Almost as a rule, musician autobiographies are a chance to settle scores, name names, spew vitriol, essentially an exercise in one-sided venting. Obviously, someone forgot to mention that to Johnny Marr. And while this revelation may turn off some of the realty TV-warped Smith fans out there, for those looking to get an honest sense of who Marr is as a person, “Set the Boy Free” makes for a fascinating read.
Marr, as any student of classic indie rock knows, is the co-founder, co-songwriter and guitarist for the Smiths (along with several stellar bands post-Smiths, but more on that in a minute). He was McCartney to Morrissey’s Lennon and helped launch an entirely new genre of music that is still inspiring bands three decades later. Raised to Irish parents in working class Manchester, England, Marr seemed to have a pretty peaceful childhood, despite some typical arguments with his father. They were poor, but Marr, by his own descriptions, seems to have had a solid relationship with his extended family and was always surrounded by music.
Realizing school wasn’t his thing, he dropped out in his teens, working in clothing stores (the only obsession that came close to matching the one he had with music) with no plans beyond making it in a successful rock band. After playing in a few so-so groups, through a friend of a friend, he set out to ask Morrissey to be in his band, despite only knowing him by reputation. As is now central to Smiths lore, Marr knocked on the door, was greeted by Morrissey’s mom, introduced himself to her son, and asked if he wanted to start a band. So began a five-year partnership that would take the group across the globe, result in four classic records, riches, adoration and inevitably lawsuits.
Marr talks frankly about his relationship with Morrissey, drummer Mike Joyce, and bassist Andy Rourke, a childhood best friend of Marr’s, but is still a little vague about his decision to walk away from the Smiths and their ultimate demise. That’s really the only criticism of “Set the Boy Free”: if anyone is reading to find out exactly why the band split up, they’re likely to be left with more questions than answers.
Once Marr left the Smiths, he worked with a slew of other artists and bands, from Billy Bragg and Modest Mouse to Kirsty MacColl and Talking Heads. Most recently, he has released two critically-lauded solo records. As for the future of the Smiths, he talks about conversations he and Morrissey have had a couple of times over the past decade, and each ends the same way, according to Marr, with Morrissey simply disappearing and not returning calls or e-mails.
Despite the future of The Smiths being as much a mystery to Marr as it is to his fans, he ends the book the same way he begins it, as a positive, affable music fan, pretty content with life.