If you were a moody, bookish teenager, you didn’t even need to hear the Smiths’ music to know that it was for you. All you had to do was look at the record sleeves. The flat, duotone cover images, often depicting film actors long dead or long forgotten, and the melodramatic song titles were geek mana that immediately invited further research and reading.
The most widely available band biography, Johnny Rogan’s “Morrissey and Marr: The Severed Alliance” (1992), was the “Valley of the Dolls” of rock tomes — a large, dense volume with a light-pink colored jacket that was lurid and snoozy in equal measure. And its claims to authenticity were weak. It was written without the band’s cooperation, and most of the interview quotes are sourced to magazine articles.
Clocking in at nearly 700 pages, Tony Fletcher’s “A Light That Never Goes Out” is a step up in research. The music critic and former zine editor was blessed with full access to the band’s records, its business associates and, critically, its actual members. Guitarist Johnny Marr and bassist Andy Rourke granted the author extensive interviews. The drummer, Mike Joyce, and singer Morrissey both abstained. Still, Fletcher’s book is exhaustive in its attention to detail. It can tell you where and when the Smiths performed, who was there, where they purchased homes, what clothes they wore and what their bank statements looked like. But it can’t give you much of a story.
Formed in 1982 in Manchester, England, the Smiths were pop traditionalists in a music world that was ruled by technology. They played guitars and drums, not synthesizers or drum machines. Morrissey wrote lyrics that cited Oscar Wilde and cribbed tales of workaday suffering from the grim, industrial realism of British New Wave cinema. For musical cues, they looked to Leiber and Stoller, the American songwriting duo that wrote “Love Potion No. 9” and many other Top 40 hits, rather than Led Zeppelin. Five years later, exhausted and angry, Marr left the band, which called it quits shortly thereafter, having released four albums and a series of singles.
Even though their music was melodic and familiar, the Smiths courted confrontation. Mostly, this was Morrissey’s doing. In his strained, warbly falsetto, he crooned about serial killers and child abandonment. A devoted vegetarian, he named the band’s sophomore record “Meat is Murder.” Rather than exuding sexuality, he publicly professed his celibacy.
But he didn’t go on record for the book, so his thoughts and opinions are mostly represented by secondhand sources. And the picture those accounts paint isn’t very flattering. In one anecdote, a video director recalls traveling with Marr to Morrissey’s home, where he was hiding, to beg and plead for the singer to attend a scheduled shoot. “I remember very distinctly that I had no idea if Morrissey was standing behind that door laughing at the three of us pleading with him or crying,” she recounts.
The Smiths lacked camaraderie, the glue that hold bands, and their biographies, together. Morrissey and Marr had envisioned the Smiths as a duo, a songwriting partnership, rather than a band. The rhythm section was mostly an afterthought. Fletcher goes to great lengths to make Joyce and Rourke into three-dimensional characters, but ultimately, there isn’t much to say about them, other than that they delivered in the studio. And to anybody in a cash-starved contemporary rock band, the Smiths’ bratty transgressions — cancelling tours at the last minute, declaring physical exhaustion with only a handful of dates left to perform — probably seem pretty obnoxious.
Because Fletcher could talk to only two of the four Smiths, he leans heavily on the managers, producers, label owners and business-types who surrounded the band. From them, he squeezes out the hard data on the recording dates, the contracts and the series of studio effects used to make the swirly sounds on the band’s most famous single, “How Soon is Now?” But you’re left with a sense of reading about the band from the perspective of middle management. Maybe that’s the biography that the Smiths deserve. The usual rock-and-roll bonding experiences — the tales of endless drives, tough gigs and filthy hotels that make band members seem human — never really happened for them. They made great rock music but weak rock literature.
Leitko writes frequently on rock and roll.
A Light that never goes out
The Enduring Saga of the Smiths
By Tony Fletcher
Crown Archetype. 698 pp. $30