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Bobby Gillespie: “The drugs were an integral part of the persona”

The Primal Scream frontman on his working-class upbringing, his first acid trip, and feeling “God-like” in the Nineties.

By Kate Mossman

His Zoom with Classic Rock magazine has frozen – so Bobby Gillespie comes out to say hello. Although he is keen to chat, his demeanour, like the Zoom, has a kind of permanent freeze: his small eyes slide about but his mouth doesn’t move when he laughs. He talks, later, about this expression – he passes a palm down his face to illustrate – which he’s worn since childhood. It was an act of self-defence, he tells me, adopted out of necessity in the tenements of Springburn in Glasgow, where he grew up. It left him unable to show feelings on his face. When Gillespie was a guest on Andrew Neil’s This Week in November 2018, the host performed the Skibidi dance craze along with former MPs Michael Portillo and Caroline Flint while the credits rolled. Gillespie, who’d been expected to join in, sat deadpan as an Easter Island statue.

It’s so nice to have him in the New Statesman.

“Oh aye?” he says, with a side-eye.

He is doing interviews at his wife’s studio at a busy crossroads in Islington (she is the influential fashion stylist Katy England) and he busies himself showing me around her big, bright room. Stacked up the wall are 20 or 30 plastic crates full of bits for her to get her hands on at a moment’s notice – tights, ribbons, fishnets. There is a punky jacket covered in zips, made by one of their two teenage sons. And on the opposing wall are two dozen versions of the cover of his new book, Tenement Kid, experimenting with different fonts – although Gillespie knew exactly which font he wanted all along. He knew which cover image, too: a photo of himself aged 29, in 1990 – the year before his band Primal Scream released their biggest album, Screamadelica. In the picture, he is perched on someone’s long-fork motorbike on a pavement in Camberwell, south London, wearing jeans and a black polo neck, his hair framing his face like something out of Truffaut. “It could be any era,” he explains. “It could be the Fifties, the Left Bank.” It’s the only picture in which I’ve ever seen him smiling.  

Gillespie isn’t sure where to sit for the interview. He spoke to Classic Rock over there (an empty espresso cup is evidence). So what about here? Another espresso is brought and placed on the other side of the table. He sat in this room from 11am to 6pm every day for five months writing his book in a stream of consciousness. He delivered 240,000 words in three portions, which his editor Lee Brackstone – marshal of several esteemed rock memoirs – had to cut by 100,000. Brackstone, who has worked with Moby and Viv Albertine, tells me he removed many passages on football. He says that although Gillespie is “clearly drawn to chaos”, he was not surprised when he delivered bang on time (“he is rigorous”). His eschewing of a ghostwriter, Brackstone says, was “an act of self-respect”.

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Gillespie recalls, mockingly, that a journalist recently wondered at his ability to remember so many details from his childhood. But it doesn’t seem a silly question, because the book’s early sections throb with Boys’ Own colour, and because Gillespie doesn’t have your ordinary brain. It is a brain that could be a museum piece for a near-extinct species – the rock star – a brain battered and blasted by gak and smack and speed but still capable of writing a book. He talks softly, and he appreciates reassurance (“Did my parents come off OK in the book? Aye? Oh, I’m glad about that.”) But he falls into periodic monologues where it’s harder to reach him, and when you try, he gives a sharp “Eh?” and looks put out.

Tenement Kid features a six-page account of Gillespie’s first acid trip in 1984, which took place on wasteland in East Kilbride. Writing about a trip, for a junkie who’s been clean for 13 years, must be a stirring thing, a legitimate reason to travel, synapse by synapse, through your most transcendent moments and share the pleasure you’re supposed to have locked away. How did it feel?

Instead of replying, Gillespie rises to his feet and bends into a half-squat in the middle of the room. He stamps one foot after the other: bom, bom. Then his hands reach for invisible sticks, as he recalls two bits of wood he grabbed from the ground and beat in time to The Cramps’ song “Caveman”, which was playing on someone’s boom box. “I was on my hunkers,” he breathes. “And every time I hit the sticks, the colours would reverberate in the world but also in my head.” Gillespie “regressed to primitive” as he puts it, travelling back thousands of years to the Stone Age. He starts to sing in a low voice: “The things I do, you’d never try/What I get free you have to buy/I’m proud of my life, don’t ask me why/Because if I told you, I’d probably…” Then he moves towards me, and his palms come down flat on the table: BOM. “I was regressing from where I was, in 1984, to almost one million years BC. Every time I hit the sticks, the sound would reverberate blue and purple. But obviously, taking my clothes off and running in front of cars, I don’t remember that. I was told about that later, and I’m ashamed.”

From a feeling of being God-like, to a feeling of shame: was that a feature of drugs generally?   

“Like sex, it’s the same thing,” he says.  

Gillespie’s editor believes the task of travelling back into formative psychedelic experiments was easier than revisiting later, more obliterated patches in his life. “I don’t think it was unsettling for him. I think he enjoyed it. And who knows how much of it he would have made up?” Brackstone, like many fans, first heard Screamadelica while having a psychedelic experience himself.   

