Verse, Chorus, Monster!, Graham Coxon

Graham Coxon’s Memoir ‘Verse, Chorus, Monster!’ Sees Beyond the Blur

Graham Coxon could have made his memoir Verse, Chorus, Monster! a Blur / Britpop tell-all, but he wraps up honest observations in a lovely, conversational tone.

Verse, Chorus, Monster!
Graham Coxon
Faber & Faber
June 2022 (UK)

When describing the intra-band conflict in Blur, guitarist Graham Coxon sums it up bluntly: “We were intelligent people who knew how to push each other’s buttons.”

While Blur has already gone down as one of the foundational bands of the ’90s Britpop era and is still celebrated and lionized, some fans wonder what other angles of the band there are to explore. Blur has been the subject of at least two theatrical documentaries (Lovelace and Southern’s 2010 No Distance Left to Run and Sam Wrench’s 2015 New World Towers),and numerous unofficial biographies. In 2008, bassist Alex James released his book Bit of a Blur, detailing his life and times with the band firsthand, even if most of it was spent pining for a lost love while doing a lot of sleeping around.

Released in the US shortly after Coxon’s 2023 collaborative album with Rose Elinor Dougall as The WAEVE dropped, Coxon’s memoir Verse, Chorus, Monster! is a genuinely new addition to the still expanding Blur bibliography. (Blurbliography?) Those expecting a detailed sessionography of how beloved records were created will be in for a letdown, but Coxon’s book covers far more interesting ground. Unlike his bandmate James’ meandering tome, Coxon is unafraid to dive into the details, effectively relaying his and the band’s emotional state as they encounter global success, unsure what to do with sudden fame and notoriety.

Coxon was an Army brat born of supportive parents as his family crisscrossed the world before settling in Derby. His schooling was expansive, and his love of visual art came early. The cover of Verse, Chorus, Monster! is his drawing of a cartoonish grimdark character that he says populated his notebooks, one of the monsters that he would associate with his acute anxiety. As he grew older and Blur became successful, he would temper his worries with drinking. Like James, drinking is a recurring motif throughout his life as he quits and relapses at various points, and the scribbled creatures haunt him.

While Coxon posits Verse, Chorus, Monster! as a guide to the things no one tells you about being famous, that framing device is only half-effective, as the real gem is found in his blunt-force honesty about how his bandmates – James, drummer Dave Rowntree, and frontman Damon Albarn – treated each other. “It’s incredible looking back on it [Dave Rowntree’s decision to stop drinking],” Coxon notes, “but the rest of us weren’t terribly respectful of that decision and gave him rather a hard time for it. Applying peer group pressure – and joshing with anyone who resisted it – just seemed like the natural way to behave in those days.”

Coxon details how drinking took the “washing machine” of anxieties in his head and put them into a single object he could push around, sometimes out of view. It’s only later when he learns during a rehab stint that alcohol is a depressant and, therefore, a terrible way to cope with anxiety, as it only perpetuates a sick cycle. This section of his memoir is dark, but Coxon (with help from writer Rob Young) speaks in a casual, conversational manner that wisely takes some of the bites out of Verse, Chorus, Monster!‘s more severe subject matter, such as moving his family to Los Angeles only to see his marriage crumble and extract himself out of his ex-wife’s and daughter’s lives.

As a guitarist who constantly looked for new inspirations (forcing his band to lean into American alternative rock after years of laddish retro stylings), Coxon details his time with Blur as a collaborative one. Yet, per his admission, it was also a space that was hard for him to express his wants. “We were a very complicated band with too many ideas, most of the time,” he writes. “Damon would stamp his foot to get what he wanted, as a group, from our management, and I would stamp mine because I didn’t feel heard or appreciated. That was my problem. But then I wasn’t very good at being heard or appreciated. Whenever the spotlight did finally fall on me and the others said ‘Go on then, Gra, let’s hear what you have to say,’ I would just mumble or be unable to cope with the sudden limelight.” While he played his role as the quiet friend but genius collaborator, he sometimes felt this meant he got pushed aside in moments he didn’t want to be.

Anyone who knows the public persona of Blur can relate to Coxon’s experience as he tells it. When he entered rehab before the sessions for the group’s much-maligned 2003 album Think Tank (whereby adding worldbeat textures and dance beats to the Blur sound resulted in a record that sounded unfamiliar and lazy), he admits to taking delight in knowing the band had to hire multiple musicians to fill his spot during live shows. On Albarn’s long-running side-project Gorillaz, Cox puts it bluntly: “I might have occasionally laughed it off as Damon trying to create a new version of the Monkees or the Banana Splits, but deep down, even though I acknowledged that he was working his butt off, I was bitter about Gorillaz doing so well.”

While Verse, Chorus, Monster! proves Coxon unafraid to tackle personal demons and intra-band drama; there is a quiet tonal triumph strolling through his stories with such a laid-back voice that reading it feels less like bloodletting and more like a good friend recounting his life. Coxon never lingers heavily on any one specific era of his life, spending as much of these pages on his childhood as he does his time with his bandmates. He barely touches already well-documented stories like the Oasis/Blur rivalry (that’s already been exhaustively documented elsewhere), and notes the joy he’s found in his solo and soundtrack work in his later years, such as writing original songs for the Netflix show I Am Not Okay With This and writing so many songs for the character’s favorite fictional band Bloodwitch that he eventually released a full album as that fake group.

He closes Verse, Chorus, Monster! on “the great escape”, if you will, that the Dougall project has given him, challenging his notions of structure and melody even after working in the music industry for decades. He writes openly about his children and the difficulty of his two divorces but still gives his exes “space” in his prose, ensuring the memoir is a detailed recount of his life, not just his time with Blur.

Coxon is aware that his time with Blur will draw most readers to his memoir (“I didn’t willfully present myself as the ‘lost boy’ of the band, but that was how a lot of fans imagined me,” he admits), but Verse, Chorus, Monster! give his Blur fans most of what they want and a little more pathos. In truth, if one is hoping Verse, Chorus, Monster! dishes out some gratuitous Britpop dirt, you’ll find Cox’s tales aren’t too salacious. Verse, Chorus, Monster!‘s whole aesthetic might best be summed up by Cox’s reaction to fans’ response to his beautifully chaotic 2000 solo album The Golden D:

Some people speculated that the album was about Damon, but they are always looking for an excuse to think that. I could slip over on some ice one morning and someone would say ‘Oh, it’s because he was thinking about Damon.’ In reality, I don’t spend very much time thinking about him. We initially bonded through a mutual love of music, and what began as a creative friendship developed into a state of unspoken brotherhood. When we wrote music together, it was focused and intuitive. Outside of that we weren’t great conversationalists, and it seemed selfish to expect emotional support from each other. Whatever crappy burdens we were carrying around, they would normally get offloaded elsewhere, onto others. […] It was a partnership of equals, in which each of us tried to please each other. Men’s friendships, based largely around banter and mickey-taking, tend to be about keeping each other entertained.

As a writer, Coxon is instantly charming, casual to no fault, and still offers fun tales from his time as a famous entertainer, including a memorable anecdote about being wasted in the presence of My Bloody Valentine in a bowling alley. Indeed, Verse, Chorus, Monster! works due to the laidback way Coxon unfurls his yarns: these chapters are all easy-going tales that read as if they’re being told over quiet drinks. At age 53, he’s got years of life and loads of music left in him, and it’s nice to know that Verse, Chorus, Monster! doesn’t seem like a capstone to his career: just a beautiful summation of everything to a point.

RATING 7 / 10