'Rock is like Latin, a dying language. It has nothing more to say' - Primal Scream's Bobby Gillespie
Outspoken Primal Scream frontman Bobby Gillespie shrugs off another controversy to tell Neil McCormick about drugs, politics, rock stardom and the ageing process
'In the end, I'm only a singer in a band," declares Bobby Gillespie. "You should be allowed to express your opinions. And then you can be questioned on them. And that's where it gets interesting."
Gillespie is in trouble again. The frontman for Primal Scream appeared on BBC's Newsnight two weeks ago, where he called Madonna a prostitute (with the proviso that he has "nothing against prostitutes") for performing at the Eurovision in Israel. Gillespie has a history of criticising Israel and supporting Palestinian causes. When the presenter asked whether that made him anti-Semitic, he responded, "All my heroes are Jews", citing Karl Marx, Bob Dylan and the Marx Brothers.
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The ensuing social media furore was a predictable blizzard of splenetic outrage, bad-taste jokes and defensive tit-for-tat arguments and insults, although it was hard to tell if it was his remarks about Madonna or Israel (which he called "stolen land") that caused most controversy. Some questioned what this notoriously mouthy rocker was doing on a BBC news programme promoting his band's singles compilation, Maximum Rock 'n' Roll.
"It's a very intolerant culture at the moment and I do think there's such a thing as a digital lynch mob," Gillespie said to me, a week before his TV appearance. He was addressing other recent controversies, such as the 'No Platform' policy prevalent in British universities (where students boycott individuals whose views they disagree with) and some virulent criticism of Morrissey that has made the singer feel unwelcome in Britain.
"Morrissey's not a racist, he's a very intelligent lad, so challenge his opinions, fair enough, rather than saying we're gonna ban you. You should be allowed your point of view. Other people can say they disagree with you. That's a civilised and intelligent and grown-up way of having a debate. If you don't wanna know, you don't learn anything."
Requests to Primal Scream's management for comment on the response to his Newsnight appearance were politely declined. But it is not too hard to work out how the singer feels. "Everything is emotional, there's no critical thought," Gillespie complains. "Why not put your anger towards something you should be angry about, like Tory austerity?"
Gillespie has strong opinions on many subjects. "I could talk for hours about that" is a frequent phrase, and he can be difficult to interrupt in full flow. Some of his remarks are hair-raising. "I was never a junkie," he says about his band's reputation for drug abuse. "I took heroin but I preferred amphetamines and a bit of coke."
A couple of times he retracts comments and asks that they not be printed, particularly if he has said something unkind about other musicians. But he almost can't help being provocative. On the subject of rock stardom, he offers "You don't have to be a musician to be a rock star. Charlie Manson was a rock star. It's a charismatic personality that is like a shaman who attracts the tribes."
He is aware that he is frequently talking himself into trouble. Anticipating a challenge on his apparent admiration for a notorious serial killer, he expands his explanation to include such figures as "Che Guevara, Diego Maradona, Lord Byron, Arthur Rimbaud," then launches into a digression on the "rock 'n' roll archetype of the raging cursed poet" and how it can be applied to "writers, film-makers, trade unionists, even certain politicians down the ages. It's a kind of dandified defiance."
But he also notes its destructive aspects, particularly when drugs are involved. "People were being hurt, that's the other side of it, like wives, kids. Drug addicts and alcoholics are not just damaging themselves, it can lead to abusive, violent, selfish, wrong behaviour. But I don't like to dwell on the negative side, the myths of rock 'n' roll are exciting, they're fun. I still love it."
He mentions a famous photograph of country singer Hank Williams being released from a prison cell in August 1952 "desperate, emaciated, no shirt but he's still got his hat on. It's awful but he looks amazing."
Williams died just a few months later, in January 1953, aged 29, in the back of a car on the way to a gig. "I used to fantasise about that on tour in America. I'd be totally wasted listening to Hank Williams at the back of the bus and think 'what a great way to go, just don't wake up'. I didn't wish to die, really, I was romanticising being on the road with my pals in a great band, thinking I'm in heaven." He points out that the real rock myth was "to live fast and die young. And I'm not young anymore."