When Primal Scream emerged in 1987, Bobby Gillespie was considered by the music press to be both a nerd and a throwback. He spoke in a whisper and was lightly mocked for his crepuscular appearance; he thought the best year in music was 1967 (he could name 20 bands to prove it) and said there’d been nothing good since.

He had begun on the fringes, as a roadie for Altered Images, then as a drummer for the Jesus and Mary Chain, for whom he banged a primitive kit. Primal Scream was his side project. When he joined full time, the band lumped in with a short-lived indie subsect known as “the shamblers”, which Gillespie found offensive because shamblers couldn’t play. He thought indie music was inferior generally: its perpetrators couldn’t write songs. The band’s breakthrough hit, “Loaded”, was a mash-up of indie and acid house.  

[see also: At the O2, New Order prove their energy, purpose and Mancunian wit remains]

Gillespie says that whenever he was interviewed in Germany, the United States, Argentina, Spain, Italy or France, the interviewers seemed to be “cultured, sophisticated, saw me and the band as artists, always took us seriously”. In the UK, he says, “I don’t think a lot of the writers were that smart”. He considers himself to have been made for punk and you can see why – with his disdain, his sense of dislocation and his caveman tendencies. But his attitude to his career is anything but punk. He still speaks of putting on shows that will “blow you away”, and appears, for many years, to have been locked in a lonely quest to perfect the pop song. The clearest route to achieving these two aims was, he thought, through drugs.   

“When you get into doing speed every night, you’re like a wolf, you need it. The wolf needs feeding, and it gives you that edge, or at least gives you the illusion that you’ve got an edge,” he says. “But it’s great.”

Now 13 years clean, does he ever wonder if Primal Scream could have been better without drugs?

“No. The drugs were an integral part of the persona, the image, the self,” he says. “To take amphetamines and be on stage between two fantastic rock ’n’ roll guitarists blasting out of Marshall stacks, in a small club, as an experience is God-like. Most people never have it. It is like pure nirvana. Even if you were playing to 200 people, you knew that what you were doing was righteous living. There was a purity to it. And I’m proud that we did it, and glad that we did it.”

Whether or not Primal Scream perfected the pop song is questionable, but the relevance of drugs lay beyond that, allowing the eternally dislocated Gillespie to achieve some of the more innocent connections he craved: to feel “as one” with his crowd, even when he plummeted accidentally off the stage and into their midst, as he once did.

In Dollywood, Tennessee, near the Smoky Mountain River Rampage ride, there is a small mock-up of the cabin Dolly Parton shared with her family – a museum dedicated to the poverty from whence she came. While British music has always seen working-class roots as proof of authenticity, we do not tend to know the nuances of our poorer rock stars’ poverty. Rod Stewart has said that the only way out of his background was music or football: when I repeat this to Gillespie, he tosses his head and nearly says something mean but thinks better of it.

The fact is, were a theme park to be built in honour of Bobby Gillespie, you would get something akin to Dolly’s backwoods cabin. You would get what was known as a “room and kitchen” at 35 Palermo Street, Springburn. Until he was ten, his parents slept in a recess space, and Bobby and his brother in two single beds. On the wall hung a 1960s Che Guevara poster and a flag from North Vietnam. On the bookshelf, for this was a reading house, were Guru Nanak and Thomas Paine. The Springburn slums were cleared while Gillespie lived there: he noticed that one by one, families disappeared from the street to be rehoused.

His father, Bob Gillespie, had grown up in a poverty it is hard to imagine of mid-20th century Britain: in his youth, his family rented floor space in someone else’s flat. He spent time in hospital for malnutrition. Gillespie says that he put all this in his book to show people where he came from.

Primal Scream, he thinks, were defined by their specific background of “Scottish working-class trade unionism”. The grandfather of Andrew Innes, Primal Scream’s guitarist, was involved with the Independent Labour Party. Bob Gillespie, who’d worked in printing, became branch secretary for the Society of Graphical and Allied trades, a powerful print union with influence on Fleet Street (the Daily Mirror columnist Paul Foot lent the family money to buy their “room and kitchen”). Bob ran as MP for Labour in the 1988 Govan by-election, losing spectacularly to the SNP.

Gillespie’s own politics are often mocked as by-numbers rock star socialism, but it sounds a little different when you know he grew up with the communist head of Scottish Miners coming round for tea. A PR sits in on our interview, quietly browsing her phone at the end of the table. This is happening because Gillespie got stung the other day when asked a political question by a journalist, and now they are keeping an eye on him. When I ask an innocuous question about the collapse of Scottish Labour, he slowly works himself up into a strange kind of fugue, saying, “I don’t know what I think, or I do know what I think, but… I can’t answer that, sorry”, eventually appealing to the PR with a pleading look across the room. The fact is, he does know what he thinks, about everything. His views sometimes get him into hot water: he called Madonna a prostitute for performing in Tel Aviv, and defaced a Make Poverty History poster to say “Make Israel History”. In response to criticism, he later commented: “To say we’re anti-Semitic is a smear, so you’d better watch what you’re saying.”

