“Johnny Marr… So much to answer for,” to paraphrase a Morrissey lyric about Manchester in The Smiths’ song, “Suffer Little Children,” the great guitarist wrote the music for. I’ve never been quite sure what to make of Mr. Marr. SOMEONE has to take the fall for the end of The Smiths. Up to this point, I blamed Johnny Marr. In 1987, we were told that Johnny Marr left The Smiths1. The last authoritative source on the matter to speak publicly about it, Morrissey in “Autobiography,” claimed that as “the most famous face of the Rough Trade enterprise,” pictures began appearing in the press of Morrissey and not The Smiths as a group, who the press began dubbing “Mozzer’s men.” Morrissey says that this made Johnny fume. “It must have been at this time that Johnny believed that ‘If … well, ummm … if I just step from stage left to, ummm, center stage, then I, too, could gather lilacs.2” He goes on to say that Craig Gannon’s being added for the 1986 tour was Johnny’s decision 3 and says he brought up what he felt was “the sad lilt in Johnny’s chord structures,” during the “Strangeways” sessions, but was not listened to 4. That’s about it for why the band broke up.
Later, in the extended section about the Mike Joyce case5, in which the former Smiths drummer sued Morrissey and Marr for royalties, resulting in each losing over a million dollars, Morrissey speaks at length about Marr. “Johnny, too, was a bad witness, crumbling neatly from the top down. Although he and I were ostensibly on trial together as business partners, we were not actually business partners, and we had not even met once over recent years to discuss the Joyce claim, or the protocol of trial. I got the impression that Johnny’s verbal disclosures jumped about willy-nill and concluded with his exhausted inclination to accept anything at all that was said against me- in what I assumed was the hope that he might be separated from the one target who did not beg for sympathy (i.e. Morrissey)….He will, by now, apparently say almost anything at all in order to stay free, and seems willing to push anyone into the water in order to save himself6.” That’s Morrissey’s side, regarding why he may be on the outs with Marr, from “Autobiography,” in a nutshell, of course.
Now, with the release of his own Autobiography, “Set The Boy Free,” Johnny Marr’s been doing unprecedented interviews, and speaking candidly about the end of the band that he co-wrote the “songs that saved your life” for. We finally get to hear his side of things.
Unlike Morrissey’s books, where I read them multiple times looking for other meanings I missed, Johnny Marr writes in a straightforward way, like he was talking to you, so I found “Set The Boy Free” a quick read. For his part, Mr. Marr doesn’t have a heck of a lot to say about the breakup, either. After Joe Moss, The Smith’s original manager resigned as they left to fly to New York for their first appearance at Danceteria, many of a manager’s duties fell to Johnny (who was also a de facto producer on many sessions). Johnny doesn’t really say why Joe Moss resigned, only saying “When he resigned, most people around the band felt that it was because of a conflict between him and Morrissey, but neither Joe nor Morrissey expressed that to me at the time. I resisted any speculation for everyone’s sake, but there was something about Joe’s resignation that felt unresolved to me7.” He comments about feeling burdened by being the de facto manager here and there, but we are left to wonder if he mentioned his feeling about it to the band, and there is never any mention of finding a permanent manager until later. The first sign of trouble in the book is during the making of “Strangeways” (The Smiths final studio album), a “brighter time for me8” having recovered from the trauma of a car wreck that he says could have been fatal. “In the middle of making the album, though, something suddenly changed. New allegiances were formed between band members…I didn’t understand why there was a problem….but the rest of the band made a sudden U-turn and it was three against one. Everything I saw as good management they saw as interference and giving up control, and I thought it was really weird that a band as big as The Smiths were trying to avoid having someone taking care of business9.” When Morrissey didn’t show up for the “Shoplifters of the World Unite” video shoot, he says he finally went to Morrissey’s house, “In a complete reversal of the day I formed the band, I banged on my partner’s door but this time he wouldn’t let me in. I was shouting ‘Don’t do this,’ but it appeared that we were no longer on the same side and it didn’t even seem like we were still friends10.” After the album was finished, the rest of the band suddenly decided to go back into the studio to work on more songs, though Marr hadn’t written anything else. Having booked a vacation, a first for him, he cancelled it, and complied, pulling all-nighters to finish the tracks before taking his vacation. When he returned, no one from the band contacted him. “Two days later, a story appeared that I was leaving The Smiths….Having the story out there I had no choice but to make a statement. I still hadn’t heard form the others, and with everything that had happened I just thought, ‘F*ck you.’ I faced up to the inevitable and announced that I was leaving The Smiths11.”
Regarding being on the stand in the Joyce case, he says, “I knew there was no point in trying to be clever, and by then I was under no illusions that Morrissey and I might win. I just answered as directly as I could, without letting Joyce’s barrister succeed in winding me up. I’d been forced to go to court, and I decided that whatever happened I was going to speak up for myself and get the satisfaction of putting a few things straight. At least that way I’d have no regrets and I could walk out of there my own man12.” By my count, Johnny Marr spends 4 pages out of 313 pages of text on the Joyce case (say 1%). Morrissey spends 40 pages on it, or about 11% of his 445 pages of text, 20 pages of photos omitted.
