Our Aux.Out. Book Club regularly reads and discusses either a canonical piece of music writing or something fresh off the presses. This month, we sat down with Zoë Howe’s brand-new biography, The Jesus and Mary Chain: Barbed Wire Kisses (St. Martin’s Press), a full-throttle telling of the Reid brothers’ rise from the little Scottish factory town of East Kilbride to become the creative team behind one of the ’80s’ most influential bands. Read on for the Book Club’s reaction to The Jesus and Mary Chain: Barbed Wire Kisses.
Book Club Members:
— Matt Melis, Senior Editor
— Paula Mejia, Contributing Writer
Recent Book Club Reviews:
Stealing All Transmissions: A Secret History of the Clash by Randal Doane
Wolf in White Van by John Darnielle
One Way Out: The Inside History of the Allman Brothers Band by Alan Paul
Just Kids by Patti Smith
Dinosaur Jr. by Dinosaur Jr.
Purchase: Buy a copy of The Jesus and Mary Chain: Barbed Wire Kisses here.
Matt Melis (MM): I always like to start these Book Clubs by letting readers know our relationships with the artist being written about. Before reading The Jesus and Mary Chain: Barbed Wired Kisses, I couldn’t have discerned between The Jesus and Mary Chain, The Jesus Lizard, and Jesus Jones. Basically, I had lived a Jesus-less musical existence. In preparation, I Spotify binged the band’s discography, lost a few days to their sophomore album, Darklands, and then left myself in the hands of Zoë Howe’s biography.
I also brought in a complete ringer in you, Paula, as backup. With you having been tapped to write about the Mary Chain’s debut, Psychocandy, for the 33 1/3 series, it’s probably safe to say that you’ve logged more hours thinking about and listening to this band than just about anyone else over the last year or so. Maybe you can tell us how the Mary Chain landed on your radar and a bit about what life has been like trying to tell that album’s story.
Paula Mejia (PM): Thanks for that introduction, Matt! It’s funny you made the distinction between The Jesus and Mary Chain, The Jesus Lizard, and Jesus Jones — the religious thread in punk music is distinctive, and it comes up quite a bit, especially with these fellows. Indeed, I’m in the midst of writing away and have probably analyzed Psychocandy to death at this point. But the Mary Chain landed on my radar around senior year of high school. I’d heard “Just Like Honey” just from being at shows, and I liked it but never went too much further than that.
I got super into the Mary Chain the first month or so of college. I was at a small house party, and I recognized one of the kids who had also joined the campus radio station. We had similar taste — we had gushed about the Pixies, Sonic Youth, and VU before then — and somehow we started talking about Cocteau Twins, MBV, and the Mary Chain. He put on “Deep One Perfect Morning” from Darklands, and it was, to paraphrase a smarter writer than me, at that point, the still point of the turning world. The jangles and roars of delay pedals, Jim Reid’s voice frustrated and also sweetly crooning, totally stunned me. I was very impressionable at that age, as we all probably were, but this was different. I had loved the Velvet Underground and how they had married extremes, but the Mary Chain took it one step further in merging that into accessible pop music, and as someone who had derided pop music as a teenager, they totally knocked me out.
MM: Let’s dive right into Howe’s biography, then. What struck you most about her telling of the Mary Chain’s story? What interests you most about them as a band?
PM: What struck me most about Howe’s telling of the Mary Chain’s story is how much detail goes into the anecdotes. I hadn’t heard about their antics at major labels, and the depth with which she tackles the brothers’ relationship is incredibly compelling. What interests me most about the Mary Chain as a band, though, is how they marry extremes in such a seamless way. The psycho and the candy, the crashes and the pop swells — those elements are disparate and could easily clash in an unpalatable way. It not only works, it’s unforgettable. I’m interested in the complexity of that relationship and the tensions that drive that. But I’m also so astonished by their clairvoyance — like, these were kids in suburban Scotland, the actual darklands, who would stay up all night mainlining tea and planning out how to be the perfect Top of the Pops band. They did this but maintained this image of being the enfants terribles of the British rock scene — it’s a powerful, effortless move and brilliant marketing at that. What about you?
