Blur: Meet Damon, The Poet

Blur’s Damon Albarn tells CAROLINE SULLIVAN he is tired of being a star, tired of Yob Pop and tired off feuding. That’s why he’s reading one of his poems at the Albert Hall tomorrow

ON SUNDAY, 60 poets will colonise the Royal Albert Hall for a Poetry Super-Jam. Among those attempting to, as the advance publicity promises, “levitate” the venue will be Heathcote Williams. Adrian Mitchell and Russian laureate Andrei Voznesensky. Oh, and Damon Albarn.

Damon Albarn? What on earth is Blur’s mockney-accented, Essex-and-proud lead singer doing among this company? It’s not as if he were the more deluded sort of rock star who considers his lyrics to be poetry in disguise, although he did rhyme Prozac with Balzac in ‘Country House’. Yet he’ll be closing the nine-hour event by reciting a work called ‘essex dogs’, accompanied only by a DAT player. Sounds like poetry to me.

“I’m uncomfortable with the word poetry,” he says, his voice like sludge after an early-morning flight from Copenhagen. “I write words, which usually eventually turn out to be lyrics. If I wanted to write ‘poetry’, I’d be more structured about it. I think modern language is more spurts of energy than structure.”

Which pretty well describes ‘essex dogs’, a snatch of which he bashfully recites: “down remembrance avenue/dogs somersault through sprinklers on summer lawns”. Don’t mean to be a philistine, Dame, but what does it mean?

“It’s an amalgam of all the negativity I’ve felt since I was a teenager. When I was at that sensitive age and had spots, we were preoccupied with CND and nuclear weapons and I assumed everything would be wiped out soon. I never really got that out of my system, and it’s coming through in my new words.”

A dressed-up form of ‘Essex Dogs’ will be on the new Blur album, alongside a dozen other tracks that are “as dark as we ever get”. To put it another way, the luv-a-duck caricatures made famous by 1994’s two-million-selling Parklife are about to be replaced by something more challenging. The principal lyricist of the country’s second-biggest pop act, Albarn hereby presents Blur’s cerebral side.

“I’m not working class and I’ve got a pretty face, otherwise I’d have been taken seriously all along,” he argues with good reason. Blur are the most literate of the Brit-pop hordes: Albarn can discuss Michael Ondaatje as fluently as he can chart positions. It was Parklife‘s working-class pastiche that landed him in the (as he might put it) merde. Accused of co-opting prole values for their own middle-class ends, last year Blur found themselves at war with Oasis, the wimpoid southerners against the authentic gritty northerners. Oasis won with 5 million worldwide sales of (What’s The Story) Morning Glory? to one million of Parklife‘s follow-up, The Great Escape, though Blur recently rallied by refusing to accept the Ivor Novello songwriting gong awarded jointly to them and Noel Gallagher.

It was a fabulous feud while it lasted, but Albarn’s had enough. “I stopped being interested when yob bands stopped having an agenda of any kind.” He has been following the rise of Oasis-inspired lad-rock with dismay. “The great consensus is that theirs is the ideal way to behave, and I’m a fake.

“Oasis’s enmity toward us was their cultural tool — working-class boys who mean what they say and say what they mean. For a brief period we were inextricably linked, which was mostly my doing because I changed the release date of ‘Country House’ to coincide with their single. I thought it would be amusing, and it was, but I never had a picture of Liam on the wall to throw darts at. I can live outside that kind of thing, but they don’t seem to he able to. Oasis seem to despise intelligence — Noel once quite proudly said that he’s never read a book in his life, and Liam’s only read The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe, which is Liam all over. The idea of the leading cultural icon being proud of not reading is sad.”

If the Gallaghers drop by the Notting Hill pied a terre Albarn shares with Elastica’s Justine Frischmann, they’ll find Alexander Trocchi’s Cain’s Book on the night-stand. He’s reading it on the recommendation of the Super Jam’s organiser Michael Horovitz. Damon and the American “poet, kazooist, clown and visual artist” met when he turned up on Albarn’s doorstep one day, having obtained the address from a fan. Albarn made him a cup of tea, and Horovitz talked him into playing the Super Jam, which is the biggest such bash since Allen Ginsburg and Trocchi filled the Albert Hall in 1965. Back then, iambic pentameter and pop didn’t mix. but this time there’s a rock contingent of Patti Smith, Nick Cave and Ray Davies appearing with the beards.

It’s Albarn’s first solo gig, but he says he’s not nervous. Rather, he sees it as a way out of Britpop.

“I don’t want to be part of the mainstream at the moment, which is why I’d rather be doing this thing on Sunday,” he says, his voice ebbing into sleep. “I have a problem with the narcissism of music right now, this thing of ‘We don’t have to do anything original as long as we believe in what we do’.”

Did he ever long to be Sylvia Plath? “No, but I wanted to be Hermann Hesse, because there’s a great deal of peace in his work.”

That’s something the Bard of Colchester doesn’t experience much any more. Fame seems to have been a deeply disillusioning experience for him. In the five years before Parklife, Blur were the perennial underdogs of the English indie scene, ridiculed for being educated and not troubling to conceal it. Parklife made them top dogs (canines are an Albarn motif; he even owns a racing greyhound called Honest Guv) for a sparkling instant before the Oasis scorched-earth policy. The Great Escape, their last chance to trounce Oasis, was weaker than Parklife, and Blur are underdogs once again. The money probably cheers them up. though.

There will be a single in the autumn, and a new album within six months. In the meantime, Albarn has been spending much of his time outside Britain, waiting for Noelrock to blow over. “It’s not our time to be playing here. I want to stay away till I’m ready to come back and face the dogs.”

© Caroline SullivanThe Guardian, 6 July 1996

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