Review of Brett Anderson's Afternoons With the Blinds Drawn
Little, Brown, 2019
“I oscillated between morbid self-reflection and vainglorious narcissism” is not a meditation from the pages of your standard rock star autobiography, but then neither is Brett Anderson’s blunt analysis that the story of a band (Suede being no exception) is “as preordained as the life cycle of a frog.”
Readers of Coal Black Mornings (the pre-fame Part One of Anderson’s autobiography) will recognise his capacity for caustic self-assessment. Here, with Suede now engulfed in the machine, there is a lot more fuel for that fire – and the sparks fly outwards too, with excoriations of certain Britpop “middle-class media ‘geezers’ who had learned to drop their aitches and flatten their vowels” in a broadside so committed in its refusal to mention Blur, their name might as well be watermarked across the page. Anderson is consistent in his refusal to name his bêtes noires, with Suede’s early PR a case in point. Even setting aside Melody Maker’s notoriously rushed headline “The Best New Band in Britain,” any band receiving a staggering nineteen front covers before an album is released is destined for a backlash. Anderson is plainly incensed by this wild over-exposure and how seriously it diluted Suede’s integrity, yet mentions no one involved, simply concluding – rather sardonically – that Suede were “not well advised” by those in a position to do so.
Neil Tennant of the Pet Shop Boys opines that successful bands have an imperial phase, a period in which they can do no wrong. In theirs, Suede could deliver a successful debut album, instantly begin to self-destruct, yet still produce Dog Man Star, a record seen by many as the finest of the time. It was an album so tortuous in the making that guitarist Bernard Butler left straight afterwards, taking with him the ability to produce a like-for-like successor. Anderson’s treatment of Butler, as their relationship sinks into a joyless, Pinteresque dance, is a good indicator of his approach in general: meticulously careful; occasionally walking on eggshells; and striving to avoid point-scoring at any cost, usually by turning the artillery on himself. Part of that cost is a sense, on the page, of emotions warily measured. True to Tennant’s law of the imperial phase, Suede’s next album, Coming Up —a hugely different proposition without Butler— would be a massive mainstream hit. Remarkably, Butler’s replacement was a seventeen-year-old Suede fan named Richard Oakes.
“I don’t think I was ever particularly in control,” writes Anderson, with understatement. The specific drugs, like all his enemies, are un-named but can be deduced from the paraphernalia. Money piles up and dwellings change, one set of ornate London rooms after another ending up the same: furnished with last night’s hedonistic detritus, a bohemian space for enigmatic friends and transient hangers-on. When his then-girlfriend has a near fatal seizure due to overdosing, the moment is shockingly honest and harrowing. Anderson’s drug-induced yen to get into making modish electronica, which he seems to do in some kind of garden shed, is at once funny and alarming, coming as it does in the stage of his addiction when he became, in his own description, a “baseball-capped caricature of paranoia.” When people make it to the other side of such extreme substance abuse and look back, what do they see? Anderson returns consistently to the notion of his persona. Dionysian excess had been a “part of the job description,” but then the curated façade morphed into a parody of a rock star, in danger of turning Suede into a parody of a band.
Anderson has evidently spent a great deal of time down the rabbit hole. We’re taken along, to a darkened Wonderland of “wedding cake houses,” ash-filled rooms, and confining studios —an oppressive village of egos where clichéd music hack copy is elevated to work of profound import. It’s revealing that high among his list of obsessions is J G Ballard’s brilliant Concrete Island, the trials of a man stuck, Crusoe-like, in the urban hinterland of a West London flyover bowl, encircled by petrol fumes and the inexorable drone of traffic above. Anderson’s neat précis of the Ballard novel, like his account of a writerly retreat in semi-rural Chipstead, are call-backs to the psychogeography that hangs so engagingly in the ether of Coal Black Mornings.
He will happily – if that is the right word – trash his un-favoured work, and is intimately familiar with his own particular lexicon when it comes to lyrics. A lot of Afternoons is spent unsparingly telling us which of his songs he still likes and which have fallen off a cliff of self-satire. It is with dejection rather than bogus mythologising, a rueing of simply bad or weak decision-making, that he lists the B-sides and minor works which he now, on reflection, considers the band’s best. Going through the frameworks employed to build so many songs, often (by his own admission) somewhat mechanically churned out, Anderson is frank about his gifts: “I’m not an especially talented musician nor an artistic visionary nor even a particularly gifted storyteller… I simply never give up.”
There is an ongoing struggle in this book between Anderson and his public persona which, at one point, has begun to resemble “some sort of haunted ventriloquist’s dummy in a bad horror film.” The fear of having lapsed into cliché is tangible, which is probably why Anderson seems slightly apologetic for the times in his life which did veer into rock ’n’ roll caricature. Maybe it’s because of this that his books strive (successfully) to avoid the same fate. An excerpt from a Quietus interview with author Tariq Goddard gives a good sense of the battle: “… it wasn’t going to be written by the Brett Anderson persona but whoever the real person behind it was... I wasn’t just the man behind the mask manipulating people’s view of me, because to inhabit a persona you have to believe in that persona too. Looking back, it’s possible to wonder how much of it is really yourself, as it is you and not you at the same time, but all of it still comes from you. You are the one doing it. My descent into hell came from being romantically attached to the notion of the artist as a genius that accepts no limits or boundaries, it was that simple.” How much of this, one might wonder, came as a direct consequence of that naïvely accepted early PR, and the interminable struggle to afterwards re-assert Suede’s bona fides?
Musing on his own experience of celebrity and fame, Stephen Fry once used an analogy of descending from the peak of a mountain, warning those he passed in the midst of their ascent —always to deaf ears— that there really is nothing up there. Afternoons With The Blinds Drawn is a despatch from the same figurative peak, where the culmination of Brett Anderson’s aspirations for himself and for Suede led him to a place of darkness and, ultimately, a personal abyss. It is in keeping with the book’s wish to expose the “dull, uninspiring mechanics” at work behind a successful band that the eventual implosion of Suede (reborn in a less mainstream iteration many years later) occurs over plastic containers of drink in the green room of The Graham Norton Show, after the band have just performed a mimed charade for the watching cameras. The episode is a fitting illustration of the opposing forces of travesty and authenticity, perched like a devil and an angel on Anderson’s shoulders throughout this second instalment of his life story. --Neil Jackson