No Radio Free Lunch!

Music, etc. by Eric D. Johnson

Set The Boy Free

Confession: I never got into the Smith’s. Coming of age in the Indie-80s I certainly had the opportunity. I remember seeing the import copy of Meat Is Murder (on Rough Trade) in the stacks at Sound Warehouse and being intrigued, but then late one night I saw Morrissey on The Cutting Edge on MTV. He was opening up envelopes with slips of paper on which were written words like “fashion” and “money” and opining about them. To 1986 punk rock me, that was the height of pretension and enough for me to be entirely done with the whole band. (Actually, as much as he’s turned out to be awful, what he’s saying there is…pretty smart. )

I remember hearing “How Soon Is Now” at some point, and not really liking it, though I have to admit now that I disliked it in a way that made it totally recallable. (And how did I not love that wall of tremolo? 1986 punk rock me really let his head get in the way of his ears sometimes I guess.) Beyond that, I didn’t really have a mental picture of The Smith’s music. I filed myself theoretically with everyone who says “I love Johnny Marr’s guitar playing, but I just can’t stand Morrissey.” But since I hadn’t really listened to them, I didn’t actually relate to them as a guitar band. Then my daughter discovered them and started learning to play “This Charming Man” and…well, you can probably see where this is going.

But that’s not quite where it’s going. I haven’t gone on a big mission to recuperate The Smiths, though I’m probably about to. Instead, I picked up Johnny Marr’s memoir, Set The Boy Free, and I’m here to report that it’s a fun read for rock and roll fans, particularly if you want a ground-level view of growing up working class and music-mad in northern England in the 70s. Marr is a straightforward and unfussy writer. The prose isn’t thrilling, but the story is, at least early on, and Marr is so damn likeable and earnest that you end up rooting for him, especially if you’ve ever been in or out of a band.

The latter half or so of the book lacks a certain tension as Marr likeably (and via a whole lot of hard work) goes from success to success, married to his childhood sweetheart, raising a wonderful family, playing music with host of great musicians. But by then I was enough in his corner that even typing that complaint seems churlish. His earnest and reasonable enthusiasm, obvious gratitude for where he ended up, and complete lack of smugness are charming.

I probably will go recuperate some of The Smith’s catalog. I’ve definitely added “The Queen Is Dead” and just tonight “Big Mouth Strikes Again” made an impression on me. But I also need to dive into some of Marr’s interesting post-Smiths body of work, including Electronic, (with New Order’s Bernard Sumner), The Healers, stints in The Pretenders, Modest Mouse, The Cribs, and some solo records too. I’ll report back when I’ve absorbed some of this.


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This entry was posted on November 25, 2020 by in Music History and tagged , .
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