Chapter 34 in the story of my life. I think this one is going to take a while.
It’s not that I expect to find the next rock ‘n’ roll star in a dusty little pub somewhere and have some sort of hand in their future success. It’s more that, from my living room in a quaint English village, I hope to find footage on the internet of someone who I think belongs on the bedroom walls of the nation’s teenagers. Someone who’ll make them want to be a star themselves when they grow up. Several someones would be ideal.
My success, of course, would largely depend on my definition of “rock ‘n’ roll”. Lazily, I consult Wikipedia. There, in the definition, is Bobby Gillespie.
It was about half past four on the 21st December 1990. Two decades ago. The first flakes of snow of the year were coming down. I shivered by the bus stop, idly humming Primal Scream’s Come Together. A tall, pale, skinny long-haired boy hurried past, humming Joanna by Scott Walker.
Bobby Gillespie didn’t have a biro on him that day, and neither did I, but it didn’t matter. He strode across North Street and into a newsagent, and bought a felt tipped pen with which he scrawled my name and a greeting across the magazine I’d purchased earlier. The page fell open onto Select‘s article on Creation Records. He signed his name across the part about his band.
A few minutes later I was grinning like an idiot, back by the bus stop, and bobbing up and down from cold and joy.
“I just met Bobby Gillespie,” I explained to the little old lady standing next to me.
“That’s nice dear,” she said. “Is he your boyfriend?”
Fast forward a bit. “You want to listen to this lot. He’s so sexy,” Bobby said matter-of-factly, indicating Scott Asheton on the sleeve of the Stooges record. He wasn’t wrong. It took Gillespie a minute or two to indicate through his thick Glaswegian accent that he was listening to Lou Reed. He figured I should listen to MC5. Again, he wasn’t wrong.
Over the months, I’d occasionally bump into Bobby in the street, or in that indie record store we both frequented. You couldn’t miss him: tight white jeans and a polo-necked sweater, hundred-dollar sunglasses and million-gigawatt charisma. Each time, the clothes would look more expensive, his back a little straighter, his bearing a little more self assured. The last time I saw him – maybe two years after we’d first met – he could have stopped traffic through sheer presence. This, ladies and gentlemen, was a rock and roll star.
Of course, rock and roll was always absolutely and unashamedly about sex. Not the act of sex, but its potential. In 1937, Chick Webb and Ella Fitzgerald recorded Rock It for Me, which included the lyric, “It’s true that once upon a time/The opera was the thing/But today the rage is rhythm and rhyme/So won’t you satisfy my soul with the rock and roll”. The “rock” was disturbance, incitement, rapture; the “roll” was sex. Rocking and rolling was secular black slang for either dancing or sex – there wasn’t much to distinguish one from the other – from as far back as Trixie Smith’s My Man Rocks Me With One Steady Roll in 1922. It was innuendo – nothing too direct or vulgar. A tango, not a lapdance.
Rock and roll wasn’t a sound, it was a spirit. Sure, in the strictest sense there are rules about the accentuated backbeat and use of guitars, but you don’t need guitars to be a rock and roll star. The music has long since faded, mutated and moved on, but up until very recently you could see Elvis and Chuck Berry and Jim Morrison reincarnated in a thousand different faces and a hundred different genres.
“Hail, hail, rock and roll, deliver me from the days of old”, Chuck Berry sang – and it’s the new I seek. The snake-hipped lizard kings I loved as a teenager are in their 40s and 50s by now, and I ask myself: who will replace them?
I learnt everything I needed to know from Bobby Gillespie – mostly from observation. It didn’t matter if you weren’t conventionally good-looking, you just had to project a certain self-assurance that told others they should pay attention. Back then, the rock journalists I unabashedly copied were themselves caricatures – exuberant show-offs with big personalities. They had to be in order not to be overwhelmed by the people they were interviewing. Most of these bands never, ever had any hits – they just had so much of that elusive star quality that they filled any room they were in, even if they were just playing the local dive bar.
Most people could recognise Gillespie, or James Dean Bradfield, or some of the other beautiful eccentrics I met along the way, so there’s little point discussing those. I’m going to take a minute to celebrate the less-sung heroes in my youth – the ones that never got to number one or even number 10 in the charts. This, ladies and gentlemen, is what I’m looking for.