Grant McLennan. (The American author Jonathan Lethem devotes an insightful chapter to them in his essay collection, The Ecstasy of Influence.)
Initially, it furthered the Go-Betweens’ cool no end to have an unconventional female drummer: tall, wild-haired Morrison, who all agreed was “a force of nature” – a designation Thorn unpacks with precise care here. Just as Kim Gordon brought knowledge of art and the avant garde to Sonic Youth but spent years as the token female bass player, Morrison joined Forster and McLennan from a ideologically and artistically fertile punk background. She had worked for years advocating for Indigenous Australian rights. She had hitchhiked around Europe, nannied for Sir Georg Solti, once played bridge with Roger Moore.
There is plenty of granular period gossip in these pages – not least the time when, barely making ends meet in a cold and unfriendly London, Morrison cooked a slap-up Christmas dinner for the boys: her band and their housemates, Nick Cave’s Birthday Party. It went uneaten, as the majority preferred to nod off on heroin. Morrison and Forster were in a relationship; when the Go-Betweens eventually imploded, they did so in breathtakingly gendered fashion.
And yet this is a book about more than music: it recounts the intricacies of female friendship and its crush of projection, permission, allyship and trying-on-for-size. More widely, it is borderline philosophical – about perception and interpretation, seeing and being seen, living with a stiff upper lip versus living with no filter – and how appallingly condescending the British can be towards Australians. Thorn writes incisively about how she constructed Morrison for herself as a hero and mentor – full of qualities Thorn felt herself to lack. The truth, obviously, was more complex: the yin-yang attraction between Thorn, more reserved, and Morrison – loud, blunt, unable to keep secrets, lacking in restraint – asks questions about image and self-image. What is it we see in others?
Thorn’s clearest clarion call is to rage against the raw deal meted out to fascinating, difficult women who are, somehow, too much. Morrison was absolutely more “rock’n’roll” than the boys in her band – but somehow, this loose cannon was not valued in the company in which she should have been most admired. In a documentary about the band, Morrison is referred to as “a fucking nightmare”.
For male misfits, rock is a haven where their eccentricities are assets, not liabilities (for drummers, that goes double). Female mavericks, though, aren’t always guaranteed the same asylum. Thorn makes reference to Zadie Smith’s essay on Lucian Freud’s muse Celia Paul – who was an artist in her own right – and Joyce Johnson’s Minor Characters, which in part explored how the women of the Beat generation became muses and secretaries to the wilful, selfish “geniuses” in their midst, as well as Rebecca Solnit’s essay Grandmother Spider, on female erasure. In a pincer movement of devaluation, when electronics became big in the 80s the freer, more creative role of percussionist became more like that of a metronome – and Morrison was no one’s click-track.
Thorn is obviously not the first to put music on trial for its downplaying of women’s roles in every aspect of musical work, but one passage rings out particularly keenly. “How disappointing, how frustrating, that the world of rock’n’roll operated along the same lines as a 60s private girls’ school in a small Australian country town,” she seethes.
• My Rock’n’Roll Friend by Tracey Thorn is published by Canongate (£16.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply