Three things stand out about ex-Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr when reading Set the Boy Free, his autobiography. The first is that he’s a very positive person. His inherent trust in people was likely the yin to his songwriting partner’s cynical yang. No matter what events were happening in his life or how they were unfolding, be they good, bad, a mixture of the two, Marr looks back on it all through rose-tinted lenses. I recall reading an editorial in a guitar magazine many years back where the writer admitted to being smitten by the Marr’s ability to remain so zen-like when the world around him was being ravaged by terrorism (the editor in question compared Marr’s attitude to David Bowie publicly bemoaning the fact that he brought his children into such a wicked world).
The other noticeable trait about Johnny Marr is that image is, if not everything, at least very important. Whenever a new character crosses his path, he takes note of what they are wearing and registers how he feels about the clothes. Again, this not a surprise to those who know a bit of Marr’s background. Many hardcore Smiths fans could probably rattle off the street address of the clothing shops where the musician worked before his band broke big. When sizing up other musicians, Marr would on more than one occasion worry about whether they “looked the part” in respect to his musical endeavors.
For a guy who took music so seriously, this is a strangely trivial attitude. The back cover of Set the Boy Free features a blurb from none other than proto-punk godfather Iggy Pop, describing the first time he saw Marr perform. “And he smoked his cigarette like a star” goes the penultimate sentence, hovering over a photograph of Marr playing his guitar onstage, casting the camera a very serious look. In fact, Marr’s history is littered with photographs that find him in a slew of poses. If smoking a cigarette “like a star” is designed to prompt one to purchase a memoir and take it home, then image can’t be ruled out as one the subject’s defining factors.
The final attribute I noticed about Marr is that he’s not a very complicated guy. He just does not spend a lot of time pondering things. When he does, he doesn’t allow his thoughts to plunge very deeply on the page (the book’s size is due to font and spacing of the type, 72 photographs on glossy pages, and an index). For example, Marr expressed from the very start of The Smith’s short existence that they needed to sign to the label known as Rough Trade. Why? Because Marr had that very specifically in mind. Why did he have this etched into his mind so specifically? He never says why.
One would think that an autobiography would be the perfect device in which to air out such quirks, but Marr just doesn’t bend that way. Having just finished Morrissey’s poetically-written autobiography before reading Set the Boy Free, I couldn’t help but find Marr’s style of writing highly prosaic and a bit of a let down, coming from a guy who wrote so much interesting music. Bland references to “quiffs” or how he “got on” with someone “straight away” are par for the course in Marr’s storytelling lexicon. But we’ve always paid the guy to play the guitar, not to write books.
Set the Boy Free runs in a pattern similar to many other pop music memoirs. The first chapter sets up Marr’s first encounter with a guitar at age five. The subsequent chapters rewind to the beginning with Marr’s birth and familiar surroundings. Boring and mundane details about his childhood ensue. Before long, Marr is able to corral his attachment to the guitar, his emotional responses to music, his love of bright colors, and his parents’ musical tastes into one narrative to finally move the book along.
He forms a band named The White Dice, bounces from one living situation to another, meets his girlfriend (now wife) Angie, befriends Billy Duffy of The Nosebleeds (and later of The Cult), meets his future mentor Joe Moss by way of retail clothing stores, and through it all winds up forming the seminal Britpop band The Smiths. It’s fair to say that, if you have read Morrissey’s autobiography, then you’ve been exposed to just part of the picture. To hear Morrissey tell of how The Smiths came together portrays it as a hazy, dream-like event described in an alarmingly aloof manner. From Marr’s point of view, The Smiths had very specific starting and stopping points with plenty of awe and wonder to fill the spaces in between. Every song that Marr demoed up and handed over to Morrissey was a giddy exploration into the artistic unknown, each rehearsal with the band nurtured musical and personal growth, and nearly every show they put on bottled up the magic perfectly.
Where Morrissey’s narrative spent a great deal of time airing his grievances against Rough Trade boss Geoff Travis and the British music press’s ambivalent attitude towards The Smiths, Marr gives an endless stream of thanks to people like Joe Moss, who provided an abundance of encouragement for the young guitarist. Marr’s few mentions of Geoff Travis are positive and he rarely addresses the pressures the band faced from the music press. One of those instances is when the band was on the verge of breaking up and music journalists, light on any authoritative word, found themselves speculating on Marr’s departure. The guitarist eventually, grudgingly, issued a statement in 1987 saying that he was out of the band.
The only other time Marr shows any inkling of annoyance with the press is when he’s pestered with questions of a Smiths reunion. It seems that, no matter what kind of answer he gives, the writers and editors will spin his response the most sensational way they can.
The breakup of The Smiths can, through Marr’s eyes, be attributed to management difficulties. The band had no permanent manager and many decisions fell to Marr as he was trying to write and record new songs. Morrissey and Marr thought they had a good lead on one particular manager, but things turned ugly once Morrissey realized that he didn’t particularly like this new manager. Suddenly, The Smiths became a three-against-one outfit where Marr felt pressured into doing things like recording a cover of Cilla Black’s “Work is a Four Letter Word”.
After that, Johnny Marr’s career becomes a bit paradoxical. On the one hand, he was exhausted by the amount of work he put into The Smiths. On the other, once he was free of the band, he threw himself into a flurry of rock ‘n’ roll activity by strumming along with The The, Talking Heads, Bernard Sumner (as Electronic), and even Paul and Linda McCartney. The pressures of touring begin to push back once he becomes a full-time member of Modest Mouse then The Cribs, leaving him to depart both bands drama-free. The most dirt that Marr can excavate on Isaac Brock is that he drinks wine and sometimes wears old-timey aviator gear for fun.
In fact, Set the Boy Free is very light on dirt and gossip. He refers to Liam Gallagher of Oasis as “Mr. Haircut” (coming from Marr, this is a weird insult). He’s very candid about his alcohol and drug consumption of the past, resulting in a BMW smash-up that served as his “wake-up call”. The famous late-‘90s court case where Smiths drummer Mike Joyce sued for 25 percent royalties leaves Marr cold. Morrissey went on about the trial for pages in his book, reeling from the injustice of it all. Marr is bitter, but he seems to shrug it off relatively quickly, eager to not let the episode color the rest of the book.
And wouldn’t you know it, you learn that Marr and Morrissey met up in a pub in 2008 to discuss among other things, a possible Smiths reunion! The band has been famously stubborn about their refusal to reunite, Morrissey especially so. But to hear Marr tell the story, it sounded like the pub meeting was pointing to some positive Smiths vibes in the near future. It leads to nothing. The strained relationship and clipped communication he shares with Morrissey is briefly mentioned but never dwelled upon.
When broken down, Johnny Marr’s Set the Boy Free feels like a run-of-the-mill celebrity memoir: a boy loves music, grows up to learn the guitar, finds success, goes through turbulent times, comes out the other end with a rich career and a happy family. Many of the insights that Marr gives the reader have already been revealed through previous books, articles and interviews. Even though it’s an autobiography, much of Set the Boy Free feels secondhand, thanks to the constant retelling of The Smiths’ story and the discussions of Britpop in general. It may be a quick read, but the true magic is saved for the music and a life well-lived.
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