BIT OF A BLUR, by Alex James (Little, Brown, $39.99)
THE BOOKS OF ALBION: the Collected Writings of Peter Doherty
By Chris Bourke
Sex, drugs and rock’n’roll are the clichés of the musical memoir. These autobiographies from two big-noters of Britpop, 1995 and 2005 vintage, are no exception. One is full of sex, the other with drugs; rock’n’roll is a bit player in both.
The titles say it all. Bit of a Blur, by Alex James, Blur’s bass player, has style and wit. The Books of Albion by Peter Doherty – “Pete” to his co-dependent Kate Moss, and his drug dealer – is pretentious and meaningless. The authors’ characters are also captured within: one is a charming jack-the-lad, a good brain wasted, in more ways than one. The other is a hat-stand with a heroin problem.
In a cluttered genre, Alex James’s memoir stands out as an instant classic. You don’t have to know or care about Blur’s music to enjoy his wild romp on the up escalator of show business. His life is a happy accident (while Doherty’s is one waiting to happen). He glides effortlessly from provincial Britain to art school in London where, within minutes, he meets his future band-mate Graham Coxon. Damien Hirst, the painter laureate of Cool Britannia, is also part of this circle, and becomes one of James’s close friends carousing at the exclusive Groucho Club. There is always a bevy of beautiful models willing to take him home for the night, leaving his long-suffering girlfriend to wait and fume.
James grabs the globetrotting lifestyle of a rock star with both hands; he admits to spending £1 million on champagne and cocaine, and doesn’t regret a moment of it. The “alcoholic genius” Jeffrey Bernard is a role model, and James’s good looks, wide grin, intelligence and sheer sociability means he moves in more aristocratic company than Blur’s competitors, the boorish bovver boys of Oasis. His quick wit and love of life is what saves him: he gradually wearies of the 24-hour party and turns to new hobbies such as aviation and astronomy. He tosses off one-liners with the flair of a nightclub philosopher holding court: “Every home should have a £100 piano”, “The cleverest journalists work for the papers with the stupidest readers”.
To call Doherty’s The Books of Albion an autobiography is gilding the lily somewhat. It’s a scrapbook of his scribblings, packaged with the extravagance of a family Bible. On the distressed leatherette cover is a self-portrait with “blood” dripping from his face like tears. The contents – his diary, notes, lyric ideas, cuttings and ravings – are reproduced in full colour, like an illuminated manuscript. Doherty’s handwriting is at first elegant, and he is not unintelligent, but like so many British pop stars, the pose is the main product. Early on, before the substance abuse takes over, he casts an envious eye at the Britpoppers who preceded him: “Blur, Supergrass, Pulp & Oasis … it was not a movement akin to Baggy, Punk, Goth or anything. It was just pop that sounded similar with lots of hair, Adidas, gigging, Fred Perry [polo shirts] and denim flares.”
Doherty showed promise as a teenage poet, but after a few acclaimed songs with the Libertines, all that remains is a taste for florid affectations. A girlfriend “suffocates” his thoughts: “How great is her allure, how mystifying my feelings for her. Another trap set by fate …”
He is yet to gather Moss. Heroin and size-0 models; as the New Musical Express said of Cliff Richard nearly 50 years ago, “Must we fling this pop filth at our kids?” There is something sick about this junkie chic being paraded as worth preserving, like a rough draft of Byron.
But, like the Kinks, both James and Doherty celebrate their Englishness, in different ways. James is as knowing and light-hearted as a music-hall sketch: eccentric, entertaining, alive. Doherty is fatalistic, an actor playing the role of the doomed, haunted romantic poet. He has yet to deliver a body of work, and The Books of Albion feels like a tombstone that arrived too soon.