Gillespie is 56. Small and stick thin, his long black hair does little to hide the sallow skin and drawn features left by decades of recreational drug abuse. Gillespie has certainly been a poster boy for rock's hedonistic impulses yet musically he always seemed like a man on a mission. He was born and raised in Glasgow, the son of a union official, in a house full of left-wing politics and folk music. He formed Primal Scream in 1982 while simultaneously playing drums with feedback rockers the Jesus & Mary Chain. It took a while for Primal Scream's sound to evolve before 1991's Screamadelica established them as rock icons to the rave generation, effecting a marriage of Stonesy guitar swagger and hi-tech electro infused with a polemical, political spirit.
"In a sense, it was like a deconstruction of rock," he says. "It felt like the future, with Happy Mondays and Stone Roses and the trip hop stuff of Massive Attack and Tricky, it felt like music was going to go somewhere else. And then it became Britpop and that was that. Modernism had finished. Britpop is not rock 'n' roll."
Primal Scream's own trajectory was waylaid by rampant drug abuse. "It was full-on madness for a few years... It just became like the plague. I think drugs can be a useful tool but when everybody's freebasing coke and heroin, you don't get a lot done."
He has regrets. "There was always some crazy story about someone collapsing, someone getting stabbed, someone getting carried off an aeroplane. In the end your work becomes demeaned because you're seen as a dissolute cartoon."
Gillespie insists he kept his own drug use under control to focus on recording (Primal Scream have made 11 albums, several with only Gillespie and co-writer Andrew Innes effectively involved), eventually cleaning up his act completely in his 40s. He married stylist Katy England in 2006, and they have two teenage sons. "I would never say to people don't take drugs but if you are an artist, you've got to be careful. It can stifle creativity."
Gillespie is an obsessive music fan buzzing with theories on the history of rock. But he is also deeply conflicted about his favourite genre. "Rock is like Latin, it's a dying language, it's old, it's finished, and it really has nothing more to say." He sees the spirit of rock passing to rap, grime and drill music, although those genres don't personally speak to him. "It's like they're talking an occult language, and that's how it should be. It's got irony, intelligence, inventiveness, sex and danger.
"You've got rappers on acid going mental on stage, skinny, covered in tattoos, crazy coloured hair, high fashion, some of them wear dresses. Guys in rock bands dress like they've come to fix your electrics. There's not one sex symbol in white rock anymore, cause there nae sex in it. It's very solipsistic, so inward looking, it's all me, me, me. Rock is dead."
Primal Scream supported the Chemical Brothers at the All Points East festival in London last week, but Gillespie is no big fan of the festival experience. "Festivals are like shopping precincts now. People want the brand. It's like going to Pret a Manger to get your coffee and sandwich, and H&M to get your jeans. People don't go to hear good music and take a trip, man. They go to hear you play your hits, as advertised, then f*** off."
In a notoriously antagonistic Glastonbury appearance in 2005, Gillespie defaced a Make Poverty History poster with the graffiti Make Israel History, called the audience "f***ing hippies" and made a Nazi salute. Those days, he insists, are gone. "Like everyone else, I'm trying to find my place in the world. I'm in my 50s. I want to make music that has a bit of weight and represents us at this time in our lives, that is honest and true."
Still he admits there is little more satisfying to him than being onstage as the frontman for Primal Scream.
"Primal Scream is a team effort, we're all in it together, no one is bigger than anyone else. But the frontman is like the captain, you're the centre forward, you've got to lead the charge. The band are setting you up, you're in the six-yard box, just smash it in the back of the net. It's a paradox, I know. I love rock 'n' roll, it's a great democratic art form, and I'm glad there's still kids playing it. I'm a rocker 'til I die."
'Maximum Rock 'n' Roll: The Singles' is out now.