Adrian Thaws never fails to live up to his stage name – how many autobiographies have you read that start thus? “My first memory was seeing my mum in a coffin, when I was four years old.” Most showbiz attention-seekers would use this to explain away any subsequent bad behaviour from shoplifting to sex orgies but Tricky is not as other men; “I’ve never looked at it as bad or horrible.” Fasten your seatbelts – it’s going to be a strange ride, and we’re taking the scenic route.
I’ve always admired Tricky’s work but I also find him interesting because he’s from my hometown, Bristol. It’s a friendly place – “all right my lover?” being the standard greeting from both sexes to either sex – whose wealth was built on the slave trade; a place where poverty is not taken seriously because (as with the rest of the West Country) the landscape is so lovely and the voices so soft. It was funny to see the neighbourhood my dad came from and my grandmother always lived in described as “a ghetto” – I was playing in the streets of a ghetto all those years and I never knew it.
Born in 1968 to an absent Jamaican father and an Anglo-Guyanese mother, and raised in Knowle West, another “ghetto” (“In those days you could leave your door open without any worries”), Tricky refuses to play the victim card: “It was almost completely white, including my own family. I never experienced any racism whatsoever growing up.” Incarcerated at 17 for passing forged banknotes, he is so bored by two months of nothing (“I never had any problems in there – no bullying”) that he resolves to escape the thug life, soon getting attention as a freelance rapper (“I never mentioned prison, selling weed or robbing – that stuff I didn’t want to dwell on”). He won’t be going back to jail, even though he’s MC-ing and smoking dope in the street, because “the police didn’t bother anybody”.
After a brief dalliance with the mandatory art-school boys – the magnificent Massive Attack – he goes solo and creates his masterpiece Maxinquaye. That he was wearing a dress and make-up in publicity shots from this time made the labyrinthine darkness of the music and lyrics even more striking; this was a world away from the usual knockabout rock ’n’ roll-circus drag. This was someone looking for trouble.
In 1995 he becomes the first black artist to be on the cover of NME twice in one year. At the Brits in 1996 he asks Shaun Ryder why neither of them win awards. Ryder replies: “Because we’re ugly, Tricky… ugly inside.” At his own after-party, bouncers rebuff him. At the cinema, he is appalled to discover that all the adverts sound like him – he has become trendy! He goes off the rails, delivering an oddball follow-up album called Nearly God and demanding that this be his name on the record too. He flees to New York and snubs Prince and Madonna because he doesn’t want to be the sort of saddo pop-star who hangs out with other pop-stars. Cornered by Bono, who wants him to produce U2’s new album, Tricky is horrified by the shallowness: “They weren’t looking for better – they were chasing new, following fashion – I could have done any old shit and they would have liked it.”
Tricky is that rarity, a famous person genuinely appalled by fame, unlike the usual clowns who complain about media attention with all the credibility of a flasher complaining about voyeurs. He displays a Panglossian good humour, maybe because he knows how white fan-boys love a sad and/or angry black man to get their vicarious kicks from. Even when cross about not getting played on white radio, he can say “we’re all prejudiced in some way, whether you’re black, white, Asian”. He leaves his label when they tell him: “We’ve got to build up your black fan base.”
He buys a £5,000 chair just to show a suspicious shop-girl he can, and puts it straight into storage; he runs up a $200,000 taxi bill in one year – but it doesn’t really matter as on his 28th birthday in 1996 he makes £90,000 in one day: “I took Stevie Wonder’s music and put it under Yoko’s voice, and put some of Yoko’s music under Stevie Wonder – a few hours’ work, job done!” He has a daughter with his collaborator Martina Topley-Bird. She goes to Roedean School and stumping up the fees is a relief: “It made life easy… before that I could just spend whatever I had.”
After years of partying from LA to Paris he is nostalgic for home and names his next album Knowle West Boy. He discovers he has another daughter back in Bristol, now grown up and a social worker. She attempts to analyse him but he refuses to play along: “You’ve had a horrendous life,” she suggests. “I don’t think I’ve had a hard life,” he replies. “I’ve had fun.”
Hell is Round the Corner is presented as a series of interviews, with Tricky but also with friends and relations, because “I had years of smoking weed, doing all kinds of drugs… sometimes it’s more reliable someone else saying it”. Starting with the suicide of his mother and ending with the suicide of his youngest daughter earlier this year, the book is a sterling stoic lesson in swerving the profoundly unattractive trait of self-pity – the opiate of the famous – as well as an insight into a singular artist. When Tricky was a teenager his friends told him he was an enigma – “at the time, I didn’t even know what the word meant” – and he is still a mystery. At a time when music is dominated by the dreary spawn of the bourgeoisie, we will never see his like again.
Hell is Round the Corner
Blink Publishing, 352pp, £20
This article appears in the 16 Oct 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Syria’s forever war