In May of 1983, a propulsive bit of doomy guitar-pop called “Hand in Glove” began appearing on radio playlists across England: The Smiths’ assault on a British music scene dominated by soggy synth-pop was on. Working-class lads from down-at-heels Manchester, the band made four towering albums of blasted romanticism before abruptly splitting, breaking the hearts of a fan base of fanatical loyalty and devotion. The pint-sized engine of the band’s shimmering sound was guitarist Johnny Marr, who tells his story in this breezy, often scattered autobiography “Set the Boy Free.”
The rock-star memoir is a notoriously uneven genre. For every Bruce Springsteen who writes thoughtfully and perceptively about his life, there are a dozen more erstwhile rockers whose books are cheap cash-ins or vanity projects. Unfortunately “Set the Boy Free” tilts toward the latter, although not without some redeeming qualities. Born into a lively clan of Anglo-Irish immigrants, Marr gives an account of his band’s early days that is colorful and slangy, if not terribly revealing.
The book is best when he sticks to musicianly shop-talk. An authentically brilliant composer with a quicksilver ear and an uncanny instinct for instrumental hooks, Marr learned how to put songs together by studying the girl-group records of the early 1960s, and the sonic signature of the Smiths’ songs proves, in his telling, to be a product of hard work, good luck and an inventive approach to recording. The wobbly tone undergirding “How Soon Is Now?” was created by running a tremolo effect through four amplifiers; the ghostly drone that shadows “The Queen Is Dead” was the fortuitous result of an overamplified guitar feeding back.
The black hole at the center of this memoir, from which no light escapes, is Marr’s relation with the Smiths’ singer Morrissey, whose androgynous looks and soaring croon made the band catnip to a legion of self-identified misfits and loners. Theirs was a working relationship of uncommon fecundity and emotional complexity, yet Marr often seems to be circling the topic warily. Of their fateful first meeting in 1982 — a ground-zero moment in the history of British rock — Marr remembers mostly what they both were wearing (1950s Levis with bike boots for Marr, suit trousers and a baggy cardigan for Morrissey) and what record they listened to first (“You’re the One,” by the Marvelettes). Likewise, the breakup of the band in 1987, which in some quarters has attracted slightly less analysis than, say, the Zapruder film, gets from Marr just two brusque and not particularly edifying paragraphs.
This odd evasiveness is not confined to all things Morrissey. Much of Marr’s story is shadowed by an elliptical defensiveness, conveying the disorienting quality of an argument of which one only hears one side. Of his personal habits, he writes, with studied banality, “I relished the opportunity to dive into the rock ’n’ roll lifestyle and everything that came with it. . . . It was a fun thing to do and no one could say I wasn’t living the dream.”
It is instructive, if faintly depressing, to read Morrissey’s 2013 “Autobiography” in this context, if only to get a corrective of sorts to Marr’s airy vagueness. To pick an example almost at random: In 1986, the Smiths briefly added a fifth member, guitarist Craig Gannon, who in Marr’s telling “lightened the mood” and “added a dimension to the sound,” but who was “quiet” and became “more remote” as time went on, leading Marr to admit that “things weren’t working out.” Morrissey, in contrast, provides a ruthless account of a “sullen” and “probably unhinged . . . crackpot”; for Gannon’s bandmates, the “continual difficulty was in trying to get him out of bed.” A charitable conclusion is that Morrissey is being petty, and Marr gracious. Less generous readers might feel that Marr is being overly politic.
The second half of the book traces a post-Smiths life that has been a predictable, if frantic, roundelay of collaboration — with the Pretenders, the Talking Heads, The The, Modest Mouse and the Cribs, as well as various bands of his own. Here, too, an unintentional melancholy seeps in. Marr was 23 when the Smiths broke up; his five years in one of the world’s most famous bands now comprise less than a tenth of his lifespan. As a thought experiment, think of yourself at age 23 and then imagine that everything you have accomplished since then is polluted with a vague tang of the anticlimactic. It is not a fate I would wish on anyone. When Marr concludes that “I’ve had the best job in the world” and says that “I love my work and I’ve always appreciated the good luck that’s come with it,” one hopes he means it.
Michael Lindgren is a frequent contributor to The Washington Post.
By Johnny Marr
Dey Street. 480 pp. $28.99