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New Smiths Biography by Tony Fletcher and a profile of bassist Andy Rourke

December 21, 2012

Here’s a fun little math problem: in the past 3 months I have stood 3 separate times within 10 feet of 1/4 of the Smiths. How much of this legendary band – perhaps my favorite of all time – have I met?

Confused? Check out this timeline. On successive occasions I have been thisclose to a member of the Smiths, each time a decreasingly famous member of the group and each time in increasingly unlikely circumstances.  First, the most obvious: On October 13 I saw Morrissey perform at Terminal 5. Then, as loyal readers know, on December 1 I saw Johnny Marr join Dinosaur Jr. onstage for several songs, which was unusual but not shocking, as it was announced in advance that Marr would be one of their many “special guests.”  And Monday night, at an authors reading of A Light That Never Goes Out: The Enduring Saga of the Smiths by Tony Fletcher at the Strand book store, Smiths bassist Andy Rourke unexpectedly (even to him) stepped in to field some Q&A from the audience. At this point I’m half expecting drummer Mike Joyce to serve me my morning coffee on my next visit to Starbucks to make my journey complete. If only I had a clue what he looked like.

Meeting Rourke in this manner was an experience that was at once mundane yet surreal in its significance to me.  Growing up, the Smiths were my favorite band, and as anyone who knows a Smiths fan knows, we do not take our fandom lightly.  However, Morrissey and Marr are undeniably (even to non-fans) musical legends; Rourke is not even a legend in his own mind.  Consider this excerpt from a description of the book, describing the band members:

Morrissey, the witty, literate lead singer whose loner personality and complex lyrics made him an icon for teenagers who felt forlorn and forgotten; his songwriting partner Marr, the gregarious guitarist who became a rock god for a generation of indie kids; and the talented, good-looking rhythm section duo of bassist Rourke and drummer Joyce.

Morrissey is an “icon.”  Marr is a “rock god.”  By comparison, Rourke and Joyce get lumped together, acknowledged as “talented” but ultimately not special in the super-human way their more famous bandmates are.  These are regular guys who found their way into one of the most popular, influential and enduring bands of all time.[1]  I didn’t meet John or Paul, I met George.

If anyone would have the opportunity to meet, speak with and even hear a live Q&A from a former member of the Smiths of their choosing, I suspect that somewhere around 65% would choose Morrissey, 35% would choose Marr, and perhaps Mrs. Rourke and Mrs. Joyce would choose their sons.  As Fletcher read the first few pages of his 700 page tome,[2] you could tell right away that Morrissey and Marr – the founding members of the Smiths – were (rightfully) the dominant personalities of the story.  Morrissey was no doubt brilliant and talented.  He was also described as “mysterious,” “a recluse,” a “hard worker,” he had “a sense of superiority [over the other band members],” and most famously “a shyness that was criminally vulgar.”  Meanwhile, Marr was the driving force behind the Smiths, having shown up confident and uninvited to Morrissey’s house (remember, the recluse) with the intention of asking this stranger to start a band with him.  Marr was already then, at age 18, a musical prodigy.  In addition to co-leading the Smiths, behind the scenes one could argue that he was in many way their manager, always putting people with whom he had a close personal relationship in that position.  In his post-Smiths career, Marr has contributed his brilliance to many bands, most recently spending time as a member of Modest Mouse and the Cribs.  Yet despite all that, Rourke may be the most enlightening character of them all, the every-man bass player who endured the saga of the Smiths first-hand and is willing to tell the most about it.

In Fletcher’s book, Rourke describes at length his relationship with the mercurial Morrissey.  He explains that he “wanted to scratch the surface and dig a little deeper, but ultimately found it impossible because Morrissey doesn’t let you through the surface. He only lets you see what he wants you to see.”  As a result, Rourke was left with no choice but to find other ways to connect with Moz.  “I ended up being the clown,” he tells Fletcher. “It was the only level I could meet him on.”  Rourke is being self-deprecating though (as it seems is his nature).  You can hear in Marr’s description of Rourke that he was actually so much more to the band than a bassist and a clown – he was the glue guy, the Shane Battier of the Smiths.[3]

“I would elevate him and he would ground me.  He would switch my intensity down.  He was the one person who could do that.  I don’t think the other two [Morrissey and Joyce] were even aware of that importance, of that core chemistry in the band.  So even aside from the fact that he was one of the most unique bass players of all time, his personality was really important to the band.”

