Brett Anderson: ‘I had started my musical journey wanting to be the quiet one at the back’
Autobiography and memoir
The Suede frontman remembers the crushing blow of losing his mother and the subsequent fumbling beginnings of the band in this extract from his memoir
Sun 25 Feb 2018 09.00 GMT
My mother’s death almost destroyed me. I was unable to get out of bed for days and days, just shuffling to and from the toilet every few hours, the blinds drawn, the soft oblivion of the duvet waiting. I didn’t eat and I didn’t wash and I developed shingles: a nasty ring of angry spots around my midriff. I don’t really remember much. I know I was at Justine’s [Frischmann] flat, and I suppose she must have sensitively carried on with life around me, but I really have no memory beyond lying crushed and motionless in her purple sheets as the traffic rushed past outside and the world marched on. I find the words hard to write and I know some people will frown at this, but I didn’t go to the funeral – I was too devastated. I didn’t see how some dry, formal, quasi-religious ceremony could possibly begin to represent my mum, and thought that her memory was best kept alive by less tangible but more real means. I think I felt that being her son, I didn’t need to formally let the world know of my grief; that it was no one’s business but my own – a private contract between her and me.
Today I regret that massively, still looking for some sort of closure in lieu of my absence. Years after her death I tried to organise an informal marking of the place where her ashes were scattered on Mount Caburn in Sussex, but the closest I’ve come to publicly recognising it is in the form of the lyrics to the song The Next Life. It’s strange, but even at the time of writing it, it wasn’t clear to me that it was about my mum, but songs are mysterious, sometimes shifting and changing and revealing themselves in different ways, even to the writer. I’ve often found that when writing about an emotion – loss, for example – I’m unable to write about just one situation, as parallel experiences and different people will poke their way into my head and form a sort of amalgam. Therefore, I’ve always found it a bit simplistic to discuss what a song is “about” as the subject matter of a single song for me is often inspired by different things. The way I write is in many ways very instinctive and occasionally almost subconscious, like I’m not really in control of myself. I try to let my pen do the work before the brain gets too involved, and it’s often only years later that I can pin any meaning on to it. I like this approach – it breathes life into the song. In the same way that oblique lyrics can be the most powerful, sometimes I find it boring to know what my own songs are about, and part of the thrill is working it out myself. And so it was with the lyrics of The Next Life that I wrote as a general meditation on loss but that I realised years later were so crushingly obviously about my mother.
If there was anywhere I wanted to be during those coal black mornings after my mother’s death, it was the bedroom in Hornton Street [Frischmann’s home in west London]: a beautiful room at the back of the house away from the rumble and clatter of the traffic, and facing the gardens below with a huge picture window screened by a roman blind. During happier times, Justine and I would lie there together just listening to the peal of the bells coming from St Mary Abbots church, and then eventually emerge and ease into the day with coffee from the cafe on the corner, or a trip to The Muffin Man in Cheniston Gardens; a hilarious, old-fashioned English tea house where we would sit and sip our earl grey, and try not to stare too much at the pompous, coiffured wealthy widows and their silly miniature dogs.
Slowly, then, I managed to find some ragged version of normality, and as the fog of grief began to clear I started to be able to listen to music again. One of the most valuable lessons I had learned from the tatty, homemade world of my childhood was that if you wanted something you made it yourself. Even though I didn’t quite know what it was yet, the kind of music I wanted to listen to didn’t seem to be out there and this was beginning to make me increasingly frustrated. One autumn evening Justine, Mat [Osman] and I were watching Top of the Pops at the flat. I remember seeing some ridiculous, tired hair-rock act dutifully going through their repertoire of priapic posturing, and thinking how shit it was, and saying something like, “I just know we can do better than this.” The impetus from all of the seismic life changes I was experiencing must have shaken me out of my comfortable cocoon and filled me with a sense of carpe diem, so we decided to place an advert in the NME for a guitar player.
