In Hell is Round the Corner, Adrian Thaws’ autobiography – published at the end of 2019 – the ‘hell’ that is around the corner is Knowle West, the large suburban council estate in the south of Bristol where he grew up. It’s the place he describes in his 1995 song of the same name, under his pseudonym, Tricky.
Hell is round the corner where I shelter… let me take you down the corridors of my life/when you walk do you walk to your preference?/no need to answer til I take further evidence/I seem to need a reference to get residence/a reference to your preference to say/I’m a good neighbour… the constant struggle ensures my insanity/passing the ignorance ensures the struggle for my family/we’re hungry, beware of our appetite… and when I grow, I grow collective.
This is the voice of what, in the 1990s, newspaper commentators christened the ‘underclass’, the children of ‘broken homes’, living in ‘sink estates’. The voice speaks in a slurred Somerset murmur about what the speaker has seen, about what’s going on in his head. These voices still don’t get heard in public too often.
Tricky’s autobiography is an unexpected triumph, a charming and disturbing book in equal measure – something that owes a lot to the unusual decision to combine Thaws’ own (ghosted) narratives with responses and interjections by his relatives, collaborators and partners, something clearly meant to replicate the multivalent cooing and bickering female/male voices on Tricky records.
Thaws, born in 1968, was raised by his aunt in Knowle West after his mother, Maxine Quaye, killed herself; his extended family included various minor and major figures of organised crime in Bristol and Manchester. But he seems determined throughout not to make this a misery memoir: ‘you’d probably think I had a tough or an unhappy upbringing, but it didn’t feel like that to me. Knowle West was poor, but it didn’t feel dangerous. You were just aware that people who weren’t from Knowle West didn’t want to go there.’
He’ll also say ‘even being one of a tiny minority’ in this overwhelmingly white estate, ‘I didn’t experience any racism growing up’ – and then, pages later, make an exception for the local police and football fans (this recurs throughout the book, he’ll say an area wasn’t violent or grim, and then tell stories about child abuse, GBH and disfigurement). Near the end is a recorded discussion with his daughter Marie. ‘I don’t think I’ve had a hard life’, he says. ‘You’ve had a horrendous life!’ she responds, incredulous. ‘If I’d been your social worker, you would’ve been on a child protection plan’. And while there’s plenty of evidence of that here, he’s obviously determined to resist all the Shameless clichés. He doesn’t revel in it: this was just ‘normal’, things that happened. Round the corner.
What seems to have influenced Tricky most is the experience of both being in a family that had been mixed as far back as the Edwardian era, with relatives from Plymouth and Ghana, Bristol and Jamaica – ‘for us it was normal. We never knew any different’ – which put him in an environment where music was Marc Bolan as often as it was Caribbean sound systems. When he discovered music as a teenager, it was as completely natural for him to become obsessed with Public Enemy as it was to become obsessed with The Cure (the co-producer of Maxinquaye, Mark Saunders, was hired because he’d produced their Mixed Up album).
What was less predictable was his determined experiments in gender, which feel much more ahead of their time. While everyone else in Knowle got pissed on a Saturday night at ‘townie clubs’, Tricky would go to indie clubs and sound systems in a dress and make up. ‘For a guy to wear a dress to the centre of Bristol – I wouldn’t advise that. I definitely wouldn’t advise a young black kid to do that, not in the 1980s. Looking back, I think ‘you were fucking mad’….(but) to me at the time, going out in a frock was just a recipe for a good night out’.
The complex geography of Bristol is crucial to the first part of the book; the differences between the sprawling ’20s houses of Knowle West and the bohemian streets of Totterdown, between the pomp of Clifton and the blues dances of St Paul’s. These class and race lines could be crossed, causing serendipitous meetings. He met Martina Topley-Bird, the dazed, dulcet voice on his best records, by accident while hanging out outside her public school in affluent Clifton, and found her posher tones the perfect foil to his mumbling, heavily Bristol-accented quasi-raps.