Fletcher read at length the section of his book detailing the events that led to the breakup of the Smiths.  The band was asked (or perhaps more accurately, forced) into filming a video to support the release of Louder Than Bombs.  Morrissey was adamantly against the idea of producing any kind of music video and did not show up on the day of the shoot, not surprisingly of course.  For Marr, this was the last straw.  He was the one to show up at Morrissey’s door and threaten that if Moz didn’t come down for the video shoot he would break up the band.  He was the one who ultimately several weeks later sat down with Morrissey to discuss the future of the band, a conversation that led to the breakup.[4]  Morrissey would later say that “it was brewing for a long time … it was less of a blow really, not terribly surprising.”  Maybe not for surprising Morrissey, but Rourke was devastated. He never thought that the Morrissey video no-show would be the end of the Smiths.  After all, that was Morrissey. In his mind this was merely one of the never-ending messes that Morrissey caused that needed cleaning up, presumably by Marr.  In fact, in the immediate aftermath of the fatal conversation between Morrissey and Marr, Rourke (and Joyce) did not even know that the band was all but broken up.  As Fletcher tells it, they believed that Louder Than Bombs was the band’s biggest success and that the best was yet to come.  They were about to reach their peak on both the UK and US Billboard charts.  Frankly, the band itself was at its all time peak.  Surely the video ordeal would soon be forgotten.

Of course it wasn’t.  And still hasn’t been to this day.  After bouncing around as part of a few bands, never coming anywhere near the heights he did with the Smiths, Rourke moved to New York City.  He currently hosts a program on East Village Radio and according to Wikipedia works as a club DJ with Olé Koretsky under the name Jetlag.[5]  No offense to Rourke, but you could hardly blame him if he harbored some (OK, a lot of) resentment.  Looking only at his quotes and nothing else, one might argue that he does.  You can hear the resignation in his voice when he interrupts this comment by Fletcher “… amazement of the musical turnout of this group …” with this: “That was the problem.  A lot of times Morrissey didn’t turn out.  Gigs canceled.  Video shoots.  But that was just Morrissey.  Nothing’s changed.”  Earlier in the Q&A he said, “There were a lot of moments, with Morrissey, that were, you know.”, and then he trailed off and sighed.  But he also smiled.  And the audience knew it was OK to laugh.  His biggest laugh may have come from his first words when he took the podium, picked up the book and said “enduring saga” with a smile.  Moreover, Rourke played bass for Morrissey on many of his solo efforts released in the late 1980’s and 1990, and remains friends with Marr to this day.  One audience member asked Rourke if he intended to play again with Marr, and he responded by telling about last time they were together.  Rourke and Marr had a short drive from Rourke’s home to the pub.  So Marr drove him around the block a few times, because he wanted to “play him a new record.”  Rourke added that the next time Marr’s on stage in NYC, Rourke hopes to join him up there.  He’s obviously not an unhappy man holding a long-standing grudge.

So why doesn’t Rourke hate his former bandmates, and in particular Morrissey?  That simply wouldn’t be the Andy Rourke way.  This is a man who when asked who his influences were, stated “it was a mish mash of stuff, but it worked out.” Between questions, he cracked up the audience with four words: “I feel like the President.”  Bear in mind that he was standing on the 3rd floor of the Strand in front of maybe 200 people.  When asked about his initial response to the adoration of American fans, he responded in a surprising yet honest way that most men could relate to:  “In England, I remember speaking to Mike Joyce after 10 or 15 gigs, saying ‘where’s all the girls at?’ Because there were all men in the front.  And I was like ‘this is the reason I joined a band.’  In America, luckily that changed.”  Rourke is, more than anything, a regular guy (though one with an amazing talent) who recognizes the good fortune he had.  In fact, he was asked whether it blows him away that he was part of what some of us think is the greatest band ever.  In short – yes it does.  “I listen to it [Smiths albums] all the time.”  On his radio show he plays it, he’s still inspired by it, he’s still proud of it.

Andy Rourke is the member of the Smiths that we should all actually aspire to be.  Rourke was asked by audience member to psycho-analyze Morrissey’s motives in not showing up for the infamous video shoot.  Was he oblivious? Self-destructive? Did he willfully destroy the group?  “No, just selfish.  This is what I’m doing, deal with it.  To the detriment of the band a lot of times.  At one point we had a #1 record in Japan, a #1 record in Australia, and we had tour prospects – Morrissey just said it was too far to fly.”  After a long pause, Rourke smiled and added, “But you gotta love him.”

The Smiths are a band that, despite breaking up 25 years ago, have a rich enough history and a sufficiently devoted fan base to merit a biography as detailed and comprehensive as Fletcher’s.  These four men – individually and as a group – were both brilliant and complicated.  Before Monday night, I already knew that this was true of Morrissey and Marr.  Now I can include the incomparable, yet affable and approachable, Andy Rourke.

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[1] Morrissey and Marr certainly felt that way, at least where money was concerned.  For a long time they contended that the band profits and performance royalties were to be split 40:40:10:10.  In the court case brought disputing this arrangement, Joyce lawyer claimed that the bassist and drummer were treated as “mere session musicians, as readily replaceable as the parts in a lawnmower.”  More on the case can be found here.