Gillespie’s parents met as members of the Young Socialists – though his mother, he now thinks, was “in the slipstream” of his father’s political obsession. There are hints of what Dickens called “telescopic philanthropy” in Bob Gillespie who, late home every night from the union, poured his energy into politicising Glasgow’s immigrant communities while neglecting to tell his son what the 11-plus was or to look at his report card. At King’s Park secondary modern, Bobby – urged so young to read Marx, fired up by the Russian Revolution – was put into the remedial class. This comes as a surprise in his book, and by God is he proud of it – jarringly so. There is zero resentment of his father and even today he seems a little bashful talking about him: “He was an activist. I’ve just been in a fucking rock and roll band.”

“I was a very clean, very pure young teenager,” Gillespie adds. He’d spent years of his childhood alone and unmonitored, exploring the abandoned slums of his neighbourhood, balancing 40ft high on girders, jumping wall to wall. One of his playgrounds was an abandoned train factory. “Suddenly I’m Clint Eastwood in Where Eagles Dare. I’d climb up this drainpipe, and I’ve got to get across there because the Nazis are chasing me.”

There is not the faintest hint that it was anything but magical, until he recalls his parents’ late-night arguments, to which he traces much of what he calls “my pain”. His father, his editor tells me, had quite a lot of corrections for the book.

In the early 1990s, someone in the Primal Scream diaspora – a tall, elegant fellow who worked in the antiques trade – told Gillespie: “You’re really violent, Gillespie. There’s a real violence in you.” In his memoir, he is ambivalent about this, describing the sinking, homesick feeling of being baited for a school fight he wanted no part in – then the energy with which he smashed kids’ heads into the floor.

Today he thinks of his violence as defensive rather than aggressive. “That’s what my wife said: ‘You’re defensive’, and I said, ‘What do you mean, defensive?’”   

He talks about his tendency to “disassociate”, which Katy England first noticed when she took him to parties and he was rude to her friends. He says it arises in two settings – around women, or in situations of threat. Then he adds: “That sounds terrible.” What does it feel like?

“Like if all the energy was sucked out of your body. Say you were a football and somebody punctured it, or a bicycle tyre. I can take confrontation when it’s righteous, when I know I’m on solid ground. But whenever I’ve been in relationships with somebody and they’re angry, there’s a sense of powerlessness. Deep anxiety and fear, and I’m not going to say self-loathing…”

Occasionally he would “disassociate” on stage in front of 10,000 people, which is where drugs helped.

“You take speed and suddenly this [he gestures around the room] becomes a movie set. You guys are actresses, I’m an actor. We’re not thinking about tomorrow or yesterday. You’re in the moment. And when you’re a child, up until maybe 14, 15, you’re in the moment, too.”

Talk of drugs enlivens Gillespie: it activates that bit of him that verges on violence, exposing the delicate line he treads between pleasant and unsettling to be around. He is so enlivened, in fact, that he’s happy to go on talking after the interview is over, saying what a pain it is that he has to record this audiobook, that a car is here to take him to the studio and they’ve blocked two weeks out for it. The publishers wanted Robert Carlyle to read Tenement Kid, but the actor was busy. Then they suggested a “B-list Robert Carlyle” whom Gillespie won’t name, and he said: “Fuck it, I’ll do it myself.”

Gillespie gets to his feet and places a black Burberry mac around his shoulders; his head he adorns with an oversized newsboy cap. He complains, as we walk down the stairwell, that there’s no politics in rock and roll any more. He likes to moan about Blur, and tells me a story about their drummer Dave Rowntree, who stood as a Labour councillor. Gillespie saw Rowntree after Jeremy Corbyn was elected Labour leader in 2015, when Rowntree was “ashen, saying, this is the end of the Labour Party”. Bobby sneers. Gillespie was never part of Brit Pop; Primal Scream, he says, were too old.  

Nothing takes Gillespie to a place of transcendence these days except his dogs. “I’ve got a one-year-old,” he says of one of them. “She’s so in the moment: she’s a baby and she just wants to have fun.”

As for his social anxieties, he is working hard to overcome them by deliberately putting himself in situations of discomfort. The week before our interview, he had been to a dinner hosted by the artist Marina Abramović in a restaurant in Mayfair. It was a big moment. He’d met Abramović before but only in the company of his wife. This time, “I didn’t know anybody there”. 

Upon arrival he saw Abramović at one end of the room and thought he should introduce himself, but then decided to walk about instead. Someone recognised him and said, “Hey, I’m a big fan of your music”, and after various similar interactions, he realised he was having quite a good time.

What did he wear?  

“I looked amazing!”  

He gets out his phone to show me pictures taken before he left the house, modelling a bespoke suit of black mohair. The pleat is razor sharp, the shirt is red and the heels are Cuban, but his face remains expressionless.  

“I’m representing!” he says. “And my Dad always wore suits, never jeans. He always used to say, “When you go in to negotiate, you’ve got to look better – you’ve got to be sharper than the class enemy.”  

[see also: Jarvis Cocker interview: At the end of 1996, I had “a nervous breakdown”]

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