About a year ago I wrote an entry called Psychocandy and Me, where I talked about how much that record and the Jesus and Mary Chain, in general, changed the course of my life. I moved to England in 1985 to 'study' at the University of Essex and ended up soaking in a scene that continues to inspire countless fans and bands to this day. My novel Wivenhoe Park is a testimonial to what what down, or at least what I remember going down. It's pretty safe to say that I probably would not have become a music writer, and definitely not have written a novel about mid-'80s England, had I not decided to fill out an application to study abroad just a few days before the deadline. "Fate up against your will" or something like that.
Fast forward 30 years to 2015 and I returned to my old stomping grounds of Detroit, where my rock 'n' roll journey began, to see my favorite band of all-time perform my favorite record of all-time. With me was wife, Arabella, celebrating our 14th wedding anniversary. What better way to celebtare than to see a loud rock show in the rock and roll capital of the world, home to the Stooges, MC5, and Motown Records. Our first date in 2000 was to see Jim Reid's then post-JAMC band Freeheat, so in addition to this being a full circle moment in our relationship, it felt like a full-circle moment in my 30-year 'relationship' with the Jesus and Mary Chain.
The last time I saw JAMC was in Boston in '98 on the Munki tour, just before they broke up. The show, given the fragile state of the band back then, was a little hit and mess. I do remember "Reverence" being amazing that night, however.
The Detroit concert in May 2015 was beyond compare, one of the best performances I've ever seen. My emotions were on overdrive. The band was all dressed head to toe in black and I was too. At one point during the Psychocandy set I closed my eyes and felt like I had time traveled. As I soaked in the sounds, I remembered old friends -- some I'm still in touch with, some I'm not -- and teared up. It was that powerful.
To understand my obsession with JAMC, I've decided to thrown in an excerpt from Wivenhoe Park when Psychocandy came out and the protagonist, Drew, decides to skip class to purchase it.
On my way to a lecture I stop at the shop to buy this week’s NME and Melody Maker. The Jesus and Mary Chain are on the front cover of both. Their debut album is in the shops today. I won’t be going to class after all. I’ll be going to Andy’s Records in Colchester to buy Psychocandy.
On the bus ride to town I skim through the magazines. My favorite scribe, Nick Danger, reviews Psychocandy for Melody Maker. He’s passionate and over-the-top as usual, telling his readers that it’s Year Zero and that The Jesus and Mary Chain have drawn the line in the sand. They are the future of rock ‘n’ roll, he says, and if you don’t like it you can fuck off and listen to Frankie Goes To Hollywood. I want to buy him a drink. Normally I like to have a bit of a walk around Colchester. It’s a beautiful little town with cobblestone streets, old churches, and Roman and Medieval ruins, but today I just want to buy Psychocandy and get back to my room to listen to it.
It’s as good as Nick says. In fact, it’s the best record I’ve ever heard. I bought the “Never Understand,” “You Trip Me Up,” and “Just Like Honey” singles at Schoolkids’, but it’s an entirely different experience hearing those songs and eleven more as a full body of work. The album is catchy like all of the best punk pop groups, such as The Buzzcocks and Undertones, but there’s so much more going on. The combination of screeching noise and heavenly melodies is intoxicating. The lyrics are dark and menacing, too. Most of the songs appear to be about girls screwing the Reid brothers over, but Jim and William live to tell the tale, in fact they seem to relish it. “The Living End” is the perfect fuck off to everything, an Easy Rider-like ode to finding freedom on a motorcycle. Full of swagger Jim declares, “My mood is black when my jacket’s on and I’m in love with myself... and an empty road and a cool, cool wind and it makes me feel so good.” I punch the air as if I’m headbanging to Judas Priest.
“Taste of Cindy” reminds me of Christine, perhaps too much. “Knife in the back when I think of Cindy,” sings Jim. “Knife in the back when I think of Christine,” I sing back to Jim. “Just Like Honey” is a sober reality check. I hate how much power Christine has over me, and I hate myself for knowing that I’d probably crawl back to her if given the chance. Like that song’s protagonist, I want to be her “plastic toy.” I wanna be her dog.
An essential part of the early Jesus and Mary Chain is their drummer Bobby Gillespie,who played a minimal kit just like Mo Tucker had done for the Velvet Underground. I would learn that Bobby fronted a group of his own called Primal Scream. One of their early B-sides "Velocity Girl" would later become the lead track on the NME's famous C86 compilation. The early Primal Scream were strongly influenced by American '60s legends, such as Love and the Byrds, and would have a huge impact on the Stone Roses and the Manchester scene that broke in '88/'89. Bobby was also somewhat of a fashion icon, an idol to all the indie boys and girls. Here's a segment from Wivenhoe Park where Drew meets Bobby and witnesses an early gig.
I’m a bit star struck when I shake Bobby Gillespie’s hand. He’s wearing tight black leather trousers and a floral dress shirt. I tell him how much I like Psychocandy, and he somewhat coldly says, “I hope you like us as much, mate.” He seems to be over the Mary Chain. His shaggy haircut is really cool, pretty much what mine could be if I didn’t tease it so much with spray and gel. I make a mental note to use less hair product after seeing how many cute girls come by to say hello.
Primal Scream is fantastic. Though I haven’t heard anything by them, the songs are instantly catchy. Bobby pours his heart and soul into it and the kids are eating it up. The guitarist, Jim, is incredible. His lines are striking without succumbing to any guitar hero antics, a kindred spirit to Johnny Marr. No flash, no excess, just pure and beautiful rock ‘n’ roll. One song in particular floors me. Bobby tells the audience it’s a new one called “Velocity Girl.” It begins with the line, “Here she comes again with vodka in her veins,” which is about all I manage to catch. The track is much too short, barely a minute long, ending with Bobby repeating the line, “leave me alone” over and over as the music fades out. It’s timeless, melancholic and beautiful, reminiscent of my favorite Rolling Stones songs like “Paint it Black,” “Heart of Stone,” and “Play With Fire.” Primal Scream is cut from the same cloth.
Fast forward to 2015 and Arabella and I get to see (and hangout) with Primal Scream in Pittsburgh. Everyone reading this knows that Primal Scream are now legends, albums like Screamadelica and XTRMNTR rated amongst the most influential rock 'n' roll albums of all-time. Like the Mary Chain, Primal Scream are still godlike on stage -- true rock 'n' roll heroes. In an alternate universe someone like Bobby or Jim would take the place of Bono. But maybe it's all for the best.
Ben Vendetta is the author of Wivenhoe Park (2013) and Heartworm (forthcoming 2015). Wivenhoe Park is available on Kindle and paperback via Amazon. Signed paperbacks can be purchased from Elephant Stone Records.