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Frank's Book Log

Literature is a relative term.

Set the Boy Free

The Autobiography
2016 | Nonfiction
A cover of Set the Boy Free by Johnny Marr (2016)
B+: 4 stars (out of 5)
on Jun 25, 2022

Songwriter and guitarist Johnny Marr’s life story, from working-class Manchester to the Smiths, Electronic, Modest Mouse, and beyond.

As a Smiths and Electronic fan, I was partial to the story, but Marr’s concise, honest prose surprised me. Hearing him read it proved captivating. He doesn’t offer a direct answer to fandom’s biggest question (why he left the Smiths) but paints a vivid portrait of a young twenty-something that just wanted to write songs and play guitar.

Marr also litters his story with choice one-liners. Such as why he never took to heavy/progressive rock:

I also noticed that in the heavy rock scene there were never any girls – it was a girl-free zone – and that’s never a good sign.

Or, his story about Tony Wilson suggesting the Smiths join Factory records:

After he met with Morrissey, Tony came into the shop to tell me that he thought we were ‘special’, and that the press would love us because ‘your singer was a journalist’, which I took as a snide remark and to which I gave him my usual reply of ‘Fuck off, Tony’.

While never overt about it, the memoir tracks Marr’s maturation. His love of music—guitar in particular—serves as the through-line. Now a sober vegan marathon runner, Marr hasn’t lost his rock star swagger. Consider this story from the day Michael Jackson died:

A reporter recognised me and stopped me to ask what my favourite track was from Thriller. I was wondering how best to answer the question, so I decided to just be honest. I told him that I didn’t like Thriller. He looked at me like I was mad or joking, or was a very bad man, but I was just being honest. His death was tragic, but of course I didn’t like Thriller, I was in The Smiths.

After listening, I came away with a new appreciation for Marr’s dedication to his craft, and perhaps a renewed sadness that a long term creative partnership akin to Jagger and Richards or Tennant and Lowe, never gelled.

To that end, my favorite story comes when Johnny meets Paul McCartney soon after the Smiths have parted. After some conversation, Johnny realizes the opportunity in front of him. McCartney knew what it was to be defined by his relationship with his song-writing partner and to have his band’s breakup loom over his every move, so Johnny asks for advice.

If anyone could hip me up to some wisdom and insight, it would be this man in front of me. So after recounting the basic details of recent events, I held my breath and waited for Paul McCartney to enlighten me. He paused, I waited, and then he paused again and said, “That’s bands for ya.” That was it, the sum total of his evaluation: “That’s bands for ya.”


Reading History

    Sat Jun 25, 2022 via Audible (Read by Johnny Marr)
    Listened to over 2 Days
    1. 24 Jun, 2022
    2. 25 Jun, 2022