Knowle West Boy: Reading Tricky’s Memoir

Adam Quarshie delves into Tricky’s tightly structured new autobiography, Hell Is Round the Corner, an intriguing mix of cultural history, family trauma and turbulent creative passions

About a third of the way through his new autobiography, Tricky tells us that “my music is weird because I don’t know what I’m doing”. For someone who by his own admission can’t play an instrument, sing or dance, Tricky has had a remarkable impact on British music. His debut, Maxinquaye was one of most influential albums of the 90s, a grenade thrown into the tepid waters of Britpop that dominated the charts for much of that decade. Murky and subversive, it revelled in racial and sexual ambiguity, channelling weed-fuelled angst, intimate lyrical poetry and tales of daily struggle.

Hell Is Round The Corner explores the contradictions of a music industry that was determined to profit from his outsider status in the wake of Maxinquaye’s release in 1995. It also displays his determination to maintain his autonomy in the face of shallow celebrity culture. But as well as being a finely-crafted document of several decades in the limelight, the book reveals how Tricky, now in his 50s, is a keen social observer, having spent his life mixing with gangsters, boxers and gunmen, as well as celebrities, models and intellectuals. It’s a story that has been broadened by adding the voices of other musicians and artists. Ghostwriter Adrian Perry has included interviews with the likes of Smith & Mighty, Shaun Ryder and Tool’s Maynard James Keenan to create a more nuanced view of his subject. The Tricky that is revealed is complex and funny, but also scarred – an artist driven to create against a backdrop of childhood trauma.

Despite having spent much of his adult life living in global cities like London, New York, LA and Paris, Tricky never loses sight of how his childhood was shaped by growing up on the estates of South Bristol. “I learnt how to kill a rabbit when I was still very young”, he says in the first chapter. “You grab it by the neck and push up the chin to break its neck.” As a kid, he was taken rabbiting by his grandfather and uncles to supplement the family diet. Spending much of his childhood living with his great-grandmother Maga Lawrence, the matriarch of the sprawling Welsh/Irish Godfrey clan, the young Adrian Thaws grew up in a close-knit family that included bare-knuckle boxers, dodgy club owners and gangsters.

These early chapters offer an intimate portrayal of a mixed race family forging a unique identity in the predominantly white neighbourhoods of Knowle West and Hartcliffe. His family included Ghanaian seamen (his maternal grandfather) and Jamaican sound system pioneers (his paternal grandfather, Tarzan the High Priest). Although he retells this part of his life with affection, violence and abuse were never far away: his mother killed herself when he was four, he was regularly beaten by his step-grandad, and his uncle Martin ended up doing four years at Dartmoor prison for stabbing a man in the chest. So it wasn’t much of a shock when Tricky himself ended up doing a couple of months at Bristol’s Horfield Prison at age seventeen.

Despite everything pointing “towards me leading a life of crime”, by his teens, Tricky’s restless nature and open-mindedness meant he was absorbing influences from a range of sources: meeting punks and squatters, breaking into Glastonbury, taking acid while roaming the streets of St Paul’s, and getting sucked into Bristol’s burgeoning sound system and hip hop culture via the Wild Bunch (who went on to form Massive Attack).

By the mid-90s, he found himself thrust from the Bristol underground to becoming the alt-poster boy of the indie press (who consciously marketed him to white audiences rather than to black British audiences, for whom he was “too quirky”, according to Island Records’ Julian Palmer). But he quickly became uncomfortable with his newfound star status. “Losing your anonymity is the worst thing that can ever happen to you”, he says, and his desire for solitude and the unfamiliar pushed him to move cities every few years.

The middle section of the book is full of all the excesses of 90s and early 2000s celebrity culture: record companies were throwing money at him and he was racking up £200,000 a year in car services ferrying him from his isolated house in the New Jersey countryside to downtown Manhattan. At the height of his fame, he was getting sent letters of praise by David Bowie, briefly dating Björk and processing a turbulent relationship with musical collaborator and mother of his daughter, Martina Topley-Bird.

But the personalities he was most drawn to were other iconoclasts, free thinkers from working class backgrounds who weren’t seduced by the machinations of the music industry. Terry Hall makes a notable appearance. Early on, Tricky remarks that “The Specials changed everything” – a multiracial band talking about the realities of life in British inner cities. There’s also a hilarious anecdote from The Happy Mondays’ Shaun Ryder, who “nipped out to get some gear” during the Brit awards, only to walk straight into a police raid.

Even after achieving stardom, Tricky was only ever a step away from violence. On moving to LA, he befriended former gang member Cesar Aceituno. Though he’d left gang life behind, he introduce Tricky to guns: pretty soon, he was learning to shoot sniper rifles and sleeping with a shotgun under his bed. While the media thrived on the image of the tortured loner with a penchant for wearing dresses, persistent mental and physical health problems were having a significant impact on his life. From getting diagnosed with chronic gastrointestinal fungus candida, to using weed and alcohol to manage his anxiety, constant touring and media attention took their toll. He came to manage these through diet and martial arts, though by the 2010s, serious financial problems almost threatened to bankrupt him.

The story ends as it begins: with family. “I’ve realised that many of my lyrics are written from a female perspective,” he says in the final chapter. Much of the darkness in his music can be read as an attempt to come to terms with his mother’s death, trying to recapture her spirit through music. There’s also a telling section featuring a dialogue with his daughter Marie, a social worker. “You’ve had a horrible life, and I think you’ve got awful coping mechanisms”, she tells him. Some of these horrible experiences repeat themselves with tragic consequences: the book was released shortly after the suicide of his other daughter, Mazy Mina. In other circumstances, Tricky’s life could have been merely bleak and harrowing. Instead, some of his coping mechanisms have ended up producing challenging, incendiary albums that have fundamentally altered the shape of the music landscape in the UK.

Hell is Round the Corner by Tricky is published by Blink

The Quietus Digest

Sign up for our free Friday email newsletter.

Support The Quietus

Our journalism is funded by our readers. Become a subscriber today to help champion our writing, plus enjoy bonus essays, podcasts, playlists and music downloads.

Support & Subscribe Today