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My rock’n’roll friendship with Lindy Morrison

Posted on Apr 04, 2021

O n 31 March 1983, she burst into my dressing room, asking at the top of her voice, “Has anyone here got a lipstick I can borrow?” I looked up to see a tall woman in a Lurex dress, with a mass of blonde hair. Our two bands, Marine Girls and the Go-Betweens, were on the same bill at the Lyceum in London. I was 20, and she was 31. I was a tentative singer, she was a loud, outspoken drummer. I was from suburbia, she was from Brisbane, Australia. And I was still a student, while she had already been a social worker, then joined a feminist punk band called Xero. She’d hitchhiked across Europe with a girlfriend, she’d seen every art film, read every avant-garde book. She’d slept at Shakespeare and Co in Paris, she’d swum with Roger Moore, she could recite Kate Millett’s Sexual Politics. But I didn’t know any of this. I just knew that she looked like self-belief in a minidress, and that she had arrived in my life. “Who was that?” I asked when she had gone. “That,” came the reply, “was Lindy Morrison.”

It took a couple of years for us to become friends. We were opposites in many ways, and at different stages of life, but there were similarities: we both lived with the boyfriend we were in a band with; we had strong opinions about everything – feminism, love and art; we liked Marilyn Monroe, Bette Davis, Patti Smith, Simone de Beauvoir, and we had no time for a lot of the men who surrounded us in the music business. I’d watch her on stage, fierce and sweating behind the drum kit, long hair flying in her face, all energy, all concentration, and I was proud to be her friend.

One day in 1987, I took her to the women-only Sanctuary Spa in Covent Garden, which featured a swimming pool with ivy cascading down from above and parrots circling overhead. A swing extended out over the water, on which Joan Collins had swung in her 1978 movie, The Stud. “You know you can actually swim naked here,” I said, and before I knew it Lindy had stripped. What could I do but follow her example? And so there we were, two women from the indie music scene, stark naked and posing with our tits out on the Joan Collins porn swing, while parrots swooped above our heads.

All I knew was that she looked like self-belief in a mini-dress, and she had arrived in my life

Right from the start I idealised her – inventing who I thought she was, who I needed her to be. Making friends can be an act of the imagination. From the little you know of a person, you start filling in the gaps. We bonded over the fact of always being the only women – on every tour bus, at every sound check, in every interview. We commiserated with each other for having to shut up about our periods; for being incessantly asked, “What’s it like to be a woman in music?”; for having our politics patronised, considered niche or domestic; for having our looks critiqued even when we were doing our jobs.

Neither of us felt we were conventionally attractive, neither of us was completely feminine. I was thin and angular, with clipped short hair. She was tall, golden and glamorous, but no push-over, often terrifying men with her directness. But I misread her confidence, not realising how much of an effort it had been, how it had been like a suit of armour she put on. She wrote letters to herself as a teenager, and they are full of insecurity. “I wish I could meet a nice boy,” she wrote. “I wish I could be pretty.”

The age gap between us seemed to shift over time, as though it were flexible somehow. I looked up to her because she was braver and more experienced, and as she was older I thought her wiser. It turned out she had thought the same of me. Ben [Watt, my husband] and I had a big argument once, and I said to her afterwards: “It’s not the fight that’s the problem, it’s how to move on after the fight, how to get back to normal.” She remembered that for years, thinking it very wise. We don’t always realise the impressions we leave behind, the imprint one person leaves on another.

And female friendship can be so complicated. It’s easy to think it’s all about warmth and affection, when much of the time it’s about need. I have a theory that women are better at making friends than men because we need each other more. We need allies, and safety in numbers, but also to see ourselves mirrored and validated. We need our women friends in order to counter those moments when it feels like we don’t exist in the world; when we look and can’t find ourselves; when we are pushed to the margins, written out of the story. Our female friends remind us that we’re real, that we’re here, and not mad.

I tried to write a song about her, Blue Moon Rose, to capture her inner electricity, the way it sparked and fizzed at me. The lyrics are a snapshot of how we spent time together: “I have a friend and we talk about books/She comes around and she drinks while I cook.” I remember the evenings upstairs in my flat over a post office. A pan bubbling on the stove, a bottle of Stolichnaya fresh from the freezer sitting open on the table, Lindy telling me something indiscreet or imparting unexpected knowledge: “Never make a big decision when you’ve got jet lag, Tracey. I mean it, take my advice, never do that.”

By the early 90s the Go-Betweens had split up and Lindy had decided to have a baby. Our lives swapped round, and again she surprised me. I hadn’t appreciated how much she wanted a child and had been in danger of typecasting her as the independent spirit – never a wife, never a mother. While she was dreaming of domesticity, I was on tour, travelling across the US on a bus, and enjoying it. Pretty soon she was pregnant, and sent me photos of herself with a huge belly, her smile bigger than I had ever seen it.

A few years later she emailed me about her love life. “I fucked my best friend the other night… a beautiful man. Well, to quote Michael Stipe, I said too much, I didn’t say enough, and baby do I regret it… I was working out our lives together. Can you believe it.” She’d said that to me a million times, always at the end of some startling tale: “Can you believe it, Tracey?” and I’d roar with laughter.

I can’t stand background music. If we’re going to listen to music, it should be too loud to talk

If we’d only lived nearer, I think we could have had an even closer friendship now, moving through the years of success and failure and motherhood and ageing. Instead of which, because of the distance involved, we started to drift apart, and the bond loosened. When in January 1998 my twins were born, I sent her a letter enclosing pictures. “I hope you do come to London this summer because, of course, I want you to see them,” I wrote, “and we can sit and compare baby pics, and be generally Mumsy, and who would’ve thought we’d all turn out like this eh?”

But then the line between us went quiet, and 20 years slipped by. We reconnected, like so many old friends, thanks to social media. When I had the idea to write a book about her – about us – the thought landed with me like a puzzle piece falling into place, like something inevitable. The Go-Betweens had become semi-mythologised – one of those Greatest Bands Who Never Made It – and a film was made, books were written, a bridge named after them. But the stories that were told seemed to reduce her to a minor character, and in my mind she was a lead, a star, and I wanted to replace her at the centre of her story.

A few months later I flew out to Sydney, worried about what I was embarking on. Supposing I didn’t know her after all this time, suppose we had drifted too far apart? But within 48 hours it had all come right. We had a week of intense days and nights which had to stand in for missing years, conversations in which we knitted our friendship back together, picking up dropped stitches, mending holes. Round at a friend’s house she put some music on, at full volume. “I can’t stand background music,” she said, “if we’re going to listen to music, it should be too loud to talk.” At the tops of our voices we sang along. I had been afraid I wouldn’t like her any more, but instead the opposite happened. I remembered the history we have, how hilarious she is, the sheer fucking buzz of being in her company.

My Rock’n’Roll Friend by Tracey Thorn is published by Canongate at £16.99. Buy a copy from guardianbookshop.com at £13.59