‘Apology Accepted’, the final song on The Go-Betweens’ fourth album, Liberty Belle and the Black Diamond Express, has one of my favourite opening couplets. The late Grant McLennan opens ‘Apology Accepted’ with “I used to say dumb things / I guess I still do”. This couplet is one I recall every time I say something dumb, which is every day.
I think a lot about how song lyrics are often there to teach us—to remind us to do better and sometimes signpost how. Arguably ethically demanding, but in a good way. I’ve found this couplet to be slightly opposite, unless teaching oneself to go easier on oneself counts. I find these as self-compassionate a couple of lines as you will find in a song, outside of The Walker Brothers’ ‘Make It Easy On Yourself’. Maybe not: McLennan beats himself up in the rest of the song, and the further I got into this essay, the more I twigged he was maybe right to do so. But there is no law against being selective in what you take from texts.
I was going to be alliterative and authoritative in the opening paragraph and say that ‘Apology Accepted’ is the final and finest song on Liberty Belle, but I don’t know that it is. There are no songs better than it anywhere but this is a genius album. I clicked with Liberty Belle in 1995, nine years after its release. I had encountered The Go-Betweens first in Hot Press and then in the RDS on 24th June 1989, when I was fifteen and they supported R.E.M. It was their final tour as a full band, supporting their final album 16 Lovers Lane before a couple of kinda reformations in the 1990s and 2000s. When I say kinda, Forster and McLennan reunited and called themselves The Go-Betweens. Lindy Morrison did not get back in. I suggest read the book about Lindy Morrison called My Rock ‘n’ Roll Friend by Tracey Thorn and decide whether the two lads alone were the band. (They weren’t.)
The Go-Betweens broke up just after I saw them and I was kept busy with bands that were still going. So my attention was not drawn to Liberty Belle until a magisterial revisiting of the album by Melody Maker journalist Andrew Mueller. Andrew wrote about Liberty Belle in a booklet called Unknown Pleasures: Great Lost Albums Rediscovered that accompanied the March 4th, 1995 issue of MM. I still have that booklet on my bedroom bookshelf. It’s a bit of a sacred text. It is where I learned properly about Dexys’ Don’t Stand Me Down too, from Chris Roberts in that case. I think I might have have mentioned that album before.
If this song is not unambiguously the finest Go-Betweens song, why choose it? I didn’t choose it, just to be clear. Chance chose it. It meets criteria for this essay in that it is on a Tidal playlist of songs that give me goosebumps or, at least, spine tingles. This column was almost called Shivers Up My Spine after the A House I Want Too Much song but then I went to Pavement in Vicar St. My wife Sharon chose this song by shuffling Goosebumps last Friday and seeing what played first. Shuffle played ‘Apology Accepted’ and I thought: Oh God. How do I write about that? There are oceans in it. The hundreds of times I’ve heard it, the incessant singing along. The friendships and relationships it’s woven into. The vast number of my mistakes that it has soundtracked.
That said, there are five Liberty Belle songs on the Goosebumps playlist. Robert Forster’s ‘Spring Rain’ opens Liberty Belle and ‘Spring Rain’ is the song I had to bring on tape when I picked up a secondhand red Opel Corsa on 24th June 1999. This was ten years to the day since the RDS show and that timing was honestly not on purpose. However, it was my first car, and I needed ‘Spring Rain’ on the stereo so I could leave the Deansgrange dealership while “Driving my first car / My elbows in the breeze”. I’ll always be grateful to Forster for saving me thousands of euros due to his disdain for motoring. “These people are excited by their cars”, he critiqued, contagiously, teaching me not to care what I drove except when electric cars came along. “I want surprises / Just like spring rain”, he continued, and I agreed. Spring rain is less surprising in Ballinteer than in Brisbane, but still.
The question for any Gold Soundz song is: why does a song give goosebumps? Can you ever really know? You can try to know. Why is ‘Apology Accepted’ on such a list? Should it be?
