Coal Black Mornings by Brett Anderson review – dark-hearted rock memoir that burns out too soon
Suede singer recounts his band’s early years as a faded-glam antidote to post-grunge, but inexplicably stops before the real interesting stuff
Brett Anderson on stage with Suede at Dublin’s Olympia Theatre. Photograph: Alan Betson
Coal Black Mornings
The late Harry Crews once described a cocktail party encounter with a doctor who expressed interest in trying his hand at writing. Crews countered by remarking that he might take a shot at surgery. His point: the business of writing books is a form of precision engineering that may take years of apprenticeship before the practitioner can approach competence, let alone mastery. Nowhere is this more evident than in the realm of the first-person celebrity autobiography. It’s why so many actors, sports stars and musicians employ ghost writers. This is no casual pursuit.
Coal Black Mornings is Suede vocalist Brett Anderson’s first book, a memoir of his and his band’s early years. He certainly has a story to tell: Suede were the John the Baptists of Britpop, godsends to an impoverished music scene in the throes of Madchester and shoegazer comedown. They, along with Pulp, possessed a quality absent from so many post-grunge UK groups: an innately English aesthetic. Their songs eulogised both the grot and glamour of suburban London; their avatars included David Bowie, Mike Leigh, Morrissey, Joe Orton and James Fox circa Performance. But if the characters who populated Suede songs were droogs and decadents, they dwelled in ring-belt council estates rather than Dickensian back-alleys and boulevards.
It’s clear even from the opening pages of Coal Black Mornings that Anderson was no toff tourist slumming it in service of a gritty lyric. His parents were postwar working-class poor, his father a Franz Liszt aficionado who went from menial job to menial job, his mother a sensitive and resourceful woman who made do with next to nothing. For the Andersons, the social mobility of Swinging London seemed as distant as Beverly Hills, so their son was always destined to side with the underdog. Of early Suede compositions, he writes:
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“I had vague sensibilities towards documenting a kind of romanticised ‘beautiful loser’ sort of lifestyle – weak songs like She’s A Layabout and Natural Born Servant idealised dole life and inaction and afternoons wasted sat watching Australian soap operas – but without the poetry or skill or wit to yet paint it as anything other than stereotype. Looking back, I think I was trying to infuse my family’s humble origins with some sense of grace and dignity. I always felt sad that my parents and their parents before them had lived and died within the four grey walls of poverty, and I was desperate to give meaning to our shabby world of second-hand clothes and free school meals and meaningless dead-end jobs.”
Coal Black Mornings only catches fire when figures such as Justine Frischmann and Bernard Butler enter the narrative, fully halfway through the book
It’s an often-expressed notion that the first 100 pages of famous people’s biographies are generally the most interesting, revealing the person behind the persona, evoking the sense of memories of childhood and laying bare the struggle and confusion of young adulthood. Such formative experiences yielded the most interesting parts of Dylan’s Chronicles, Keith Richards’s Life and Springsteen’s Born to Run. But while Coal Black Mornings documents Anderson’s humble origins in detail, it’s a book without a second or third act, concluding just as Suede sign their first record deal. Far more troubling than the author’s somewhat fusty prose style is a reluctance or inability to grasp what is of most interest to the average reader.
“The very last thing I wanted to write was the usual ‘coke and gold discs’ memoir with which we’ve all become so familiar,” he states in the foreword, “so any success in the story is implied. I’ve limited this strictly to the early years, before anyone really knew or really cared, and so the decision to end it at the point where I have, when we were all still starry-eyed and guileless, was utterly vital in order to achieve any sense of tone.”
As a rationale, this is puzzling. Coal Black Mornings only catches fire when figures such as Justine Frischmann and Bernard Butler enter the narrative, fully halfway through the book. Of Frischmann, Anderson says, “She would always wear scruffy clothes like faded, vintage Mickey Mouse T-shirts or big clumpy biker’s boots, but somehow they just managed to make her look more elegant and moneyed,” while his description of Butler is textbook young guitar god: “I’ve always found watching Bernard play so compelling, even under the forty-watt bulb of a rehearsal room, and away from the glare and glitter of the stage there is something intensely captivating about the way he gives himself so utterly to the music . . . At once so violent and tender yet direct and purposeful, he was always, even from those first moments, such a very special talent.”
There are also thrilling passages where Anderson describes his first major breakthrough as a songwriter, which he attributes in no small part to the pain of his break-up with Frischmann, opening a channel to the occult realms of anger, jealousy and obsession. The result was early Suede classics such as The Drowners and She’s Not Dead. “These weren’t weak, tuneless songs about nothing,” Anderson observes, “they were towering and passionate, and brimming with grace and drama and violence. Suddenly it was all beginning to make sense; the failure and the bitter gnawing jealousy was pouring itself into the songs that I was writing and feeding them with a narrative and purpose.”
It’s hard to figure why any half-seasoned editor wouldn’t send Anderson back to the desk to produce more of this kind of stuff. The great pity of Coal Black Mornings is that it quits just as it’s getting interesting. In his quest to focus on the boredom and impoverishment of his apprentice years, Brett Anderson skimps on the drama and vindication of his first flush of success. His reticence is the reader’s loss.
Peter Murphy is the author of the novels John the Revelator and Shall We Gather at the River.