MM: When done well, I never tire of reading about the daily adventures of the ’80s DIY ethic and lifestyle. Really, the first half of Howe’s biography could be an across-the-pond addendum to Michael Azerrad’s classic Our Band Could Be Your Life. My favorite anecdote was probably when the band mailed in 20 or so self-written reviews of their first Glasgow show to a local radio station — their letters ranging from raves to complete hatchet jobs. But I think we share a similar admiration for their story, Paula. How two brothers, complete outsiders who kept to themselves and watched too much television, escaped the doldrums of a bleak Scottish factory town and changed the landscape of pop music for a spell will always be a worthwhile story. It reminds us that no class, race, nationality, or even personality type has a monopoly on creativity. Greatness lays in waiting all around us.
PM: I hadn’t thought of the parallel between the DIY ethos tales and Our Band Could Be Your Life, but I can see what you mean. The way that they approached making music and self-promotion reminded me quite a bit of the approach Fugazi took by taking matters into their own hands (but lord knows the Mary Chain were the furthest thing from living a straightedge lifestyle). That’s a great anecdote — I think my favorite was when they went to the NME offices in London before their very first show and basically said, “If you don’t come to this show, you’re going to be pretending you did in five years.” And NME sent a writer to review the show! I mean, whether that was naivete or assertion, that takes cojones. What a way to make an entrance. I definitely think the admiration stems from how empowering the notion is that you can pick up a guitar, change your life and the lives of others. There’s so much power in that.
MM: Let’s stay with the Reid brothers for a moment — a relationship that Howe describes as a more introverted version of the Gallagher brothers. What did you make of William and Jim’s dynamic?
PM: William and Jim’s dynamic was portrayed well, I thought. I have a brother, but the dynamic between brothers is quite different than that of a brother and sister. There’s a fierce loyalty, perhaps jealousy, sense of pride, quite a few emotions that serve well to unpack the tensions that go behind the music. You can hear all of that in the Mary Chain’s songs. I truly wish that William would have participated in this book, as it would have given it a completely different dimension other than stories and past interviews.
MM: I can’t relate to the brother-brother experience, either. For most of the book, William and Jim seem to be different or at odds over just about everything (personalities, drugs, relationships) except their music — and the shared idea that they wanted the Mary Chain to be huge. I almost liken it to that old saying about how you may not like your family, but you still love them. And just like you don’t get to choose family, you also don’t really have a say over who you have a natural creative kinship with or what that relationship will look like. Try as they might, the brothers never found the same magic outside of working in the Mary Chain together. But think of how much trust existed in that creative partnership. They make this perfect pop and rock record in Psychocandy, and then Jim hands it over to William to completely bury and destroy with endless layers of feedback. Ironically, it’s through that act of destruction that we see something new, different, and beautiful emerge. But still, how much love, faith, and trust there must have been — at least as collaborators.
Now, that’s in the studio. I was more confused by how Howe depicted the Mary Chain as a live band throughout her biography. After reading about all the drugs and liquid courage that went into pre-gaming for shows, I’m not shocked that almost every performance she talks about comes across like an unmitigated disaster. But you often had differing opinions. The same show that smacked of genius to one person was unconscionable to another. The Reid brothers also didn’t seem to care nearly as much about their live act as their studio production. Hell, they routinely hired touring musicians who couldn’t even play their instruments. Can you shed any light on the Mary Chain as a live act, Paula? Was there some type of magic in this characteristic chaos?
