background noise: Suede at the Boardwalk
On 23 March 1993, Britsh music magazine NME ran a joint interview with Brett Anderson and David Bowie. Bowie was looking to get some street cred back with his Black tie White noise album and NME were willing, as always, to lend their boy wonder a helping hand. Anderson and his band Suede had been hyped to high heavens for almost a year by the British music press, with their debut album as yet not on sale. The meeting between these vastly diverging experiences went surprisingly well. In the words of Anderson, he didn't feel the need to destroy his Bowie record collection upon returning home, something he had feared might be the outcome of meeting a fallen heroe. Only weeks later, Suede were off to a flying start, just in time to become the outsider voice in the burgeoning britpop movement.
Coal black mornings, in Spanish translation mañanas negras como el carbón, ends about twelve months before this moment. It is Brett Anderson's autobiography, the adventures of a sometimes ingenuous small town lad looking to write good popsongs. He takes us through the years of trying to stand out in the lowest tier of the London live scene, culminating in the moment they, the band, get picked up just when they feel their intensity deserves it. But before that, there is his youth in the 1970s and 80s. Mañanas negras starts with a lively and precisely documented account of what it was like to live on the fringe of society in those years. And it wasn't all bad, though much was.
Born in 1967, Brett Anderson grew up in Haywards Heath, in a rural region south of London known as the Weald. These days it is among the most sought after real estate outside the capital, then it was a typical English countryside community, with some old money, middle class folks, a large working class and a handful of pockets of deep and disturbing poverty. In one of those pockets lived Anderson, in a miniature council estate on the edge of town, in a miniature house with paper thin walls. There's always an artistic presence in the many stories Anderson spins from his childhood memories, weaving his words craftfully and admitting to the truism that beauty is more important than truth when it comes to human creation. Nevertheless, reality is grim enough to feel those cold, wet feet, the chill of the wind, to hear every noise produced and smell the permanently moldy bedrooms he and his family had to put up with.
Brett Anderson was lucky to be tossed into a family which was never bogged down by religion or tradition. His father, son of an alcoholic brute, tried to instill in his children a love for Franz Liszt and eloquence, while maintaining wife, daughter and son with lowly paid odd jobs. Mother decorated their humble home with her drawings and paintings and covered the walls with selfmade curtains to keep some of the cold out. The Andersons didn't seem to belong to anyone though they were mostly on friendly terms with their neighbours, little Brett immersed in this penniless world of homemade beauty and lots of love, though father had his spells of brutish behaviour. From today's perspective in our inclusive and impersonal high tech society, it is strange to realise only forty years ago people could be living so far out of synch with their decade. Modern times enter through radio and school and Anderson proudly claims his first ever lp was Never mind the bullocks, but there is otherwise a distinctly anachronistic feel to the various boyhood adventures Anderson describes.
Brett Anderson is an accomplished songwriter and he shows he knows the rules of autobiography. He is both author and protagonist, but he manages to keep the two apart by reflecting on his present perspective every now and then. I really enjoyed the controlled speed of mañanas negras and promised myself to get the English original. Nothing against Federico Corriente's translation, which is rhythmic and inventive most of the times, just like, I suppose, the original, but as a lover of the English tongue, that false, split tongue that has brought so much suffering upon the peoples of Earth, I'm curious about the real thing.
A new world opens when Anderson moves out to Manchester and London. It is late eighties and some remnants of the welfare society are still functioning. His poor background now working to his advantage, he gets a university scholarship and after dropping out, a miserable unemployment benefit. While still dirt poor, at least Anderson gets the opportunity to work on his songwriting and singing and on forming a band. As an aside, to my great enjoyment Anderson chose to study urban planning as it seemed to him the most arty thing someone educated in all the wrong subjects could choose, the exact reason yours truly chose the same study some five years earlier in another town. There's something charming and disarming about the Brett Anderson we get to know in mañanas negras como el carbón. He seems like a nice lad whom you wish his success, if only because after a couple of uncertain years which slowly molded the final shape of the band, Suede became one of the musically more interesting acts of the nineties, with Anderson's choice to go from singing to screaming to give his weak voice dramatic impact, like Bowie did before him, a mayor contribution. Nice kids who deserved their break.
And then there is that moment, what you could call his sympathy for the devil moment. Overwhelmed by the death of his mother and his girlfriend walking out on him, further rumours not authenticated, Anderson decides to express his loss in a song about a mannequin that a Phil Spector anecdote had inspired him to. We are still very early in his career, if it can be called such, and nobody is interested in Suede, least the band members themselves, and here is an episode he doesn't know how to deal with. His claim he never understood the symbolic meaning sounds a bit lame and the writer seems happy to be able to move on to the next paragraph. In a well-written and mostly convincing book, this anecdote stands oddly out. What is it doing here? Why wasn't the affair glossed over or more convincingly explained as youthful curiosity? It's all a bit fake, this passage. It doesn't belong. Was this then the moment Brett Anderson's talent was recognised and he was offered fame? Suede's success is certainly remarkable. They will always have their quality and excitement as an excuse, but truth is the press were lavishly praising them well before people had even heard of the band. For working class kids from out of town who had no connections anywhere and who claimed to not at all be trying to be hip, that was quite an achievement.
I'm not doubting Brett Anderson's integrity and honesty, as I hope this review makes clear. But you hear and see so much about musicians having to have done all kinds of stuff to supposedly show their allegiance to whoever make them do one-eyed things and sing about the devil's work, it has simply become hard to believe any pop act can break through without bending to the will of those who control the music industry. I'm not saying people shouldn't do this, what do I care, it's just a certain enthusiasm is lacking when artists who mostly have a healthy attitude towards life start exploring such themes. It's like they want us to know it was out of obligation. This, to me, has always been the meaning of the song Sympathy for the devil. Jagger tells, but he leaves out any judgement or morality, do with it what you want, not even the story is round and at no point in the song is the title explained. It's the same ambiguity Bowie shows on Hunky Dory and at a variety of moments during his career, as even Lou Reed had to submit to when he got swallowed up by the Ziggy show, only to leave the madness quickly behind him and pursue a life of excellence. Let's hope Brett Anderson in similar ways managed to use his sudden fame to build a solid fanbase which could support his artistic needs without having to resort to further kneebending. Part two of the Brett Anderson adventures, apparently in preparation, will undoubtedly shine some light on this matter.