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Book Review

Warren Leming

Brett Anderson, Afternoons With the Blinds Drawn (New York: Little, Brown 2019)

Brett Anderson was the lead singer with the British pop Group Suede – a successful English group that worked the clubs for years, and finally emerged with all the gleaming trophies: magazine covers, exotic ladies, fashionista pals, backstage ennui, chart topping records, and drug addictions. 

As Anderson notes, all bands have histories as predictable as the life “of a frog.” It’s all biology after some point, and Anderson’s first book Coal Black Mornings, painted a gritty, grim portrait of life in an English suburban Council flat, subsidized school lunches (his father made barely enough to keep them in respectable poverty) and a family that was ultimately to come apart but not before teaching Anderson some hard and rigorous lessons necessary to his success. 

His father and mother were classic 60s characters who “married too young” and produced Anderson, and his sensitive Art School-bound sister Blandine, who helped to inspire Anderson’s interest in music. His early favorite LP was the first Sex Pistols album, and it set a determined Anderson on the path to rock stardom. His listening, like his reading, is encyclopedic, intense, diverse. His unsparing critiques of his own and others’ works reads like an extremely literate critic’s take on the British scene with all its convoluted infighting, obscure rituals, and do-or-die positions, which required all the erudition Anderson could summon, and the nimble attitudes necessary to chart an ever shifting  scene which, to my mind, makes the American side of the business seem comparatively pedestrian and stodgy. 

For restless English youths like Anderson the Beatles conjured an adolescent’s dream of success festooned with American penthouses, English country homes, stardom, tabloid obsessions, and photogenic wives. The Beatles passed quickly from mere musical phenomena to symbols of hip culture, and have since moved to a Rock Valhalla where the two deceased Beatles John and George now reincarnate as sainted idols whose fame and recyclable legend(s) grow with each decade.

Lennon is no longer just a popular musician and songwriter but figures prominently in protest iconography and in aspirational self-help literature, which, with George Harrison he has come, however ironically, to personify: a jet-propelled rise from nowhere to stardom. The Indian mysticism that Harrison embraced has made of him a modern spiritual figure whose life combined millionaire lifestyle and a striving for anti-materialist spirituality. Like so much pop-based lore it’s a confused legacy that enhanced in legend what their actual lives seemed to deny in actuality. In an age that worships celebrity over fact, the late Beatles were an ad mans dream.

The sheer complexity of Brit pop debates are exemplified in Anderson’s desperate attempts to find a way out of the squalid poverty that cursed his earliest years and his parents’ lives. His mother, after a bitter divorce which left his Liszt-loving father bereft and abandoned, dies of cancer after a stab at a new life independent of the family she had carried forward on her talents as a seamstress, budget busting home maker, and talented painter. 

The book provides a candid look at a family living just at the poverty line, an experience often obscured or ignored, where there is never ever quite enough. Only enough to qualify for humiliating subsidized lunch programs at school, and the sense which Anderson never quite shakes of “always being an outsider.” He laments this, but also suggests it is something that set him apart- and made for better Art.

Suede’s lyrics, which Anderson provided, were check lists of English seediness, airless cheap rooms badly lit, impossible to heat, where the air is thick with cigarette smoke, and breath reeks of bad wine and too many nights chasing muddled gigs at the outermost margins of a rock career that initially never seemed to get off the ground. Audiences often did not quite outnumber the four guys on stage.  And then there is the search for management that, when it came onboard, was just not up to the nonstop battle for attention at the core of rock life. 

I doubt many Americans can even begin to chart the English scene, Brit Pop and before, with its endless controversies, slaps at American musical Imperialism, and its strange blend of Oscar Wilde-ish decadence (Anderson cites Portrait of Dorian Grey, in the afternotes), guitar driven tonalities, noir lyrical feel, and the shitty streets and housing, where everything is thankfully blurred by hard-won drink and drugs. He makes no apologies for drug obsessions to the point where he barely functioned. He was unfortunately endowed with sufficient charisma to take others with him on a not so slow descent into Waster-ville. This memoir is a rock confessional cum historical analysis, and a literary tour de force. Without Anderson’s sense of the occasional absurdity of it all, it would be heavy going indeed. The inchoate debates “within the business” can verge on the post-modernism hysteria of the confused academic variety: vague, intense, and ultimately so obscure the reader is left without reference point beyond the author’s blinding persistence in the face, initially, of absolute indifference.

Describing the recurrent insanities of any band’s interpersonal situation is something even a Balzac might have found daunting. But Anderson doesn’t balk at attempting to chart his own odd balancing act, keeping Suede on the charts and in the papers. He comes across as an ever attentive, ever focused, ever present man at the center of Suede’s immensely complicated career and self-inflicted fate. Imagine yourself at the center of a band’s emotional surges, creating the lyrics that drive the next album, in constant rehearsal, and strategizing with management and record company over the next major move. Yet all of this and more somehow get negotiated in addition to a most complicated love and drug life. The sheer mind-numbing drain of rock machinations beggar the descriptions that Anderson puts on paper. Americans consistently fail to notice that the Beatles’ story is also one of their absolute desperation to escape the Hell of Liverpool, escaping beyond where millions in England are mired.  Anderson is laser-clear on the dead end, bottomless nowhere of English life. American musical careers seem in contrast to be awash in a frothy materialism the envious English lads only dream about.

