Q&A: Tony Fletcher on A Light That Never Goes Out, the Cultural Significance of the Smiths, and Not Getting to Interview Morrissey
If there's a ghost fifth member of the Smiths, it might be Tony Fletcher.
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.
Can you expand on the significance of being their age at this time, and seeing your peers resist Thatcher?
It's a little bit like if Reagan had been allowed to run for re-election for the third time. The Smiths' four- year reign of recorded releases was from 1983-1987, and that was exactly the same four years that was the second of the three Thatcher governments. The Smiths broke up shortly after Thatcher had gotten elected for the third time. Britain had been through immense difficulties in the 1970s, and I think something did have to change, but Thatcher came along and very wantingly, very deliberately started closing down shipyards, shutting down the mines, closing down a lot of the public nationalized industries and privatizing them. There was a very strong tilt to the right.
These years coincided with Reagan, and people know that Reagan and Thatcher had a very close relationship. There was a lot of suppression of what very little feminist rights and gay rights existed. There was the incredible miner's strike that lasted an entire year through 1984, which was a period when the Smiths became good. That was a miniature civil war going on in Britain. You cannot overemphasize how dramatic that was. The violence that was taking place on the picket lines every day. The police forces being brought up from London to fight the miners on picket lines in the north of England. There was a sense that the country was going through something very dramatic, and the Smiths were very firmly aligned on the side against Thatcher. So were other bands, but no other bands were quite as big as the Smiths. They really aligned themselves with the working class.
When Morrissey did his first interview with Rolling Stone, that was the interview where he said, "[Thatcher is] only one person and she can be destroyed. I just pray there is a Sirhan Sirhan somewhere. It's the only remedy for this country at the moment." His reference to Bobby Kennedy's assassination was very deliberate. That was the very provocative stuff that Morissey was coming out with, and it made him a bit of a public enemy in Britain. He knew what he was doing. He was a public enemy whereby he was willing to be defined as, "I'm okay with calling for Thatcher's assassination. If you don't like that, don't like me. If you do like that, I'm your spokesman."
Do you think he would've said that without the support of the American press?
Yeah. There was an IRA attack on the conservative party [in 1984] where the IRA blew up a hotel. Five people were killed. Morrissey gave the quote, "The sorrow of the Brighton bombing is that Thatcher escaped unscathed." That's a very dramatic thing to say when people are being killed. Now that I'm older, I don't know that I actually support that statement, because a few people lost their lives. But that's how radical Morrissey was in that period. He wasn't going to come down. Somebody said, "You called for Thatcher's assassination and she was almost assassinated," and he was saying, "Good, she should've been."
When did you move to America?
I moved to America right around the time the Smiths broke up, which is entirely coincidental. [Laughs.]
How was the band perceived here during that time versus in England?
One of the points I really try to make with the book is that the Smiths were massive in America, and everything that ever gets written about the Smiths gets written by Brits, which I am one [laughs], but Brits who are living in Britain and writing for British publishers. The viewpoint seems to be very provincial, like, "Oh, weren't the Smiths this wonderful British band. The world begins and ends at the English Channel, and whatever success the Smiths had in America must have been by luck rather than design." I wasn't able ever to see the Smiths perform in America. They broke up by the time I came to live, but I very quickly fell into a crowd down in New Jersey, and it was very clear that the Smiths were highly respected and very much understood here.
Brits don't understand how Americans can understand Morrissey and his lyrics and the Smiths, and my point is that he may reference Whalley Range. He may reference Rushden. He may reference Strangeways in an album title. But I liken that to Bruce Springsteen talking about the New Jersey Turnpike. It's who you are. What you are doing is you're a novelist writing about the particular area. You're a songwriter writing about your particular area. That doesn't mean the audience has to have lived there to understand it. I was a big Bruce Springsteen fan long before I came to America. I understood that he was singing about New Jersey. I had a romantic vision of it. And I think Americans have had a certain vision of Britain. And when Morrissey says, "What do you we get for our trouble and pain? A rented room in Whalley Range." Whalley Range could be a fictional place, but you understand. You don't need to have been to that part of Manchester to understand what he's saying.
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.
Are you worried Morrissey is going to publish his memoir and say everything you wrote is wrong?
Well, he may yet choose to do that. But his book is not coming out soon. No deal has been done. I can say that absolutely categorically. Whether or not he's written his book, it's not coming out in the near future. But I would certainly buy his book the day it comes out. I'm sure Morrissey has a lot to say. I don't have a problem with writing about somebody from a place of a little bit of a distance, because if you're too wrapped up in the story—well, for example, I always think autobiographies are a large source of salt. The band that I wasn't around for that I love was the Who. I bought Pete Townshend's autobiography and it's very well written. It's quite emotional. But factually, I know there are a bunch of things that are wrong there. I did really pour over my research material trying to make sure everything I got in there was factually accurate. And one thing I've noticed about memoirs from rock stars is sometimes they forget to do that because they're great storytellers, but not necessarily great factcheckers. I'm sure that Morrissey would write a very colorful autobiography.
It's very telling of the Smiths story that even their biographer couldn't get an interview with Morrissey.
Yeah. It is somewhat, isn't it? That's a point for you to make. I think you're right. I'll say, well-observed.
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