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The 48-year-old British author, who's written biographies about Keith Moon and R.E.M., is nearly the same age as every member of the Smiths and has been watching the band since they were an angsty foursome found in the cracks of Manchester. Back in 1983, he conducted the first live-TV interview with Morrissey, just when the band found its footing. He's aggressively followed their career since, and now the extensive research has come to fruition. This week, Fletcher published a 698-page biography of the band, A Light That Never Goes Out: The Enduring Saga of the Smiths. He will read on Thursday evening at BookCourt in Cobble Hill, followed by a Q&A session with Rolling Stone scribe Rob Sheffield.
In A Light, despite never getting Morrissey to talk with him for the biography, Fletcher reveals detail after detail about the beginning years of the Smiths, interviewing an exhaustive number of people and quoting letters from band members. The book's theme can be summed up with its first sentence: "The story of the Smiths is intrinsically entwined with that of Manchester." The Village Voice chatted with Fletcher, who now lives in the Catskills, while he was in a pub in London promoting the book. He explained the Smiths' cultural significance to both Britain and America, how the band will "endure" forever, and why he doesn't really care that Morrissey declined to be interviewed.
You grew up with the band. What got you hooked initially?
In 1983, when they came on the scene, I was running a magazine called Jamming. I had a very good relationship with [their record label] Rough Trade. I would've heard of the Smiths regardless, because the Smiths exploded on the scene in Britain. But I do remember Scott Piering, who was their surrogate manager for a few years, really plugging the band to us. He would come into our office and play new releases, saying, "We have this band that we think is everything we've been looking for. They're an indie band. They're a guitar band. They've got this amazing songwriter." I first went to see them at The Venue [in London] in 1983 between their first two singles, and I was amazed at the fact that they already had a following in London, and clearly all the talk about this band was genuine. This band had barely done any gigs and they had a following. I'm the same school age as two members of the band, and more or less the same age as all of the band except Morrissey, so I very much felt like they were part of my generation in Britain. They really were enormously influential and successful. To some degree, I came of age with them.
What was that first moment of seeing the Smiths like for you? Were you dumbfounded?
I would love to say that I was absolutely that dumbfounded. What I saw about the Smiths was a little bit more from a distance. I don't mean a physical distance—I was probably 10 feet away from the stage. But it was a case of me saying, wow, this singer is really interesting. He does have this way of connecting with the crowd. And oh my gosh, the crowd is bringing flowers to him. This is truly bizarre. These guys are really playing guitars and they're loud, but their lyrics are speaking to things that are quite soft. Things that are not masculine in that sense. And I was very, very, very impressed.
How did your coming of age with the band contribute to your perception and understanding of not only the band's music, but British culture at the time?
There's a lyrical aspect, and even a political aspect. They obviously intertwine quite a bit. Lyrically, I found Morrissey quite profound because nobody had really come out until then and said, "You don't need to have a partner. You don't need to be chasing a boy or a girl. You don't need to be straight, or gay, or anything. You can actually do without and life is okay." And that was unbelievably radical. I was 19 at the time, and even though I had a cool magazine going, I was having girlfriend problems just like anybody else. The sense that Morrissey came out and said, "You know what, celibacy is okay. It doesn't matter"—that was revolutionary. Within the argument of "Was Morrissey actually celibate or was he straight or was he hiding something?"—well, I get into that a little in the book, but I never want to lose sight of the fact that what he said at the time was actually quite revolutionary. Everything about pop music has always been about romance. Even within the British indie scene at the time, there were a lot of feminist and gay politics going on. Everything was obsessed one way or the other. Morrissey was saying, "You can drop all of that. You can be celibate. Life still goes ahead." That, to me, was one of the very, very profound things in how the Smiths affected me individually. The other thing was that they stood up very, very strongly in opposition to the Thatcher years.