America is for the rest of the world the supreme materialist paradise; it’s part of the hype that overlays the complete inequality at the center of life in the USA. The soundtrack to all of that is the Eagles’ ”Ridin in the Fast Lane” – LA as Chinatown. Anderson’s lyrics are a portrait of the tiny moments when some of that sordid suspicion is revealed, which he accomplishes with some finesse. England is ever covetous of an American reality that both affirms and condemns materialism. At the same time, England has never rejected, as occurred in the US, its radical anti-capitalist legacy. England’s music and theatrical culture is far more sensitive to the nuances of class and monied differences than what is allowable in media here.

Anderson is precise in fixing the elusive moment when a band at work on a career falters and loses the spur necessary to keep this wobbly life of a traveling group on track and moving single-mindedly toward the success, disillusion, break-up, regrouping and comeback that are the archetypal schema of every band’s history. Suede, after years of plugging away, finds a mass audience and winds up on a Melody Maker cover, touted “the Best Band in Britain.” It’s the kind of coverage that can kill or enable, depending on whether all the other elusive factors necessary to success and stardom kindly manifest themselves. Anderson’s bond with guitarist Bernard Barr is at the heart of the bands success. It’s an extraordinary collaboration that ends in bitterness and anger—all of these elements are of course part of the Rock scenario, and necessary to the Romance on which the music is built. 

Suede worked tirelessly and with some success at cranking out ‘product’ while touring endlessly. And nothing known to man so enervates as touring: it is the place where everything shreds. Romanticism is always fatal: that’s what makes it Romanticism. It’s what drives the Romantic- the candle burning furiously down at both ends, and that’s part of the story’s charm. Anderson is very good at describing that the downs are what draw the myth makers, managers, audiences and reviewers that keep the whole sad dream up in the air until the final, inevitable plummet.

The rock audience of the Suede sort waited for the group to flounder, recover, press on, flounder again in a strange flowing path that sails onto the rocks, ultimately, but not too soon lest the jaded audience be distracted from the entertainingly morbid details. The personal plummets are pictured in Anderson’s drug addictions, and tortured relationships, one of them with Justine (“the love of my life”) who was to break his heart, leave the band, take up with another lead singer, and form Elastica (an initial success that rapidly bottomed out). There is another deep relationship with Sam, a beautiful girl who follows Anderson in a series of drug-hazed liaisons that end with her in a gran mal  seizure, saved when Anderson frantically does mouth to mouth. Sam survives but is never mentioned again, another evanescent victim in the raucous passing scene. All that “romance” that must ever end in sordid escapade, is sudden proof for Anderson that his life is irredeemably out of control. It’s a defining moment.  

Anderson runs and charts the entire rock gauntlet, the needy and simultaneously self-abasing and overbearing manager, the producers who attempt to stabilize what must vacillate in order to exist and stay creative, the female fans who succumb to the sheer force of celebrity only to walk away burned and pissed. The players within the group are never at ease as its tension that keeps the machine moving. But it’s the touring and groping for stability that rips Suede apart. Almost comically, it all ends backstage at the Graham Norton show where the battered and bruised collective look at each other in the grim light of the Green Room and mutter a subdued but definitive “fuck it” and it’s over….

The years unreel accommodatingly for Anderson. He goes on to have a successful solo career, but no word of how the rest of the band fared.  It’s quite a testament to his power as a storyteller that he can remain sympathetic despite what’s inevitably revealed as the narcissism necessary to the gig, coupled of course with his ruthless ambition. The rock memoir has become a fixed part of our literary life, whether it is Mick Jagger anecdotes, Keith Richards stories, Bob Dylan fables, David Bowie celebrity profiles, Elton John’s Princess Di candles blowing in an endless wind, or Bruce Springsteen conflating Elvis with Woody Guthrie ( now there’s a pairing made in hell). And the simple truth is that Rock has now passed all serious consideration and morphed into a Horatio Alger sentimentality contradicted by the bitter dregs of many failed lives lived on long past their sell-by dates.

Anderson brings some clarity to this marvelous fabrication, and in the process ends up a family man, the madness behind him, and yet, and yet– Was it all for a good song? No dream world emerges from this – the utopian longing long since as vanished as the dreams of the Communards. Yet the Art goes on. This memoir is driven like a moth toward the light at the end of the tunnel, a light suffused with the fugue of lived life. Anderson has been there, and done so much more than what was demanded. He is a survivor and the message is, in part, keep moving- there is so much more coming after you than you ever imagined. 

Warren Leming is a writer/documentarian/musician who has made his life in Chicago, London and Berlin. Among other works, he is co-director of the documentary Ed Asner: On Stage and Off.