Sunday December 15, 2002
When I arrived in London from sunny Bournemouth to learn French at Goldsmiths College, drinking was one of the things I liked doing most. Already there was an affinity, there was a thirst and there was Graham Coxon getting out of his parents' car. The very first person I clapped eyes on. He was an inspirational drinker. It was pure ballistics with us in those days. We'd launch ourselves headlong into giggling raspberry-blowing oblivions by night. I was on the roof; throwing everything out of the window. How we laughed. Quoting Barthes and Baudrillard and trying hard to find the meaning of the meaning all over the place.
Blur's early gigs were chaos. We were beaten up, maced, arrested. Signing a record deal is like boarding a transatlantic flight. There's always someone coming around offering you a drink. Our label, Food Records, was basically a pub on Brewer Street. It was just around the corner from Smash Hits, which was basically a pub on Beak Street. Smash Hits had the minxiest, wittiest writers. Going to see the NME was a bit like going to see a member of staff at school, but Smash Hits was playtime. The Smash Hits girls thought it was brilliant that you could go to the pub all day and many a quiet afternoon was whiled away playing darts and going on about who was dishy.
I'd still be there now but we had to go on tour. When you start going on tour, you can have whatever you like all the time. It doesn't take long to work that out. Because you are removed from your life, and the scenery is perpetually changing while your needs are largely satisfied, there is a big rush of freedom. But getting what you want all the time doesn't necessarily make you happy. It's just getting what you want. Alcohol and drugs increase your sense of what's possible. A hotel room that made you think of hospitals is now a disco full of new friends. Whatever town you go to, all the young people who will ever amount to anything will be in the best bar getting twatted. Taxi into town, load up on gin and tonic until everything is slightly slow motion and smile at the prettiest girl you can see.
There were some magnificent gigs: a riot in Boston, demolition of the venue in Vancouver, banned from Milton Keynes and New York - Jesus Christ we pushed the boat out. We were too pissed to be taken seriously for a good while, but by the time we'd worked out how to time our run, the whole world wanted to buy us a drink.
I spent a million pounds on champagne in three years. Drank two bottles every day except Wednesday and gave a couple away. It's something like 0.1 per cent of the entire country's champagne turnover for a year. Gives you rotten breath. You have to eat two carrots per bottle. Nothing was going wrong and nobody died: in fact, it was getting better all the time and we won prizes. I knew exactly who I was and what I wanted, which was everything. Right now. If I go and see a dentist, I'd rather he was sober. If I go and see a band I like to think that they've tried to spank the limits of their tiny minds.
Everyone needs a mask. You put all of yourself into your persona and try to remember which one is the real you. People in the public eye can become the monsters they invoke. The authority of the mass media is absolute. What people read about you in the papers is what sticks and what defines you. I have trouble convincing my own mother sometimes. I was playing a dandyish elegantly wasted genius, whom I got to quite like, but he had to die young.
I'd sit alone at a bar watching myself drink a very dry gin martini. There'd be a roar all around me. The sound of successful busy people relaxing. It would be that kind of a bar. Everybody would be there. It would have been easy to strike up a conversation with anybody. I was pleasantly, discreetly wasted, enjoying my thoughts. Relaxed, contented, and steeped in alcohol, looking forward to whatever might happen next without minding really whether anything happened or not. I was calm, I was cool, I knew no fear and I was pleased. I was dreaming. Everything I ever wanted really, now I look back.
The secret of being a really good drunk is to make sure that there is always one person in the room who is drunker than you are. If, for example, you find yourself playing 'Blue Moon' on the piano, there has to be someone singing. Hopefully a pretty girl.
Many people become more charming in drink. It is a dangerous sport, like Formula One racing or downhill skiing. To be really good at it you need to dedicate time to it. Some people have a natural flair for it and some are ugly car crash victims. The car crashes really have no idea quite how ugly they are, even in the pit of their despair. The amusing drunk has only where he was and who he was with as a yardstick for his charm and effectiveness, but these can be misleading. You'd think you'd want to be in the best bar with the best people but you can have more fun at the worst bar with the bad people. It's often hard to tell what people think about you when you're pissed and in a famous band, even when you've had sex with them. So where you are and who you do it with don't mean jack shit. Glamour is only really appealing when it's your party; it's ugly to be chasing after it. So I drank in the dingy cafes in Reykjavik docks, I danced around the Tate in the middle of the night, did the Macarena in the kitchen, busted the piano at the Savoy, got banned from a few places and the keys to others. A drink is a short cut to happiness but there are an infinite number of ways of getting there.
