Not just any rock memoir, but a “beautiful one”

Door: Dennis Kersten

© foto: Simon Q

There is a fantastic anecdote in Brett Anderson’s memoir, Coal Black Mornings (2018) about how the Suede singer as a teenager listened to his favourite post-punk records at the wrong speed (33 rounds per minute, instead of 45): “I fell in love with the slowed down, hellish yowl that
seemed so in keeping with the content”. When he is eventually told, the magic of the music is lost. Also, the awful sound of his third-hand hi-fi set taught him to ignore the bottom end in music, possibly influencing the writing and recording of his clear and simple songs later. As he writes about his younger self, “The parameters of my ability, though at first a limitation, actually ended up being a strength as I incrementally developed the only style I could – my own”.

While reading about the magic of mishearing music in Anderson’s book, I was reminded of the Sunday evening in 1993/4 when I went cycling through Nijmegen, listening to a cassette of Suede’s eponymous debut album. I remember how snippets of sometimes half-heard lyrics seemed to cohere into an invitation to a scene of broken bones in council homes and housewives addicted to mother’s little helpers. A world populated by people “so young and so gone”, and, indeed, so far removed from my own life at the time. What was I to make of lines in which lovers go lassoing, or someone is “born as a pantomime horse”? As I recall, there was absolutely no such poetry to the city I cycled through that evening. I had no need for the domestic violence of “Animal Nitrate”, or the use of drugs in “Sleeping Pills”, but my home town definitely lacked stories – or, at least, that is what I thought while trying to make sense of Anderson’s lyrics.

As can be read in his memoir, Brett Anderson, born in 1967, comes from a similar humdrum background in Haywards Heath, West Sussex.
His childhood and adolescence may have lacked stories, too. To his older self, that is, because the book he has just published is the story of his Haywards Heath days, his escape from the doledrums via student life in Manchester and the formation of Suede with, amongst others, his girlfriend Justine Frischmann. First and foremost, it explores his relationship with his parents, a recurring subject in Suede songs, especially on the reunited band’s two most recent albums. Anderson is concerned with his father’s influence on the development of his personality and bares himself while describing the impact of the death of his mother from cancer. Thus, Coal Black Mornings makes for intimate as well as melancholic reading: it does not start with the sentence “This is a book about failure” for nothing. It is one of the most powerfully emotional and well-written rock memoirs recently published.

The current popularity of the rock star autobiography may be indicative of rock music’s waning significance and the ensuing desire to wallow in nostalgia for the so-called “golden age” of guitar-oriented popular
music: the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s. As Michael Hann claims in The Guardian (31 March 2017), “rock is the new jazz… something fetishised by an older audience, but which has ceded its place at the centre of the pop-cultural conversation to other forms of music, ones less tied to a sense of history”. Clearly, considering the commercial success of life narratives by some of rock’s most heavily canonized names (Dylan, Richards, Springsteen), there is a market for stories about the good old “rock” days. And, yes, they do sometimes create the impression that their authors have come to a
point in their lives from which they can only look back. However, while early-Suede seem to have become rock heritage (2018 did see the release of yet another deluxe edition of their debut), it would be unreasonable to say that with Coal Black Mornings Brett Anderson is simply jumping the rock memoir bandwagon.

Thanks to its focus on his pre-fame life as well as its sophisticated writing style, Anderson’s book qualifies as belonging to a subset of the celebrity memoir that has more on offer than abundantly illustrated (and frequently ghostwritten) sensation stories about the very private lives of the stars. As such, it should be an equally interesting read for non-Suede fans. Its tone, subtlety,  and perhaps “literary” precision in its choice of metaphors may remind readers of recent, critically acclaimed rock star autobiographies like Patti Smith’s Just Kids (2010) and Robert Forster’s Grant and I (2016). Coal Black Mornings is no typical rock memoir either: Anderson is relatively young, while contemporary rock life writing seems to be dominated by musicians who were at the height of their powers in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s. Blur’s Alex James and The Charlatans’ Tim Burgess have both published at least two autobiographical books, while Pulp’s Jarvis Cocker is, apparently, writing his first, but Anderson’s 1990s Britpop generation remains underrepresented on the autobiography shelves.

With a new Suede album announced for September 2018, Anderson can hardly be said to look back on a fully formed career, neither does
Coal Black Mornings aim to present a complete picture of his life so far. As he explains in its introductory pages, the book, a “prehistory” of Suede, was written with a very specific intention. “The very last thing I wanted to write was a ‘coke and gold discs’ memoir,” he says in the “Foreword”. Instead, he is writing mainly for the benefit of his son, so that “When he is old enough, which may indeed be when I am no longer around, at least he’ll have this to add a little bit of truth to the story of who his dad was and the passions and privations he lived through, and ultimately where we both came from”. Fatherhood has not only changed Anderson as an artist, but having become a parent himself has also made him reevaluate his relationships with his mother and father. His memoir, then, has work to do: in days to come it will tell his son who his father really was and, more immediately, it will help Anderson come to terms with life at 50. Like any autobiographical
narrative, Coal Black Mornings has its duties towards the present and the future, as much as it is about its author’s personal history.

Much has been written about the book’s ending: it stops when Suede sign their first recording contract, about a year before their debut album will top the British charts. Anderson has already been interviewed about a potential sequel, which would inevitably be about “coke and gold discs” as well as guitarists and songwriting partners leaving the band at crucial stages in
its career. In Coal Black Mornings, there is more about the heyday of Suede, and especially band relations, than initially seems the case, though. When Anderson describes his early relationship with “intense” fellow-songwriter Bernard Butler, it is already clear that it is bound to end in high drama, even if he always writes about Butler with deep affection and admiration. References to later periods in the existence of Suede complete the picture of a fascinating group of people, personality-wise: a follow-up to the current memoir might provide more detail, but the dynamics underlying the interactions between Anderson, Butler, Osman and Gilbert are already evocatively rendered.

In addition, this prehistory of Suede does shed light on the origins of many of the early Anderson/ Butler co-writes. Anderson relates how those songs process real-life experiences and build on observations of the people that pass through his pre-band life in shabby London flats – the “Beautiful Ones” of the title of a 1996 Suede hit. A turning point is “the emergence of sex” in the songs Anderson and Butler wrote in preparation for their first album: “The moment that Bernard and I started to dig deep inside
ourselves and into those primal urges like anger and hatred and lust was the moment that we really grew as writers”. (Enter the lassoing in the lyrics of “Moving”, presumably.) The memoir itself is conspicuously light on discussions of sexuality. Anderson only fleetingly refers to his “overtly feminine” stage persona, which he explains as “an expression of grief”. It was his way of dealing with the loss of two of the most important women in his life just before Suede hit the big time: his mother and Justine Frischmann. “This idea of replacing people with gestures and things fed into some of those early songs,” he writes.

When I was out on my bike in the early-’90s, listening to some of those “early songs” on Suede, I thought that at 40 I would understand and live life better. I was sure I would know more words to be able to express myself more adequately. But by the time I reached 40, I felt I had only really learnt to be 30 in the meantime. 40 brings new questions – and calls for yet more words. Judging from his memoir, Anderson is at a similar new crossroads in his life: he is, indeed, not looking back from an end point, but reflecting on what and where he has been to be able to answer the personal questions that matter in the here and now. He should not write a sequel about Suede’s peak period, as some have suggested. I’d say, let Coal Black Mornings do its work. It may be a book about failure, but Anderson’s life writing is a triumph.

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