Coal Black Mornings (2018)
Though this blog is primarily dedicated to the reading I’m doing to satisfy my post-punk itch, I do have other musical obsessions: mainly Britpop and Cool Cymru which are two sides of the same 1990s coin. My devotion to the Manic Street Preachers not only lead me to read every book published about them (more on those in another post) but to also read about Super Furry Animals (Ric Rawlins’ excellent bio) as well as Gruff Rhys’ American Interior, and assorted other books on the Welsh music scene commonly called Cool Cymru (there aren’t really any directly on Cool Cymru but there is one book called ‘Blerwytirhwng?’ The Place of Welsh Pop Music by Sarah Hill that covers a vast amount of bands included in the movement and there is an excellent chapter about the scene in Wales Since 1939 by Martin Johnes). Once I’d exhausted the Welsh scene, I turned to Britpop and books on Blur, Oasis, the genre in general (Britpop!: Cool Britannia And The Spectacular Demise Of English Rock by John Harris is a great one), and Suede (fabulous bio by David Barnett). I was thrilled, then, to discover that Suede’s lead singer, Brett Anderson, has recently undertaken the task of writing his autobiography. The story of Suede’s place in Britpop is fascinating, especially since they are often attributed with starting the scene in the first place although as with most declarations about who started what in music, that declaration is also keenly argued about. It was, however, Suede who made it to the cover of the NME before Blur and they made it before they’d officially released their first single!
Coal Black Mornings wasn’t quite what I expected it to be. In the Foreword, Anderson clarifies that “the last thing I wanted to write was the usual ‘coke and gold discs’ memoir” and so he “limited [the book] strictly to the early years, before anyone really knew or really cared” about the band. He did this in order to “achieve [a] sense of tone […] to stray beyond [the early days of Suede] and to keep my voice fresh and void of cliché would have been impossible, and right now I have no desire to rake over those days again” (ix-x). Anderson dubs the book a “prehistory” and indeed, most of the book is about his childhood and college days with the book ending just as Suede gelled as band, creating a ruckus in London and in the music press. He discusses his relationship with Elastica’s Justine Frischmann and he is very complimentary to her. Though he notes that their relationship eventually ended because she became involved with another man, he never says it’s Blur frontman Damon Albarn. For a truly juicy going-over of that love triangle, I recommend Barnett’s authorized biography of Suede. There are tons of good stories about how much Brett and Damon hated each other. One can only surmise that Anderson continues to hate Albarn given the digs he makes at Britpop bands who sing in false accents about lives they know nothing about (ahem, “Parklife”).
Anderson’s lyrics betray an obvious interest in class, in elevating the unseen experiences of the working class and the marginalized to art. His autobiography does the same as he carefully and poetically evokes a vision of his childhood that is pocked with disappointment, poverty, and an angry father but also punctuated by that same father’s love of classical music and a mother who supported her artistic children. Unlike a lot of biographies and autobiographies, I found the portion of the book about Anderson’s childhood to be fascinating reading. He is an excellent writer with a good sense of how to season brutality and sadness with humor.
The part about becoming Suede is lighter and captures the humor, vanity, and earnestness involved in starting a band. There are a lot of great stories about playing to empty rooms and wry digs at the clothes the band initially wore on stage. Importantly, Anderson discusses what emerged as one the press’s repeated critiques of Anderson’s lyrics and onstage persona: that it was all a put-on. Over the years, music writers have opined that Anderson “played gay” to garner attention for the band, that his coy ducking of questions about his own sexuality was designed to fuel gossip. Anderson speaks somewhat to this charge while discussing the writing of the song, “My Insatiable One” after breaking up with Frischmann (link to song at end of essay):
Like everything I was writing at that time it was massively coloured by heartbreak, but this time I was writing about myself in the third person and from Justine’s point of view; fictionalising a situation where she was regretting her choices and where the ‘he’ in the lyrics was actually me. I found this shift in perspective really thrilling as a writer and it suddenly opened up enormous vistas, which I began to explore through other songs in that early period, looking at the world through the eyes of housewives and gay men and lonely dads […] Sadly, a year or so later, when we had become shrouded in notoriety and success, some would choose to see it as a social tourism. Given the levels of real, cynical, social tourism during that decade, when groups of patronising middle-class boys were making money by aping the accents and culture of the working classes, the irony was exquisite. (191)
Suede’s early songs always felt exploratory to me. Anderson was merely tiptoeing in and out of viewpoints in order to expose the panorama of British life to his listeners. Of course Suede often sounds pompous and bombastic! When one is trying to hew a portrait of a nation to compete with the cheerful tunes of Blur and Oasis, one errs on the side of going big. This book feels to be both honest and crafted, as if Anderson is taking on another persona: that of a man named Brett Anderson who is writing an autobiography. I mean that as a compliment, actually. The refrain of “coal black mornings” that recurs through the book could feel gimmicky but in Anderson’s hands, the recurrence feels natural and necessary. It elevates the grubby struggle of his early life to something worthy of art. The whole book feels self-consciously shaped but necessarily so as Anderson is trying not only through his stories, but also through the writing itself to evoke a mood or tone that enraptures the reader. He wants you to feel this story, not to merely read it.
The book is quite short at only 209 pages but the length felt right. A sort of short, sharp shock to the system before Anderson recedes into the shadows again.