The Jesus And Mary Chain has spent its life cultivating mystery, crafting sweet pop songs that are shrouded in spiky dissonance, delivered behind shadows of swooping hair, Ray-Bans, and black leather. The band has worked studiously hard to avoid looking vulnerable and therefore uncool, from a carefully anti-choreographed stage presence that found the members drunkenly crashing into each other, if moving at all, to interviews where brothers Jim and William Reid hid behind lies and pointed barbs specifically crafted to provoke. The Mary Chain’s talent for creating intrigue has served it so well for so long that piercing the veil with any sort of tell-all seems anathema to its entire existence.
Fortunately for those hoping to preserve that mystique—and unfortunately for readers looking for a little more—Zoë Howe’s new biography, The Jesus And Mary Chain: Barbed Wire Kisses, doesn’t do much to penetrate the surface. Howe, a veteran British music writer who’s written similar works on The Slits and Stevie Nicks, approaches The Jesus And Mary Chain with an obvious, infectious fan’s enthusiasm that makes her book feel warmly inclusive, referencing songs, gigs, and other bands in the group’s orbit in a way that assumes the reader is already familiar (or, at the least, eager to look them up online). But like so many other fans over the years, Howe is held at an arm’s length by her subjects, making any true revelations few and far between.
Part of the problem is that William Reid, guitarist and chief songwriter behind so many tunes, simply declined to participate. Singer Jim Reid proves game, opening up just enough about their childhood spent sharing a bedroom, trading records and dreams in the “dull, antiseptic, and uninspiring” Scottish town of East Kilbride. He also elucidates, where he can, the brothers’ famously fractious relationship, which frequently dissolved into screaming matches both offstage and on. But as much as Jim occasionally feels like sharing, and as wittily pithy as he remains, his is still only half the story. And with William being the genesis of so much of the band’s music, there’s next to no insight behind its feedback-drenched, arsenic-and-LSD sounds, or those evocative, yet often inscrutable lyrics.
In his place, Howe assembles all other members of the band, both veteran and itinerant—most notably drummer and earliest champion Bobby Gillespie, whose commentary on his tenure before leaving to concentrate on Primal Scream accounts for much of the first half of the book; and bassist Douglas Hart, who, as their longest consort, provides some of the most honest appraisal of the Reid brothers’ relationship. Creation’s Alan McGee is also on hand to help shore up the legend he helped engineer through ingeniously crafty publicity stunts, as are many of the music journalists and A&R reps who were hooked by them. Together they create an oral history of the group that covers more than three decades of Mary Chain activity, from its first, notoriously brief, fully inebriated gigs through its recent reunion tours.
But aside from the occasional lament from a now-sober Jim Reid, eventually, inevitably the book becomes a litany of war stories—a series of anecdotes about the Reids being tossed out of this or that club or upsetting this or that radio or TV show, mostly due to their drunken antics and needling, uncompromising sound. In the meantime, the songs—their compositions, inspirations, and recordings—are barely touched on, with every album post-Darklands getting increasingly shorter shrift. (The band’s landmark 1992 album Honey’s Dead gets all of five pages; Stoned & Dethroned barely merits three.) For a band that insists several times within its pages that it’s really all about the music, Barbed Wire Kisses tends to disagree.
Still, judging from the book’s oft-repeated assertion of how the band was, in McGee’s words, “the most dysfunctional team of people to ever get success”—and the many tales of their freezing outsiders with silence, projecting an aura of perpetual misery—it’s possible Howe cut through all that as deeply as anyone could. She pads out what is otherwise a slim, breezy read with an appendix featuring a comprehensive timeline and discography, which makes Barbed Wire Kisses useful as a reference for diehards who don’t trust the Internet, at least. But fans are never in danger of closing the book feeling like they know too much—and most likely, that’s exactly the way The Jesus And Mary Chain wanted it.