Robin Williams in 1998, after receiving an Academy Award for Good Will Hunting. Photo: Getty
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Using art to understand life: not everything you can imagine is real

From Robin Williams’s death to the Arab Spring, we have to resist the urge to impose simple storylines on complex events.

Among the many tributes tweeted in the wake of Robin Williams’ death on Sunday night was one by actress Evan Rachel Wood, featuring an image of the Genie (voiced by Williams) embracing Aladdin in the 1992 Disney animated film, accompanied by the caption “Genie. You’re free”. The tweet was retweeted over 100,000 times and an unattributed copy of it an hour later tweeted from the official Academy of Arts and Motion Picture Sciences account outdid that, with over 320,000 retweets. For most people, these were touching tributes, remembering the late actor in a manner that connected with most of his fans, particularly those who first came to know him in the early 1990s. There were others though, especially suicide awareness activists, who criticised it for a supposedly dangerous romanticisation of suicide. I too was a bit put out by this blithe summation, however well-intentioned, of a life tragically ended, something that Williams’ friends and family – who are, we ought to remember, the ones actually bereaved – may not subscribe to. It also seemed that suicide was being recast, in an oddly crass manner, as a quintessentially Hollywood act of self-realisation. The butterfly emerging from its pupa, as it were.

It might seem a little harsh to criticise Wood or The Academy’s social media button-presser for their fatuousness – maybe it just came natural for them to conceive of a tragic event with the vocabulary and tropes they were most familiar with. After all, the lexicon of condolence and sympathy shared by most people and repeated every time a friend or acquaintance is bereaved is one that is as universal as it is limited. There may also be a tendency of people who are involved in the production of art and entertainment to see forms and hear echoes of those works in every life and sometimes in world events. Occasionally the tendency can give rise to insensitive formulations, such as Karl-Heinz Stockhausen’s rambling opinion, delivered soon after 9/11, that the attacks on the World Trade Center “the biggest work of art there has ever been”. No amount of protesting and clarification about context was ever going to later undo those words in the minds of the general public.

French philosopher Jean Baudrillard’s assertion that the first Gulf War “did not take place” on account of its existence for westerners as a media event was taken by many in the English-speaking world as proof of a decadent Left Bank philosophe bringing an abstract epistemological template to bear on an actual war. Few of those commentators were aware though that Baudrillard’s essay used as an anchor reference Jean Giraudoux’s 1935 stage play La Guerre de Troie n’aura pas lieu (The Trojan War Will Not Take Place). Giradoux’s historical allegory is relatively unknown in English-speaking countries, where it was, in any case, staged under the title Tiger at the Gates. While Baudrillard’s thesis was one of a notional “virtual” modern war, rather than the failed inter-war diplomacy that Giraudoux skewered, the post-structuralist instinctively reached for the cultural vocabulary to mount his argument. It was not really his fault that the connotations were obscure to most outside of France.

I have to myself admit to having a predilection for “narrativising” contemporary events in a way that makes them appear to be lifted from fiction or drama, though, in some cases, the coincidences make it easy to do. Christos Tsiolkas’s novel The Slap won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize in 2009 and was long-listed for the Booker in 2010. The titular slap is one given by an adult to someone else’s brattish five-year-old at a suburban barbecue in Melbourne. And so follows a contentious tale of disputes and fallings-out among a group of friends each steadily advancing, at different stages, into parenthood. The Slap is a disappointing novel, its vivid portrayal of working-class and immigrant life marred by some woefully leaden prose and the seismic promise of the title’s action never materialises. A real-life slap however in late 2010 would have far-reaching consequences worthy of a great novel.

In December of that year in Sidi Bouzid, a dusty, economically stagnant town deep in Tunisia’s interior, Mohamed Bouazizi, a young unemployed university graduate was trying to eke out a living illegally selling fruit and veg on the town’s main square. One afternoon he was accosted by a policewoman and told to pack up his wares and go. It was Bouazizi’s third arrest for illegal hawking but this one was the most humiliating, because, according to his family, a female municipal office slapped him on the face. The youngster returned to the square, doused himself in petrol outside the governor’s office and set himself alight. Bouazizi died of his injuries eighteen days later, by which time he had been visited in his hospital bed by an increasingly nervous Tunisian dictator Zine El-Abedine Ben Ali, and anti-government protests had spread across the country. In the week that followed Bouazizi’s death, Ben Ali addressed the nation twice but was eventually pushed to step down by the military; he and his notoriously corrupt family then fled to Saudi Arabia.