In his recent interviews, he addresses the subject of leaving The Smiths again, especially in this section from The Guardian’s interview with him-
“In July 1987 a story appeared in the press that Marr had left, accompanied by a new photo of the band taken by their press officer in which Marr was scowling while the other three Smiths smiled away. At that point, he felt he had no option but to walk.
It sounds horribly stressful, I say. Yes, he says – not least the presumption that he would be the one to step in and manage the Smiths. “It’s what split the band up. To this day I haven’t met anyone who thinks a major rock group should be managed by the 23-year-old guitar player.” So why did he agree to manage them in the first place? “Well, because we were deemed unmanageable. When we fired managers, I always had to deal with it. When we got to the end of the band’s life, it was put to me by my partner that he wouldn’t work with the current manager and we had to go back to how it was. I wasn’t prepared to do it, and so it became untenable. There was no way forward.” For a moment, those tensions sound as raw as they did three decades ago. “I was waiting for someone to fix it, and make it so it didn’t have to happen.”
Why were they so resistant to having a manager? “A lot of it was to do with control.” Does he feel he was…? Marr finishes the sentence for me. “Forced out? Yes, that was the tangible public manifestation of all that.” He stops, embarrassed by his words. “Wow! Check me out! It was the feeling of being tested, and my role in the band being untenable.” He stops again. “Just like any break-up, bad sh*t goes on.”
The day that he confirmed he was leaving, the other band members issued a statement wishing him luck and saying: “Other guitarists are being considered to replace him.” How did that make him feel? “I literally thought it was a joke. It was the final nail in the coffin and it took me a long time to forgive them. It was pretty callous. But I don’t hold it against anybody now. I absolutely don’t.” Within a week, the Smiths were in the studio with a new guitarist. They never completed any new material, though: by the time their final album, Strangeways Here We Come, was released in September 1987, they had announced their split.”
So. There you have it. They both have spoken. Am I missing something?
Great musical groups are a 20th Century phenomenom that never existed in Western Music before. The great Jazz bands of Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, and others, were first early in the century, and great Jazz groups continued throughout. Towards the end of the 1950’s great rock and R&B bands also began to form. We take them for granted now, but they are historically new. Mozart never wrote with Haydn, and Haydn never wrote with Beethoven, either. It never ceases to amaze me that people like Morrissey and Marr actually found each other (at a Patti Smith concert!), let alone that the 4 Beatles found each other. Knowing full well how hard it is even to find real friends, I’m pained when these groups end.
“Don’t they realize what a miracle it is they met?”
I have been in bands I loved being in (that no one ever heard of) that broke up. A band really is a something like a multi-way marriage, and just as hard to preserve. As Johnny Marr admits in these interviews, he wasn’t even 24 when The Smiths were over. All of us have done things early in our lives that we look back on years later and wring our hands over. Most of us weren’t in a world famous band at the time. This reminds me of what the late, great Joe Strummer said in the documentary about The Clash, talking about the little things that broke them up, and what he wished he could go back and talk to his 20’s self and say-
“None of this matters. The addictions don’t matter. The personality conflicts don’t matter. You are in one of the greatest bands of all time. Don’t f*ck it up.”
But, in Morrissey & Marr’s case? Whatever caused their split continues. Johnny Marr is now 53, Morrissey 57. I still don’t get it.
So? Where are we now? Johnny Marr says in the letter to Morrissey I quoted in footnote 1- “I’ve only recently come to realize that you genuinely don’t know all the reason for my leaving. To get into it would be horrible…I will never point the finger at anyone but myself…” I’m not sure he’s still “gotten into it!” I’m also not letting Morrissey off the hook, either. Why weren’t the others happy with Ken Friedman’s management as Marr asks on Page 202 of his book (“I didn’t understand why there was a problem.”)? Is there more we still don’t know? I’m about to give up on it and face it- they just don’t want us to know.
Smiths Peace Is None Of Our Business!
He wrote, usurping the title of Morrissey’s latest album, for those who may have missed it before it quickly went out of print. Wait. What? More unhappiness with a business relationship? Stop me if I’ve heard that one before. On other fronts, The Smiths have never ended. The music lives on in the solo careers of both Marr and Morrissey, who still perform Smiths songs in their shows. Whatever the problem is, at least they haven’t turned their back on their storied pasts, music countless people still love and revere. Morrissey’s last appearance in the NYC area on September 24 was instantly sold out. The cheapest tickets available on the after market approached 200.00. His set included 3 Smiths songs, and a Ramones song. That The Smiths still have the impact on, and importance to, new listeners it had on me when I first heard them can be seen, perhaps most poignantly in this instantly iconic picture (about halfway down that page) taken of a defiant protester in the 2010 London demonstrations in Parliament Square dressed in a Smith’s “Hatfull of Hollow” shirt. I haven’t seen anything since they broke up that speaks to their power more than that picture does. Only the words of Ellen Wood, the woman in it, are more impressive. Both Morrissey and Marr were impressed by it, too. Marr has included it in his book. Still? Even this wasn’t enough to get them to reunite. WHY? For me, though none of my business, this will continue to be the biggest ongoing mystery in rock.
