Brett Anderson's new memoir Coal Black Mornings is a book I've been looking forward to reading since I first heard about it over a year ago. As one of the most interesting, cerebral, talented, and mysterious musicians of his generation, I assumed this would be a book worth checking out. Brett's distinctive vocals and lyrics have defined the sound of Suede and British rock music for over twenty-five years. The band are currently enjoying a late-career resurgence after reforming almost a decade ago and as part of the process of maturing in their music, Brett also seems to have taken stock of his life now that he's fifty years old, married, and a father. Inspired by the complicated relationship he had with his eccentric father and wanting to document what his pre-fame life was in order that his children would have the record of their father's life that he himself didn't, Coal Black Mornings emerged.
Interestingly, Brett states quite clearly at the beginning of the book that his story will end right when Suede is starting to take off and become famous. Stating that he has no desire for the usual "cocaine and gold records" type of musician memoir, he wanted to limit it to his formative years and the people and places from that era of his life; his reasoning is that information about what came after can already be found elsewhere (including the excellent authorized Suede biography which I've reviewed). The book is devoid of any photographs or images of any kind apart from the front cover and a shot of Brett in a brief "about the author" blurb on the back inner jacket fold. It's as stark and free from artifice as Brett prefaced, but in a way it's all the better for it.
Beginning with his birth after the "first Summer of Love," Brett details his life growing up in an eccentric and poor upbringing in a council house in Lindfield, on the edge of Haywards Heath. The picture he paints is of a childhood where from the earliest age, he and his older sister knew they were outsiders and were reminded of it every day. Their father Peter was an eccentric, moody man who drifted from menial job to menial job and was an obsessive fan of classical music (especially Liszt). Their mother Sandra was a creative free-spirit who made everything from the families clothes to furniture and even their meals from second-hand bits and pieces the family scavenged or found at thrift stores or rubbish bins. Brett was a quiet and relatively sullen kid who gravitated to the types of music and literature that resonated with his feeling of "outsiderdom." In the reverse of how most of his musical peers of the 1990s came to be musically educated, he first fell in love with the punk and new wave of the late 1970s and early 1980s before then working his way backwards to the Beatles, Who, Kinks, Led Zeppelin, and of course his eventual hero David Bowie. Brett also details his school years, with some degree of indifference if not a slight bit of fondness, from primary school through to when he left home to attend university. First heading to Manchester before transferring down to London, Brett began the seeds of what would eventually become Suede with his childhood friend Mat Osman and his new girlfriend Justine Frischmann.
While the years growing up are fascinating in learning about his impoverished childhood, the strange dynamic of his home life and his parents' marriage, and how Brett looks back on his family, for fans of Suede it's the university years where the story gets even more interesting. While he stays true to his promise of cutting off the story right at the moment where Suede become famous and release their first single, he doesn't shy away at all from detailing their story from their embryonic formation to the very cusp of signing their record deal. Beginning with the first musical fumblings with Mat and Justine in their flats, it's when Bernard Butler enters the picture that I really couldn't get enough of what he had to say. The Anderson/Butler partnership has long been one of my favorite and in my opinion, is one of the greatest songwriting teams of not only the 1990s but of all time. I maintain to this day that virtually everything Brett and Bernard wrote and released in their all too brief time together in Suede was perfect. However, as discussed in the authorized Suede biography, Bernard was the one person who would not open up about his time in the band or his partnership with Brett. While the others talked about it in that book, they never got too in depth. Luckily for us, in Coal Black Mornings Brett talks openly and candidly about his relationship with Bernard, both as he felt then as well as with twenty-five years of hindsight and maturity. Describing his initial impressions and interactions, how their friendship and working partnership grew, and what it means to him now was some of the best stuff I've been able to read about Suede. Add in his pulling back the curtain, ever so slightly, into their songwriting process and inspirations and this was the most exciting part of the book by far.
Along with the excitement of Suede's birth, however, Brett also takes time to discuss his parents divorcing when he was away at university, the heartbreak of losing his mother to cancer suddenly as a young man, and the complicated relationship with his father that lasted well into adulthood. It wasn't until his father passed away when Brett was in his late thirties that he was able to reconcile the love, confusion, anger, resentment, and affection he felt for him. Brett is able to offer a fuller perspective on who his father was as he also begins to relate it to the relationship with his own children. The book never feels mawkish or salacious, yet Brett is able to imbue his story with a lot of depth and emotion such that it remains a page turner throughout. His writing style is, as would be expected given his songs, rather florid and grandiose, but somehow it never detracts from what he's trying to say. It in fact is the perfect voice with which to tell his story and now that I've finished the book, I couldn't see him writing it in any other way. The one critique I do have is that he does still have the slight tendency to slip into some of his comfortable cliches. As anyone who is familiar with Suede's music circa, let's say 1997-2002 (and even some of their more recent work), Brett has a fair number of pet phrases and subjects that continually pop up in his lyrics. Therefore, I had to suppress a chuckle when for instance he used the phrase "pebble-dashed" twice within the first dozen pages of the book. The repeated uses of the title phrase throughout the book seemed a tiny bit forced and there were plenty of references to Brett's love of exploring the more downtrodden, grimier, seedier, less glamorous aspects of life in his art, but the slight lack of restraint in reining in these cliches is also part of the book's charm, at least if you're a Suede fan. There are also several subtle swipes at his perpetual nemesis Damon Albarn and Blur...never explicitly named but obviously the recipient(s) of more than a few digs (which, as big a fan of Blur as I am, I can honestly say are mostly warranted).
Coal Black Mornings is to the Suede story what Morrissey's memoir is to the Smiths story, only less bizarre, less bitter, and more readable. The single-minded and minimalist presentation of the book, from the text to the lack of images, immediately brought Moz's book to mind. But whereas I didn't really enjoy Morrissey's book and can't see myself reading it again any time soon, I feel quite the opposite about Coal Black Mornings. There's a warmth and real heart to it that is indescribable but obvious. It's one of the most unique and enjoyable musician memoirs I've read in a while and for any music fan, and especially a fan of Suede or 1990s British rock music, an essential read.
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