Set the Boy Free (2016) by Johnny Marr is Marr’s autobiography. Marr is a great guitar player who was a co-founder of The Smiths, was in The The, Electronic, Modest Mouse and other bands.
Marr grew up as an Irish kid in Manchester, just like Morrissey, he had young parents and from a young age was into music and fashion. School didn’t agree with him, he dropped out early but his talent as a guitar player was found and he joined various bands before meeting Morrissey and in their first writing session days later they wrote a Smiths hit, The Hand that Rocks the Cradle. The Smiths became successful very quickly because of the phenomenal talent of Marr and Morrissey and by the time Marr was 19 he was a huge star. It’s crazy to think about. He had also met his future with Angie with whom he is still together after having had two kids.
The book goes into detail about how The Smiths had a meteoric rise to fame and how they were also largely managed by Morrissey and Marr and were fairly chaotic. Their inability to get and keep a good manager seems to have played a part in their breakup. Artistic and personal differences between Marr and Morrissey also drove the split.
From there Marr went on to play with Talking Heads, Paul McCartney, Kirsty MacColl and many others. He seems to have spent his time since The Smiths mainly in studios with other musicians or on the road. Marr, as well as being very talented and hard working must clearly be a good person to work with. The range of his collaborations is amazing. In the book he also describes almost everyone he works with as amazingly cool and talented. He clearly loves musicians as well as music.
Marr became a vegetarian while with The Smiths and then gave up drinking later after he decided that alcohol was taking too much of a toll on him. He then took up running. Marr calmly describes substantial drug use and drinking and why he gave these things up and how he became super healthy. Drug and alcohol crashes are often interesting to read about, the absence of one is a fine thing to read about, but not as flashy.
The book is actually oddly unsatisfying. It’s interesting to read about what Marr has done but it doesn’t really provide much insight into why he is so good and why he was in a band that was just phenomenal. It is very readable, unlike Morrissey’s autobiography. Marr’s great skill is in his guitar playing, not his writing, which is fair enough. There are too many instances of Marr sitting down, writing a riff, others coming and and an amazing song coming out. It’s too effortless. There is a little inadvertent reflection on how good The Smiths were when Marr describes endless questions of their reforming but how his kids were post Smiths and don’t think about. The combination of Marr and Morrissey was something fantastic. There are reasons why so many people can’t help telling you about how much The Smiths have meant to them. Perhaps because it doesn’t explain the magic a bit more this book is a bit of a let down. Perhaps no book could though. However, the book does provide a more prosaic description of a fantastic guitarist, where he came from and what’s he’s done.