Johnny Marr was, alongside Morrissey, the driving force in The Smiths, the most influential British band of the ’80s. Now he’s written a book about the experience…
Have you always wanted to put your side of the Smiths story into words?
“I thought I’d get round to it eventually, and got some offers four or five years ago. I like the way it’s worked out that I got to write my life story when I’m still so busy. I never really imagined not doing very much in my life and I’ve been around a long time, so I know it doesn’t always work out that way. People are often writing their autobiographies when they’re looking back on a career, but I’ve thankfully still got a lot going on. The past few years have been a good time.”
Why did you choose to write it yourself, as opposed to using a ghostwriter?
“It was very important that I [wrote it myself]. People have got used to ghost-written autobiographies, and each to their own, but they seem to be missing a trick with that process. I couldn’t imagine doing that myself. I wanted to write a book; I may even write a couple more. The idea of taking on your own life story but not writing it yourself is something of an anathema to me.”
It’s not a vindictive book…
“I knew years ago from being very young that there’s nothing quite so bad rock stars laying down their neuroses on everyone. Aesthetically, and it’s bad manners too. No one wants to hear that shit.”
You didn’t want to settle any scores?
“I had no interest in rewriting history to settle scores. That’s not really my style. I had no interest in writing about it in any other way than saying it was amazing, because it was. How would anyone imagine otherwise? We were so young, and we were in a great band and lots of amazing things were happening to us. That’s been misrepresented by people with different agendas.”
You’ve read Morrissey’s book, then?
“No, I haven’t. Mainly because I don’t want to answer that question. I do get asked that and people think I’m bullshitting when I say haven’t, but I really haven’t. I’ll probably get round to it one day. But I didn’t think I should before I wrote mine because I didn’t want to react to anything in it. I didn’t want to react to anything full stop. I wanted to pay respect to what I was doing, and I didn’t want anything throw me off.”
Do you find people think they know your story better than you do?
“Yes, I do. It was not a source of consternation, but it’s nice to get the truth out there and set the record straight. Particularly in light of things like Johnny Rogan’s book [The Severed Alliance], which was just a cynical cash-in after the band split. The Smiths have been the subject of at least one book that has been taken as an authority, which has in actual fact been written by someone that seems to really dislike the members of the band. We had to live with that for years.”
Did you bring the same perfectionism to writing prose as to writing music?
“I was coming up with all kinds of corrections and fixes when I was writing the book – bits to add here and there. My experience with Paul McCartney came entirely formed to me in the middle of the night. I remembered the whole day in the middle of the night. You don’t forget a day like that, but I needed to formulate it. I hadn’t told too many stories like that in my life, even privately, partly out of respect for the other participants, but it’s nice to get it out there and tell them.”
Did you find it hard to sit and focus on Set The Boy Free, when you’re used to the life of a travelling rock star?
“I knew I’d have to take time out to write the book, but I was playing shows with [German composer] Hans Zimmer in the summer, so some of the book was written in hotels and on planes. Which I liked, because it got me out of the attic.”
Looking back, has life turned out the way you wanted it to?
“Yeah. It has, but like everyone’s life, I’ve had to fight for it. Shit gets in the way. I never banked on a court case. I never banked on the reality of a car crash and what that really meant. Having all those things on your to-do list, but actually experiencing drug psychosis and the pressure of making a few really big records, and then the break-up of a band, is a different matter when you have to go through it. It didn’t all just happen. When a song like ‘This Charming Man’, or ‘Get The Message’ comes down through the window on to my fingers, I have to be there to receive it. I want the reader to get the same of wonder and astonishment and pleasure that I got when those things happened.”
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Are you working on a new record?
“I want to get out again and do some shows. The band will resume at the start of next year, and I’m doing a new project with [the actress] Maxine Peake. We’ve wanted to dop something together for a while. She’s an amazing artist and I think we have a lot in common. We haven’t quite worked it out yet, but I have this idea for music and words. Hopefully we’ll turn it into a show of some kind. We haven’t quite worked it out yet, but we have started and it’s going to be great.”
– Johnny Marr’s Set The Boy Free is out now