/, Featured Posts, Indie pop, Singer-songwriters/CATTLE AND CANE BY THE GO-BETWEENS Story by John Butler




John Butler
Far North Queensland; August, 2016

It’s the middle of winter. Never mind, we’re wearing shorts and thongs. The sky is an unbroken plain of blue. Well, not entirely unbroken. Here and there, a pillar of white smoke plumes from a cane mill. A small assertion of the priorities of commerce on the bigger picture.

Rusty cane trains trundle a lugubrious path. The traffic waits, largely unperturbed.

I recall a schoolboy coming home
through fields of cane
to a house of tin and timber
and in the sky
a rain of falling cinders

Grant McLennan was born in Rocky, but grew up in Cairns. His father died when he was young. His mum remarried, and the family relocated to a cattle station. Grant went to boarding school in Brisbane.  Up here, when they refer to ‘the South’, they mean Brisbane.

We sit under a palm tree and look across the water to an island. The water looks idyllic, but the locals warn us of stingers and crocs. The island is Palm Island. Memories of Cameron Doomadgee and Christopher Hurley. One man dead. The other cleared, but permanently marked. On the island, we hear of trouble and strife. Just a short boat ride away, on the mainland, most locals don’t even lock their doors. Two worlds. Two very different experiences.

from time to time
the waste memory-wastes

In a laneway off the main street in Ingham, a tremendous work of communal art. Sixty metres of tiled mosaic, designed and assembled by the community. Pride in community. Pride in the sugar industry, which sustained that community. But a pride not blind to history. The mural acknowledges the people we called Kanakas: Polynesians drawn to Australia by promises largely broken. A people we dispensed with when they no longer served European purpose. When we officially declared this Australia a White Australia. Much to be proud of, but also debts unpaid. This is our history.

from time to time
the waste memory-wastes
the waste memory-wastes

Further north, Cardwell sits by the water. In 2011, Cyclone Yasi flattened  the area. Flattened buildings. Flattened aspirations. But the locals have rebuilt. When you ask them, most say it’s just the price you pay. Most say it’s worth it.

On the road back south, a new lookout has been built. Glorious views across to the southern end of Hinchinbrook Island. Then someone decided to run an enormous power line right through the vista. Something does not belong in this picture. A not so small assertion of the priorities of commerce on the bigger picture.

I recall a boy in bigger pants
like everyone
just waiting for a chance
his father’s watch
he left it in the showers

Grant McLennan wrote this song to his mother, while he was feeling homesick in England, pursuing bigger dreams. Many of those dreams were realised. The Go-Betweens were never huge, but their work endures. They broke up, got back together. This is the way of so many bands. Grant returned, eventually, to Brisbane. Like his father, he died too soon.

further, longer, higher, older 

We fly back south. When we say ‘the South’ we mean Victoria, a place with four identifiable seasons. Melbourne doesn’t need cane trains to bring traffic to a standstill. It is a sprawling city. There are now many different Melbourne experiences being lived. Between all these competing realities, it is easy to miss the fact that the view from down here can be very different from the view up there. It is a very Australian thing to miss this fact. We need to consider what that costs us.


John Butler has spent many nights treading the sticky carpet. You will usually find him down the back, or to the side.

By |2017-05-04T10:19:42+00:00March 9th, 2017|Alternative, Featured Posts, Indie pop, Singer-songwriters|13 Comments


  1. Smokie March 10, 2017 at 9:25 am - Reply

    Thanks for this, JB.
    GW McLennan was taken far too early – he probably had plenty more stories to tell.
    The Go Betweens were one of the great bands of Australian music.

  2. John Butler March 10, 2017 at 9:43 am - Reply

    Cheers Smokie,

    GWM was a great loss. I’ve loved this song for a long time now. Like many others. It played constantly in my head as we traveled around ‘up there’. An evocative soundtrack.

  3. Greg Keith March 12, 2017 at 7:55 am - Reply

    John your last paragraph hits the nail on the head – Increasingly we are nation of competing realities, and it is not just a northern/southern difference, but an urban/ regional difference in these realities. A very poignant observation. Missing the difference is costing us. Really enjoyed your song story

  4. John Butler March 13, 2017 at 9:42 am - Reply

    Thanks Greg.

    We have so much more of so many things now, but I’m not sure empathy always makes the list. Been guilty of that omission myself.


  5. DBalassone December 15, 2017 at 12:22 pm - Reply

    Magnificent JB. I can see why this has 629 likes. It took me awhile to come around to this song – at first I felt the melody wasn’t doing enough to draw me in. But eventually it hypnotised me – I think it was this acoustic version that got me:

    Still can’t believe that Grant didn’t start playing lead guitar until his mid-20s (after learning bass in late teens!). I love those videos of Robert and Grant playing acoustic guitar together.

  6. John Butler December 17, 2017 at 10:24 am - Reply

    Thanks DB.

    Did you catch the GoBe’s doco Right Here on TV? I liked Robert’s idea to draft his best mate into the band and then teach him to play. Aesthetics over technique. But the technique quickly developed.


    • DBalassone December 19, 2017 at 6:53 am - Reply

      I did catch it. Great doco. I’m no GoBe expert but I really like what I’ve heard from them. Also, love how they kept at it, despite a lack of commercial success. Especially love the song ‘Part Company’ – the chord progression is just great. Am I right in saying Robert Forster is the Aussie version of David Byrne?

  7. John Butler December 19, 2017 at 7:38 am - Reply

    That’s an interesting comparison. I don’t think Forster’s music has ranged as widely in style, but they have both written insightful books on music in their later careers.

    Talking Heads were the first band I ever got seriously in to. Fear of Music remains one of my faves.

    • DBalassone December 20, 2017 at 2:39 pm - Reply

      Fair point JB. I was probably thinking more about the theatrical aspects with that comparison. Come to think of it, no one can quite compare with David Byrne and his Big Suit dance. Would love to see a piece on Talking Heads one day.

  8. msdebbie December 29, 2017 at 12:42 am - Reply

    I’m a Victorian now based permanently in BrisVegas. I wanted to read this GoBe story on a day I feel a little homesick (parental wedding anniversary but the Dad in question has been dead 20 years). I love how you’ve weaved all this together – great observations and lyrical interplay. Beautiful song story; every line captivating Mr Butler.

  9. John Butler December 29, 2017 at 2:30 pm - Reply

    Very kind of you Ms D.

    Glad you enjoyed the piece.

    Happy New Year!

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