Paint a Vulgar Picture: A Fan’s Notes on a Biography of The Smiths

it’s a tricky thing, reading your Favorite Band’s bio. Here's what I learned about Morrissey and Marr

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Clare Muller / Redferns

Johnny Marr and Morrissey from The Smiths pose under the branches of a willow tree in London in 1983.

Most people who know me know that I have a biography problem. (At this point even some people who don’t know me know this.) I keep one going at all times, sometimes several, like cigarettes.

I’m not particular as to the subject. I’ll take a writer, if you’ve got a writer, but I’ll read biographies of rock stars, actors, chefs, soldiers, politicians. This year I read Bob Spitz’s Dearie, about Julia Child, and Robert Caro’s The Passage of Power, about Lyndon B. Johnson. I read Alex Kershaw’s The Liberator, about Felix Sparks, a soldier who fought at Anzio and commanded the force that was first into Dachau. I tried to read Saul Steinberg, by Deirdre Bair, who’s one of my favorite biographers, but I bounced off for some reason. Maybe because I found Steinberg a bit more unpleasant than I was hoping.

The last one I read was A Light That Never Goes Out, by Tony Fletcher, which is a biography of the Smiths. Unlike those other choices, which were at least semi-arbitrary, this one is not. Because the Smiths are My Favorite Band.

(MORE: Read an Excerpt from A Light That Never Goes Out)

That shouldn’t surprise anybody. The Smiths are the kind of band people tend to have as their Favorite Band. But it’s a tricky thing, reading your Favorite Band’s bio, because what if it turns out that you don’t like them? Personally? I like the Rolling Stones, but I like them a little less now that I’ve read Keith Richards’ Life, which I found bumptious and self-involved. (I also read Scar Tissue, Anthony Kiedis’s autobiography, in which he talks about opening for the Rolling Stones. “That’s Mick’s imported antique wood flooring from the Brazilian jungle, and that’s what he dances on. If you so much as look at it, you won’t get paid.” I liked the Red Hot Chili Peppers slightly more after Scar Tissue.)

Naturally as a Smiths fan I’ve read Johnny Rogan’s Morrissey & Marr: The Severed Alliance, but I never thought of it as definitive, or trying to be. (Though they just reissued an “updated and revised” edition of it, probably to piss off Tony Fletcher.) I don’t think A Light That Never Goes Out will be definitive either, but I read it more or less word for word anyway. I listened to the Smiths constantly from ages 18-30, but because my fandom didn’t overlap with their actually being together as a band, and only slightly overlapped with the Internet existing, I’ve never known much about them. Now I know a lot. And on balance I like them about the same as I did before.

I knew the Smiths were from Manchester, which I always gathered was a rough, poor, industrial sort of a town. I could have learned a lot more from Light about Manchester if I hadn’t skimmed those bits — Fletcher includes some large lumps of undigested Mancunian history. But he’s good on how the young Smiths found each other, which is a process that worked very differently before the Internet. People would cold-call each other on the phone, and exchange Xeroxed fanzines in the mail and through record stores. Morrissey wrote obsessively to the letters pages of music magazines, to the point where he was locally famous for it, and he had a long-time pen pal (Morrissey’s voice in the letters is already recognizable: “Accept me for what I am,” he wrote. “Completely unacceptable.”) He also phoned up Mick Jones of the Clash in response to a singer-wanted ad; probably wisely, they hired Joe Strummer instead. (This would be a good premise for one of Marvel’s old What If … ? comics.)

(MOREShakespeare in Klingon: Literature in the Original and My Total Failure to Read It That Way)

Morrissey met Johnny Marr when the latter, looking for a singer-songwriter-collaborator, simply walked up and rang his doorbell. He got what he came for.

I understand now why my sense of the Smiths’ career has always been confused: my first Smiths album was Louder Than Bombs, which was just a non-chronological American compilation of singles and other stuff that hadn’t already come out in the U.S. in studio versions. I also didn’t get that their breakout single had been “Hand in Glove,” which I still don’t understand, since I always found it to be kind of a grim, difficult, muddy track. (I suppose not coincidentally it’s the first Smiths song I ever heard, in high school, on a cassette in our family’s Toyota Corolla. I remember my English mom, in the front seat, puzzling over the line “The sun shines out of our behinds…”)

Light isn’t a vivid character study. Only Marr and Andy Rourke, the bassist, talked to Fletcher, which leaves some big holes to say the least. We don’t learn much about Morrissey’s private life. Morrissey writes and sings about longing with a vivid rawness that has not been equalled in the history of popular music. But whom was he longing for? How seriously are we supposed to take his avowals of celibacy? No clue.

Much has been made of the contrast between Morrissey’s personality and Marr’s, and that comes across very clearly. Fletcher quotes Morrissey on his musical partner in an interview: “he was full of excitement for everything, and I was … not.” Marr certainly doesn’t come off as the tortured type. He met the love of his life when he was 16, then he married her. He achieved his life’s ambition, to be an indie guitar god, before he was 20. And if that hadn’t worked out, he had an open invitation to play pro soccer. Where’s the darkness? And what was it in Marr that was drawn to Morrissey’s darkness? I still don’t know.

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But some of Fletcher’s contemporary accounts of the Smiths do really take you there. Like this one from sound engineer Grant Showbiz, on his first impression of the Smiths at work: “Mike was kicking seven shades out of it — in a really nice way. And Andy was playing what appeared to be another song that was a countermelody to what Johnny was doing. And Johnny…literally was playing the 18 parts that were in his head. And Morrissey was whooping charmingly over the top of it all.” There’s a bravura account of producer John Porter and the Smiths putting together the unforgettable sound of “How Soon is Now” in the studio, piece by piece, with the help of a lot of dope and speed and some wildly primitive early sampling technology.

(Fletcher gives us a good guess as to who the “dead star” is who blows off the singer in “Paint a Vulgar Picture,” which ranks with the Sex Pistols’ “EMI” and Pink Floyd’s “Have a Cigar” as one of the all-time screw-my-record-company songs. The answer is: Johnny Thunders and Jerry Nolan, formerly of the New York Dolls, who blanked Morrissey once when, as a lad, he approached them at a soundcheck.)

Fletcher also walks us through a hell of a lot of wrangling with labels, producers and managers, which is painful. The less said about the Smiths’ premature breakup the better, except that, as Fletcher points out, at least it saved them from a long decline into creative stasis (cf. the aforementioned Stones). Somebody, and possibly everybody, should have knocked their heads together and made them work out their differences, which in retrospect (but there’s the rub) seem virtually nonexistent.

What Light does convey is the enormity and improbablity of the sheer achievement of Morrissey and Marr, who wrote the Smiths’ entire immortal oeuvre in the space of five years, before either of them was 30. I mean, it’s not Keats or Yeats, or even Wilde, but it’s a hell of a thing.

(MORE: David Bowie Releases First New Song in 10 Years)

And in Morrissey’s case, at least, it came at a considerable psychic cost. He was apparently a highly unreliable frontman, and prone to deep depressions and withdrawals. The anecdote that stayed with me, that seemed to show how much Morrissey was suffering, and also what a pain in the ass he could be to everybody around him, involves the 1960’s pop icon Sandie Shaw. Both Marr and Morrissey had been Shaw fanboys as teenagers. After they formed the Smiths, she came back out of obscurity to cover “Hand in Glove,” with the Smiths backing her, on Top of the Pops. She and Morrissey became friends.

But sometimes even Sandie Shaw was too much for him. On one occasion Marr turned up at Morrissey’s flat to try to get him to show up for some promotional appearance, which he was hiding out from. Morrissey let him in. That’s not the weird part. What’s weird is, Marr happened to glance out the window, and he saw Sandie Shaw standing on the fire escape. She’d been out there all this time, desperately trying to get Morrissey’s attention. He either couldn’t, or wouldn’t, hear her.