Tenement Kid by Bobby Gillespie: a thrilling read

Primal Scream frontman’s riveting account of how a Glasgow boy created a soundtrack of a generation

Bobby Gillespie: The singer leaves the door open for another instalment, as this memoir concludes with the release of Screamadelica. Photograph: Mark Allan/AP

Bobby Gillespie: The singer leaves the door open for another instalment, as this memoir concludes with the release of Screamadelica. Photograph: Mark Allan/AP

Sat, Oct 23, 2021, 06:00

   
     

Book Title:
Tenement Kid

ISBN-13:
9781474622066

Author:
Bobby Gillespie

Publisher:
White Rabbit

Guideline Price:
£20.00

On a futuristic dub-reggae track entitled Stuka from Primal Scream’s fifth studio album, Vanishing Point, Bobby Gillespie ominously trills repeatedly through a vocoder: “If you play with fire, you’re gonna get burned. Some of my friends are gonna die young.” Sadly, he was proven right.

Robert Young, aka Throb, died at the age of 49 in 2006. Andrew Weatherall, the idiosyncratic sonic alchemist who produced their breakthrough album, Screamadelica, died suddenly last year, aged 56. Gillespie’s eagerly-awaited memoir, Tenement Kid is dedicated to their memories. A quote attributed to Throb opens the book: “When we go onstage, man, it’s a war between us and the audience.”

There’s been a recent avalanche of books by musicians, including Sinéad O’Connor, Baxter Dury, Will Sergeant, Stevie Van Zandt, Carl Cox, Shaun Ryder and Dave Grohl, to mention just a few. As well as the seasoned veterans, even 19-year-old Billie Eilish is getting in on the act.

As the old adage originally applied to Woodstock goes, if you remember the 90s, you weren’t really there. Tony Wilson claimed the 90s began on November 30th, 1989, when Happy Mondays and The Stone Roses appeared on the same episode of Top of the Pops. For many people, the decade started to come into its own on Monday, September 23rd, 1991, when two game changing, youth-culture defining albums were released on the same day. Primal Scream unveiled the kaleidoscopic Screamadelica, while an underground trio from Seattle, called Nirvana, unleashed an epochal marriage of noise and melody on Nevermind.

Domestic tension between his parents led to Bobby being dogged by a deep-seated sense of shame

There is an increasing tendency for musicians to stretch their story over a few volumes. Both Stephen Morris of New Order and Brett Anderson of Suede took this approach. Will Sergeant’s recently published Bunnyman: A Memoir barely mentions Echo and the Bunnymen, focusing primarily on his working-class Liverpudlian childhood. Gillespie leaves the door open for another instalment, as Tenement Kid concludes with the release of Screamadelica. It focuses on the singer’s childhood, getting into music, becoming a roadie for Altered Images, playing bass for a post-punk group called The Wake, drumming for The Jesus and Mary Chain, and ultimately becoming the shamanic frontman of Primal Scream.

Bobby was born in 1961, the year the Berlin Wall was built and Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space. “Later in life, with the help of psychotropic drugs, I would become a cosmonaut of inner space,” he writes. Domestic tension between his parents led to Bobby being dogged by a deep-seated sense of shame. “If you’re anything like me you have to recognise this well of poison that we carry, isolate the reason that we’re always ready to spring up like a cobra and bite at any time, any place, anyone,” Gillespie writes. “Unless you deal with it you will always repeat the same disastrous mistakes. You’ve got to confront your demons. Those painful childhood memories we bury, that some of us try and drown out with sex, drugs, alcohol, gambling, all the usual crutches and distractions.”

In recounting formative gigs and experiences, Gillespie displays a great gift for storytelling, description and deploying a simile

Glasgow in the 1960s and 1970s was an extremely violent place. Gillespie maintains that this led to him becoming defensive, wary and cautious of other people. “Anger at home, anger in the streets, anger in the classroom, anger on the football terraces, anger at work, anger at teenage discos, anger, anger, anger,” he writes. “Anger in me. Anger is an energy, as John Lydon says.”

John Lydon offered him a punk-rock epiphany. In recounting formative gigs and experiences, Gillespie displays a great gift for storytelling, description and deploying a simile, writing evocatively of an audience at a Clash concert: “It was as if Hieronymus Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights was people with inmates who had escaped from a seventies lunatic asylum. At the Lizzy gig everyone dressed more or less like me, I blended right in. Here, I stuck out like a Celtic fan in the Rangers end.”

Gillespie was inspired to participate. (“Don’t be a spectator, be a creator – that’s what the message of punk was, and, to me, that’s also the legacy of acid house.”) Obviously, drugs became part of the equation. It is saddening to read about the start of Throb’s gradual descent into addiction. “It went from everyone chipping in to buy a gram to buying ounces of the stuff,” Gillespie recalls. “At one point Throb was driving to London to buy ounces of coke to bring back to Brighton and selling it.”

Like their collaboration with The Orb, Primal Scream flew higher than the sun. They, too, fell like Icarus. Perhaps Gillespie will tell that story some day. For the moment, Tenement Kid is a thrilling read laced with copious laugh out loud moments, This is a riveting account of how a tenement child of the Cold War era, and his friends, created a soundtrack for the hopes and dreams of a generation.