Well, it’s a raw, intimate, precarious song. A man who has a penchant for carousing alongside melancholy sings abrasively and abradedly about pain, shame, and failure. Early in the song, without laying out the relationship between the singer and the person being sung to, he sings, “More used to naked men / You said leave the light on / Don’t be frightened / I don’t know how long / I can wait to see / If my apology’s accepted”. As listener you are left wondering: who is “You”? We don’t know. We don’t find out what he did. We assume he said something thick and irritable. We all do that then grimace and wish we hadn’t. That’s right, isn’t it? (Wrote the essayist anxiously.)
McLennan continues, “Too proud to hang my head / In shame beside your bed / But sometimes you want something / So bad, you’ll grab anything / You said that’s ridiculous / There’s only one thing that precious / I don’t know how long / I can wait to see / If my apology’s accepted”. While revisiting ‘Apology Accepted’ since the weekend, I’ve also been going through a Sign O’ The Times phase and all I think of is how opposite this song is to Prince’s ‘Slow Love’. The protagonist in ‘Apology Accepted’ would love to be the lead in Prince’s song: “The man in the moon is smiling / For he knows what I’m dreaming of / Tonight is the night for making slow love”. McLennan’s character kicked off the night with that in mind, then fucked it up, somehow, failing sexually with a woman much more experienced than him. He then flailed at her, hurt her, and wants forgiveness. Is that it?
The song concludes with an ambiguous verse. I must say I have noticed this now, during the November Tuesday morning hours of this essay, more than before. McLennan sings with high expressed emotion, with Lindy Morrison’s drumbeat steadying him and guest vocalist Tracey Thorn empathically harmonising, “Time and time again / Your soft eyes close in trust above me / Such a simple question, I pretended I was sleeping / I didn’t know anything but you I’m keeping / I don’t know how long I can wait to see / If my apology’s accepted”.
We don’t know the simple question. We don’t need to know. We know that he can’t answer the question. We know that he wants his apology to be accepted yet he can’t quite act as a wise person probably would. Like, roll over. Turn around. Turn the light on. Talk. Know that shame is permanent if you act like it doesn’t exist.
I like that I don’t know the details of what happened and that you don’t need to know the details having heard ‘Apology Accepted’ hundreds of times for it to continue to give you goosebumps. The goosebumps have changed a little in texture. Today the song feels darker, more isolated. As a listener I now place less emphasis on the appropriateness of reconcilation and I have less interest in the protagonist being forgiven. I’m separating out the dumb things said from the frustrating avoidance through pretending to be asleep. There is conflict here and it needs courageous resolution not just passive attenuation with pretence and the passage of time. The protagonist does feel pain but he did it to himself (oh god there’s Radiohead now). He is shocked by his own behaviour. He is desperate for readmission to the relationship but there is no sign that he can do what he needs to do. It’s up to her. He is angry, wrongly. I have to say that thinking about this right now, hundreds of listens later, I picture his lover looking at him, turned away, faking sleep, and going: he’s wide awake. He won’t talk. I’m sick of this. I’m leaving.
So here’s my drum-roll take, thirty-six years on: the apology is not accepted.
This is as much of a surprise to me as Spring Brisbane rain was to Robert Forster. I always took the title of this song as a statement, interchangeable with ‘Apology Is Accepted’. Well—no. If it was, Grant McLennan would have called the song that. It does not say that anywhere in the words. Neither the arrangement nor McLennan’s vocal delivery say it either. The song is a cliff-hanger. The final couplet is “I gotta know / Is my apology accepted?” Today, at least, it seemed like the answer is no. The protagonist has to know that his apology, whatever exactly that was, was accepted, because he demands, righteously, that it is. He made a mess of things and he needs to be told that he behaved OK, but he didn’t. He has sexual and emotional needs and he can’t meet them and neither can his lover. He gotta know about the apology for ego reasons, not for mutual relationship reasons. Not so that his tender, sombre lover can work on repairing their relationship through helping him to change, to man up in ways that are vulnerable and mature. That final couplet is not as forgiving as I have always found the opening couplet.
I might have to revisit my take on that one too.