By this point, Mat and I had officially moved out of Wilberforce Road [in north London], and I’d moved the few possessions that weren’t at Justine’s into a shared flat just opposite the roundabout at the top of Highlever Road in north Kensington. For anyone who doesn’t know, north Kensington and Kensington are very different places; even though it’s quite well-to-do now, in those days it was a slightly misleading name referring to the scruffy suburban badlands beyond the wrong bit of Ladbroke Grove. The flat ran to three bedrooms on the top floor of a tall Victorian house, but again had no communal area except the kitchen, as we’d crammed it with tenants. It was blank and functional and slightly soulless with grey carpets and “landlord magnolia” on the walls, not charmingly shabby like Wilberforce Road, but bleak and cheap in its own way. Our room was at the back with french windows that opened on to a lonely, disused, weed-strewn balcony, and in the other rooms hovered the usual random collection of rootless twentysomethings, including for a while Justine’s rakish, funny school friend Geraldine, whose family home was on the next street from her flat on Campden Hill Road. Many years later, when we were writing Coming Up, Mat would move into a place on North Pole Road, just opposite Highlever Road, and in December would receive a sorry flood of children’s Christmas requests and letters to Santa that had been addressed to No 1, The North Pole. Effectively, the flat was just somewhere we stayed every now and then, and to be honest even though it was my room, Mat lived there more than I did, having just graduated and found himself in a kind of lumpen, desultory, post-degree fug. We would drive over in the Renault and Mat would be trudging around gloomily in his towelling dressing gown, eating Big Soup and scouring the situations vacant columns, and we would try to cheer him up. We kept our instruments there and a couple of amps, so that’s where we decided to stage the “auditions”. The ad was printed in a late 1989 edition of the NME with Debbie Harry on the cover. We deliberately chose the NME rather than Melody Maker, which was the traditional forum for this kind of thing, because in those days our idealism bordered on the quixotic and we wanted some sort of separation from the usual collection of jobbing musicians that tended to answer these kind of things.
The ad said something pompous and irritating like: “Guitarist wanted for inexperienced but important band. Influences – Smiths, Lloyd Cole, Bowie, Pet Shop Boys. No musos, no beginners. Some things are more important than ability.” Two people answered: the first was exactly the kind of identikit sleeveless-heavy-metal-T-shirted muso we’d hoped to avoid, and the second was a boy called Bernard Butler. I’d first suggested meeting him in a dodgy old man’s pub I knew down on Ladbroke Grove called the Kensington Park, but when I’d asked how I would recognise him he’d wryly replied, “Maybe I should wear a carnation”, and I just gave him the address and told him to come over instead. Perhaps I’d already begun to romantically view the meeting as worthy of some sort of stage.
My first impression of Bernard as he hid behind a mop of thick, dark hair was that he was very quiet and very young, but that somehow despite his laconic replies and his callow appearance he didn’t seem shy, just kind of contained and strangely confident. There was a sense that he was observing us and quietly weighing us up. I suppose we probably came across as three pretentious middle-class prats to him; our ideas certainly outstripped our meagre ability, and once tea had been drunk and etiquette had been observed, and we finally heard him play, the shocking quality of his musicianship exposed our ambition as the empty, groundless folly that it was. I’ve always found watching Bernard play so compelling, even under the dull 40-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. It’s an immersion that many others try to imply or imitate, but one that Bernard completely owns. At once so violent and tender, yet direct and purposeful, he was always, even from those first moments, such a very special talent. There’s something of the skill and intensity of a surgeon in the way Bernard plays, like he’s operating on the instrument, so that anyone who is watching him falls into the same accepting state that a patient or an airline passenger inhabits – a kind of necessary, willing surrender into the hands of an expert. I realised very early on that if I wanted the accolades and the status I thought the world owed me, then it was up to me to try to catch up with him.
The only snippet of conversation I remember from that initial meeting was us telling him our age (I was just 22 at the time), and him turning round and starkly replying with something like: “Well, you’d better get on with it then.” And he was right, we were too long in the tooth to still be ambitious dreamers sitting in bedrooms talking about it, and without meeting Bernard I’m sure that’s exactly what we would have remained. It didn’t all work perfectly at first, of course – the gap in ability took some time to bridge, and as with any band there needed to be a long period of frustration and failure before any chemistry was really revealed. Ours would actually feel longer than most, but at first we were buoyed along by those early buds of enthusiasm, a sense that, to misquote Michelangelo, within the slab of marble there was a beautiful statue waiting to emerge if we could just find the right tools. The first original piece that Bernard played us was something called Miller Man. I remember it being complex and melodic with an obvious stylistic nod to Johnny Marr and, indeed, the Smiths’ writing dynamic became our model, with me trying to weld lyrics and melody on to Bernard’s crammed, intricate opuses. Over those first few weeks he would present us with other flowing, labyrinthine, arpeggio-based pieces and I would struggle to do them justice. I was yet to develop any real musical sense and too in thrall to the dominance of words over melody, but without any real mastery of the skill of storytelling or the coup de grace of the killer hook.
