In March 1983, the singer and author Tracey Thorn was sitting in a dressing room at London’s Lyceum theatre when a woman strode in and asked to borrow a lipstick. Lindy Morrison, drummer in Brisbane art-rockers the Go-Betweens, made an instant impression on Thorn, who was in her second year at university and whose band, Marine Girls, were on the same bill. On the surface, the pair didn’t have much in common. By Thorn’s own admission – and despite her fledgling pop star status – she was shy, quiet and sensible; Morrison, who was 10 years her senior, was loud, full of confidence and sometimes reckless bravado. “It doesn’t occur to me,” Thorn explains, “that this woman who seems to be my opposite might in fact be my reflection, that she might have started out very like me – awkward, insecure, isolated – and has had to fight every step of the way to get to where she is now.”
My Rock’n’Roll Friend is both a biography of Morrison and a memoir of their friendship during which they bonded over books, films and being women in a world of men. In her next band, Everything But the Girl, Thorn would write the song “Blue Moon Rose” (“I have a friend and she taught me daring / Threw back the windows and let the air in”) about Morrison. “I am both inside and outside this story,” she observes.
When, in 1979, Morrison met the Go-Betweens’s singer Robert Forster, she was a part-time actor, a social worker, and a drummer in and out of assorted jazz and punk bands. Her worldliness stood in contrast to this bookish former boarding-school boy who was seven years her junior when they began a relationship. With her presence, the band – which also included the guitarist Grant McLennan – became a trio and set about recording their first album. It’s with some amusement that Thorn notes how the two men imagined having a woman in the band would soften their image, even though Morrison was “about as soft as a right hook”. A friend called the line-up “two wimps and a witch”.
As the Go-Betweens’s career progressed, they were praised by critics and fellow musicians, who swooned over their wonky time signatures and tales of cattle stations and libraries, but this didn’t translate into sales. But if building a career felt like an uphill struggle for Forster and McLennan, for Morrison it was tougher still. To be a female drummer in the early 1980s was seen as transgressive, and, what with the muscles, the sweat and the manspreading pose, deeply unfeminine. Thorn recalls how Morrison struck fear into male interviewers whose sexist assumptions she frequently challenged.
If this makes My Rock’n’Roll Friend sound deeply serious, it isn’t. The author brings wit, candour and vividness to her storytelling, which delights in the more ludicrous aspects of musicians’ lives. She recalls a winter in London during which the Go-Betweens shared a flat with fellow Australians, including some members of the Birthday Party. On Christmas Day, Morrison decided to make Christmas dinner and, when it was ready, called everyone into the living room where she had set up a table. As they sat down, Morrison realised they’d all just shot heroin. “Eyes roll and heads loll,” Thorn writes. “One of them falls forwards, face squashed flat against the tablecloth. The others follow, one by one, slumping in their chairs or resting heads on elbows. Soon she’s the only one left sitting upright, staring ahead at the blasted triumph of the meal … She pours a glass of red wine, knocks it back, and then another. Happy Christmas, you fuckers.”
Thorn and Morrison’s letters to one another prove rich material in recording their respective triumphs and disappointments. Although they have gigged together, holidayed together and got drunk together, much of their lives have unfurled at a distance, sometimes on opposite sides of the world. But Thorn’s interest in Morrison’s story goes beyond documenting a friendship. As a singer-songwriter of over 40 years standing, she herself has experienced pigeonholing and sidelining from an industry that reflexively places male talent on a pedestal. And so, as well as providing a portrait of a mercurial and brilliant musician, the book exposes the sexism and hypocrisy of an industry, and attempts to right a terrible wrong.
Morrison split up with Forster in 1989 and says was subsequently told over the phone that she was sacked from the band. In the years since, the history of the Go-Betweens has been reimagined and reframed as a duo featuring Forster and McLennan, with Morrison relegated to a supporting cast member, or worse, “the girlfriend”. When the band reunited in 2000, Morrison was not invited, while, in 2016, Forster published a book telling the story of the band which he gallingly called Grant and I. A documentary Right Here, comes with the tagline: “Three Decades. Two Friends. One Band”.
None of this is uncommon: women have been written out of history for centuries, their contributions to culture diminished, dismissed, or viewed solely in relation to the men in their lives. But through her entertaining, affectionate and righteous book, Thorn invites us to witness her friend in all her gobby glory. In explaining her connection to Morrison, she writes, “When I meet her I feel seen.” Now she has returned the favour.
• My Rock’n’Roll Friend is published on 1 April by Canongate (£16.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.