Sunday, January 12, 2014

"A Light That Never Goes Out: The Enduring Saga of The Smiths" by Tony Fletcher

Posted By on Sun, Jan 12, 2014 at 9:02 PM

The Smiths were the greatest rock band of all time — the greatest white one, anyway. This is obvious to me, but apparently not to everyone. And their music is not "depressing"! It's funny.

The Smiths were REALLY working class. They had sullen parents & went to terrible schools. Apparently, all of Morrisey's wisdom derived from one book his mother gave him — "The Collected Works of Oscar Wilde" — when he was 17. He is no doubt the most introverted guy ever to be a major rockstar. Compared to him, Jim Morrison was a linebacker for the Pittsburgh Steelers. Morrissey is the kind of person with three friends, and he addresses his songs to them. The painful intimacy of their music emerges from this truth.

And Johnny Marr was young! He was 19 when The Smiths started, but with musical ideas that had never been heard in rock. Marr's harmonic intelligence rivaled Mozart's (and he was born on Halloween!)

Apparently, The Smiths were not named for Patti Smith, though Steven Morrissey and Johnny Marr were both big Patti fans. Had she already married Fred "Sonic" Smith, making them literally "The Smiths," by 1984? I must research this.*

The Smiths were ethnically Irish, even more so than The Beatles. A keening Celtic flute music underlies their melodies. Another reason they were the greatest band is that they set out to be the greatest band. They modeled themselves on Motown, churning out "hit songs" — with secret messages — in a factory-style. Johnny and Morrissey both had an encyclopedic knowledge of pop music, which they marshaled for their songs of yodeling desperation.

Manchester and Liverpool, just 30 miles apart, had markedly different temperaments: Liverpool cheerful and silly, Manchester gray and paranoid. Perhaps the difference is that Liverpool is a port. Being on the sea always gives one hope. The Smiths' couplet "Manchester/So much to answer for" is unforgettable, and apt.

Morrissey went from being the world's worst rock critic to the world's greatest rock star — which is a logical transition. What is a song but an essay with three-quarters of the words removed? Morrissey had a talent for cruel epigram, but couldn't connect his thoughts. A song frees a writer from the need for syntactical connections.

A minor figure in this book, Pete Shelley, resembles me. Peter Campbell McNeish renamed himself after the poet Shelley, and in high school I changed my first name to Flaubert. (The result: "Flaubert Gorelick.") Pete Shelley was the lead singer for the Buzzcocks, a Manchester punk band which influenced our heroes. (One of the pleasures of "A Light That Never Goes Out" is the liberal use of the magical word "Mancunian" — meaning "a person from Manchester." Why doesn't America have such words? Instead of the bulky term "Los Angeleno" why don't we say "Lasgelian"?)

The main difference between Johnny Marr and Morrissey is the difference between music and words. Johnny had musical notes running around his brain which he needed to express, in the form of pop singles. Morrissey carefully crafted lyrics, which he wanted the whole world to hear. Once a single (the most crucial being "Shakespeare's Sister") came out, the guitarist forgot about it completely, while the lyricist scanned the musical charts, hoping it would reach Number One.

Why don't we read some of the lyrics to "Shakespeare's Sister"? Here they are:

I thought that if you had
An acoustic guitar
Then it meant that you were
A protest singer.
Oh, I can smile about it now,
But at the time it was terrible...

No one writes lyrics like Morrissey!

The Smiths were much more political than I ever noticed. (The radical bite of their lyrics is slightly untranslatable into American.) They were friends with real Leftist musicians like Billy Bragg and The Communards (who were Maoists), and performed at political events like the Red Wedge.

Too bad The Smiths never made a Christmas album; they might have destroyed Christmas once and for all.

*Patti & Fred married in 1980.

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