I saw Graham Coxon (Blur) play a live solo set last night and had some thoughts. First, bit of backstory.
I was a huge Blur fan in the ’90s, still am. In ’98, Coxon put out his first solo record, The Sky is Too High, which I found in the Imports section of the Virgin Megastore in Orlando. I had no idea he had a solo record out. The internet then wasn’t what it is today, where everyone knows everything immediately. News still traveled fairly slow, unless you were plugged into all the best message boards and/or able to get your hands on the underground music magazines.
Coxon’s solo record fell right in line with what I was getting into musically at the time. It was folksy, more lo-fi than Blur, and I had recently been turned on to Elliott Smith, Sebadoh, Modest Mouse, Pavement, etc. Songwriters bridging the gap between loud, dynamic indie rock and more subtle, introspective, basically-folk.
I was also eighteen years old, bridging the gap between familiar years of youthful routines (wake up, go to school, come home, eat a snack, pretend to do homework) and adulthood (move out, work full time, maybe watch some TV, see friends less and less).
Of course, I didn’t know precisely what the adult side of that gap would entail at the time, but I had an idea. Friends were already moving away and, honestly, for most of my teen life, I’d been looking at the small town I lived in through a frustrated, cynical, bitter-old-man filter that had convinced itself it was “punk,” deciding that, as with literally every place, you had to either keep moving or get stuck.
Coxon songs like “Where’d You Go?,” “In a Salty Sea,” “A Day is Far Too Long” and “R U Lonely?” took their perfect place on the driving-through-the-same-old-gray-streets-past-the-same-old-sad-homes-illuminated-irregularly-by-ghostly-lights soundtrack as Smith’s “Waltz #2” and “Pitseleh,” Modest Mouse’s “Bankrupt on Selling,” Sebadoh’s “Skull,” and Built to Spill’s “Car.”
I was way on board with sad bastard indie rock because I felt like, if my town was a genre of music, it would be sad bastard indie rock. I’d found art that imitated my life because it reflected the lives of artists who’d grown up (or were currently living) similar lives. This is, by and large, what people mean when they talk about “connecting” with music. “It speaks to me!” not because I’m special, but because I’m not special. Because others have felt the exact same way and a select few are capable of brilliantly turning those feelings into melodies.
Twenty years later, I finally got to see Coxon live in a fairly large theater with an incredibly attentive seated crowd hanging on every word, letting every note pluck and ring without interference, allowing the music to be as sharp as it was in my head twenty years prior.
He played a song or two from that first record, songs from throughout his solo career, bunch of new songs from an actual soundtrack, couple of covers (including Blur’s “Miss America”) and “You’re So Great,” a Blur song he sang lead on.
He was funny and charming and, while I knew he was an insanely good and interesting guitarist, seeing him play in person drove that home over and over again.
Somewhere near the end of the set, I half-snapped out of the spell he had me (and the entire room) under to have a thought:
On October 16th of this same year, Gorillaz are playing the United Center. Gorillaz is the project fronted by Coxon’s former Blur bandmate, Damon Albarn, and they’re great. Massive, theatrical and weird and I appreciate them for completely different reasons than I appreciate Coxon or even Blur.
The United Center is huge and floor tickets are a couple hundred dollars, compared to the $30 price tag of a single Coxon ticket.
This thought crossed my mind and made me smile.
Blur formed in 1988 and created music together into the 2000s. They got huge (Google image search “Blur at Hyde Park”). Despite personally not having 100% of the same musical tastes, their combined creative force can’t be overstated.
And now Coxon, with two guitars, plays his lo-fi-appreciating indie folk for quiet theaters and Albarn, with an arsenal of instrumentation, supremely talented collaborators, lights and literal cartoons, will no doubt blow the roof off the United Center.
It’s sort of the best of both worlds, worlds that collided for a time and gave the world eight wonderful full-length records that sound nothing like Coxon solo or Gorillaz.
I didn’t dwell on this thought long because, well, I had a concert to watch, but in the maybe minute it swirled in my mind, it reminded me there are all sorts of different avenues for creative output. There’s no right way to do any of it. You find your thing and take it to the place that makes the most sense: a garage with a few other weirdos, a coffee shop wall, a website, a 50-seat black box theater. You do it initially because you have no choice and, if you choose, you do it where others can appreciate it, connect with it.
And, much like art imitating life and vice versa, in life, as in art, there are all sorts of different avenues you can drive down.
You might escape that small town that felt like death to you and never look back. Or you might grow to see it isn’t so bad, that it’s a pretty nice place to start and raise a family. You might shirk being anchored by too many material possessions, or even a house, to bounce around the country or world, seeing everything you possibly can before you’re too weak or tired to do that. You might settle into a good paying job and buy a home, carve a niche, enjoy the comfort of familiarity.
When it comes to your art and when it comes to simply deciding who and where you want to be as a living, breathing organism allowed to make a brief appearance on this planet, there’s no right or wrong way. There is only the way that makes the most sense to you.
Your life is your canvas, your guitar, your camera, your blank sheet of paper in the printer, your tape recorder with a busted nob but it does the job, your dance floor.
If nothing else, you’re your artist. You’re in your hands. Create yourself.