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Johnny Marr’s Set The Boy Free: An Autobiography Of Change And Innovation

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Johnny Marr’s autobiography, Set the Boy Free (Dey St.), perfectly complements his guitar playing and songwriting: it’s adventurous, precise, energetic, and infectious. Once you start reading, you can’t put it down.

In 464 pages, Marr captures what it is to be a Smiths fan. His life mirrors his music, just like The Smiths’ music uncannily evokes their fans’ life experiences. Once you delve into Boy, you’re jolted into life in the same way that whatever Smiths song or album you first heard created an unbreakable bond between you and the band.

Marr’s book is like a print version of The Queen Is Dead or “How Soon Is Now?” or “Hand in Glove” – just pick your favorite Smiths music. It’s that good.

Marr presents himself as the idealistic and definite leader of The Smiths. A sort of 1980s’ Brian Jones, he puts a great band together by finding the best musicians available to help him realize his vision for a reinvention of guitar-based rock music. The indefatigable guitarist rightly convinces Andy Rourke – a school friend with a drug problem – that he could be a stellar bass player. He knocks on the door of a reclusive singer and lyricist, Steven Morrissey, bonds with him over favorite records, and helps establish a songwriting partnership that rivals Lennon-McCartney and Jagger-Richards. Drummer Mike Joyce completes the band shortly thereafter.

In other words, Marr’s great accomplishment is to create The Smiths as a family – one in which each member brings out the best in each other. Ever positive and caring, Marr realizes that each Smith is a role player. He gladly turns over the spotlight and center stage to Morrissey, realizing his undeniable charisma and talent. The two become partners and co-leaders, helming The Smiths together and doing most of the work, from songwriting to production to the crafting the band’s image and iconic artwork. Rourke and Joyce receive Marr’s approval for being a top rhythm section.

But Marr knows all too well that families don’t last forever, and when he feels that The Smiths aren’t the right band for him anymore (sometime during the recording of Strangeways, Here We Come), he leaves the group.

Marr’s decision is crucial to understanding him. The guitarist-songwriter treats life as an adventure – an adventure that requires new challenges. That is, with wife his Angie and their children, his innate self-confidence, his love of guitars (Boy is a dream of a book for any guitar fanatic), his love of running, and his insatiable drive for new musical experiences, Marr has all the confidence required to treat The Smiths as a single chapter in his life. He makes legendary and unforgettable music with the band, but he never looks back and insists upon putting himself in situations that challenge him to be the best guitarist he can be.

This means that Marr’s musical life is one of constant change and innovation. He plays with Pet Shop Boys and Billy Bragg. He works in a loose partnership with Bernard Sumner (of Joy Division and New Order) in Electronic, a partnership that allows him to experiment with electronic music (something that Morrissey didn’t want in Smiths’ songs). He also partners up with Matt Johnson, the leader of the The The, to create albums such as Mind Bomb and Dusk, brooding, dark, and utterly original masterpieces to which his guitar adds ethereal textures. In addition, he plays with Talking Heads on their Latin-infused final album Naked, mentors Noel Gallagher and lends his talent to a few Oasis songs, joins Modest Mouse for the We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank record and a few tours (Marr calls playing with Isaac Brock and co. the greatest musical experience of his life), and works with the punk-influenced band The Cribs. And this list doesn’t even include Marr’s terrific solo work, as the leader of the indescribable Healers, but, more importantly, the recent albums released under his own name: The Messenger and Playland.

A message for us all, Boy is testament to the fact of what happens when people live their lives based on risk and faith in their own abilities. It’s true that Marr isn’t as technically as good as Hendrix or Clapton (no iconic solos for him), but he doesn’t want to be. He wants to be himself. For example, for The Smiths, he creates new ways of layering guitar parts so that they’re simultaneously melodic, beautiful, and precise. Listen closely to your favorite Smiths song, and you’ll understand what I’m talking about. Then imagine Morrissey receiving these songs and putting his incomparable lyrical spin on Marr’s music. I guarantee that you’ll love miracle songs such as “The Boy with the Thorn in His Side,” “How Soon Is Now?,” “Asleep,” and “There Is a Light That Never Goes Out” even more than you already do. You’ll probably notice the wonderful give-and-take between Morrissey’s (sometimes ironic) melancholy and Marr’s emotionally strident music.

A final note in what’s turned out to be a rather long review: in Boy, Marr manages to prove that positivity and constant activity bring about newness and joy in life that overcome negativity. Marr simply doesn’t have time to be mopey or sad, stuck in the past greatness of The Smiths (as I recall the book now, I can’t think of a place where he puts down someone). He’s too busy for that (too busy to dwell on Joyce’s lawsuit or his clashes with Morrissey) – too busy creating art that lives up to his own standards and that inspires and challenges his fans.

For Johnny Marr, his constantly evolving musical life is proof that in our minds, we need to set the boy free of The Smiths and realize that his life and art mirror the best in all of us when recognize and accept our own freedom.