We all know what happened next – Egypt rose up in arms and overthrew Hosni Mubarak after almost three decades of authoritarian rule. Then there were protests in Yemen, Bahrain, Libya and finally, Syria, each of which western and Arab powers took differing attitudes towards. It was the most momentous world-historical chain of events since the fall of the Berlin Wall in over two decades earlier. Like the events of 1989, it was actually the result of a cumulated process of historical facts and events (protests over food prices and the police murder of another youngster, Khaled Mohamed Saeed, could as easily have tipped the balance in Egypt in mid-2010) but it also had a similar air of narrative concision about it. As events unfolded, with many of the protagonists active in real time on Twitter and Facebook, you felt you were witnessing something epic. One of those protagonists, the young Emirati journalist Sultan al-Qassemi, tweeted upon his first post-revolution visit to Cairo that he felt like he was meeting characters from a favourite novel. Events since then, of course, took a more sinister twist in Egypt, with the SCAF’s bloody crackdowns on protests, rising sectarian violence, a military coup that dares not speak its name and we are now left with a situation where the country’s foremost novelist Alaa al-Aswany is a vocal supporter of the current repressive government. As Syria spiralled into an increasingly horrendous civil war, which has in turn overspilled into Lebanon and Iraq, the exhilaration at being at such a close vantage point to unfolding history has sharply receded. This is not to say that the uprisings against sclerotic totalitarian rule were a bad thing or that the sour turn so many of them took was inevitable, rather than the result of specific political actions or choices. What is true though is that there is a clear limit to the amount of narrative jouissance to be had from observing “interesting times”, least of all from a safe distance. Ironically, the only one of the Arab countries that rose up in rebellion that looks to be still in reasonable shape is Tunisia itself; the north African country has not been spared civil strife, with economic crisis, political assassinations, stand-offs with Salafists and encroaching Islamisation in universities, but it has largely managed to address those crises peacefully, by consensual rather than conflictual means.

This tendency to see narrative or artistic forms in real life, just as Fibonacci sequences are revealed in natural life-forms, is understandable enough. Even the way we experience and remember our dreams is quite probably beholden to our cultivated sense of narration. The power and genius of great (and even sometimes minor) art lies in its ability to map, mimic and project everyday and historic reality, sometimes unwittingly so, long after its creator’s death. Consequently, art and literature provide us with the tools and the vocabulary to interpret and understand reality. It is not for nothing that words such as “Dickensian”, “Kafkaesque” or “Orwellian” have passed into general usage and their resonance is understood even by people who have never read the works of the writers in question. Even minor literary characters such as Svengali, Nicolas Chauvin, or the supporting players from Karel Čapek’s 1921 play R.U.R. (which coined the word “robot”) serve as linguistic functions for interpreting the real world that lies beyond the page. It is worth remembering though that that real world is mostly messy and inchoate and can rarely be shoehorned into the confines of what are the arbitrary conventions of narrative and artistic form. It might be tempting to sense in tragic images or events culled from news headlines echoes of Shakespeare, of Michelangelo or even of horror films and disaster movies. Maybe it is best though not to lose the run of yourself when you do so.

Oliver Farry is an Irish writer, journalist and translator living in Paris.

Photo: MUSTAFAH ABDUL AZIZ
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“People want the shiny stuff. We’re a bit too real”: the rise, fall and return of Tricky

Two decades ago, he captured the dark side of Cool Britannia and was set for global stardom. What happened?

When Maxinquaye, the debut album by the Bristolian rapper and producer Tricky, was nominated for three Brit Awards in 1996, he nearly came to blows with Liam Gallagher in a toilet at Earls Court Exhibition Centre in London. “I had to keep them apart,” said Julian Palmer, who worked for Tricky’s then record label, Island. “I told Liam he didn’t want to try any of that working-class macho stuff around someone like Tricky.”

Many years later, Tricky, whose real name is Adrian Thaws, visited an old acquaintance in London for the first time in a decade. Thaws was living in Paris. Both men went to a pub in west London. At one point, Thaws glared over his friend’s shoulder at four men in business suits, before leaping to his feet and yelling, “What are you fucking staring at?” His friend stood up to calm the confrontation. Finally, they explained that they were staring because they were trying to work out if he was Tricky. “I think that rage is always there,” Thaws’s friend told me. “It is a part of him and the music.”

