It is one of rock’s most flyblown clichés that its prime exponents are lifers, doomed from birth, condemned by fate to rock’n’roll. They didn’t choose the life, the life chose them, it goes, and if they weren’t doing this, they’d be dead or in jail. It is a pleasure, therefore, to read a memoir by a five-star guitar hero that inverts these clapped-out banalities to present a particular life in rock as one of pure, disarming joy and open possibility. It’s especially piquant when the author rose to fame in a band that is caricatured by the cloth-eared as the ne plus ultra of pop miserabilism. Could they have imagined that life in the Smiths was so exhilarating?
As demonstrated by the opening “childhood and teens” section of Set the Boy Free, Johnny Marr – the Smiths’ musical visionary, free-range collaborator with The The, Electronic, the Pretenders, Modest Mouse and the Cribs, and finally solo artist – certainly is a lifer. Born in 1963 to a working-class immigrant Irish couple in Manchester, the young John Maher came to regard guitars in the way that other boys covet action figures or bikes.
Entranced by amps and fretboards, he painted his toyshop guitar a stage-appropriate white and glued on beer bottle tops as “knobs” (he was about five years old). Adoration of pop was imprinted on him by his music-loving sister and young mother who, touchingly, compiled her own top 20 lists and loved the Everly Brothers. Nights out with his extended Irish family convinced him that “going out to see a band was the best and most glamorous thing that could ever happen”. He was a rock star in his head by the age of seven.
It’s hard to imagine a more fortuitous place and time to forge a musician’s spirit and discerning taste. Glam rock was on the radio, Tamla Motown and Brill Building pop were on the radiogram at home and Johnny was surrounded by the clothes and colourful reprobates of 1970s Manchester. By 12, he began to look like Keith Richards (he never stopped), and was so self-possessed that he changed his surname from Maher to Marr at the age of 14 so as not to be confused with the then Buzzcocks drummer, John Maher. Most of us have no idea what we’ll become when we grow up. Marr always knew.
It is heartening to read how Marr’s innate artistic leanings – which are usually mercilessly crushed in such memoirs (cough, cough, Morrissey) – were positively encouraged by a succession of mentors. An art teacher with the unimprovable name of Miss Cocane urged Johnny to explore his interest in colour; he transposed this chromatic intuition into his guitar playing and developed an acute and precocious melodic sense. “I was looking for things that evoked a sense of yearning but with a kind of optimism,” he writes – which is as good a summary of the Smiths as any written. “The music was my way into somewhere, as well as a way out.”
After a succession of bands, many with his friend Andy Rourke, Marr decided to get serious and seek out a singer. He visited a reclusive pop-culture addict called Steven Morrissey in Stretford, and the Smiths were on their way.
The scope and directness of Marr’s recollections of the Smiths are in sharp contrast with the perfunctory retelling in Morrissey’s overwritten Autobiography from 2013. The singer squeezed the story of the last great British rock band into a thin sliver between an amusing, Gormenghastly picture of Cro-Magnon Manchester and an interminable moan about the Smiths’ court case over royalty payments in the 1990s.
Marr, on the other hand, dedicates the central third of the book to the Smiths, detailing every development and internal tension of this game-changing group with candour. He describes especially well how it felt to imagine and then create music such as “How Soon Is Now?” and “There Is a Light That Never Goes Out” – and then hear these instrumentals inhabited and transformed by Morrissey’s electrifying words and voice. Marr’s book dedicates five pained pages to the legal dispute, not 50, and is all the better for it.
What is missing here is a sense of revelation. Excepting the story of how Morrissey suggested reconvening three-quarters of the Smiths in 2008 – seemingly more of a mindgame with his former guitarist than a serious suggestion – Set the Boy Free adds little to the reservoir of Smiths lore. Given the extent to which fans and journalists have pored over this most singular of bands, perhaps there is nothing left to discover.
Instead, we learn more from the post-Smiths stuff, in which Marr throws himself into contrasting musical styles and collaborations to escape the jangling, chiming Smiths sound that threatened to become a cliché. The last third of the book provides not a climax but a sense of arrival. Like the narrator in “Being Boring” by his friends and collaborators the Pet Shop Boys, Marr has got to be the creature that he always meant to be. It is impossible not to be happy for him, and a little envious, too.
This article appears in the 23 Nov 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Blair: out of exile