JOHNNY MARR’s autobiography is thick. Set the Boy Free, which tells the ex-Smiths guitarist’s story from his hardscrabble Manchester childhood to his globetrotting years as a journeyman musician, is a hefty 464 pages. But it’s not as long as that sounds—the typeface is on the largish side, and the text is laid out quite spaciously, so that there’s a peculiarly small number of words per page. My first thought was that the book was padded to match the page count of Morrissey’s Autobiography from 2013, which Set the Boy Free does, down to the exact page number. But if that’s the case, I’m certain Marr had nothing to do with it.
Because if Set the Boy Free does anything, it proves that Marr is above those types of petty rivalries with his ex-songwriting partner, and that their falling-out, supposedly one of the most notorious in music, has been unfairly overblown by the press. Perhaps the greatest surprise is how warmly he depicts Morrissey, and the book should preempt any further questions presented to Marr about whether the Smiths will ever reunite. (The answer? It’s not entirely up to him. If the circumstances were exactly right, Marr would likely be interested. But they’re not right at the moment, and they might not ever be right, and life’s too short to dwell on the shoulda coulda wouldas.)
The other thing to take away from Set the Boy Free is that this is Marr’s story, not the Smiths’. His stint with the influential band, which formed in 1982 when Marr was only 18 and broke up a short five years later, is only a sliver of a long and diverse career. That career has seen Marr working with New Order’s Bernard Sumner, The The, the Cribs, and, of course, Portland’s Modest Mouse—not to mention impromptu jams with the likes of Keith Richards and Paul McCartney. The latter half of Marr’s book is a whirlwind through these gun-for-hire years, and Marr’s recollections are primarily about the music, rather than gossipy starfucking tell-alls.
In fact, Set the Boy Free is among the least salacious rock bios out there. There are no groupies: Marr met his future wife Angie in 1979 and they’re still together now, a commitment unheard of in rock music. And there are only a few stories of drugs (mostly psychedelics and the ecstasy that ran rampant through his home city’s “Madchester” years). Marr’s primary intoxicant is music, something depicted consistently throughout, and the young boy captivated by a guitar in a shop window in the book’s opening passages is the same person in the final chapter.
The writing is conversational, easygoing, and clear. Marr may not be an exacting storyteller on the page, as dates remain vague (he does have a knack for describing places, though), and the characters in his life are not drawn with any particular vividness. But it’s Marr’s name and photo that appear on the front cover, and Set the Boy Free gives us a thorough portrait of him.