All artists ultimately live out the story of their environments, but Thaws has faced daunting personal obstacles to sustain nearly three decades of activity as a musician. His Jamaican father left home before he was born in Bristol in 1968. His mother, Maxine Quaye, an epileptic, committed suicide by overdosing on drugs when he was four years old. Thaws was raised in Bristol’s deprived Knowle West neighbourhood by his grandmother. As a child, Thaws rarely attended school. When his grandmother was working, he stayed at home and watched horror films.

By the age of 15, he had developed a deep interest in hip hop, clubs and marijuana and was working with a local sound system called the Wild Bunch and a group of DJs and musicians called Massive Attack. Thaws made his musical debut on Massive Attack’s 1991 album, Blue Lines. But his relationship with his friends was strained by disagreements over his input and membership. He met an untested teenage singer called Martina Topley-Bird and left the group in acrimony in 1993.

Photo: Mustafah Abdul-Aziz

More than 25 years after its release, Blue Lines occupies a high orbit in British culture – the 1990s stepchild of Pink Floyd and Public Image Ltd. At the time, however, it only reached No 13 in the charts. Yet its effect was outsized as labels sought out Bristol-based groups such as Portishead and Earthling. Thaws was signed to Island Records for a five-album deal; two self-released white-label singles produced with Howie B quickly sold out and in 1994 he began work on a series of recordings that concluded with the release of his debut masterpiece, Maxinquaye.

I met Thaws recently on a sunny morning in Neukölln, south-east Berlin, where he had been living for 18 months. Since leaving Bristol, he has also resided in London, New York, New Jersey, Los Angeles and Paris. He was dressed in baggy gym pants and a loose T-shirt and carried a satchel. His head shaved, he looked relaxed and younger than I had expected. He turns 50 years old  next January, has two daughters in full-time employment and is now signed to his fifth record label. He cycles and takes panantukan classes – Filipino boxing – three times a week. We walked past a local train station in a neighbourhood filled with Turkish coffee shops and bakeries.

Thaws has a reputation for being taciturn and occasionally volatile. A former collaborator told me, “He shouldn’t be a musician. He should be employed as one of those guys in the US army who blows up bridges and leaves nothing behind him.” Cally Callomon, the former creative director at Island Records who conceptualised Thaws’s early album imagery, described him as daring but wary. “In those days, he was suspicious because of his background. And though he had an adventurous spirit, you didn’t know which Tricky you were meeting on any given day. He can be an affable, bouncing energy ball of ideas. He can also see people as rivals or competition.”

In Berlin, Thaws was expansive in conversation and generous with his time. He chatted to fans who recognised him and grinned at passers-by. “It is so relaxed here. You’re in a major city, but they’re not crazy about money,” he said, sitting down with a coffee outside a supermarket. “You see a lot of people working here two or three days a week. In London, Paris, you gotta get the money. In LA, New York, you gotta get the money. Not here.”

Released on 22 September, ununiform is the 13th album by Thaws and his fourth in the past five years. It is also his first to feature a song with Topley-Bird in 15 years. His relocation to Berlin was prompted by a need to focus. “I prefer to do an album here than in London, New York or LA,” he said. “Here, there are definitely less distractions. I’ve only been to a club twice here. If I do have a beer, I go to a little corner shop where they have tables outside. I go out by myself and sit outside and watch people.”

***

In the atomised world of music in 2017, it can be hard to recall an era when pop was tribal. But on its release in 1995, Maxinquaye was like a super-strand of three decades of accumulated musical DNA. The album’s influences were multi­genic and widespread: hip hop, reggae, dance music, punk and dub. Thaws sampled Public Enemy, AR Rahman, Isaac Hayes and Michael Jackson. In a year when there was no shortage of blockbuster albums – Alanis Morissette’s Jagged Little Pill, Blur’s The Great Escape and (What’s the Story) Morning Glory? by Oasis – Maxinquaye sounded pioneering yet fully formed. It was also a rare non-white moment during “Cool Britannia”.

The album was a harbinger of tectonic shifts in the music industry, with the pathways between rock, hip hop and dance being erased. Much of the most successful British rock music of the past 50 years has evoked national pride, working-class nostalgia and melancholy. Maxinquaye, on the other hand, was the apotheosis of a  risky modernism also found in the work of Aphex Twin, Björk and Leftfield.