[2] Seriously, this book weighs in at 2.2 pounds.  Somewhere, Bill Simmons is nodding, “now that’s a book.”

[3] If we’re playing this game, Morrissey is obviously Kobe, Marr is probably Scottie Pippen and Joyce is Ron Harper.

[4] Morrissey wanted to fire the band’s manager and have Marr officially take over the role.  Marr was unwilling to formally take on that added responsibility.  “Finding a bass player and a drummer, a lead singer … getting a record deal, writing the music and producing the records I could do.  But managing one of the biggest bands in the world, dealing with agents, dealing with lawyers, renegotiating big record contracts, getting the band around 8-week tours – it was only going to get even bigger. It’s something that not only was I not prepared to do.  I didn’t have the capabilities to do [it] even if I wanted to.  I’ve never met anyone who thinks that the 23-year old guitar player of a really big band should be the manager.”  It’s hard to argue with that.  Yet it’s amazing to consider that it was Morrissey wanting Marr to have more control that ultimately destroyed the band.  Power struggles simply don’t work that way.  Morrissey apparently felt that Marr wasn’t carrying his weight by delegating these responsibilities, since (per Morrissey) all of the creative responsibility fell on him, something he could not delegate since these were the responsibilities of the artist.

[5] He also joined Joyce in a litigation against Marr and Morrissey over payment of royalties.  Because he was in debt at the time, Rourke settled almost immediately for a lump sum of £83,000 and 10 percent of royalties, renouncing all further claims. Joyce ultimately won a judgment for £1million and 25 percent of royalties.  Poor Rourke.  Literally.

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11 Comments
  1. Hey Schmells permalink

    You’re seriously comparing Andy Rourke to George Harrison?

    • Comparing in the sense that I’m making an analogy between Harrison’s role in the Beatles and Rourke’s role in the Smiths. If this were an SAT question,

      Beatles : Smiths as Harrison : Rourke

      Agree?

      • Hey Schmells permalink

        George Harrison actually wrote and sang for The Beatles. All Rourke did was play bass. It’s apples and oranges.

      • I take your point. I was merely trying to illustrate where each stood in the band hierarchy from a public image perspective. Both bands were largely driven by 2 (very different) larger than life personalities. Much like many people are either John or Paul people, many are Morrissey or Marr people. You don’t really hear of “George” people. He was an important contributor to the Beatles but not an important personality or force behind the band. You want to argue that George was more important that Rourke? Ok, I won’t disagree too strongly. But I think my analogy still holds up as a literary device.

      • PS thanks for reading and taking the time to comment! I enjoy the back and forth 🙂

  2. Hey Schmells permalink

    You’re welcome. I like your blog, and wish I could’ve been at the Strand that night. I was at the “Smiths” event last month in Brooklyn, with Rob Sheffield, which was enlightening and fun.

    However, I highly disagree regarding your comparison. I’ve heard of “George” people, and I would argue that he was a vital personality and force behind the band, for a variety of reasons.

    1. As the “quiet” Beatle”, he had a deadpan humor and cool about him that meshed well with Paul’s corniness and John’s outspokenness.

    2. As a musical force, he introduced the world to middle eastern music by incorporating sitar, tamboura and other instruments deemed exotic into pop music. This started with “Norwegian Wood” back in ’65, when no one else was doing this. It would help ignite psychedelia and later on, world music.

    3. His interest in meditation was picked up on by the rest of the band, and later on, the rest of the world.

    4. George’s distinctively drowsy, melodic drone of a voice would help influence the sound of many bands considered to be alternative rock, like Jesus and Mary Chain, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, Oasis, Ride, Sonic Youth, etc.

    5. He was amongst the first, if not the first, guitarist to popularize arpeggios. As a fellow Smith’s fan, I’m sure you’re familiar with that term, as Johnny Marr’s unique style mainly forgoes guitar solo’s and finds the sonic beauty in arpeggio’s, usually of the jangly variety (Peter Buck from R.E.M. is somewhat similar).

    6. Harrison (along with Syd Barrett of Pink Floyd) reinvented how a slide guitar could sound. Both took it out of its blues context, and made more melodic, interstellar sounds with it.

    I realize this is a long response, but George Harrison’s legacy as a music and cultural force “within and without” the Beatles should never be questioned.

    • I would have liked to hear Sheffield … I need a better way to find out about author events.

      I don’t know if you have your own blog or outlet, but I appreciate your well thought out views. Any chance you’d like to do the first-ever guest post on 2bitMonkey? Harrison’s legacy/influence would be a cool topic, could be fun. Or possibly something else if you have ideas – obviously you’re a fan of the things that would fit this blog well! Let me know.

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