Rock and Roll Book Club: Johnny Marr's 'Set the Boy Free'

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Johnny Marr's 'Set the Boy Free'
Johnny Marr's 'Set the Boy Free' (Jay Gabler/MPR)

"One of the first things I noticed about having money," writes Johnny Marr about the early days of the Smiths, "was that I was able to buy books."

It's no surprise that avid reader Marr has produced an unfussy, readable, and long autobiography. Set the Boy Free tells the story of Marr's life from an inner-city Manchester childhood to musical collaborations with generations of luminaries. It's as blessedly beef-free as his diet — which became vegetarian, we learn, only after the Smiths recorded the title track to Meat is Murder.

Rockers aren't generally known for consistency, but Marr is no ordinary rocker. His personal life has been outrageously stable: he's still married to his teenage sweetheart. His professional life has been less so, but if Marr has issues with the way his former bandmate Morrissey has behaved towards him, he keeps them almost entirely to himself over the course of 464 pages.

Like many music memoirs, Set the Boy Free provides a helpful map to the writer's musical influences. Born on Halloween 1963, Marr has warm memories of the music he grew up with in the '60s; he experienced the punk explosion in his adolescence, and by the time he was ready to make his own mark on the music world, even post-punk was starting to feel a little played out.

That's how the world got the Smiths, a neo-Romantic group that combined the defiance of the '70s with the rich melodic tapestry of the '60s and became one of the quintessential "college rock" bands of the '80s.

Marr says he immediately recognized that Morrissey was the musical partner he was looking for. The two shared musical tastes, but their specific gifts were complementary: Morrissey was a born frontman, with big ideas and a never-ending drive for personal expression, while Marr was a natural songwriter and a studio craftsman who relished the opportunity to use his primary instrument, the guitar, to build cathedrals of sound.

In Marr's telling, the end for the Smiths came fairly quickly — and things were pretty great until then. He remembers the band's early years, in particular, with a near-ecstatic glow. "I had an intimate relationship with my songwriting partner, who I loved," Marr writes, "I had a girlfriend who was the love of my life, and I thought my band was the best in the world."

Even life on the road seems to have been just groovy: the band were all friends with each other and their crew, and they'd hang out together after each show. Sex isn't mentioned at all, and drugs were fun until they weren't, after which Marr sobered up and remains happily off the sauce.

For Marr, it seems, it really is all about the music — and there's been a lot of it, more than you might realize. For example, I had no idea it was Marr who created the distinctive shimmering sound of my favorite single of all time, Talking Heads' "(Nothing But) Flowers." Also, did you know that Marr played on an Oscar-nominated film score — Hans Zimmer's Inception? How about the fact that he recorded and toured with Modest Mouse?

On top of that, Mars has played with — take a deep breath — The The, the Pretenders, Electronic (his duo with Bernard Sumner), Billy Bragg, and the Cribs. He's fronted his own bands and released solo material, and he shared a manager with Oasis — he gave two of his Smiths-era guitars to Noel Gallagher, who played them extensively in the early years of that band.

When copies of Set the Boy Free started becoming available to press last year, the book made headlines for Marr's account of a 2008 meeting with Morrissey: an hours-long conversation in which the two estranged bandmates, who'd reconnected during the process of remastering the Smiths catalog, caught up and reminisced.

"Morrissey started to talk about how, with so much water under the bridge, our relationship had become owned by the outside world, and usually in a negative way," writes Marr. "We had been defined by each other in most areas of our professional life. I appreciated him mentioning it, as it was true."

By the end of that conversation, it seemed that a reunion might actually be a possibility...but after a few days, it was back to "radio silence" from Morrissey's camp. Now, writes Marr, he's constantly put in an awkward position by interviewers who ask about the possibility of a Smiths reunion. Knowing that anything he says in either direction is bound to make headlines, Marr writes, "nowadays I can say 'Google it,' which is quite helpful."

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