This coming year marks 30 years since The Smiths broke up. Today, Johnny Marr continually sounds a bit mystified, himself, at why he is not on better terms with Morrissey (as he says he regretted he was not in his letter to Morrissey quoted in “Autobiography,” see footnote 1). The Guardian piece ends with him talking about their communication over the protester photo, which Marr brought to Morrissey’s attention. “Our communication continued for a day or so, but although I felt I’d created a moment of friendship, an air of disaffection and distrust remained betweeen us. It was a shame.” Marr says he hasn’t read Morrissey’s Autobiography (“so he doesn’t have to answer stupid questions about it.” He also adds that the only book that’s “alright” on The Smiths is “A Light That Never Goes Out,” by Tony Fletcher, who he cooperated with at length during it’s writing). While I will never understand everything that went on in and around the Joyce case, Marr seems resigned about it, and has moved on, in his book. Morrissey, based on how many pages it gets in “Autobiography,” will NEVER get over it. The man can carry a grudge with the best of them. Maybe he carries one about Johnny Marr? I don’t know. Unlike most of the best of them? He can, also, slay you with lyrics. While many feel he has done this regarding Mike Joyce13, I’m not aware of anyone saying he has done it regarding Johnny Marr.
Finally hearing him speak at length, and reading his book, Mr. Marr comes across as a musician first (one who always seemed destined to play with many groups), who’s also a thoughtful, deeply feeling man, who’s values seem to remain intact, and central. I think I was rash to blame him for the end of The Smiths those years ago. Now? I’m not sure it’s any one person’s fault. While they may have made it seem it was Johnny’s doing, they may all well share whatever “blame” there is. So in the spirit of “Kumbaya,” yes, I did get a signed copy of “Set The Boy Free,” from his NYC appearance on November 15. and I’m going to “set it” on my shelf right next to my singed copy of Morrissey’s.
It may be the closest I’ll ever get to seeing the two of them together, again. I am already blessed at having seen them together in person once. August 6, 1986 when The Smiths played Pier 84 on the Hudson River, which turned out to be their last NYC appearance, but I would camp out overnight(s) for a chance to see The Smiths again14. If they can’t get past whatever it was that ended “one of the greatest bands of all time,” I’ll put them together myself in the only way I can!
But? I’m not alone. After they put it out, their music becomes a part of the lives of all those who hear it, and through them, it takes on a life of it’s own. That’s because Music is an aural Art- it exists to be heard! As this world seems to get crazier and harder to understand (like the Smith’s breakup?) with each passing moment, this rendition of Morrissey’s “First Of The Gang To Die,” from Jakarta, Indonesia, posted online today, gives me hope for the future. I hope it also gives Morrissey & Marr pause for thought about what a Smiths reunion would be like, what it would mean to countless millions around the globe, and the impact THAT might have on the world.
After everything they’ve said and written hasn’t done it, it might be the ONLY thing left that could reach them.
*- The soundtrack for this Post is “Kumbaya” a spiritual. Wikipedia says “‘Kumbaya’ has been used to refer to artificially covering up deep-seated disagreements.”
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- In “Autobiography,” Morrissey quotes a letter from Johnny Marr to him that says, “The main thing that I want you to know is that I really regret us not being friends. I’ve only recently come to realize that you genuinely don’t know all the reason for my leaving. To get into it would be horrible…I will never point the finger at anyone but myself, and I am glad I took a step towards making my life sane.” Morrissey, “Autobiography,” iBooks version, P.272, ↩
- ibid, P221. ↩
- ibid P.221-23. Marr, in his book, says Craig Gannon was added as a replacement for bassist Andy Rourke, who was repaiced in The Smiths due to his drug issues. They soon reconsidered, and Andy was reinstated, which led to Gannon switching to rhythm guitar, which he was for the 1986 tour. Johnny Marr, “Set The Boy Free,” iBooks version, P.191. Wikipedia says that Rourke allegedly received the news of his being sacked with a note under the windshield wiper of his car that read, “Andy, you have left The Smiths. Good luck and goodbye, Morrissey.” ↩
- ibid P.223 ↩
- Completely derailing what had been a most enthralling narrative to that point, in my opinion, as it apparently felt to him in his life ↩
- ibid P.319-20 ↩
- Johnny Marr, “Set The Boy Free,” iBooks version, P.150 ↩
- Marr, P. 202 ↩
- Marr P.202-3 ↩
- Marr P. 203 ↩
- Marr P.206 ↩
- Marr P.253 ↩
- “Sorrow Will Come In The End,” is generally considered to be about Joyce, with lyrics including “Legalized theft leaves me bereft,” and “You pleaded and squealed, And you think you’ve worn, But sorrow will come to you in the end, And as sure as my words are pure, I praise the day that brings you pain.” By Morrissey & Whyte, published by Sony/ATV Music Publishing, LLC, Warner/Chappell Music., Inc. ↩
- With their new drummer, obviously. My money is on Zak Starkey, Ringo’s son. ↩