“The aim of life is self-development. To realise one’s nature perfectly -that is what each of us is here for.”
-Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray
It’s Mexico City and it’s 1995. I am nineteen years old and I am working at the music department of the National University, writing press releases and copy for the hand programmes of the weekly chamber music concerts the university organised. When no-one was watching I spend my time trying to write my own stuff, edit my own fanzines and the comics reviews I contribute to various newspapers and magazines.
That year I had finished typing my first short story, which went on to win an honorary mention in a minor literary contest organised by a national newspaper that no longer exists (El Nacional). The story qualified as micro-fiction, really, and it was nothing but a rip-off of Raymond Carver’s stories, all intimacy and abrupt ending. Its title was “Tracey Thorn y el fuego”, and it was about a bored teenage couple sharing a bedsit in an unnamed big city, spending their days listening to mix tapes and smoking joints, considering the vast expanse of future before them while experiencing it as a dead-end. In retrospect that story is an embarrassment (in my view I was immaturely unable to write fiction because I wanted to turn everything into autobiography) and I am now glad that Mexico’s delay in embracing the Web meant that it has been lost forever in the dust of time.
In my imagination it could have been at the exact same time that I was submitting that story (under the pen-name of Javier Saltares, which I shamelessly stole from a comic book artist I admired) that Tracey Thorn was performing at her first Glastonbury, one day singing “Protection” with Massive Attack, the next day with Everything But The Girl (pages 303-308 in Bedsit Disco Queen). So it can be said that Tracey Thorn (her voice, her lyrics, the idea of her, the imagined, romantic story I had visualised of her and Ben Watt) made me want to really become a writer, even though I had already been publishing weekly columns since 1992.
Needless to say, by the time I was starting out my own vision of myself EBTG were at the height of their career (or so it seemed at the time). Before the Web (and the signing of NAFTA in 1994) Mexico felt more or less like a Communist country, at least in terms of youth culture and access to it, so EBTG had all the aura of a cool, artsy, literary underground band; their Blanco y Negro label having Jesus & Mary Chain connotations, and therefore interconnections with a post-punk aesthetics those of us who became teenagers in late 80s Mexico related to the Cure, the Smiths, Pixies and the whole 4AD stable, including the Cocteau Twins. (In 1985, a pair of Levi’s might have been as hard to get -legally- in Mexico City as it was for the average Muscovite, even though they were, as still mostly are, made in our own soil).
Had EBTG toured Mexico in 1985, when they visited Moscow (167-173), they would have experienced something very similar in terms of what appeared like a complete lack of live music culture and a society mostly controlled by mainstream media and the Sate. To put things in perspective, Mexico’s first official, major legal live concert by an international act was Rod Stewart’s, in Querétaro (not even Mexico City, to avoid crowd control issues, we imagine) back in 1989. EBTG had remade “I Don’t Want to Talk About It” a year earlier, in 1988 (203-208). This, for me, epitomises the infinite delay and distortion with which we in Mexico experienced everything: by the time someone finally toured Mexico, even their po-mo homages/appropriations were old news. In Mexico, in the 80s and 90s, the present of the future was always someone else’s past.
And so reading Tracey Thorn’s Bedsit Disco Queen felt like redemption. I read it while playing the albums on vinyl and googling some of the performances she mentions to watch them on YouTube. The book is a beautiful, accessible, moving, funny and ultimately profoundly melancholy portrait of an unpretentious-but-ambitious DIY artist with deep, strong roots in punk and feminism. It is as well a personal history of British indie pop music, from the late 70s to the early noughties, told in a conversational, passionate and endearing voice. She makes us part of the story, by talking to us directly, and for a moment it is almost easy to forget she is not in fact our friend or even acquaintance, even though it feels like we are sitting there with her, at her kitchen or something, remembering a life we did not have but that strangely and uncannily we shared, distorted, distanced, overinterpreted, through her records and now her book.
