BOOK REVIEW: Set the Boy Free (Johnny Marr)

Since Morrissey's autobiography came out a few years ago, most Smiths fans had been clamoring for a counterpart book from the other half of the legendary songwriting partnership behind their timeless music. Finally, in late 2016, patience was rewarded with the publication of Johnny Marr's memoir, Set the Boy Free. However, where Morrissey's book proved to be as obtuse, quirky, and cryptically dense as the man who wrote it, Marr's proved to be correspondingly the opposite. Always known for his friendly, gregarious, and conversational personality, Marr's book gave those interested the promise that he would touch on everything throughout his life and career.  On a personal note, the Smiths are one of the bands that have meant to most to me over the course of my life and Johnny Marr is one of my guitar idols; for these reasons, his was one of the books I most looked forward to reading in 2016. I'd waited months and months for its publication since first learning of it in Spring was it worth the wait? Read on to find out!

***special thanks to Kendra at Dey Street Books for sending a copy of the book for me to review!***

The first thing I thankfully noted was that Marr's book was laid out in traditional chapters unlike the non-formatted stream of consciousness that Morrissey's book was.  Beginning with his birth to Irish immigrant parents in Manchester, England on Halloween 1963, Marr (born John Maher) does an excellent and immersive job describing his life first in the two areas of Manchester he grew up in, Ardwick and later on Wythenshawe. These chapters really give the reader an idea of what it was like coming of age in 1960s and 70s Manchester. Johnny was bitten by both the music and guitar bugs at an early age and his earliest memories center on the first records he bought and the first guitar he ever played. By his account he was quite independent, even as a small child, and he was uncompromising in the path he blazed...the was someone who knew what he wanted to do and how he wanted to do it. Marr stuck to his own vision and achieved success at a very early age because of these qualities, which are rare in fully grown adults let alone teenagers. It makes this aspect of his career even more impressive. After playing with a variety of bands in Manchester during his teenage years, by the time he left school at fifteen he had met the love of his life (his wife Angie), played in several bands, and was working at two of the hippest clothing stores in Manchester (X-Clothes and Crazy Face). Spurred on by his boss and mentor Joe Moss and wanting to form a band and play the type of music he was writing without compromise, in 1982 he approached a fellow music fan and singer he had briefly met years before, Steven Morrissey. Together, they formed a songwriting partnership that would prove to be one of the most successful in UK history and after bringing in Marr's childhood friend Andy Rourke on bass guitar and finding Mike Joyce for the drum slot, the Smiths were born.

While the Smiths' history has been discussed in detail in several other excellent books (many of which I've already reviewed and linked to above), Marr's book is invaluable for the personal insight and thoughts on the band's career that he offers, as well as discussions on what his inspirations for writing many of the Smiths' greatest songs. While he shed a bit more light in the form of his perspective on the Smiths' split in 1987, it still irritates me a bit how in conjunction with other books, he and Morrissey continue to portray Rourke and Joyce as second-class members of the band. While it's true that Morrissey and Marr wrote all of the songs and ended up handling (rather ineffectively, it must be added) the management of the band, I had a difficult time reconciling Johnny's insistence that the Smiths were a "gang" and a "close-knit unit" while at the same time saying that the band was really just him and Moz. However, that's for a further discussion outside the scope of this review; on the whole, the book up to and including the Smiths' years were by far the most interesting part.

That isn't to say, however, that the rest of the book wasn't certainly was, especially when reading about Johnny's decision to take his health into his own hands later on by getting into running and fitness and his giving up alcohol and going teetotal. While the discussion of his various projects after the Smiths broke up was interesting, it did feel a lot like chapter after chapter of "I joined this band for an album and a tour and left, and then I joined this other band for an album and tour before I left them and joined another band for an album and tour..." and so on. Marr's quest to keep pushing himself as a musician has been admirable and garnered him a lot of well-deserved respect, but until he began fronting his solo band in 2013 and releasing solo albums, he's been a musical gypsy since 1987. While there's nothing wrong with this on a professional level, it did made the latter half of the book feel a bit disjointed and slightly less engaging. However, there was still a lot of interesting stuff in there, not least of which were his description of a 2008 meeting with Morrissey where they briefly (and not wholly seriously) bandied about the idea of reforming the Smiths, and a jam session he attended where he got to play with Paul McCartney. It was these anecdotes and also his thoughts on things like music, exercise, religion, and politics that saved the second half of the book from being little more than a list of projects he's worked on post-Smiths.

Overall, Set the Boy Free is an excellent, enjoyable, and informative book. Marr writes very well and is quite honest about everything he talks about. His passion and love for his music, his wife, and his kids is evident and seems nothing less than entirely genuine. Even though he's been one of my favorite guitarists for a very long time and even though I've read numerous books about the Smiths, it was always Morrissey about whom most accounts tended to focus on. While Johnny Marr is certainly not unknown, he wasn't as well known as his former songwriting partner, especially given Morrissey's proclivity for speaking (often outrageously and provocatively) to the press. With Set the Boy Free, Marr has given fans what they wanted: the story of his life and the details behind his craft, his bands, and what he thinks about it all. My one complaint would be that I wanted even more discussion on songwriting and guitar playing from Johnny, but seeing as the target audience isn't necessarily obsessive musicians/fans like myself, I'm content with what he gave us. As far as rock musicians go, Marr is highly regarded, healthy, happy, and has avoided almost all of the pitfalls that have befallen so many of his peers.  This is even more impressive when you consider that he was all of nineteen years old when the Smiths burst onto the scene. If you're a fan of the Smiths and/or any of Marr's subsequent projects, this is essential reading and as I said before, infinitely more enjoyable an experience than Morrissey's book.



  1. I wondered if you had any interest in the Springsteen book or enjoyed his music as well. It's one I have interest in, and the library has it here. It's just a matter of time getting around to it. Currently I'm reading the first Jack Reacher novel.

    1. I've heard very good things about his book. Personally, I'm not a fan...I've tried to get into his music but it just does nothing for me. There's also something about the guy as a person that's always rubbed me the wrong way...a phoniness and almost patronizing attitude. Maybe it's just me. *shrug*


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