Coal Black Mornings by Brett Anderson (and other stuff)

I read it in a day.

Ok, it’s not the heaviest tome, and maybe it doesn’t have the smallest font.

But still.

Read it in a day. It is a lovely book.

Somebody on Twitter suggested recently that a book review should never be about the reviewer. It would somehow became less worthy and lacking in literary qualities. I get that, but I like writing my blog in such a way that it feels like I’m creating a memoir. Each tale of running adventure offering a peek through the curtains into moments of my life, I simply enjoy writing like this. When it comes to the books we read, they often hold a mirror up to our own stories. And a memoir like Anderson’s also points me back to a certain time in my life. So please forgive me the indulgence!

Besides, as author Zadie Smith puts it (in Intimations), writing is basically talking to yourself but then allowing yourself to be overheard.

Listen in if you fancy.

The founder and singer of the band Suede, Brett Anderson has always had a mysterious, almost aloof persona, especially if the music press are to be believed. Coal Black Mornings actually charts Anderson’s early life (taking us from childhood to the time when said music press started to really notice them), through adolescence as it drifted towards adulthood. I guess in today’s vernacular, Anderson and his fellow creatives and dreamers would be accused of being from the ‘metropolitan elite’. The truth is a tale of somewhat less privilege than we’d been led to believe.

I was in Bedford in those heady days of British music back in the early 90s and had the pleasure of writing for a naively ambitious music magazine, Splinter. I brought my rocking roots to the publication as others introduced me to more obscure underground music and we all had a love of finding original live acts who we could champion.

Obviously Suede were on our radar as we clung to the coat tales of the NME and Melody Maker, trying to promote the cause of bands from Bedfordshire and Northants who we reckoned could compete with this wave of guitar fuelled indie music filling the jukeboxes.

I hold my hand up to having made my impressions of Brett Anderson based around the press I consumed. But also, of course, through the extraordinary music they made. That first album still gets a regular airing in the van as I drive around South Devon doing my ‘day job’. I guess I always imagined his androgynous stage presence (a bit like how I consumed Jarvis Cocker from Pulp) to be derived from a spoiled home counties up bringing, the swagger having an arrogance to it.

In fact, Anderson’s upbringing was more like mine; straightforward with very defined household roles. This ordinariness combined with the bespoke quirks I’ve know doubt every family can boast, I recognise this only too well. The seemingly effortless poetic use of language in Coal Black Mornings paints this domestic scene so vividly and in such colour, it had me at the dinner table with the Andersons.

.. a sense that his mood could suddenly, capriciously sour and the house would be plunged into a strange, dark theatre of Pinteresque tension.

Anderson describing his father’s sometimes ominous presence.

It is hardly surprising that this book seems to only feature beautiful phrases. It is a feast of subtle yet somehow expansive descriptions of everything from clothes and their place in the author’s early life to the debris and the bric-a-brac the adventurous youth found on abandoned waste dumps.

The writing is mature and classy but certainly not daunting. There is humility and some darkly self depreciating passages. Despite this, Anderson accepts that some of lyrical creations were (and are) quite beyond anything his peers were achieving at the time. He presented us, then through his lyrics, and now in this book, with snippets of his world through his far from predictable word play. The book joins all of those dots, puts reason to the rhyme.

Claiming to be happy to avoid the “primary colours of party politics”, Anderson still manages to be wonderfully acerbic when the mood takes.

..John Major’s irrelevant, dreary, Tory world of unemployment and cut-price lager and crap boy bands.

For those of us who gave our own peers knowing looks when we first heard those extraordinary riffs on Suede’s eponymous debut, it is great to read that Anderson himself was initially in awe of Bernard Butler (Suede’s original lead guitarist). It must have been breath-taking to be in the room when songs like Animal Nitrate first riffed and rolled into existence.

The music was over-simplistic until Bernard wrote a breath-taking guitar – gnarled, twisted, winding and almost Eastern in flavour, it utterly transformed the song and turned it into a slinky, prowling beast that melted into a terrifying maelstrom of raging noise.

Anderson’s humble nod to Butler’s guitar on ‘He’s Dead’

Is the book for those who have no feeling for, or recollection of Suede? Is it for those who were either not yet born, or already middle aged in the early 90’s? Is this poignant memoir for those who are indifferent to music at all? The answer to all of these is yes, of course. At it’s simplest, Coal Black Mornings is a story, from birth to finding his calling, of an extraordinary yet believable young man.

Anderson doesn’t delve too much into the years that follow Suede’s initial impact, or the huge successes, the world tours, gold discs and high profile disintegration of relationships and departures. This keeps the story at ground level. The fears, the mistakes, the fumbling through adolescence and the atmosphere of childhood are all relatable. Except of course, unsaid but constantly present, is the knowledge that here was somebody who could achieve so much with his art.

I’ve read too many memoirs of the rich and famous where I find myself flicking pages as some overly self-important sports star or musician tells me how great and successful they are. Coal Black Mornings could not be further from those ghost written hardbacks which appear in WH Smiths in October ready for us to wrap up for our parents’ Christmas present.

It is a pocket rocket of a book. A rat-a-tat rhythm to the prose keeps the pages turning but not without savouring every word. Anderson is an artisan with words. He moulds and crafts. Sometimes phrases are so simply beautiful yet I know, as a wanna-be scribbler I’d be chuffed to create prose a tenth as good.

When I was playing a very average guitar, in Totnes band New Shapes, clinging on to the pace of songs I’d helped write, my fellow musicians delivering effortlessly perfect timing as I chased the chords around the fretboard, it was enough to see one punter tap their foot as they supped their beer and regarded us as the curiosities we probably were.

Similarly, as I talk out loud, I’m humbled if any of you are still listening.

Onwards.