It was hardly anyone's finest hour, but 1987's South Bank Show on The Smiths - broadcast just after the band had messily imploded - was as memorable for New Musical Express journalist Nick Kent's hipster description of it's guitarist-lynchpin Johnny Marr as a "Kiddie" as for anything else. Marr of course at that point was both hero and villain, the man who'd split Britain's most lauded group since The Beatles; Kent's description still rankled though, portraying him as more calculating and self aware than a musician drained by the errant foursome's whims as was the received wisdom of the time.
As much of Set The Boy Free proves however, Kent's glib characterisation was in hindsight naggingly perceptive. Born John Maher in a working class Irish-emigre family, a childhood spent in sixties and seventies Manchester primed the diminutive subject of the title with a single minded vision of pop stardom, a quest as were so many of his generation inspired by the likes of Bowie and The Sex Pistols.
Through post-adolescent scrapes (A pre-Smiths Johnny narrowly avoids a career limiting spell in prison for handling stolen goods) and the process of becoming a well-recognised local scenester, the casual impression is that of a life of benevolent fate and ruthless destiny: our hero both consciously chooses greatness and in turn is chosen by it. Typical of this is the chance encounter by which he meets wife Angie at a party and vows to a friend that he's found the one - before even speaking to her. In Set The Boy Free, this sort of thing just happens.
Many of its readers will be most interested in the sequences related to The Smiths - although the consequences of him turning down Matt Johnson of The The in the months leading up to that meeting with Morrissey are both chilling and fascinating to contemplate. They won't be left disappointed either, as by contrast to his estranged partner-in-crime's recent bio Marr contends throughout that both in form and concept the quartet were his band - although the singer's undoubted charisma and wry self-presentation allowed him to take the pressure relieving brickbats and bouquets they gathered in waves.
Graciously he paints the duo's relationship as one of mutual respect and affection and in keeping with the savvy, don't-rock-the-boat vibe he wisely skirts the intra-band court battle over royalties that was so excruciatingly retold by the singer. Even when discussing the supposed reformatory talks they held in a pub in 2008 there's no hint of bitterness towards his long lost foil - and in some ways the account hints the timing of their divorce was for him at least oddly serendipitous. It's fair to say in support of this notion that The Smiths bowed out with their least critically acclaimed but most self-satisfying album, Strangeways Here We Come, whilst undoubtedly still at their peak, a situation in marked contrast to their twentieth century peers, many of whom continue flogging their dead horses even now in an unedifying spectacle.
Few would've forgiven Marr for making the rest of his career an elongated muso victory lap, but although a stint with The Pretenders might point in that direction, we're reminded that his relentless hunger for change drove him first into the hedonistic, post-baggy aesthetic of Electronic with Bernard Sumner, before finally reuniting with Johnson for The The's epic Mind Bomb album and then stints with boho Portland wags Modest Mouse and Yorkshire punks The Cribs respectively.
Of course there are guitars, but the instrument isn't allowed to be the narrative, merely an accessory. Given the influence of what he did with it there's an obvious temptation for the author for self-aggrandisement, but again there's no hint of it; the strings that have made his living are never you sense allowed to be of any higher status in his life than the things it brought.
We digress. As a sideline to this process of making himself one of music's finest free transfers, the wanderer gets clean, Vegan and then runs. And runs. Time and again it's this appetite for change that's the theme, as if the boy can't be anything but free, that any tie that binds professionally more than a shoelace counts as over commitment. We learn also about his anger at social injustice and contempt for David Cameron (And politicians in general), but the over riding impression is one of a man happy to allow you a backstage pass to everywhere but himself, content to give you the foreground but with the inner sanctity of his life hermetically sealed from the outside.
It is after all, a book written by a kiddie, as coffee table as necessary, a memoir which delivers on its promise, but will be frustratingly closed down for anyone fascinated by the wounds surviving one of Britain's greatest ever band must've inflicted. Well, we wonder.
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