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Set the Boy Free – Book Review

Set the Boy Free by Johnny Marr

Written by Johnny Marr
Published by Dey Books

Initially known as the other creative half of The Smiths, Johnny Marr has had a pretty great run as his own guy. He’s spent most of his adult life making some of the best melodies of the last forty years via his cofounding Electronic with Bernard Sumner of New Order and signing on for stints as a member of The The, The Cribs and Modest Mouse.

Now an established solo artist he’s strummed his stuff on several soundtracks (most notably Inception) and been a collaborator with Beck, Kirsty MacColl, Billy Bragg, Pet Shop Boys, The Pretenders and Bryan Ferry.

Born as John Maher on Halloween of 1963, the guitarist has released his autobiography Set The Boy Free, which sets a few things straight about his career before, during and after The Smiths while also recounting his upbringing as the son of Irish immigrants in the rough and tumble world of Manchester.

It’s Marr’s book but Manchester itself is a character. On its streets he would get in and out of all sorts of mischief while also taking in as much music, art and culture as his working class hometown would give him. To this end the Manchester scene would be a cultural constant in his creative output.

Fans of The Smiths need not worry. There is plenty of stuff to chew on as he talks about his friendship with Morrissey, bassist Andy Rourke and his legal squabble with drummer Mike Joyce, whom is almost non-existent in the book.

Today The Smiths have an almost mythic air about them and Marr is quick to downplay the fervor. Instead he tells it like it is. He takes us on the journey of how he and Morrissey met, pretty much hit it off straightaway, formed a musical partnership that has often been compared to Lennon and McCartney, and fell out, crushing the souls of a generation still pining for a reunion.

Although he goes into detail about the band’s formation success and dissolution, the core of the memoir is his musical odyssey and development. Clearly he recognizes that being in The Smiths was a big deal and helped make him the artist he is today. However Marr is at his best when he talks about his passion for playing guitar and the records he loved so much.

In 1983, The Smiths were ascending to something big. As their fame grew so did comparisons to The Beatles. But as their fans and critics eagerly awaited new singles and albums, there was more and more tension brewing. By 1987, his interest in the band was fading and despite releasing the successful Strangeways Here We Come, Marr decided he wanted no more.

In the wake of The Smiths, few could argue that Marr’s contribution to their music (i.e. great licks on “Hand In Glove,” “Ask,” What Difference Does It Make?,” “Girl Afraid,” etc.) would lead to bigger things. On his own, Marr found himself to be an in-demand craftsman free to make his own way. To this end, his stories about working with other artists and making fresh music is fascinatingly freeing.

His prose is honest and sincere as he reflects on his family life, meeting his partner Angie. His opinions on politics, films, the music industry and his own image are compelling and serve as the groundwork for a far more revealing second act. Told with an easiness in candor and honestly in opinion, Set The Boy Free finds the guitarist taking great care to outline his side of the story about his tenure in the band while subsequently providing a glimpse at his influences and creative process.

With all of his successes it would be much more tempting for Marr to opt for a more opulent version of his life. However that would be the easy way out and as the book teaches us, Marr thankfully prefers to do things his way.

Set the Boy Free by Johnny Marr / Amazon
Johnny Marr / Official Site