But if Maxinquaye was a record of angst and foreboding, mixing skeletal tracks such as “Ponderosa” and “Hell Is Round the Corner” with the audacious fury of his cover version of Public Enemy’s “Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos”, it was also a collection of intimate love songs. While Britpop, grunge, dance and rap were loud and often exultant – the work of extroverts – Maxinquaye, in its whispered tone, implied the hidden struggles of residents of Britain’s towns and cities. It was also a solemn tribute to the mother Thaws never knew: “It’s my mum speaking through me,” he has said of the album.

If Maxinquaye spoke of inertia, late nights, drugs and ambivalence, this was largely the result of Thaws’s turbulent relationship with his co-singer, Martina Topley-Bird. They first met in 1991 when she was sitting on a wall near his house, singing to herself. A few weeks later, after sitting her GCSEs, she visited his house with some friends. Their daughter, now 22, was born in 1995, by which time they had already split – but they continued to live together until 1998. During their seven years together, they were a couple for no more than six months in 1994. These days, they communicate mainly by text.

“He’s grown up with a non-traditional family set-up, and he lost his mum when he was four,” Topley-Bird told me. She currently divides her time between Baltimore and London. “He adores our daughter and he’s done good in terms of being a parent. It is easy to make snap judgements about him, and it is a tall order for anybody to be a perfect parent. It was a turbulent time.”

Thaws’s relationship with Topley-Bird was complex and public. In promotional photos from the time, he cut an imposing, androgynous figure in lipstick and dresses. Thaws was also, at times, impassive and unpredictable. Topley-Bird, who had been pregnant throughout the album’s recording, was unprepared for the scrutiny. After we spoke, she emailed to explain: “It was difficult, stressful, demanding. But fun, too.”

Seven years his junior, Topley-Bird is the emotional rejoinder to Thaws on Maxinquaye. When he is angry, she is sullen; while he is intermittently boastful, she hides behind self-doubt. “The magic moments for me were when Martina would sing,” said the album’s co-producer, Mark Saunders. “She blew me away every single time. A lot had to do with her relationship with Tricky. She shuffled around like a 90-year-old lady with no energy. But then this amazing stuff would come out completely unrehearsed.”

Recording sessions were usually scheduled for 11am but would typically begin after 8pm. “I had certainly never worked with someone with such limited knowledge in the studio,” said Saunders. “He also had no sense of days of the week. I couldn’t see anything in his house that might be used to tell the time. I remember he didn’t turn up for a couple of days. I was told he’d gone to New York. But his cheekiness and charisma made up for a lot of that stuff.”

“It was a bit of a mess, but an organised mess,” said the former Island A&R Julian Palmer. Thaws spent entire days in Palmer’s office, smoking weed and listening to music. “He was definitely working through issues from his childhood. That was what added the underlying menace and anger and the cathartic side. It was a form of self-therapy.”

Tricky and Martina Topley-Bird in 1995

One indication of Maxinquaye’s resonance was the ease of its passage into the popular press: Thaws was featured on the cover of the New Musical Express twice in 1995. The following year, he and Topley-Bird were photographed by Jean-Baptiste Mondino for The Face. His music was used in films such as Strange Days in 1995 and Lost Highway in 1997. He acted in Luc Besson’s The Fifth Element (1997) and collaborated with Grace Jones and Björk, with whom he had a relationship in the mid-1990s. Thaws was asked to produce albums for Alanis Morissette and Madonna (his lack of enthusiasm for the Madonna project was shown when he refused to get out of bed to meet her in his hotel lobby), and he remixed singles by the Notorious BIG, Yoko Ono and Elvis Costello. David Bowie was so impressed that he wrote a surreal fictionalised account for Q magazine about an imaginary meeting with Thaws, in which they smoked marijuana and flew over Bristol using balloons.

Tricky did not win the Mercury Music Prize in 1995 nor the three Brit Awards he was nominated for in 1996 – “Best British Male”, “Best British Breakthrough Act”, “Best British Dance Act”. The lack of industry recognition clearly rankles more than 20 years later: Thaws is now approaching an age when he is more likely to be honoured for his longevity than any new piece of music. “Me and Shaun Ryder were at the Brits,” he said. “If anyone should have won a Brit, it should have been me and Shaun Ryder. But people wanna see the shiny stuff and we’re a bit too real.”