'You will lose everything if you don't stop drinking. You know that. You will lose all your friends. It's gone too bloody far.' My parents were getting worried, they've always worried. They don't live in London where the whole social, cultural, artistic, musical, political landscape is a cocktail party and where everyone walks further and everyone drinks more. True enough, I'd seen people I know disappear because they lost control. Bedwetting, angry, impotent, unpleasant unhappy souls. In the Priory feeling very sheepish renouncing themselves and all they ever stood for and being told what to think about themselves by some smug drug dealer in a white coat. You don't want to go there. I don't know anyone who's only been once. You can't delegate those kinds of problems to other people to sort out. You need to work them out yourself with your friends. No one goes on making themselves unhappy forever.
I realised I'd been in the karaoke bar for a fortnight. I was getting pretty good at 'Dude (Looks Like a Lady)'. I had quite a lot of new friends and I'd found some old ones. It was December and the whole world was in Soho getting deep-fried and singing. It was a great karaoke bar; it never shut. They had endless rooms that could accommodate parties of all sizes and they turned a blind eye. I will be going back. Everything was going pretty well. It's hard to describe what happens on an average day when you're drinking that much, because every day can unfold in so many different ways. Like when you're on tour you're not certain where you'll wake up.
My best friend was in the Priory having his mind squeezed. He wanted to die and I couldn't reach him. Couldn't reach him for years. Tried hard. Kept asking him to call. He didn't. What can you do? Still can't reach him now. Still trying. I must admit I was feeling pretty bad in the mornings. Woke up screaming sometimes. I decided to stop drinking for a year. It's easy to hold your breath and stay in for a week, but it's good to reinvent yourself every five years, chuck out your muck, whatever. It just got to the point where more avenues were open to me sober than drunk. The situation had become the opposite of what it was to start with. Who wants a red face and an extinct liver anyway?
My secret weapon was a word of advice passed on by a filmmaker called Storm Thorgersson whom Blur worked with in 1992. He clocked our hangovers the first time we met. 'Just make sure you have one day off a week guys,' is what he said, and if I'd had a drink six days running I'd stop on the seventh. It's a genius ABS braking mechanism. It means I'd learnt to cope with everything sober, it means I learnt how to say no, it means I phoned my granny. It keeps you in touch with a world that's spinning.
In January I decided to learn how to fly aeroplanes. It's easily the hardest thing I've ever done. I could take off, fly to Southampton and land behind Concorde without looking out of the window. It reduced grown men to tears and nearly broke me. It took two months. By the end of February I was running 12 miles three times a week and cycling 10 miles a day. By the end of March I was a captain, Captain James, mate.
By the end of April I'd had to take an assistant to help me cope with the new pace of my life. Blur started recording in May. By June I'd got myself really organised. It took six months to sort my life out and then the changes started happening. I split up with my girlfriend of 15 years. By August my bridge playing was mustard and my partner and I trounced everyone at the Groucho Club. I could nearly do the splits by September and then I started doing yoga. Wicked! Was having to divide my day into half-hour chunks like a grown-up. If I hadn't gone to live in a barn in Africa for October I would have gone right up my arse. Now it's December and it's horse riding. Give me lessons, teach me, show me. It's bloody marvellous.
I don't know why I drank so much, maybe because I was scared, because I was bored, unable to cope, inadequate, didn't know who I was; but talk about stating the obvious, that's not me, that's everybody in the world in the morning. I was taking positive action and I loved it. It's bullshit to overanalyse. If you spend time talking about your problems they gain too much reality. We could all spend an hour a day talking about our problems, but if you spend an hour a day doing anything you like doing, your problems will get smaller, I promise. We'll all have problems for the rest of our lives; some we have to deal with and some go away. No one can get enough love. Well, apart from a rock star on a seven-day bender.
I wonder what would happen if I had a drink now and I realise I don't know and that's the point. Drinking is about the potential of right now; not drinking is about the promise of tomorrow. IT'S ALL GOOD. Take your pick, it's what you want that matters. The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.
© Alex James 2002
>> link to the article