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The Manchester Literature Festival Blog

Review: Johnny Marr

What happens when a Mancunian music god comes home to celebrate the launch of his life story? Our blogger Adam Farrer finds out.

The Royal Northern College of Music became a church tonight; the audience, a congregation. While this building is no stranger to hosting revered musical figures, Johnny Marr, legendary guitarist and songwriter with The Smiths, generates a level of awe that must be uncommon even within these walls. This is clearly illustrated when he makes his way to the stage, straps on a guitar and proceeds to rip into the opening bars of This Charming Man. Just 15 seconds of music that nonetheless causes several hundred people to erupt with both applause and the kind of noises that suggest they’ve lost all control of themselves below the waist. The reason for this reaction is simple: Marr is more than Manchester royalty. He is a Manchester god.

This might seem like hyperbole, and in a city that would happily treat Peter Hook’s postman like a pivotal figure in musical history, you’d be right to be wary. But Johnny Marr is undeniably worthy of deity status. As such, he could have easily whiled away this evening launch of his new memoir Set the Boy Free, held in conversation with music critic Ben Thompson, by issuing nothing but petulant, monosyllabic grunts. This audience would have still given him a standing ovation, then wobbled home in giddy contentment, happy just to have been in his presence. But pleasingly, Marr does not coast. Rather, he is a warm and compelling character who doles out reminiscences with flashes of low-key raconteur spirit. He is also far from bitter or resentful about the problems and criticism he’s had during his career. Quite the opposite.

“I only get one chance to do this,” he says, when asked about the overwhelmingly positive narrative of his long-awaited memoir. “I’m not going to fuck up my life story for a negative agenda.”

Instead, he speaks engagingly of his childhood, with its challenges and fights that left him with a leathery sense of determination; and of the mournful ballads learned from his Irish immigrant family that ignited his love of music. (“Those sad songs sounded like the sound of life.”) We hear of his evolution from fan to musician ‒ “I went from being an artistic watcher into someone that people watched” ‒ and of his early career. Of this, he speaks with particular fondness, poignantly discussing what feels like a lost time, when young people seemed to be more accepting of homosexuality, androgyny and feminism.

Marr was also pleasantly unserious, suffering Thompson’s jibes (particularly about The Smiths’ well-documented court battles) with good humour. And teased about his increasingly voluminous ‘Ronettes hair’ during the 80’s, he rolls with the punch. “If I’d carried on with the coke I’d have ended up looking like Amy Winehouse.”

But above all, he knows why so many people have come along tonight. Over and above everything else, it’s to hear about The Smiths. Their songs, a unique blend of the upbeat and the desolate, lend themselves as much to dancing around a room as they do to balling oneself up and sobbing. And it’s obvious that they mean something greater to his fans, giving them hope, sanctuary, escape. Had Marr chosen this night to announce the band’s reformation, the resulting heart attacks would have seen him labelled Britain’s most efficient mass murderer. While not going that far, he does speak of the band with warmth and affection, regularly getting out of his chair to pick up one of the many guitars at the side of the stage to play well-loved songs from their back catalogue.

“I’ve not used this one since the Queen is Dead tour,” he says, plugging in his iconic green Fender. This sentence results in such an audible mass intake of breath that he may as well have been showing off the Holy Grail. And for many in attendance, that’s exactly what he was doing.

When he eventually wraps up the evening with a Q&A session and heads off through the swarm of bodies to the signing table, it’s hard to shake off a couple of notions. That Morrissey may have had the flair and a mouth that spits headlines, but he wasn’t the only one with the words. And that maybe we’ve been listening to the wrong one for all these years.


Image: Adam Farrer

Adam Farrer is a columnist, spoken word performer and nonfiction writer based in Manchester. His work can be found at  BBC Online, This Is Not TV, The MagPi, The Drabble, MacGuffin, Flashflood and the Tapes & Tales podcast. He blogs at The Unsmoked Pipe, and tweets here. He is one half of The Real Story.