‘Show me the boy and I’ll show you the man’ – Johnny Marr’s autobiography Set The Boy Free
“January, sick and tired you’ve been hanging on me.” No, not a Johnny Marr tune but the opening line from Pilot’s 1975 smash hit and my sick note to explain why I’m handing in my homework so late. After all Set The Boy Free Johnny Marr’s autobiography was published in November and was sitting wrapped-up under my Christmas tree shortly afterwards and I still hadn’t read it by the end of February.
On reflection, reading the biography of a prodigiously talented, driven and relentlessly positive, successful man of a similar age wasn’t necessarily the best prescription for a perennial dose of ‘winter blues’ but I’m glad that I did.
Show me the boy and I’ll show you the man
Was it the Jesuits or Aristotle (or both) that said ‘show me the boy and I’ll show you the man?’ If that’s true we should be glad that a five year old Johnny Maher (as he was then) became fixated on a toy guitar in the window of Emily’s corner shop in Ardwick Green in Summer 1968 rather than say, a toy train. We’d undoubtedly have better trains now but that would be no compensation for the great tunes that would never have been.
His working class childhood and youth in Ardwick Green and later Wythenshawe passes in the book as a supportive community with, of course, some rough edges but far from the unpleasant headline-hype of sink estates and general Jeremy Kyleisation of working class culture that we are fed these days.
The local grammar school gave Marr his first experience of being around middle class kids and he “discovered that a nice house and exotic holidays might sound great but privilege can sometimes make you timid.” It was at the school where he bonded with Andy Rourke over a love of Neil Young, the only other kid in his year who didn’t have a “regulation haircut.”
Whichever school Johnny Marr was going to find himself in, he was always going to be his own best teacher. His magpie’s eye for the new and interesting in music (and fashion) never dims throughout the book. It’s an open but not undiscriminating mind. Whilst he happily flits from Neil Young to learning every note of his sister’s Chic collection he flatly rejects Prog Rock “I didn’t like looking at old-looking guys playing flutes or anything to do with dragons and robes.s”
By the age of 14 his school attendance was becoming patchy and he was becoming sought-after for his guitar playing by local bands but 14 doesn’t seem early for him, as you get the feeling that his dedication had easily seen him get his fabled 10,000 hours of practice in on the guitar by then.
At 15 Elvis Costello’s manager, Jake Riviera was on the phone to Johnny asking him and his current band White Dice to come to London to do a session. The session ultimately didn’t lead to anything but that level of attention followed by unfulfilled expectation could have knocked the wind out of a less robust character (e.g. me) but Johnny had enjoyed the moment.
He continued on, hanging out with his mates, smoking dope and generally being young and carefree and at about this time met the other love of his life, (aside from the guitar) Angie who added further steel to his musical convictions. We have both Angie and Emily in part to thank for our favourite Marr riffs as he notes “She didn’t doubt me, and that was amazing and validating. There was no other option for me anyway, and now that I had her it was even more necessary because she needed it too. I believed I could do it. She made me brave.”
The boy becomes the man
The story of how Joe Moss, his mentor and later Smiths manager, showed Marr a VHS of a South Bank Show episode where lyricist Jerry Lieber described how he tracked down composer Mike Stoller to form a legendary songwriting partnership is a familiar one in Smithslore. Marr the composer was inspired to track down Morrissey the lyricist this time, leading to a five year collaboration that for some became the songwriting partnership.
It’s at this point, among the stories of the intense musical love affair with Morrissey which saw them become the popstars that they had always wanted to be, that the boy of the title loses his freedom under the burdens of the man. For example the negotiation over the 40/40 (Morrissey/Marr) /10/10 (Rourke/Joyce) income split that Mike Joyce was later to contest in court fell to him to finalise. He is unsentimental in saying that “However much I’d have liked to have thought that The Smiths were made up of equals, we weren’t” and he makes a fair point in saying “I was twenty years old, I didn’t know how to deal with it and I was pissed off to be put in that position.”
A succession of short term management arrangements and legal and label problems along with Morrissey’s refusal to engage outside of their creative cocoon wore the boy down in the end. As Bart Simpson once wrote on the blackboard at the beginning of The Simpsons “there are lots of businesses like show business” and we can only fantasize how much more the Smiths could have given us if a manager could have successfully taken on the business side. It was a ridiculous division of labour, akin to having Pele in your side and wasting his energy by making him mow the pitch too.
Marr probably gets asked about The Smiths re-forming at every other interview even now and he even discussed it himself with Morrissey in a South Manchester pub around the time that he was remastering Smiths tracks for a re-issue. But you’d have to be churlish not to agree that he had done his bit and at just 23 the boy was entitled to his freedom again and to carry on with the mission he’d started aged 5, outside Emily’s corner shop “ I had no idea what I was going to do. I just knew I wanted to play the guitar and do something different from what I’d been doing for the previous five years. It was a time of rejuvenation, pro-future, pro-music.”
Marr is generous in giving over a fair chunk of the book to what was only five years of his creative life, quite a five years but still only five years. But the remainder of the book is perhaps still more interesting for those of us who have heard the rise and fall of The Smiths examined from all angles.
Marr’s post Smiths collaborations reflect both his lust for the new and the demand from the properly diverse list of musical admirers that his Smiths triumphs created including: Matt Johnson and The The, Bernard Sumner, The Pretenders, The Pet Shop Boys, Talking Heads, Modest Mouse, Bert Jansch and, no doubt to the delight of him and his sister, Nile Rodgers. The phrase “the list goes on” definitely applies here.
He spent long and happy spells with Bernard Sumner in Electronic and in Modest Mouse and other band and so understandably he growls at being thought of as a musical “gun for hire” post-Smiths “as if joining bands, playing the guitar on people’s records and collaborating with my favourite artists was anything other than totally great.”
It sounds pretty great too. After putting the book down I set off on a trip around Spotify (other streaming services that pay the artists a pittance are available) to find Marr’s post-Smiths career and that’s what I’d recommend that you do too; it’s a bloody good night in.
That, as much as anything, is why I’m glad that I got around to reading his book. Johnny Marr (and his guitar) is a joybringer (a 1973 smash for Manfred Mann’s Earth Band). This book reminded my ears why I’d fallen in love with The Smiths but also set me off on a new aural adventure. I wisely stopped measuring up my levels of drive and confidence against Johnny’s. But that confidence, like all confidence, looks effortless from the outside looking-in and it’s easy to overlook the moments of nervousness and doubts that are in the book.
So if Set The Boy Free was among your Christmas presents, time to read it. Or buy it and enjoy the trip from five year-old to guitar-savant, to a musician who has earned the front to wind up fronting his own band. Our ears can be glad that the working class boy kept pushing through and made good with an attitude that is as good as any: “the only way I knew how to do it was to take things as far as I could in whatever situation I was in, and then move on”.
For all things Johnny Marr http://www.johnnymarrplaysguitar.com/more/