Set the Boy Free

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Read 03/05/2020-07/05/2020

Rating 4 stars

I love Johnny Marr. He’s an absolute peach of a human. Mr Hicks bought me his autobiography a while ago now. It’s a hefty hardback that I’ve been reluctant to carry with me on my commute. What better time than a lockdown to read it, then.

I knew bits and pieces about Marr’s early life, but enjoyed the detail he offers up about life in an extended Irish family in Manchester during the 60s and 70s. He brings to life the fun and the danger and recalls a different way of being – a community way of being – that seems to have largely disappeared. He talks of being in and out of family’s and neighbours’ houses, of late night parties with all the neighbours involved. He reflects on the bigotry towards Irish people, made worse when the IRA extended their campaign to mainland Britain in the 70s.

One line from his childhood reminiscences chimed particularly hard with me.

The biggest attraction in Manchester in the 1960s, though, was Belle Vue fun park, a couple of miles up the road. It was billed as the ‘showground of the world’ and boasted a circus, which I thought was amazing, and a zoo, which was really grim …

That zoo. Grim isn’t the half of it. It was still popular when I was little, in the 70s, and it’s the reason I hate zoos. I remember it as everywhere being concrete, enclosures crammed together, and a vivid moment in my memory is looking into the giraffe enclosure and seeing one of the giraffes had a deformed and oozing foot.

Of course he talks about music. He opens with the story of a wooden guitar on display in the local corner shop, that he began hankering after from the age of four. His first guitar and the start of a lifelong passion to rival that of any petrol head for cars. His childhood is filled with music, thanks mainly to his mum’s dedication to following the pop charts, but also to his dad’s involvement in booking acts for the social club, and family parties ending in a sing song.

He talks about fashion, too. Particularly the working class obsession with good clothes. He elevates it into a fascination with colour and style that cuts across clothes, into other parts of his life. He’s always well turned out, his sharp jackets these days embellished with subtle details. I remember thinking him a peacock when The Smiths first burst onto the tv screen. Forget Morrissey with his flowing, unbuttoned to the navel blouses. Marr was sharp and glittery in his v-neck over a roll-neck sweater embellished with the type of brooch or heavy necklace you might find in your grandma’s jewellery box. I enjoyed the story about the director on cutting edge youth tv show The Tube refusing to show Marr’s face on screen because he found him too decadent.

Another lifelong passion is Manchester City Football Club. I smiled at his rejection of United, the club all of his family followed. I went to a United game once. Like Marr, I didn’t like the vibe at the ground. Unlike Marr, I never went to another football match and never chose a team to follow. The United experience for me turned me fully against football forever. Now that I live close to Old Trafford football ground and experience that weird vibe spilling out into the streets on a regular basis, I loathe the game and that particular club even more. Marr’s reminiscences of the violence that prevailed on the terraces and in the streets before and after a match captures why I rejected football early on. The game wasn’t enough to make the aggro acceptable.

The discussion of his early years is clipped and economical, which fits with our earliest memories typically being fragments of our own recollections mixed in with legends told to us by older relatives. I got the feeling that Marr wasn’t averse to setting down some legendary markers, such as his early obsession with guitars, but didn’t want to embellish his naturally patchy recollection. The whole book is economical in the telling. Marr doesn’t confide. There’s no salacious detail, no gossip. The deeply personal remains confidential for Marr. The curious public only needs to know so much.

I was really interested in his memories of moving to Wythenshawe in the early 70s. Wythenshawe is a talismanic place for the collections at work. It’s the site of some important companies, was the largest housing estate in Europe when it was built in the 1920s and 30s, and had a music scene that took off with Punk. When I was growing up, Wythenshawe was as legendarily scary as Moss Side and Hulme. It was fascinating to read about the suburb from the perspective of one who lived there, experiencing its random violence and its street smart music scene.

The music scene is full of names that are familiar to me because of a couple of the collections we have at work and the (now postponed) exhibition I’m working on. I loved the way Marr mentions names without much explanation of who people are – the assumption is that, if you’re interested in Marr’s career, of course you’ll know who they are. It’s a very Mancunian attitude. His friendship with hairstylist and DJ Andrew Berry made sense of a document we have in a collection at work. As well as being a DJ at the Haçienda nightclub, Berry also ran a hair salon in the dressing room. We have books listing the records played for PRS purposes and in one of them Berry has written a paean to the greatness of The Smiths. For years I thought it was just adulation. Now I see that it was part myth making on behalf of his best mate. Late in the book, Marr talks about hanging out at the Haç on a regular basis, a fact borne out by the guest lists in the collection at work.

Marr’s musical influences are eclectic, from T-Rex to The Rolling Stones via Nils Lofgren and Rory Gallagher (who was my brother’s favourite guitarist) and ultimately The Stooges. He picks up influences along the way from his mentor Joe Moss, his girlfriend Angie, and his best mate Andrew Berry.

He recounts his teenage years and his ambitions to make music his career in a matter of fact way, but for someone looking in, it still comes across as an exciting, rebellious time for a pragmatically independent teenager to be experimenting with music.

