Tony Fletcher Canonizes The Smiths | Books & Authors | Hudson Valley | Chronogram Magazine
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Tony Fletcher Canonizes The Smiths 

Some Groups (and Books) are Bigger than Others

Last Updated: 12/14/2019 4:10 am

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Aside from critical analyses and academic studies, the sole Smiths biography until now was Johnny Rogan's 1992 Morrissey & Marr: The Severed Alliance (updated and re-released in October). Fletcher admired it, but felt there was "another story to be told"—a sociocultural history of Manchester and how it birthed a dynamic musical scene. (Buzzcocks, A Certain Ratio, The Fall, Joy Division and its successor New Order, were all Mancunians.)

He began the project by reaching out to the four ex-Smiths, mostly incommunicado due to a court dispute involving song royalties. Fletcher was unsurprised when Morrissey refused. "Divas don't give interviews lightly; they do not allow someone else to control their story." Despite an acquaintanceship with Fletcher, drummer Mike Joyce initially declined. By the time he reconsidered, the book was completed. Only bassist Andy Rourke and lead guitarist and Smiths co-founder Johnny Marr agreed to participate.

Marr reminisced for 18 hours over two days, sitting with Fletcher in Manchester cafes and other public places, prompting a rash of fan sightings over Twitter. (Marr told the author in a subsequent e-mail that he found the interviews "therapeutic.")

As he did in his magisterial All Hopped Up and Ready to Go, a history of New York City music from 1927 to 1977, Fletcher again plays the keen cultural anthropologist, weighing the political, educational, pharmaceutical, religious, and even sartorial aspects of Manchester in decline and how those forces shaped Morrissey and Marr as artists. (His account includes a pointed disdain for the decaying Manchester school system. This stems, he admits, from his own role as a combative reformer on the Onteora school board.)

Fletcher conjures a lost world in muscular prose. We watch Morrissey and Marr prematurely strike rock star poses in forgotten start-up bands before meeting in May, 1982. (By October, they were on stage together.) We savor the magic of early recording sessions. We sit front row at Smiths concerts that recall the days of Beatlemania. We witness fans of both sexes clambering onstage to embrace Morrissey, the self-declared celibate whose homoerotic lyrics and album covers suggested otherwise.

Fletcher deconstructs Smiths songs with the finesse of an English professor, explaining the melody lines with the exactitude of a musicologist and the brio of a musician. (He plays keyboards with the part-time band Catskill 45s, alongside fellow Valley rocker Robert Burke Warren.)

While lauding The Smiths with relentless superlatives, Fletcher doesn't flinch from citing the reasons for their demise: Morrissey's temper tantrums, recurring lapses in band members' judgment, excessive drug use, and zero business acumen. They hired and fired managers with impunity, seemingly bent on self-sabotage.

No fact is too arcane for Fletcher. We learn that Marr's earlier band played Folk Mass at the local church in exchange for rehearsal hall time and Morrissey applied as singer for a new band that would become The Clash. Some details, however, will delight only obsessive fans: Fletcher explains that indie label Rough Trade ferried the band in a "rented Mercedes diesel undertaker's limousine (that needed a screwdriver to start the engine)." Completists will cheer the 23 pages of footnotes.

Fletcher expected massive cutting when he delivered his doorstop of a manuscript. However, this was his only book "where editors asked for more information."

Throughout the tale, Fletcher's narrative powers are formidable, as in this lyrical description of the lead singer: "Morrissey, his quiff reaching almost as high as Johnny Marr's bowl cut hung low, had adopted the full idol persona, accentuating every one of his personal traits: the one-legged pirouette, the bouquet-as-weapon, and the shirt unbuttoned to the waist, revealing a torso and abdomen remarkable only for its everyday Anglo-Irish scrawniness."

The book ends when the group does. Fletcher defends the truncated timeline. "I actually didn't feel the need to go and spend another 200 pages, after doing 600 pages, talking about the court cases and the solo careers and so on. I didn't really want to poison the story any more than it's been poisoned."

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