So the weeks came and went. Bernard would catch the tube to Ladbroke Grove and shuffle over to Highlever Road with his Epiphone slung over his back in its soft case, and in between our time spent designing otiose community centres and libraries that would never be built [at University College London, where Anderson and Frischmann were studying architecture], we would hurry through London and the chill of twilight to meet up and run through our modest, growing repertoire. There were songs with titles like So Liberated, Carry Me, Marry Me, The Labrador in You and Wonderful, Sometimes: bitter pot-shots at the limitations of class, clumsy addresses to latent sexuality and jaunty, self-conscious love songs, all of them slightly tuneless and formless, and yet to possess any real bite or drama. Thinking back with the cold, bleak light of objectivity, there were also real limitations with my voice. I had started my musical journey wanting to be the quiet one at the back – the dutiful, strumming sentinel hiding behind a Gretsch – but I just simply wasn’t good enough to play that role. As fate played its hand I was ushered further forward, until one day I woke up blinking in the daylight to find myself cast as a singer in a band but lacking any real command over my instrument. It took a while for me to develop any power in my voice and for me to overcome my self-consciousness and inhibitions, and to embrace the violence and the madness and the river of feeling that one must in order really to be able to sing. To put it simply: the vocals were weak. But slowly, slowly through our failures we were learning and beginning to develop the ingredient that is the bedrock of any half-decent collection of emerging musicians: camaraderie. We started going to gigs together to carefully study the craft of other bands that were a few rungs above us. Whereas I chose to idealise and oversimplify music, Bernard understood more about the practical steps needed to construct the sound he had in mind and, like many guitar players, could be very technical and would carefully work on achieving this. Using money he had made from a part-time job at Ryman’s he slowly started building his collection of equipment and pedals, and began learning their nuances and variations. We invested in a secondhand drum machine, driving down the M4 to Feltham in the Renault one day to a forbidding-looking tower block under the Heathrow flight path and meeting up with some wild-eyed pill-head to swap about a hundred quid for an old Alesis HR-16. I remember getting it back to Justine’s flat and being hypnotised by its tireless march, and feeling somehow a tiny step closer to our elusive goal. If I’m honest, we were unsuccessful and impressionable enough to be swayed by the zeitgeist, and the presence of a drum machine fitted with the early 90s culture of indie music blending with electronica and sequencers and samples and loops, as the herd tried to fall into the post-Roses/Mondays slipstream. This was a time when the shadow of the second summer of love loomed large even over our little sunkissed world. It was an exciting moment, as there was a palpable sense that the massing tribes of young people and their unruly pursuit of good times contained that genuine note of rebellion against the establishment that had made the transgressions of 50s rock’n’roll and punk so thrilling. It seemed briefly that dance music was destined to supplant rock, and that for rock to survive in any way it needed to adapt. Our adoption of a drum machine was a concession to this tide of fashion as we fumbled blindly in search of our own sound.
But there are often many cul-de-sacs and wrong turns on the path. Sometimes finding out where you don’t want to go is as important as finding out where you do want to and, without wishing to sound like something printed inside a Hallmark card, it’s how you overcome the mistakes and the failures that ends up defining you just as much as the successes, but ultimately it’s those flaws that are so fascinating. In the same way that everyone’s childhood is slightly embarrassing, so too is everyone’s first stab at music. I’d love to sit here and write that we arrived fully formed, violent and dynamic, purposeful and richly eloquent, but it simply wouldn’t be true. The weak, derivative, misshapen songs and the scruffy inglorious details are just as much part of the story, however, and so something of which I am strangely just as proud. Looking at other bands and their seemingly steady, untroubled ascent of the ladder makes me feel that somehow they missed something – that it’s the struggle and the imperfections just as much as the finished product that gives the whole thing any heft. As the years march on it feels like the machinery that drives success is becoming more sophisticated and churns out increasingly formulaic bands via a menu of checklists and media milestones. That type of formula was very far from being established in 1990, let alone fine-tuned, as we cast around for some sort of identity.
Probably because they were cheaper, we used to attend lots of gigs at London university venues – places like University of London Union or Queen Mary College – where we would sip beer in plastic pint glasses and watch now forgotten, marginal bands like Five Thirty or That Petrol Emotion, not so much for artistic inspiration, but just to drench ourselves in the giddy world of dry ice and the squeal of feedback, the press of bodies and the thrill of noise. One evening, during the break between the support and the headliners, Bernard, Justine and I were sitting on the stairs smoking. We had reached the stage that we were searching around for a name and I can’t honestly remember the story behind it, but I just remember turning to them both and saying, “What about Suede?”.
• Coal Black Mornings by Brett Anderson is published by Little Brown in hardback, ebook and audiobook on 1 March (£16.99). To order a copy for £14.44 go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.
• To mark the 25th anniversary of Suede’s debut album, Suede, a deluxe box set is released on 30 March.
https://www.theguardian.com/books/2018/ ... gs-extract