Accident plays the biggest role – Tricky seems to have just spun disparate things in the air and made them work together out of sheer enthusiasm. The 1995 album he’s best remembered for, Maxinquaye, is mostly Tricky sat with a cheap Akai sampler, splicing everything that has moved him into it. His monumental first single, ‘Aftermath’, is Marvin Gaye’s ‘That’s the Way Love Is’ plus Japan’s ‘Ghosts’ plus David Cassidy’s ‘How Can I Be Sure’, plus, in its desolate, awe-inspiring original version, a wildly out-of-time sample of The Specials’ ‘The Dawning of a New Era’. As he says himself here, ‘my music is weird because I don’t know what I’m doing’. But lyrically, like all of his first few records it’s all shockingly eloquent, a suppressed voice finding itself. ‘So many things I need to tell you’. The book fills in the gaps, but it’s all there on the records.
What Tricky did on his run from Maxinquaye onwards – Nearly God (1996), Pre-Millennium Tension (1996), Angels with Dirty Faces (1998) – was something that working class artists are not supposed to do. They’re not testimony, not a statement of an authentic self coming from an authentic place, but something much more complex: an exploration of memory, of the chaos inside his head, of his sexuality, and where these stand in a mediated, increasingly incomprehensible society. This sort of exploration and introspection is acceptable from the kind of people Tricky regarded as his peers – PJ Harvey and Tom Waits are those he mentions most often here – but it certainly isn’t expected from people who grew up in Knowle West.
It’s clear that after Maxinquaye‘s moment of dinner party fame nobody knew quite what to do with him. Even the best critics treated him as an exotic bird – this black man in a dress, with bleached hair and a West Country accent. He was a ‘griot’ and a ‘ghost’ calling up ‘spirits’ for Ian Penman; ‘I’m very fish and chips’, Tricky says here. But one of the Penman’s points nailed something quite acute about Tricky; that he spoke as the voice of a ‘revolutionary class’, that had ‘sublimated’ its defeat into music, drugs, sex and wilful self-derangement.
Tricky was hardly unconscious of this. When he became briefly famous, he would rub his class in people’s faces. Pre-Millennium Tension is full of these statements, as clear as he ever got. ‘Now I can afford to live in your area’, he has Topley-Bird sing on ‘Sex Drive’; ‘I’ll master your language – and in the meantime, I’ll create my own’, he asserts on ‘Christiansands’. ‘I lived the life they wish they did’, he hisses on the coked-up class war anthem ‘Tricky Kid’.
Oddly, of the people who did seemed to understand Tricky was Chris Blackwell, the aristocratic boss of his label, Island Records, who saw in him a classic ‘Island’ artist, committed to erasing boundaries – a cousin to John Martyn, Lee Perry, Bob Marley, Grace Jones, PJ Harvey. In his book, Tricky remembers as a turning point Island’s purchase in 1997 by PolyGram, a US-based multinational, whose chief executive at the time, Eric Kronfeld, became notorious for claiming that all his black artists had criminal convictions.
Tricky’s response was the furious white label ‘Divine Comedy’. Rewritten as ‘Money Greedy’, it would start Tricky’s last great record, Angels With Dirty Faces, a ferocious, paranoid, noisy mashing together of speed metal and ’70s Miles Davis, designed seemingly to upset the record company as much as possible. After that, record labels would succeed in splitting Tricky into neat, consumable pieces. Angels was followed by a poor hip hop album (Juxtapose (1999)) and an even worse rock album (Blowback, 2000), both with famous collaborators like DJ Muggs and the Red Hot Chilli Peppers (‘I’ve got to say, they’re not really my thing’). He’s had his moments since, including this year’s Fall to Pieces, a stark record that shares the melancholy and introspection of the book – but the long career of regular brilliant Tricky records Blackwell clearly expected simply never happened. There was no place for him.
In 1995, rather than anything by Blur or Oasis, the NME made Maxinquaye its album of the year; this was the music of ‘the future’, or at least it was expected to be. We live in that future now, and it was a fair prediction, in a way; Tricky’s listening habits (‘old dancehall compilations, David Sylvian, or old hip hop classics by Rakim’) are now completely normal, a typical shuffle on Spotify. Experimental music festivals in regenerated cities from Newcastle to Krakow to Utrecht will happily cater for these tastes. But how many people who have lived the life Tricky did do you ever see visiting them, let alone appearing at them?