There’s a lot to admire about the former Smiths guitarist, not least his attitude, says Liz Buckley.
There’s a lot to love about Johnny Marr, but my absolute favourite Johnny Marr thing – even above Please, Please, Please Let Me Get What I Want – is the fact that he’s really, really not a moaner. In fact, as he points out in his autobiography Set the Boy Free, which is published this month, not being a moaner is really the complete opposite of what people expect when you keep using the word ‘miserable’ in your songs.
For anyone familiar with Morrissey’s recent autobiography – or indeed Morrissey’s recent or previous anything at all – Marr’s own take on their parallel histories growing up in working-class Manchester and then forming The Smiths with Andy Rourke and Mike Joyce is by contrast, almost relentlessly *upbeat*.
He speaks of his family filling tin baths to wash and his father working to exhaustion on the roads and the gas pipes but there’s no hint of resentment for the hard slog, just talk of community, shared history and well-earned nights out for his young, music-loving parents.
Births of new siblings mean firm new friends for Johnny rather than potential rivals for affection, and various failures to get himself killed amid a startling array of accidents and kickings (falling through a roof, making tin cans out of several cars he was driving, being caught in a football riot as a mere 10-year-old, inciting the rage of a cat called Fluffy, nearly being imprisoned for stealing a Lowry, being dragged away from a bomb blast)… well, surviving all that just seems to keep him perky.
Marr’s delight in simply being alive is contagious and while biographies often aim to firmly direct and control your opinion of the book’s subject, this one lets the positivity gently beam out of the pages with what feels like almost no steering. Which is a bit like how he drives a car, incidentally.
“Marr is a straightforward man and, as such, must have driven Morrissey mental. How fun is that?”
A typical story from Johnny’s younger school days features a class teacher called Miss Cocaine – something he barely stops to acknowledge. Miss Cocaine, fine – recognising and encouraging his artistic side. She asks him what he loves in the world the most. “Colours”, says our hero. Can we all just put the book down for a moment to consider how bloody lovely that is. Colours.
There’s a simplicity, kindness and honesty to the humour that runs throughout the book – so, a drummer he meets before forming The Smiths is a good drummer because he had told Johnny he was a good drummer. The chapter about going into town is called “Town”. Being on a Top of the Pops recording for the first time isn’t punctuated by bravado but his observation that “the stage was slippy and I worried for The Thompson Twins.”
He often avoids similes or attempts at overtly flowery language with statements of fact – so we get the blunt “it was like nothing else”. There’ll be no “Bad Sex Award” for Johnny. The moment where he first meets Geoff Travis of Rough Trade Records and thereby starts the band’s career rolling is relived via Johnny’s inner monologue:
“Who’s Geoff? I thought.”
“‘Who’s Geoff?’ I said.”
Marr is a straightforward man and, as such, must have driven Morrissey mental. How fun is that? He’s never anything but polite and empathetic about everyone he speaks of, always taking time to understand why they might have been motivated to do things that could have been against him and his better interests.
You can see why Johnny alone ended up trying to organise the band during the absences of a long-term manager, right down to arranging van hire and roadies’ pay and being the go-to person for every band grievance on all sides. Aged 23, when the Smiths came to an end, Johnny had never even had a holiday.
“Being on a Top of the Pops recording for the first time isn’t punctuated by bravado but his observation that ‘the stage was slippy and I worried for The Thompson Twins.'”
The most moving part of the book perhaps is about his love for his then girlfriend, now-wife Angie, the pair meeting when they were just teenagers. He describes seeing her across a room as “the most important moment of my life”. Which is beautiful, and, let’s be honest, has probably annoyed the fuck out of Morrissey.
Her constructive and inspiring presence runs throughout all the stories thereafter, with Johnny stopping to serenade her over the phone, singing Love Me Tender from Elvis’s porch no less. “You are a dick”, replied Angie, after letting him sing the whole thing. They are an excellent couple.
In a rather poignant moment towards the end of the book, Johnny speaks about his love for writer and lecturer Aldous Huxley, and how Huxley is celebrated for his future-envisaging novel Brave New World, despite the fact the latter part of his career in many ways had more important teachings. WE SEE WHAT YOU DID THERE, JOHNNY!
But Marr has a real point, as after leaving The Smiths, his projects have been far from just side projects and supergroups. Bringing new life to the Pretenders, Talking Heads, Beck, Oasis, New Order, Pet Shop Boys, Modest Mouse, The Cribs; the list goes and on and on…
When he worked with The The, they made Dusk. When he worked with Kirsty MacColl they made Walking Down Madison; when he worked with Billy Bragg they made Sexuality; when he worked with Girls Aloud they made Rolling Back the Rivers in Time. I did that just to scare you. But it’s also true, and brilliant.
I think we can all learn from Johnny Marr that we should try to be less of a moaner; we need to enjoy life and be grateful for the things it brings us. We probably shouldn’t learn how to say ‘guru’ from him though. In the audiobook version he clearly says “geroo” and that is incorrect.
Johnny Marr’s autobiography, Set the Boy Free, is currently available in various formats on Century.4422 Views
Department manager at an independent record company. Liker of Frank Sinatra and Nick Cave. Very sudden laugh. Pasty but tasty. Quite tired.