Bedist Disco Queen is the kind of book I wish all teenagers could read today. It is a feminist, empowering biographical essay on self-development. There are not many mentions of financial hardship, and those hoping to find a direct, simple unveiling of the bonds that have kept Ben Watt and her together for all these years will not find it in this book. Not directly. Though there are some precious details of what it was like to be into indie music in the late 70s and early 80s (having to wait for important phone calls in the phone booth down the road; replying to hand-written fan mail), the technological changes of the 90s (MySpace? Napster?) are not mentioned at all, and though in the book she wishes she had invented Twitter in 1987 (194-195) it’s as if the Web had not played any role in the ups-and-downs of the music culture/industry she saw and helped evolve.
One of the best features of the book is that it seems to have been written with the same technique displayed in her lyrics: divided into short chapters with intertextually-rich headings, the book reads like a conceptual album where a not-necessarily chronological story is told, and where what is not said counts as much as what is explicitly there. Complete episodes or processes that in most mere mortals’ lives would have been full of detail (finishing an undergraduate degree whilst becoming moderately famous as an artist, then completing a master’s degree at the height of pop stardom; having three kids and still recording solo albums living with a multifaceted musician, DJ, club promoter and label owner, etc.) are offered to the reader as humble elements in the context of a greater narrative of the self. Not a master narrative of rock and roll’s grandiose and epic dimensions, even though, as she acknowledges with the acute proprioception she displays throughout the book, the story has “a trajectory: the early upward curve, the terrible crash in the middle, the unexpected resurrection, the inevitable retirement, and the final return” (359-360).
This is why the book reads so quickly, because on the one hand we have a pretty clear idea of how it might end, and on the other hand because she keeps us guessing all the time, suggesting rather than exposing. This is Tracey Thorn’s subtlety in full effect, where the quality and nuance of the words, their rhythm, flows in a conscious aesthetic decision against the vulgarity of a celebrity culture obsessed with pornography and hyper-reality.
Bedsit Disco Queen is an inspiring feminist memoir for the 21st century. It is, indeed, surprising that in spite of some very dramatic, painful events, the story the book tells is one of success. It often feels like a love letter to herself, to who she was and is now (it also feels like a love letter to Ben). The book tells us there are forces that are more powerful than our mere will or expectations, but that with a strong, honest identification with an artistic and political (the artistic as political) ethos it all seems to work out very well in the end, at least for some.
Oscar Wilde wrote famously that “every portrait that is painted with feeling is a portrait of the artist, no the sitter”, and if in autobiography the artist and the sitter attempt to be the same, the reflective mirror-effect is not dissimilar to that of a performer listening to herself on a monitor. In a way Tracey Thorn’s story as an artist begins when she records her first songs with the Marine Girls (I loved the description of the drastic changes in volume levels in A Day By the Sea in page 53), and the book, this latest installment of her work, is another type of self-recording. Perhaps the best way to understand how her autobiography matches perfectly her career as a performer is found in her description of that Glastonbury performance with Massive Attack:
“As I walk onstage I realise that the volume in this space is ear-splitting, and the sound seems to swirl aimlessly around inside the tent, coming and going in waves, gathering momentum like a whirlpool. I open my mouth to sing the first note of ‘Protection’ and the vocal level in my monitors has simply vanished, or been swallowed up in the volume both on and off stage. There is simply nothing there – I am singing as if special earplugs have been designed to filter out the sound of my voice. Being an experienced veteran, I do what you must never do in these circumstances and fly into a complete panic, shooting desperate glances at the monitor man to the side of the stage. He is aware of the problem, and shoots desperate glances back at me while he tries to fix it, managing to blow me backwards with a howl of feedback from the monitor in front of me. It soon becomes clear that there is nothing much he can do, and I am left with no audible vocal to work with onstage. All I can hear is the sound bouncing back from the walls of the tent, with a two-second delay, and so I simply carry on, hoping and praying that I am not too far out of time or out of tune. As the song finishes I take my bow, leave the stage and burst into frustrated tears” (304-305).
It is perhaps a very good thing that we cannot find a video recording of that June 1995 Glastonbury performance on YouTube. Some of the aura of that memory remains protected. To sing to us, artists need to sing to themselves first. First quietly, in the privacy of their teenage bedrooms, then at maximum volume in front of thousands. Writing can be a little bit like that. With her book Tracey Thorn seems to be closing a chapter of her life, ready to start anew, without ever forgetting what she has been. In this book she is not too far out of time or out of tune: she is pitch-perfect, and we are left mesmerised.