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Sharp and sensitive

Posted: 08 Oct 2019, 05:16
by sunshine
7 Oct 2019
Afternoons With the Blinds Drawn by Brett Anderson review – sharp and sensitive
The Observer Music books
Miranda Sawyer
Band dynamics and debauchery share centre stage in the singer’s honest and lyrical account of Suede’s rise and fall
At the beginning of Afternoons With the Blinds Drawn, his second memoir, Brett Anderson admits that it is “the book I said I wouldn’t write… about the things I said I didn’t want to talk about”. His plan had been to write just one book, about growing up in Haywards Heath, and to end it at the point that his band, Suede, were poised to become successful. That one book was last year’s Coal Black Mornings, an honest and lyrical account that brilliantly described his eccentric, thwarted parents as well as his young self and bandmates. At the time, Anderson told me in an Observer interview that he wrote that story partly for his son, partly for his (now deceased) mum and dad, and partly because he was the only one who could tell it. Coal Black Mornings was personal.
But it was also successful, and success means a follow-up. Yet Anderson had decided that he didn’t want to write the story of his time in Suede. His reasoning? Others had already told it, in the music press and through several books and films. (There was a fabulous documentary about the band on Sky last year.)
Suede were the starting pistols of Britpop – though the band hated everything about that particular musical “movement” and kept themselves apart – and they burned bright for several years and five albums before splitting up in 2003. They reformed in 2010 and have brought out a few excellent LPs since, but that’s not the era anyone wants to hear about (yet). What we want to read is, as Anderson puts it, the story of the “journey from struggle to success and to self-destruction and back again”. (He also says, correctly, that the story of a band is “as preordained as the life cycle of the frog”.) So the singer, a clever, self-conscious and cussed character, has agreed to write about that journey – but in his own way. In Afternoons… he’s aiming for a different kind of rock history: one that digs beneath the usual tales of excess, success and eventual split to reveal something more interesting. He wants “to uncover some sort of truth about the machinery that whirs away, often unseen…”.
So what’s whirring away in Afternoons? Well, partly the cogs and chains of the 1990s music industry. But we are in the UK, not the US: the industry is small and personal and everyone knows one another. You can tell the people Anderson doesn’t like or forgive: he refuses to use their names. The group’s PRs, who get the band on 19 front covers before their debut album is released, are never discussed other than in an aside about how Suede “weren’t advised well”; and Anderson manages to be withering about Blur without mentioning the name of a single member of the band. “Groups of witless, opportunistic mockneys – middle-class media ‘geezers’ who had learned to drop their aitches and flatten their vowels … British life, which I saw as more akin to a Mike Leigh film, was being twisted into a Carry On film.” Ouch.
More of the whirring is provided by the dynamics of Suede, and Anderson is devastatingly accurate about this. His relationship with Bernard Butler is beautifully drawn. Butler, the guitar star who provided much of the band’s early drive, was as emotionally tricksy as Anderson (young musicians are rarely easy), and the singer is insightful enough to realise that his gradual pulling away from Butler is perhaps partly because their relationship, towards the end, reminds him subconsciously of his relationship with his father; how Anderson felt “like I had to tiptoe around him very carefully, fearful of reawakening a simmering, bilious persona and plunging us all back into a strange, dark theatre of tension”.
Anderson is good at pen portraits: his description of graphic designer and bon vivant Peter Saville made me roar with its accuracy. He’s not quite so precise when it comes to his own addictions (we get no details of which drugs he was taking – though he lists the paraphernalia and we can guess – nor how he got himself clean), but his descriptions of lost days and nights are grimly perfect. Anderson, in his lyrics, has always been fantastic at capturing the sleaze of underground city living and he does the same here. There’s a scene where his then girlfriend has a seizure and almost overdoses. He has to revive her and I found myself holding my breath.
Anderson likes adjectives and detailed scene-setting; he rarely reports direct speech and doesn’t shy away from emotion. Sometimes, he can be a bit pompous, but this is undercut by his honesty when it comes to his own failings (“I oscillated between morbid self-reflection and vainglorious narcissism”), and he starts many chapters with an anecdote revealing how much Suede were disliked. There’s a really funny part where he decides to experiment with electronic music and dye his hair blond.
Afternoons, in the end, is just as personal as Coal Black Mornings. Anderson’s writing is as he is in real life: sharp, unsparing and sensitive. He understands, fully, from his own experience, how being in a rock band comes down to relationships – with the media, with fans, with drugs, success, music and, especially, with other members. This is his particular story about his particular band, but it’s not a solo project. It’s about how he felt about and dealt with everyone else around him, and how the consequences changed his life.
• Afternoons With the Blinds Drawn by Brett Anderson is published by Little, Brown (£18.99). To order a copy go to or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £15, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99 ... son-review