Marr comes across throughout as very focused, certain about the direction he wants his life to take, and determined to make it happen. His meeting with Morrissey is at once magical and prosaic. He’s convinced by a feeling that Morrissey is the man he’s meant to collaborate with, so he tracks down his address and turns up at his door. The two click in the mysterious way clicking happens, in a suburban bedroom, listening to records.

He captures the excitement of forming the band, playing their first gigs and cutting their first single. Reading about those early days of The Smiths made me wish I’d been more tuned into them at the time. As a teenager, I liked The Smiths a lot, but they weren’t my band. I was mostly listening to the pop of A-ha, Duran Duran and Nik Kershaw, the Two-Tone of Madness and The Specials, and the whatever you call it that encompassed The Cure and Depeche Mode. I was older when I came to fully appreciate The Smiths, and by then they had split up. In fact, it was Marr’s project with Bernard Sumner in the 1990s that sent me back to The Smiths.

Marr opens a door onto the dynamic in the band, including the fact that he was the driving force, with Morrissey his equal partner and Andy Rourke and Mike Joyce more like employees than full partners in the outfit. Marr’s bluntness about all this prevents him coming across as an arrogant twat, but maybe I see him differently because I’m from a similar background with a similar drive to succeed. It’s also clear that he’s a decent bloke who wants a fair outcome for everyone. Not a full socialist but definitely not a capitalist. His telling of the court case, in which Mike Joyce sued for unpaid royalties as an equal partner in the band, has none of the bitter recrimination or point scoring that another type of personality might indulge in, but it is laced with sorrow that the disagreement couldn’t be settled privately, between former colleagues if not friends.

I remember the way the ending of The Smiths played out in the media. It was interesting to finally read Marr’s take on it. I remember reading about the end of the Beatles on the Ruth and Martin’s album club site. Marr’s telling of the end of The Smiths made me think of how badly Lennon treated McCartney at the end. And then Marr recounts how he went round to Paul and Linda’s to jam and spilled his guts about the end of his band, only for McCartney to say, “That’s bands for ya!” The words turn out to be wise ones, and perhaps part of the reason Marr refused to engage with the media circus around The Smiths’ demise.

Marr emerged from The Smiths as a guitarist for hire, playing with some of the biggest names in rock at the time. But more importantly, he joined forces with Bernard Sumner of New Order to create Electronic. Electronic’s eponymous album for Factory Records in 1991 is one of those records that, as soon as I hear a track from it, transports me to a specific time and place. It cemented Marr for me as a great musician, and made his role in The Smiths all the more significant for me. Morrissey’s lyrics with The Smiths were clever and amusing but without Marr’s songwriting and musicianship, he would have started out as the thing he has become.

Marr talks at various points about the books he reads. He’s a serious-minded man, interested in theosophy and esoteric philosophy. His favourite writer is Aldous Huxley. This nugget, along with the revelation that Marr is afraid of cats, made me realise that, although we share a birthday and a broadly similar outlook on life, Marr is not truly of my people. True, I’ve only read Brave New World by Huxley, but that was enough to put me off reading anything else by him. Marr’s interest in mysticism makes sense of his respect for Huxley and, although it didn’t persuade me that I should give Huxley another go, his take on Huxley being unfairly defined by his earlier work and the attachment of The Doors of Perception to 60s counter culture, is understandable.

… Huxley’s reputation rests on the work he did in the first half of his career, and as masterful as Brave New World is, it’s comparatively slight compared to the towering achievements of The Perennial Philosophy and the essays and lectures in the second half of his life for which he is far less known. The culture surrounding The Doors of Perception is a legacy which is much less than Huxley deserves, and it illustrates the reductive nature of fame and how you can become defined by something you did in your youth, despite doing work in later life that’s equally substantial.

(Stage whisper : He’s talking about himself.)

There aren’t many people whom I admire in life, certainly not ‘famous people’, but Marr is someone who I respect as an artist. He’s in the company of other artists, male and female, musicians, writers and actors, who I’d invite to a dream dinner party and then be incapable of speaking to them. It delights me when I discover that one artist I think well of is friends with another, as though my opinion of them has been validated. I knew Marr is friends with Neil Finn, but it made me happy to know that he’s also close friends with Ed O’Brien.

I really enjoyed this autobiography. It was simultaneously starry and down to earth. There were a handful of surprises along the way. I hadn’t realised that Marr had had as many near death experiences as he has – from crashing through the roof of a mechanics’ workshop and flying over the handlebars of his bicycle, both during childhood, to a serious car crash just before The Smiths split and a bomb at Paris-Charles de Gaulle airport just after. I’m a massive Coronation Street fan and didn’t know that Kevin Kennedy, who played Curly Watts in Corrie used to be called Kevin Williams and was in Johnny Marr’s first band. As Marr says, “Lanky and sporting nerdy spectacles, he didn’t quite fit the image of the rock star …” It was amusing to read Marr’s side of things about The Smiths and Factory Records. Tony Wilson is on record saying he turned down the chance to sign The Smiths to Factory. The truth is, Johnny Marr didn’t want to be on Factory. His plan was to sign with Rough Trade all along, as a better fit with his musical ethos.

I recommend this book if you’re a fan of Marr or if you’re interested in the life of a recent guitar great. I hear the paperback has additional material.

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