[28 August 2008]
PopMatters Interviews Editor
“I do believe music is the highest form of art. It’s the ultimate condition and the highest form of anything. Music is an absolutely fundamental quality of the universe. Films are not fundamental entities, nor are paintings, or sculptures. They represent things and have functions. Music actually is something. Music is omniscient, a quality that echoes across space and time: from the concord and balance of galactic superclusters down to the vibrating 10 dimensional filaments of superstring theory.
The entire cosmos is a musical situation and all artistic and scientific endeavors tend towards music. All life aspires to the state of music. Music is a mystery, pure abstraction, calling from deep to deep. Voices raised in song are louder than when you’re in love, when you’re happy, when you’re sad. Music can make hearts beat faster and cause tears to flow. Melody is a universal language. Harmony is the resting place of consciousness. Rhythm hammers the mind into the right shape. Rock stars are the only real deities. We are the music makers. We are the dreamers of dreams.”—Paraphrased version of the Oxford Univeristy Union speech given by Alex James, Bit of a Blur
Blur was one of the biggest bands of the 1990s, a fact that everyone in the world was keenly aware of unless you lived in the United States. In the US, the band became big well after their artistic peak with a track called “Song 2”, a deliciously bone-headed stadium-rocker that barely touched on the two-minute mark. All over the rest of the world (but especially in England), the band made an album called Parklife that turned out to be a sprawling pop masterpiece about daily British life that shot the band—future Gorillaz frontman Damon Albarn, shy guitar virtuoso Graham Coxon, bassist Alex James, and drummer (and semi-politician) Dave Rowntree—into the pop stratosphere: spooling off hit after hit, engaging in a epic battle of words with Oasis, and ultimately defining the “Britpop” movement that lasted for a good deal of the ‘90s.
Bit of a Blur is the first true insider’s perspective on the group, as bassist Alex James—now a columnist for the Independent—eagerly delivers his autobiography, detailing the ups and downs of one of Britain’s most beloved guitar acts. Yet, right from the get-go, there is something profoundly different about James’ writing: this simple, plainspoken bloke is not out to rustle feathers or become a talk-circuit regular. He just wants to tell the story of his life, ranging from his very first band playing New Order covers in a friend’s basement to buying a farm and living in a house (a very big house) in the country with his wife and kids. In between, he shags just about every single woman on the European continent, becomes a proud drunkard, gets dragged out of classy New York hotels by his ankles, scores huge hits both with his regular band and a side-project formed with actor Keith Allen (resulting in a massive British football anthem called “Vindaloo”), all while spending most of the time pining for his first love, Justine.
Despite its title (and despite the cover illustration of James being pulled directly from Blur’s greatest hits compilation), Bit of a Blur is less about Britpop’s hard-hitting heavyweights as it is about simply being a rock star. James notes, quite frequently, how it was literally his job to lead a life of total excess, drinking the most beer and doing the most drugs while sleeping with the most women (often all on the same night). He mentions how guilty he feels the first time that he has sex with a woman who is not his long-suffering girlfriend Justine and just how much it pains him. Yet the pain is diminished with each new exotic locale and each new buxom young lady that crosses his path, himself morally veering way off course at an intensely rapid pace. Yet his behavior is somewhat more radical than this bandmates: Graham—the shy, nerdy, perpetually brilliant guitarist—keeps to himself while also drinking Alex under the table on more than a few occasions, all the while sharing an unabashed love of music that James feels as well. Dave remains the most enigmatic of the four, as James often sit and ponders what makes him tick, and why he’s so quiet all the time. Later, however, James picks up on Rowntree’s love of flying, and buys a plane immediately after the first trip with his mate (the experience proving to be that potent). As the years go on, James admits that his love of astronomy and his love of flying are the two things that ultimately kept him grounded during some of Blur’s more tumultuous years.
Yet James’ relationship with figurehead Damon Albarn is a bit trickier. He mentions how upon meeting him in college (through Graham), James didn’t get along with Albarn from the get-go, largely due to the fact that he wore sandals (a fact that James amusingly harps on intermittently for the rest of the book). Yet the slight arrogance that permeates from Albarn (who himself has been the subject of an unofficial biography) turns out to be justified, as James sits in awe of Albarn’s compositions and keen lyrical observations. A loose jam session on borrowed studio time winds up resulting in “She’s So High”—Blur’s first single, a song that barely makes the charts at all. As time progresses, the band gets more studio-savvy, and learns how to put on a good live show, trying out new songs on arena-sized crowds and picking out which one will be the lead-off single depending on which one has the masses chanting in unison before the tune is even over.
It is here, however, that a line gets drawn between what one’s actual expectations of what this book are against what Bit of a Blur actually is. The notion of it being a tell-all biography are immediately quelled: you could barely fill a page with the references to Oasis (James is largely dismissive of the iconic rivalry between the bands), nor is it a name-calling account of celebrity encounters, internal strife, or others addictions (in fact, despite the numerous celebrity run-ins, the most book’s most exciting moments are when James is with the band partying, notably including a time when a good friend hurled a watermelon off an NYC skyscraper, miraculously dodging the police in the aftermath of that incident). It is, instead, merely James recounting his life in vivid but not perverse detail, allowing the reader to join in on the ride.
Unfortunately, such side-stepping of “obvious” topics also proves to be the book’s biggest weakness. Though James spends a good amount of time detailing the recording process for Blur’s first two albums, there’s nary a word on their latter efforts, James only really getting fired up about recording “Song 2”, the track that was written in about 30 minutes and became their biggest worldwide hit ever. With each passing disc, he refers to the resulting music as the best thing the group has ever done, never giving a full qualifier as to why. He even says that about his Fat Les track “Jerusalem” that he records, giving the phrase less meaning as the book plows forward.
The other aspect is how, though James is very good at depicting the momentum of his life, he ultimately runs out of strong narrative backbone during the last quarter, as he obtains worldwide recognition, finally gets over Justine, and now happily bides his time piloting and indulging his obsession with space and science. Though he meets both the girl of his dreams (Claire) and the Queen, those later chapters—though not exactly pandering—feel padded, even for a biography. It’s a somewhat unfortunate downward spiral, as James’ nonchalant witticisms remains intact (to much amusement), but they now feel more of a hindrance than an asset to the book.
Yet even with that said, this tome remains delightful. The inner workings of the record industry are laid bare, described without too much malice but enough for even the casual observer to comprehend. Bit of a Blur, if anything, feels like something of a confessional for James, as if describing all of his gratuitous excesses now leaves him free to enjoy family life without much of his rockstar past looming over him. It’s a fantastic insiders look at one of Britain’s biggest bands, yet, sadly, it does not feel like the definitive look, making for an entertaining if not lasting read.