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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 25 June 2018

Book review: Brett Anderson's memoir deserves a place alongside the very best modern music biographies

The memoir traces the Suede frontman's childhood to near superstardom

Brett Anderson on stage at the Hop Farm music festival in Kent in 2012. AFP
Brett Anderson on stage at the Hop Farm music festival in Kent in 2012. AFP

Coal Black Mornings is the first book by Brett Anderson, singer and main songwriter in English indie rock darlings Suede. I saw them twice in concerts that book-ended the starburst of their fame. The first was as unknowns in 1991 at the height of grunge. Suede by contrast seemed dangerous, decadent, effeminate and, so it seemed, out of step with the times: instead of the regulation flannel shirt, Anderson sported a diaphanous lacey top.

They were stars, though; the world just needed to catch up, which it did do in 1992. A series of brilliant singles heralded their eponymous debut album, which won the prestigious Mercury Prize and ushered in a brief period of Suede-mania. The unmistakable English accents of their sound is frequently credited with, or possibly blamed for, the subsequent Britpop phenomenon.

When I saw Suede again in 1996, they were defiant underdogs once more. Anderson had missed the Britpop feeding frenzy, so media headlines insisted, through drug use and two ruinous break-ups. The soap opera split was with Justine Frischmann, Suede co-founder and Anderson’s girlfriend, who left him very publicly for Blur’s Damon Albarn. The second, more damaging divorce was with Bernard Butler, Suede’s guitar prodigy and early musical inspiration. Anderson had learnt to thrive on adversity. The 1996 concert in London, supporting their glorious third album Coming Up, was defiant, celebratory and one of the best gigs I have seen.

You can’t help but read Coal Black Mornings with these ups and downs in mind. Perhaps this is why Anderson is so keen to undermine a classic “coke and gold discs” narrative. Granted, he dutifully recalls formative influences, how Suede formed and progressed towards the songs like The Drowners and She’s Not Dead that defined that seminal debut album. But these feel like sub-plots: “I really can’t be bothered to get the order of events right here,” he writes of an early leap forward with weary impatience, “because that isn’t the point of this book.”

This raises an obvious question: what exactly is the point of this book? It might be easier to begin with what it isn’t. Gossip-mongers desperately seeking snapshots of indie rock’s most famous and, so rumour has it, fraught ménage a trois will be disappointed. Anderson remains stubbornly tight-lipped about his post-break-up relationship with Frischmann and refuses so much as to utter Albarn’s name:

“At some point during early 1991… Justine had met someone else,” he writes dismissively. Instead of spewing bile, Anderson turns unflinchingly on his own shortcomings and their family likeness: “Possibly, like my father before me, I had drifted into comfortable indolence; my ridiculous idealisation of the romance of idling and my rejection of ambition must have made life with me become slightly dull.”

In this, Coal Black Mornings reads like an act of confession: “I now feel an urgent need to impart,” he notes. And the most urgent subject of all is family, the one that raises you and the one you choose later in life. The first Andersons were “dirt poor”, artistically inclined and outsiders in conservative Haywood’s Heath. Brett’s mother loved to paint, and often listened to music while she did.

His father was a classical music fanatic whose love of Franz Liszt borders on obsessive. The story of paternal love either withheld or distorted reminded me regularly of Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections: indeed, a passage in which Anderson was forced to sit at the dinner table until he finished his meal has an almost exact parallel in Franzen’s novel.

Anderson is hard on his “twitchy, anxious” younger self, reprimanding him for being “a snotty, sniffy, slightly maudlin sort of boy raised on Salad Cream and milky tea and cheap meat”. It seems the older Anderson can be pretty sniffy too, after an Alan Bennett fashion. Yet here in embryo is the duality – the seedy romanticism – that Suede would evoke so vividly. A lyric like “We can be together in the nuclear sky/And we will dance in the poison rain” (Stay Together) comes into focus during Anderson’s account of being broke, young and restless in late 1980’s London: “Everything was broken and grimy and second-hand, but magical and charming, and slowly this fascinating duality of faded elegance and harsh, stark poverty began to seep into what I was writing about.”

For the teenage Anderson, music provided shelter before it offered escape. Enter his second family: the friends, allies, lovers and bandmates who initiated a very different second act. Anderson slowly learnt to turn misery to his advantage. His break-up with Frischmann sounds agonising, but one wonders whether he would have discovered the determination to be a star without it.

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The louche, gender defying nature of the band’s formative performances owed much to an even more profound calamity: the death of his mother. Anderson’s response was to explore his own feminine nature: “Looking back I’m convinced I was trying to replace the feminine absence in my life with an ersatz one of my own making.” Anderson is again tough on himself in retrospect, calling his behaviour “bizarre and deluded… gaudy and more than faintly ridiculous”, not to mention his favourite pejorative: mawkish. But such brisk self-criticism, offered with the benefit of age and hindsight, only makes the youthful experiments with identity seem more heroic: a portrait of a sensitive young man trying to find his way in a cruel, unforgiving world. It could almost be a Suede song.

Such unsentimental humility embodies the book’s overriding aesthetic: that failure and striving are more interesting and more universal than triumph for most of us, not just Brett Anderson. It is that striving that lends Coal Black Mornings genuine depths of feeling.

Like Suede, Anderson’s prose might be low on humour, but the compensation is a faded kind of glamour, an emotional candour and an intense yearning that shuttles between despair and hope. Coal Black Mornings deserves its place alongside the very best modern music memoirs by Patti Smith, Kim Gordon, Bob Dylan and Mark E Smith.

I hope there is more to come.

Coal Black Mornings

Brett Anderson

Little Brown Book Group