Dylan cap, trackie top, lank as a Lowry, street as a Banksy, Gerry Cinnamon is not a pop star, not quite yet, maybe never. He’s something much more rare: a folk hero.
The announcement this week that the Glaswegian singer, whose real name is Gerry Crosbie, will play the main stage of the TRNSMT festival in his home town, just below headliner Stormzy, was greeted in some circles with rolled eyes. The charge is that Cinnamon is not an interesting artist, that there is something lowest-common-denominator and lumpenproletariat about him. This, though, is to miss the point. As festival director Geoff Ellis puts it, he and Stormzy are “both in their own way kind of people’s poets … They both come from the street and they both represent real people.”
Not that the middle-classes aren’t real, or that there’s an inauthenticity to middle-class experience, but there is something undeniably exciting about Cinnamon’s rootsy energy. Working-class life is too often portrayed, in the arts, by a wallowing in misery, whereas what he embodies – in his sound, in his songs, in his soul – is a kind of madcap joy. The audience is crucial to this. No one goes to see Gerry Cinnamon as an individual. You go to be part of a crowd, part of that bounce and roar. The noise that once greeted goals by Law and Dalglish and Best now finds an echo at Gerry Cinnamon shows.
It is something to see. I saw it once. Four days till Christmas, the Barrowland sign shone down on the bevvied punters queueing for the show. Necking Buckie dregs, banging the shutters of Bairds bar, they sang their hero’s name to the tune of Give It Up by KC & The Sunshine Band. An hour before the gig and already we had hit the sweet spot of reckless, feckless and couldn’t-give-a-feckness. Inside it was, as one must say, pure mental. Beautiful mayhem. Perhaps the rowdiest crowd since the sainted days of The Pogues. Gerry C, towards the end of his set, played Diamonds In the Mud, a psalm to this city and these people, falling to his knees, tears in his eyes, overcome by the moment and the sentiment and the love. Those stars on the ceiling, man – they had nothing to the stars in the room, the star on the stage.
He’s tapped into that schemey vibe,
Who are these people? “Hardcore Glaswegians,” says Sandy McLean, who owns Love Music in Glasgow. When Cinnamon’s album Erratic Cinematic first came out, there was a window of six months or so when that record shop was the only place where you could buy physical copies. It was flying out the door. “He’s tapped into that schemey vibe. Gerry’s from Castlemilk, and he’s basically singing to his peers. Hard work, loads of gigs, and being being able to connect with the audience is what’s behind his success. He’s a normal guy with normal habits, wants, desires. It’s youth culture singing about youth culture. And they’re catchy tunes. Every time I put that record on, people would buy it – and that’s the true test.”
TRNSMT2019 Here we go again 💃 pic.twitter.com/nYPpKIEJ9g
— GERRY CINNAMON (@GerryCinnamon) February 18, 2019
It isn’t just Glasgow, though. He sells out in seconds all over Scotland. Elsewhere, too, his star is rising, especially in those towns – Liverpool, Belfast, Newcastle – with a taste for the straight and steady, rough and ready. Cinnamon is often portrayed as an against-all-odds success. No record label, no radio play, no public relations team – these are his boasts. But he isn’t a victim, an ignored outsider, those are choices. Perhaps not playing the media game is in itself a media game, or maybe that’s overthinking it. He is, it is said, slow to trust people.
He first came to public notice in Scotland when he wrote a song, Hope Over Fear, which was embraced by the independence movement during the 2014 referendum, and autonomy seems, too, to be a personal philosophy. “Just do your own thing, man,” he told Radio X’s Gordon Smart in a rare interview. “Just write the songs, that’s all you need to do. Say, when you’re at a party, or you’re on sitting on your tod at home with your headphones in, you’re looking for that song that fills a wee gap in you, a wee space in your chest. Write that song. Because nobody else is going to write it for you.”
Those songs are something. Diamonds In The Mud is a hymn to Glasgow – “from the swords in the schemes to the art school dreams of the toon” – as beautifully observed as a Liz Lochhead poem, a Billy Connolly routine. Keysies, named for a childhood game, is a delicate portrait of boyhood that somehow recalls Lynne Ramsay’s Ratcatcher. His use of local dialect – belter, dafty, bastart – may be specific to the streets of his home, but the emotions his songs convey are universal.
So, can he cross over? Could he follow Oasis and the Arctic Monkeys in making the leap from grassroots phenomenon to national prominence? It sometimes feel like he’s just one A-listed single or Jools Holland appearance away from such a leap. And would he blossom or wither in the face of such sustained attention? All of these are open questions. For now, Gerry Cinnamon remains a superstar on his own patch, an enigma everywhere else.