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Johnny Marr - Set the Boy Free

  by Mary O'Meara

published: 22 / 12 / 2016

Johnny Marr - Set the Boy Free


Mary O'Meara discovers both the inner and outer worlds of Johnny Marr, from vivid childhood memories to the meteoric rise of The Smiths and beyond in his newly published memoirs 'Set the Boy Free'

As somebody who fell in love with The Smiths as a school girl, it feels like Johnny Marr has always been part of my life, providing the soundtracks of both my youth and the decades that followed. Somehow the people he hooked up with on his maverick journey sparked my interest too and I was never disappointed in the avenues he wandered down, discovering artists I perhaps never would have otherwise. The story of The Smiths is no secret but I was keen to read some of the previously presented narratives through the eyes of their guitarist. This opportunity was immediately refreshing, colourful and entertaining, yet consistent and credible. Marr's voice is his own and, though I'm sure this massive manuscript underwent the usual editing any tome does, I get the sense his unique use of language and turn of phrase have been largely retained, creating the sense that he is speaking directly to you, at times whispering mischievously in your ear, at others leaning back laughing on the sofa, then at others he becomes thoughtful, even a little wistful as though staring out the window, considering the enormity of everything. Though full of beautiful subtleties, there's something instant and hugely expressive about his manner of guitar playing which is not unlike the immediate intimacy I find in his writing style. Marr speaks candidly about the love he has for various people in his life (his wife, children, Joe Moss and various musicians) which is touchingly sincere and heartfelt. One thing that comes through loud and clear in this book is the strength and influence of the author's Irish connection. He was born in Ardwick, Manchester to Irish parents who, like so many others, traversed the Irish sea looking for work in English cities. The scenarios that he paints of his childhood are smilingly familiar to me (and I'm sure anyone with Irish parents). They work hard, laugh hard and sometimes drink hard...all set against a backdrop of continuous music. The presence of music and rhythm is like a substance instilled in the blood, a musical pulse as alive and ever present as your heart-beat. Early in his memoir, Marr recalls the frequent get-togethers of his relatives involving singing, dancing and playing a variety of instruments as well as playing records. He mentions "the more I noticed the guitars, the more alluring it all was, and the combination of sound and the wild exuberance it brought out in everyone made me want to make music myself that would evoke the same kind of feelings." He also speaks poetically about the ability of music to express a yearning and poignancy that words cannot and how it took him places with an almost mystical energy providing both connection and escapism: "The slower tunes took me somewhere else, to a place of yearning and a beautiful melancholy that I understood but that was only expressed in music. In those melodies I discovered a different side to life, and the outside world faded out. It was something I thought was real and unspoken and I learned that you can chase that feeling down. The music was my way into somewhere, as well as way out." I remember being introduced to Johnny Marr some years ago when I worked at a small venue in Stockport called Blue Cat Cafe and as soon as he heard my name he asked me "What's your middle name? No, don't tell me! Let me guess..." and he pondered his question for a minute before proclaiming "Kathleen!" I was disappointed to have to tell him it wasn't and ruefully revealed it was "Bernadette" to which he slapped his thigh in annoyance as though that had been on the tip of his tongue. Without saying a lot, I knew and knew he knew we had some kind of shared Irish inheritance that didn't need explaining. It was one of the reasons we were standing in a music venue where his son Nile was playing some acoustic numbers and I was working - because it was all about the music and 'Set the Boy Free' pronounces this over and over again. Music is the magic that set the boy free and always will be. The other thing I remember about Marr in the Blue Cat Cafe is the way he perched himself on the pew style furniture and climbed around on it with the excitement of a child as he was talking. This is the kind of energy that emanates from his book also. It is animated, always exploring, always moving. If things start to get bogged down he's quick to stop any approaching sense of stagnation and finds a way forward. Something I love about this book is the way, that by leading us through his own life, Marr also provides a potted history of the celebrated Manchester music scene from the seventies onwards, brushing up against punk, goth and disco whilst working in bands before and leading to the Smiths. Once he knew what he wanted, with encouragement from Joe Moss he found Morrissey (you know the fated story) and there was no stopping or looking back. Whilst telling the tale of how the Smiths got so big so soon and some insightful glimpses of various recording sessions and the inspired way he and others wrote, Marr never jumps out of where he is in the story and continues to chronologically describe his day to day life, building a very real and evocative picture of Manchester in the Eighties and then beyond. Although many esteemed names of both musicians and key figures in the music industry dance across most pages of this book, this is far from a name dropping exercise and is simply the author telling us the details of his life. Marr did more than rub shoulders with legends. He became friends with many of them and remained friends with many. He also is honest about how starstruck he felt when meeting Paul McCartney and Keith Richards for the first time. He remains a fan as well as a collaborator with so many people which I find truly refreshing. As I said before, it's all about the music. He talks about the Hacienda and rise of acid house and dance culture, the world tours he did with The The before bringing us through the late nineties and onwards where he created his own band The Healers. One thing about Marr I truly admire is his willingness to dive into the unknown and go out on a limb and a hunch which is demonstrated perfectly when he decides to work with Modest Mouse in Portland. He states: "To some people it could seem like eccentric behaviour to just up sticks and travel 4,000 miles, seemingly on a whim, to go and play with a band I'd never met before, just as I was about to record my own album, but to me I was doing what I'd done since being a kid, and following a musical instinct." Although I could go on at length about what I love about Johnny Marr (his impeccable sense of style and willingness to stand up for what he believes in shall have to be mentioned) I won't, but would instead urge you to read this book. Although The Smiths are so often labelled under "miserable music" I truly have never found them so. There's so often a joyousness, a sense of abandonment and push for freedom that crashes through the greyness of those Manchester skies. Listen to 'Hand in Glove' and if you don't get it you probably never will. The Smiths are not like any other band "This one is different/cos it's us". Marr never wrote music to please the public, but he is pleased when they do and understands very clearly what music means to people which is why even now, when questioned about the Smiths he has the patience and politeness not to underestimate how much they did and still do mean to so many people. Even David Cameron tried to get in on the act (but it didn't work.) You can read about that story here too and so many other entertaining anecdotes. As I'm writing this in December, I honestly can't think of a better Christmas present for anyone who loves music and its ability to befriend us and touch our souls.

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