Media Circus: Scot on the rocks

Fueled by ecstasy, Guinness and inspiration, "Trainspotting" author Irvine Welsh parties his way across the U.S.


Sara Baird
May 13, 1997 11:00PM (UTC)

"i'll sleep when ah'm dead, ya know?" Irvine Welsh is sitting unrecognized
on the dark steps that lead up to the pool tables at the San Francisco club
Deco, a gritty Tenderloin District retreat for ravers and stoners -- both of which
could define Welsh at this moment. Awake for more than 36 hours, amped on
ecstasy and alcohol, the Scottish author of "Trainspotting" and other dark
novels of Scotland's drugged-out underbelly is in a bit of a slump. He
rubs his shaved head like a contented Buddhist, tries to focus his eyes,
manages a wobbly smile. "Nah, I don' need sleep just yet."

Alan Black, the head of San Francisco's thriving Scottish Cultural and Arts
Foundation (no kilts here -- just revolutionary plays, music and
literature), is a mate of Welsh's. He witnesses this bacchanal each time
the 37-year-old author's in town. No
cause for alarm. "He'll get his 10th wind pretty soon, you'll see," he
chuckles. Sure enough, Welsh steadies himself and soon is seen in the DJ's
corner, spinning platters -- something he does all over London when his
busy life allows. Next stop: the 11th Street club corridor, an after-show
party for the Chemical Brothers, more celebrities on Welsh's endless list
of pals. I have to beg off. I didn't do any ecstasy and mere mortal energy
is exhausted. I've been trying to keep up with Welsh for two days -- a blurred period that will forever after be
known as the Lost Weekend of the Great Scots tour.

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The four-city book-flogging junket was set up by Norton Books
to showcase Welsh (whose most recent novel is "Marabou Stork Nightmare"),
rising young lit star Duncan Maclean ("Bunker Man") and the venerable and
incisive James Kelman (who won the Booker Prize for "How Late it Was, How
Late"). The carpet had been unwittingly rolled out for the visiting Scots
by the British electorate: The night before the authors' arrival, every
Tory in Scotland was getting his ass kicked and the mood was ripe for
revolution. At Edinburgh Castle, a pub that's the hub for the city's sizable
Scottish population, punters howl at the good news. Black and his cohorts hurl limes at the TV screen every time a
deposed Conservative appears. "Fuckin' right-wing hypocrites," Black
growls.

The next night, Saturday, the tall and slender
Welsh makes his way through the sweaty, packed crowd of hipsters, who crane
their necks to see The Man. Welsh, who is there with Kelman and Maclean to do a reading, thrills them by doing, for the first time in years, a selection from
"Trainspotting" -- the notorious scene where Spud "messes himself" in his
girlfriend's bed, wraps the mess in the sheets, then haplessly catapults the assorted bodily fluids onto her parents at
the breakfast table. Leaning into the microphone, looking up at dramatic moments, Welsh reads brilliantly.

Chatting later over a Guinness, Welsh beams. The
tour's been great, he and the other lads are getting on famously. The only
sticking point: his own hedonist tendencies. "I'm tryin' to be good. Duncan
is quite wholesome and hearty, and Jim is pretty dignified. I don't want to
be the bad apple who drags their names through the mud!" Soon after this, Kelman and Maclean depart, leaving Welsh to his own devices. He proceeds to belly up to the bar numerous times, greeting fan after fan warmly as he goes.

The event's other purpose was to launch the Scottish Cultural and Arts
Foundation's new online zine, Razor's Edge, which bolts from the gate with short stories by Kelman and three other promising Brits.
Asked if his infamous Q&A with Rebel Inc.'s Kevin Williamson, during
which they both took ecstasy and recorded their sensory impressions in a
hilarious, rambling dissertation, will appear
in "Razor's Edge," Welsh laughs. "I dunno, maybe! You know that was the
first time Kevin took it. I had to ram it down his throat!"

Welsh, raised in the projects, seems to be always amused by life and fearless of
its consequences. He had nearly missed his plane in New York City the morning
before, after being up all night with a Scottish comedian. "Yeah, I was
kinda fucked up," he shrugs. "We went down to the Lower East Side and ended
up at what was basically a crack house. It was pretty wild. And I didn't
get any sleep. But I made it!" he says cheerfully. I wonder what his
publicist thinks of his candor about his fondness for all things
illicit. An appearance on National Public Radio's "Fresh Air" was vintage Welsh. He offered responses like, "If you came from a certain place
at a certain time, you couldn't help being part of the (drug) culture, in
Edinburgh especially. The behavior was archetypal; if not heroin then it
was alcohol." Later in the broadcast he joked about someone being a "smart cunt." The
censor didn't catch it. "Hey!" he protests later, "They said no 'fuck' --
nothing about 'cunt.'"

If Kelman and Maclean resent being upstaged by Welsh's audacious behavior, they
keep it well hidden. All are good friends; all are beneficiaries of the world's
current obsession with Scottish writing -- jump-started when Kelman won the
coveted Booker and "Trainspotting" changed the way British young people
related to literature. Lured by tales of spat-upon junkies thumbing their
noses at the world, copies of "Trainspotting" were passed hand-to-hand at
raves and sold on record store counters. Suddenly, video-holics were
discovering books could be, as Kelman described it, "a relevant art form."

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All three are embarrassed by the "Great Scots" title attached to their tour. The 50-year-old
Kelman, who does not suffer idiocy gladly, says that to emphasize the
Scottish national angle "is to continue to marginalize the culture."
Welsh, bucking the solemnity, has his own spin: "My idea of a 'great Scot'
is Scotty on Star Trek!"

By the end of the Edinburgh Castle gig, Welsh has hooked up with his local
friends and danced himself into sweaty exhaustion. Of course, it's only temporary.
He stretches out on the covered pool table, grins. What's next? he asks.
They slip out into the night.

The following evening is the weekend's most formal appearance -- a reading
and panel discussion at the Cowell Theatre -- and Welsh has not slept at
all. He is bleary-eyed with exhaustion. Halfway through, however, he
straightens up and practically glows with alertness and wit -- the result
of dropping a tab before going onstage. His reading selection: a depraved
chapter from his novel "Ecstasy" (no irony there), dealing with the effects
of crystal meth on one's erection. Before the oral dissertation, he tells
the crowd, "This won't be my normal reading tonight; I'm off my tits."
While a nervous chuckle ripples across the lit-hip crowd, he also offers:
"People always ask me why I write so much about sex and drugs, but you
write what you know."

The reading is fine, rich with characterization and humor. But when the
crowd peppers the three authors with questions at the close of the
evening, Welsh's sponsors and pals hold their collective breath. What do
you think of the impact of the drug ecstasy on the young? he is asked.
"Well, it's working pretty great for me right now!" he laughs. When asked
why the working class is so underrepresented in literature, he offers a
long and rambling discourse that does not satisfy the questioner. What
does he really mean? "I MEAN," he emphasizes, "That books are written BY
rich cunts FOR rich cunts." Then he laughs, and the audience laughs with
him.

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Sometime later that evening, in the dark confines of Deco's architecture,
Welsh ponders the weekend. "I fuckin' love it here. I always have a good
time. I mighta done a little too much this time, though."


Sara Baird

Sara Baird is a frequent contributor to Salon.

MORE FROM Sara Baird

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