PM: I can! Recently, I traveled to Glasgow and London to catch several of the Mary Chain’s reunion shows, where they performed all of Psychocandy. I had seen them a few years prior and was stunned by how fluidly the songs transitioned from the studio and then live, but the volume was unlike anything I’d ever experienced. Think of a jet engine blasting off and jackhammers going at it in front of you, and you’re not even close to how loud this is. William Reid has that axe turned up way past the red. Insane. I had tinnitus for days after the first time I saw them, but oddly, it wasn’t painful; the sweetness of the songs lulled that away after a while. The mood wasn’t quite nostalgic but urgent; people in Glasgow were going absolutely mental, moshing and the like, but it never got violent. Quite a difference from their first shows. In London, by contrast, it was a lot more still. A lot of people standing around, nodding, but not moving. Both times, there was magic indeed; I choked up a few times, especially during the Glasgow set. (I was closer, and it was in a swoony venue called Barrowland Ballroom, where many of the greats have performed.)
Speaking to how their live act was portrayed in the book, I honestly think that the mercurial nature of their performances happened because they acted like they didn’t give a crap, when in reality they were shaking with stage fright. They’d assuage it with drink and drugs, then just sit backstage listening to records they liked, paying no mind to the audience waiting one hour, then two, and so on, getting wily. As Jim Reid put it when we talked in Glasgow the next day: “When people went to see The Jesus and Mary Chain, they remembered it.”
MM: Wow, I knew you were going overseas to research the book, but I didn’t realize you were going to catch the band live. I also think it’s interesting that the audiences there don’t look upon the Mary Chain as a nostalgia act, especially considering bands that emerged a decade or two after them now fall into that category. Then again, I couldn’t really imagine that listening to an album like Psychocandy or Darklands would take one back or make one pine for days of yore. Even as a Mary Chain neophyte, I can tell both records are timeless in a way. I already feel that connection to Darklands.
PM: It was a fantastic trip — I was able to interview band members and associates, do research at the British Library, catch several shows, and get a feel for Glasgwegian culture, as I’d never been. I agree with you on the timelessness of these records. They’re not dated, especially since thematically they circle around themes that always plague us as humans: wanting to belong, being lovesick, feeling misunderstood, conceding with isolation and ourselves. The best albums do.
MM: As we begin to fade out here, I want to talk more about Zoë Howe’s role in telling the Mary Chain’s story. Aside from the occasional groan-worthy, paragraph-ending punchline, she shows a lot of restraint here. Her prose is businesslike, and I was surprised that I didn’t find any dull patches. Most biographies lose my interest at some point, but it seemed like the fat was trimmed here. It’s not a gorgeous piece of literature by any stretch, but it does tell this tale in a way that seems both thorough and to the point. What did you think of Howe’s handling of the material, Paula? Was there anything missing that surprised you?
PM: I thought the book was done in a very intelligent way — nothing was tangential, and it seemed almost brief. As a biography, it succeeds immensely. I would have liked to have seen more at the end, where I was left wanting more about the fellows in recent years. But I think she did a tremendous job synthesizing quite a bit of information — certainly a great resource I’ll be referring to when wrapping up this Psychocandy book, which is much less a biography and much more analysis.
MM: Let’s wrap things up by sharing our major takeaways from the book.
PM: The major thing I took away from Barbed Wire Kisses was a more intimate knowledge of a band I’ve been researching, analyzing, and thinking about for over a year in preparation for the Psychocandy book. Howe’s scope is impressive, and the timeline at the back must have taken so much time to put together. It’s interesting to see the lifeline of a band mapped out this way and proves incredibly effective in this biography. I would wholeheartedly recommend this book, not just to Mary Chain superfans, but to anyone who has a vested interest in understanding the strange and perilous journeys that musicians go through to achieve their loftiest dreams. This is partially why I fell in love with the Mary Chain and still am: They give hope to all us ex-suburban cretins, miscreants, and weirdos.
MM: When reviewing music writing, I always ask the following question: Does the writing make me want to seek out the music? In this case, absolutely. I actually read the last three quarters of Barbed Wire Kisses while simultaneously plowing through the band’s discography. I’m not saying the albums and book sync up in any meaningful Floydian way, but the Mary Chain’s music definitely enhanced my reading experience. Their story, as told by Howe, if nothing else, does make you curious about the music. Normally, I’d designate a book like this one as being purely for diehards. But if it’s capable of steering someone like myself toward this band and those records, then I say, “Come one, come all.”