A Book Written By A Musician

Set the Boy Free, by Johnny Marr, was published in 2016.

I downloaded it from The King County Library System.

The first sentence is: “I stood outside, gazing up, on one of those mornings when the sun scorched the pavement and Mancunians used to say it ‘cracked the flags’.

This is the autobiography of the guitarist most famous (to me, anyway) for being the co-songwriter in The Smiths.

John Martin Maher was born on 31 October, 1963, in Longsight, Manchester. His family soon moved to Ardwick, Manchester.

He grew up in a working class neighborhood, where many immigrant families, from many different countries, lived. His parents, John and Frances Maher, were originally from Ireland. Later, his family would move from the inner-city to the Manchester suburbs.

When Johnny was not quite five years old, his mother bought him his first guitar. He needed that guitar, but he didn’t know why. He still doesn’t know why he was attracted to that guitar.

The book starts with Johnny’s (mostly) fond memories of growing up in Manchester with his younger (by 11 months) sister and his many uncles and aunts visiting from Ireland.

He writes about the early influences in his life. His parents were hard-working, well respected people who shared a love of music. They took Johnny and his sister out to dance halls where live bands were performing. (His parents preferred contemporary English or American music to traditional Irish music.) A school teacher encouraged him to develop his creativity. (Since the school didn’t offer guitar lessons, she suggested other artistic outlets. Johnny chose fashion.)

At nine years old, Johnny bought his first record. It was a T.Rex album, with Marc Bolan, wearing makeup, on the cover. John Maher decided that if Marc Bolan could spell “Mark” with a “c”, he could spell his last name as the more easily pronounceable “Marr”. That album became an influence on Johnny’s musical path.

It was when Johnny discovered that the drummer for Buzzcocks was named John Maher that he decided it was time to start spelling his last name as “Marr”.

He describes the Manchester music scene in the early 1970s, the early days of punk, and his early attempts to either join or form a band.

After being in a band named Freak Party with his friend Andy Rourke, and after playing with The The, Johnny Marr decided to form his own band. He decided to start with finding a singer. He details the day when, with the help of a friend, he knocked on the door of the house where Steven Morrissey lived with his mother. Despite their different personalities, Johnny and Steven instantly hit it off. Steven Morrissey gave Johnny Marr some lyrics, Johnny Marr set them to music, and the new band had a singer, a guitar player, and a couple of songs credited to “Morrissey and Marr”.

Steven gave Johnny three potential band names: “The Smith Family”, “The Smiths”, and “The Walking Wounded”. Johnny Marr picked “The Smiths”, because it was the one he “disliked least”.

It was difficult for Johnny Marr and Morrissey to find musicians willing to be in their band. But on 4 October, 1982, a quarter of the way into the book, The Smiths played their first live show. Morrissey was on vocals, Johnny Marr was on guitar, Dale Hibbert was on bass, and Mike Joyce was on drums. They performed their own songs, plus a cover of “I Want a Boy for My Birthday”, by The Cookies (“…which I realised would send out a message that not only didn’t bother me but which I was fairly amused by and quite excited about.“).

The book continues with the ups and downs of being The Smiths – Johnny Marr keeping his day job, the band replacing Dale Hibbert with Andy Rourke on bass, signing a record deal with Rough Trade, performing on The John Peel Show, appearing on Top of the Pops, touring, legal troubles with Rough Trade, and so on.

Early into the story of The Smiths, he presents his version of the unequal royalty split – the issue at the basis of the infamous court battle.

During his time with The Smiths, he legally changed his name to “Johnny Marr”, converted to vegetarianism, and married his longtime girlfriend.

Set the Boy Free isn’t a book about The Smiths. It’s the story of Johnny Marr’s life, and The Smiths were a major part of his life, and continue to be. Johnny Marr left The Smiths halfway through the book.

Johnny Marr writes about working with Billy Bragg, Talking Heads, Brian Ferry, and Paul McCartney, about joining The Pretenders on tour, about joining Modest Mouse on tour, and about returning to The The. There were many other post-Smiths projects.

I really had no idea that Johnny Marr had worked with so many bands with such a variety of styles. This book sent me to YouTube many times for Johnny Marr sightings. I didn’t know that he’d contributed to the soundtrack of the movie Inception.

I’m not sure why, but I’m especially fond of this sentence: “One of Kraftwerk living with one of The Smiths is a mad concept, but it happened.

Johnny Marr went solo, performing under his own name, with a backing band.

There is an extensive photo section at the back of the book.

What came through this book was an overall sense of positivity. There were bad times, like the legal troubles and the sudden death of Kirsty MacColl, but these are overshadowed by an otherwise happy life. When, early in his life, he and a friend were confronted by a couple of “uglies”, the book presents it like: It was scary at the time, but we got through it, and now it’s a great story to tell.

What I especially enjoyed about Set the Boy Free was Johnny Marr’s passionate love of music. He performed with a lot of famous musicians, but he writes more about how they sounded than the fame it brought him. I don’t understand the technical aspects of music, but I loved the part where he describes, in detail, the production of “This Charming Man”.

I absolutely loved this book.

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