He later returned to the subject: “Look at Massive Attack. One time they were the golden boys, they could do no wrong. They don’t even get invited to the Brits now. What the fuck is that about? I’ve had my differences with Massive Attack, but you can’t deny what they’ve done. They’ve changed the face of music. They should make up an award for them even if there ain’t one.” He laughed and added: “If I won a Mercury tomorrow, someone else would have to go and pick that up. I don’t give a fuck about that shit. My manager told me that a kid who was in a coma woke up after ten days when they played him one of my songs. That now means more to me than winning any award.”

Thaws followed Maxinquaye with even darker albums such as Pre-Millennium Tension and Angels with Dirty Faces. A more accessible sound emerged in Blowback (2001), featuring collaborations with members of the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Cyndi Lauper. But by the early 2000s, pop music had changed. Faced with declining sales and a looming digital cliff, musicians pursued hit singles, crossover appeal, homogeneity and multiple verticals. Thaws, living in the US, released a number of uncommercial records and disappeared from view.

Much of his restlessness can be attributed to his search for a home. During our interview, he revealed the growing detachment of the expat. “How many people died in that fire in the tower?” he asked. “If I’d lived in Bristol, I’d probably be doing building site stuff, plastering.” He laughed. “Probably not the plastering. It would have been mixing. I could always get work from friends who did construction. But I wasn’t into getting up at seven in the morning.”

He last lived in London two years ago for six months. “I got really bored. There’s so much to do there, and nothing to do there. There’s no outdoor life there. People seem to work, get a sandwich, go back to work. It’s not the sort of life I want to lead. England is very regimented. Go to work, come home from work, go to the pub.”

Tricky’s new album, ununiform, shows off Thaws’s lean, mid-career phase. He is a talented photographer, and his Instagram feed is full of distractions, as well as pictures of British influences such as the Jam. He has posted the same photo of his mother on several occasions: she wears a gold top and a striking smile. In recent years, his music has gradually hardened into a sinewy fusion of beats, strings and keyboards. Whereas earlier albums were claustrophobic but bleary-eyed – and reliant on expensive samples – ununiform is taut and sparse.

The record also demonstrates a new-found economy with his songwriting: it  rests on the kind of efficient minimalism you might expect from an artist approaching 50. Two songs in particular – a shape-shifting ballad called “Blood of My Blood” and the searing “The Only Way” – rank among the finest compositions of his career.

***

Throughout our interview, Thaws had the polite but impatient manner of someone who wanted to move on to other tasks. When we met, the release of ununiform was more than a month away, but he had completed six songs for his next album. As we stood on a platform at Neukölln station, waiting for a train to take us to the city centre for lunch, he chatted with a photographer who recognised him. On the train, he talked about his changed relationship with marijuana, which had exerted a huge influence over his adult life, with days and even weeks passing by in inactivity.

“I smoked weed for years. When I was young, I enjoyed it,” he said. “Then it became self-medication. It is hard to give up, but once you do it, it is easy. This last weekend, I had my first spliff for three months. I think about that when I get back to Bristol. If you’re living in a council flat, weed isn’t going to get you out of there.”

In a Middle-Eastern restaurant, Thaws suggested sharing a plate of grilled seafood, including octopus and prawns. He adheres to a gluten-free diet. As the cook prepared the seafood and assembled a green salad, Thaws rolled a cigarette.

I pointed out that his music had defied race and geography for two decades. As a British citizen in Berlin, would Brexit affect his relationship with the UK? “Politicians are not here to change things, they’re here to keep the status quo,” he said. “Any politician who wants to change things is either going to have a scandal or will get murdered. I know enough to know that Blair ain’t any different to Cameron. These people have had it sewn up since the days of the Egyptians.”

Twenty years after Cool Britannia, its protagonists have pursued divergent careers. The Gallagher brothers make Oasis-esque solo records; Jarvis Cocker is a curator and radio host; Damon Albarn is a multidisciplinary British ambassador to the world. Thaws left Bristol in search of continuity. “This album might as well as be old as Maxinquaye to me. I’ve done it, I’ve moved on.” He put on his sunglasses and walked off into the late afternoon. 

This article first appeared in the 21 September 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The revenge of the left