By Michael Feingold
By Elizabeth Zimmer
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By Christian Viveros-Faune
By Christian Viveros-Faune
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By Michael Feingold
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Also, Americans really got that the Smiths were a guitar band. The Smiths were a fantastic live band. They rocked. Morrissey on stage was not any kind of the faux-character he came across as in interviews. He was a dynamic performer. The Americans got the Smiths lock, stock, and barrel. And by the point the Smiths broke up in 1987, they were doing a half million albums in America. They were not far behind R.E.M. If they stayed together, which of course is hypothetical, they could've followed R.E.M.'s or Depeche Mode's trajectory and been playing stadiums not too long after.
Why do you think the Smiths continue to appeal to younger generations, to people who weren't even alive when they formed?
One of the fascinations about the Smiths is that they broke up when they were on top of their game. Was that a wise decision? We can debate that. But the fact is that they didn't make a bad album. They really didn't make a bad single. The fact that they broke up on top maybe gives them a certain legendary cult status that they wouldn't have had if they continued. But that's not enough of an answer. The message of teenage angst, for the lack of a better word—I don't think that ever gets old. The nice thing about the music is that because they were swimming against the tide of the 1980s, they were representing an oppositional point of view, both musically and lyrically. The fact that they didn't use these big, resounding, echoey, reverb drums. The fact that they didn't use synthesizers. The fact that they recorded stuff live and very quickly. A lot of the music that we listen to from the '80s sounds hopelessly out of date, but we listen to the Smiths and they're somewhat timeless. Sure, it was [recorded in] the 1980s, but maybe it wasn't. Maybe it could've been recorded five years ago, or 10 years ago, or five years earlier. They dug their feet in and said, "We are going to do things our way, and if it doesn't sound like everything else on the radio now, then so much the better, and maybe it will stand the test of time." And lo and behold, it did.
You've said in interviews that Johnny Marr holds the key to the Smiths legacy. That might surprise some, considering Morrissey is, well, Morrissey.
There are two different stances to the answer. When the band broke up, Johnny quit the Smiths and took a lot of shit for it. One reason he's only now, 25 years later, doing a solo album tells you that he really took a lot of abuse for effectively breaking up the Smiths. In the immediate years followed, Morrissey was considered the talent, the lyrics, the voice. And Morrissey had a thriving solo career for a number of years, whereas Johnny went off and joined multiple bands and didn't want to be a solo artist. In more recent years, Morrissey has developed a reputation as somebody who is extremely talented, unbelievably talented, but very difficult to work with. And Johnny has matured, softened, and become much more the spokesman of the Smiths past. He's become more and more respected as the engine of the Smiths.
In a literal sense, in terms of doing this book, a lot of the people I approached for interviews said, "Okay, great. I'm really happy to talk to you—as long as it's okay with Johnny." And I'd say, "It is okay with Johnny." And they'd say, "Well, I'm going to go check with Johnny." And I only got that from two or three people to do with Morrissey, and I must have had at least two dozen to do with Johnny.
In another sense, if you look at the Keith Richards/Mick Jagger analogy, which is probably the best songwriting partnership to look at with regards to the Smiths, Johnny Marr often saw himself as the Keith Richards personality, and Morrissey is the Mick Jagger one. People realized that it was Johnny Marr running around Manchester, putting a band together. It was Johnny Marr who knocked on Morrissey's door and said, "Do you want to try writing songs together?" It was Johnny who did a lot of the business stuff to make the Smiths happen. I understand that Americans look at Morrissey as being the frontman of the Smiths, but it could not and would not have happened without Johnny's energy—and songwriting talent, and production skills.
You didn't get to interview Morrissey for the book. What sort of impact did that have?
Well, I went into the book not expecting to get Morrissey. Morrissey is the type of character star personality that I wouldn't expect to open himself up for a third-person biography. I absolutely approached him. Through his assistant, I was assured my correspondence had been read by him. The nature of Morrissey is such that he's not going to cooperate, and if he did, it might come with so many conditions that the book would almost never come out. So I recognized that I was going to have to approach Morrissey from a little bit more of a distance. I was willing to do that. I did get a lot of access to information about Morrissey. I got access to a lot of his correspondence, which is in the book. I have actual letters and quote from them verbatim. But I did feel it was important to get Johnny. Not just because if Johnny would have refused to cooperate, it looks like a lot of other people would've [refused]. I felt that Johnny would be able to offer a good perspective. I got so many other people that thought similarly, and a lot of deep information about the Smiths. There has only been one other biography on the Smiths as a band and there have been a couple on Morrissey, and none of them have gotten his cooperation. He's rumored to be writing his own book, but it's not coming out any time soon. There's been some rubbish reports that it's coming out next month.
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