Tenement Kid by Bobby Gillespie – piquantly preposterous

Primal Scream’s frontman indulges himself wildly in this overblown memoir. But underneath all the cobblers lurks a fascinating story

As a kid, Bobby Gillespie dreamed of being an astronaut. So far, so normal: he was born in 1961, the year Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space, and youthful dreams of that kind were common. But in his memoir, Gillespie has a further observation to make about his childhood ambitions. “Later in life, with the aid of psychotropic drugs, I would become a cosmonaut of inner space,” he writes.

To which a seasoned observer of Bobby Gillespie’s career might sigh and respond: well, of course he does. Ever since Primal Scream unexpectedly crashed into the mainstream consciousness in 1990 – after six years, two flop albums and several dramatic U-turns in musical direction – their frontman has perfected a piquantly preposterous interview technique. He talks up Primal Scream as the sole inheritors of a decades-old mantle of rock’n’roll greatness and himself as the possessor of a uniquely deep subcultural knowledge beyond the ken of mere mortals; he rages about revolutionary politics; he discusses the band’s fabled drug use in unflinchingly heroic terms.

You might have reasonably assumed that Gillespie, a careful student of rock history, knows what makes for lively music press copy and treats interviews like a performance, playing a role, inhabiting a wildly exaggerated persona. But if that’s the case, then the mask seldom slips throughout Tenement Kid’s 400 pages, which take him from his working-class Glasgow childhood through punk, Primal Scream’s lean years – first as Byrds-inspired indie janglers, then as purveyors of “greasy rock and roll” – his stint as the drummer of the Jesus and Mary Chain during their riot-provoking early days and ultimately to success. Every kind of Gillespie-ism is present in profusion. There is a lot of sniffy musical one-upmanship: an incorrigible snob, he’s forever sneering at anything “the masses” like. There is angry political invective aimed at “class traitors”, of a kind that makes people feel obliged to point out that Bobby Gillespie sent his children to private school.

There is a lot of lauding of Primal Scream (“it was a mantra of spiritual resistance, an electronic intifada, an analogue bubble bath for the mind and body, an ecstasy symphony, an interplanetary dub record, an anthem for bombed youth,” he writes of their 1990 single Come Together, although not all his descriptions of their work are as coyly understated as that). And indeed of Gillespie himself, a man “out there on the perimeter, on the edge of consciousness, the dark, unknown regions of soul dread and psychic derangement where the straights are too scared to go,” as he puts it, in one of a number of lines you somehow imagine not in Gillespie’s voice, but that of the late Rik Mayall. In more succinct moments, he is wont to describe himself as a transgressive outsider, “a word that’s used too liberally these days,” he adds, rather inviting the response: well, it certainly is in this book.

The Jesus and Mary Chain (with Gillespie on drums) on The Tube.
The Jesus and Mary Chain (with Gillespie on drums) on The Tube. Photograph: ITV/REX/Shutterstock

Underneath all this utter cobblers lurks a fascinating story. Gillespie’s background is intriguing. His parents are staunchly leftwing, anti-racist and bohemian: there are abstract paintings on the walls of their flat, his dad runs a folk club. The best part of Tenement Kid deals with Gillespie’s childhood. His writing is frequently evocative – before redevelopment, Springburn is full of “dead spaces with strange energy – spirits of the past were trapped there” – and, occasionally, something peeks out from behind the public image. The passage about his fear at the sound of his parents’ rowing is really affecting. In fact, this keeps happening throughout the book. You catch a momentary glimpse of someone else, a sensitive, melancholy, slightly damaged man, with thoughtful things to say about how social standing impacts music, or the links between the DIY mid-80s indie scene and Thatcherism. Then the wild-eyed, seditious lone wolf on the last bus out of nowhere city shoves him out of the way and starts crowing that he was into Big Star before you were.

He keeps condemning others for doing precisely the same things as he did. A couple of years after a Clash gig changes his life, he refuses to see them live because they have become “too big, too normal”; shortly afterwards, he’s berating the music press for treating the Clash like “has-beens”. He excoriates the “coked-out” performers at Live Aid: “They displayed nothing except an arrogant contempt for their audience.” But when the Jesus and Mary Chain treat their audiences with drugged-out contempt, it’s the dernier cri in cool: he finds the violence it provokes hilarious until his girlfriend gets bottled. Waiting in A&E, he’s approached by fans who have also been glassed at the gig and tells them “to fuck off, that they deserved it for being part of that audience of fools”.

Meanwhile, Primal Scream toil away in the indie underground to minimal impact, until Gillespie gloms on to the burgeoning acid house scene. Loaded, an Andrew Weatherall remix of a ballad from their unloved eponymous second album, puts them on Top of the Pops. Primal Scream seize the moment, commissioning more remixes, and finally find their mojo with their superb, groundbreaking third album, Screamadelica. At which point Tenement Kid concludes, with Gillespie basking in its success and the reader wondering what he’s actually like behind the posturing and hyperbole: a very odd way to end an autobiography.

Tenement Kid is published by White Rabbit (£20). To support the Guardian and the Observer buy a copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.


Alexis Petridis

The GuardianTramp

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