Johnny Marr’s autobiography Set The Boy Free opens in the summer of 1968, with a 4-year-old Marr staring at a little wooden guitar in a shop window. In a life defined by the guitar, there’s no more fitting place to start the story than with the moment Marr came to possess his first instrument, transfixed beyond explanation. It’s an image that relies heavily on notions of fate and destiny, but as Marr chronicles his life in music, there’s no doubting that his drive and talent emerged at such an early age that he may well have been born to play the guitar.
“I have no idea if music is something that you’re born with or is bred into you, but the fascination I had with music was completely personal and natural,” Marr writes in the opening pages of Set The Boy Free, and though he doesn’t probe the question farther, there are telling anecdotes from his childhood that show the inescapable allure music held for the boy. From his early bands, to forming The Smiths (by knocking on Morrissey’s door), to the rise and fall of one of pop music’s most influential groups, to his decades afterwards pursing new sounds and new musical expression, Marr describes music as “another dimension, one that made more sense to me than the world I actually lived in.”
Marr certainly knows that any book he’d write would add to the mythology of The Smiths and draw in readers eager to comb through the details of those brief five years, but making a statement that underscores the breadth of his career, Set The Boy Free starts far earlier and stretches far later. Toward the end of the book, Marr writes about Aldous Huxley, “my absolute favorite writer and thinker,” and in a transparent parallel to Marr’s own career, discusses the unfairness that Huxley’s reputation rests on his earlier work. “It illustrates the reductive nature of fame and how you can become defined by something you did in your youth, despite work in later life that’s equally substantial.”
The richest passage of the book describes a long, solo songwriting weekend. Marr holed up in his flat and turned a riff he came up with in the back of the band’s van into a fast rush of an acoustic song. Then he turned to a melancholy waltz for the B-side and lastly composed a psychedelic, swampy blues song that was nothing like the other two. He put the three demos on a cassette and passed the tape to Morrissey, who worked on the lyrics for a few days and returned with “William, It Was Really Nothing,” “Please, Please, Please Let Me Get What I Want,” and “How Soon Is Now?”
At other times, explanation of the songwriting is absent of any details at all. It can be quite common among musicians to describe songs simply arriving, a crutch Marr also leans on, thought he at least writes of the circumstances under which spontaneous song arrival can occur: In New York to sign with Sire Records, Seymour Stein bought Marr a guitar, just as he’d done with Brian Jones. In his hotel room, Marr picked up his new 1959 Gibson and played what would become “Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now,” the band’s next single. “That’s what happens with some instruments,” Marr writes. “They already have music inside them.”
The Smiths broke up when Marr was just 23, and though an impasse over management may have been the first trigger, Marr’s reflections describe the split as inevitable, as fame and money added to the pressures the young band faced. “As stressful as The Smiths’ split was, it also brought with it a huge sense of relief,” Marr writes. “I was in charge of my own life again.”
Taken together, the Marr’s autobiography and Morrissey’s 2013 Autobiography parallel the style and role that each man brought to the band. Though far more poetic than Marr’s book, Morrissey’s can be self-indulgent and overwrought, unsurprisingly. And though Marr’s directness is refreshing, his account too often centers on simply telling what happened, lacking true revelations or a deeper insight into why The Smiths connected so deeply and have endured so strongly in the three decades since the band broke up.
Still, Marr’s prose is sharpest and most engaging when writing about music, everything that he’s fallen in love with, but especially his own: “When music is effortless, no matter how complex or emotional, there’s something so right when you’re making it. When a group of individuals are working instinctively and intricately, thinking within milliseconds of each other, it’s as close to real magic as you can get.”