This Charming Band

An exhaustive, exhausting book about the Smiths.

Illustration by Lilli Carré.

I am not a casual fan of the Smiths.

This is most clearly evidenced by the large tattoo on my right shoulder that simply reads “Morrissey.” I met the singer in a back hallway at Late Night With Jimmy Fallon in March 2009. (Friends who work on the show did me a favor.) I brought a marker, intending to ask Moz to sign my arm, then head to a tattoo parlor to get his signature etched onto my shoulder. I did just that. I have not regretted it even one time. This tattoo was made a permanent part of my body four days after I saw Morrissey play a great show in Montclair, N.J., where I—two months out from my 30th birthday—leapt on stage and managed to grab his hand before a burly security guard wrapped his arms around my waist and flung me into a corral specifically built to deal with the stage invasions that are a fixture at Morrissey shows.

Furthermore, I recently had a rough summer and in the aftermath of two pronounced panic attacks decided the only way to deal with my troubles was to again turn to Manchester’s favorite sons. I now sport across my right bicep—just inches from my Morrissey signature tattoo—ink that reads, “It takes strength to be gentle and kind.” Non-Smiths fans will think this is a good sentiment, yet maybe an unnecessary piece of body art. Those who are familiar with the band may recognize that lyric from “I Know It’s Over,” a track off their classic album The Queen Is Dead. But fans with a true obsession for Morrissey, Marr, Rourke, and Joyce will recognize that my particular tattoo was more likely inspired by the version of the song that appeared on the band’s post-breakup live album, Rank, since “I Know It’s Over” is undeniably a good song on The Queen Is Dead but the live performance of it on Rank captures Morrissey at his most passionate. Embracing the Smiths means, to me, embracing their outsider and underdog ethos, it means identifying yourself with independent values, and it means finding catharsis through lyrics that capture the feelings of loneliness, being different, and raging against a world that looks to put one into a box better than any band before or since.

As mentioned, I am not a casual fan of the Smiths.

Still, I’m far from their most committed devotee. Even at my last Morrissey show—my ninth—I was granted access by a friend of mine named Joey who had secured an extra ticket and allowed me to buy it off him. Joey travels the country when Moz is touring, catching as many of his shows as possible. The cult of Morrissey that still follows the singer around is obsessive to a degree even I can’t imagine, and it spans all demographics—after the show, I went to a diner with Joey, as well as a number of young ladies who fit the stereotype of Smiths fans, and a middle-aged woman, and a couple from California who fashion themselves the surrogate leader of this unlikely pack and go so far as to refer to my friend Joey as their son. These were the types of Smiths fans that view me as chump change because I only have two Smiths-related tattoos.

It’s fandom like this that makes a 658-page book about the Smiths possible, and so I’m likely the ideal reader of Tony Fletcher’s A Light That Never Goes Out, a comprehensive biography of the band that even I found to be a bit too comprehensive. I can’t imagine what someone who wasn’t already deeply in love with the band would think.

The book starts with a simple sentence: “The story of the Smiths is intrinsically entwined with that of Manchester.” This seems harmless enough, and even passing fans of the band would undoubtedly agree that it’s true. From that simple sentence, though, Fletcher launches into a lengthy exploration of Manchester—its history, its economic circumstances leading into the ’80s, its working-class culture, how its slums came to be built, how Irish immigrants dominated certain neighborhoods, not to mention his breakdown of its music scene as he writes about what seems to be every concert staged in Manchester from the dawn of rock and roll forward. It’s exhaustive, but it’s also exhausting. Even I—a man with the lead singer’s signature tattooed on my shoulder—found much of the information in the first third of the book to be so tangentially connected to the Smiths that it was hard not to get frustrated. Eventually, Fletcher does a good job of looping this vast amount of information back to Morrissey and Marr’s influences and upbringing, but I simply found it hard to read almost 200 pages of a book about the Smiths that take place before the Smiths even meet each other.

Here is Fletcher, on Page 198, speaking to the backgrounds of Morrissey and Marr:

Too much would be made over time of the pair as opposites—in geniality, exuberance, hedonism, sexuality; in hours kept, clothes worn, and books read. In fact, as already noted, they had a phenomenal amount in common: Irish immigrant parents, working class roots, a single female sibling (within close age range), a strong relationship with mother and a distant one with father, the violent drudgery of the Manchester Catholic schools system, and forced slum clearance from the inner city.

As Fletcher himself indicates, all of this is “already noted.” That’s what’s in the previous 198 pages. The above quote by and large saves you close to an entire book’s worth of reading if you wish to start closer to the actual journey of the Smiths, which would presumably be the story you wanted to read upon purchasing this book.

Author Tony Fletcher.

Author Tony Fletcher.

Photo by Posie Strenz.

In reality, the only stumbling block to A Light That Never Goes Out is its first 200 pages. Admittedly, if your only stumbling block is a section of book longer than some books in their entirety, you have some hurdles to overcome. But from that point forward, this is the most detailed, meticulous telling of the story of the Smiths that I have read to date. Fletcher has gathered quotes from not just the obvious parties, but from numerous people who toured with the Smiths, worked at their record label Rough Trade, who comprised their crew, their backing musicians and producers, their support staff. No one has captured the opinions of Andy Rourke and Mike Joyce as clearly, no one has captured Johnny Marr’s fanatical devotion to the band in more grounded fashion, and no one has painted such a vivid picture of how nightmarish touring with Morrissey was as his life became more insane due to the pressures of being the Smiths’ frontman.

While the difficulty of the band’s touring experiences has long been legendary—and is generally held as a prime factor in their ultimate breakup—no one has done deeper research into the actual realities of their time on the road than Fletcher. Take this passage, about a single show in 1986:

The previous night, the group had played a small university auditorium in New Orleans, where the promoter would later recall two specific and dramatically conflicting memories of the backstage scene prior to the show: his doing cocaine with Johnny Marr in his office, and then watching Mike Hinc have to physically accompany an exhausted Morrissey on to the stage to perform. (“The amount of time it took to get Morrissey onstage was getting longer and longer,” said Grant Showbiz. “There was this great game he’d play of wanting to be asked fifteen times, if it’d been fourteen the night before. Johnny was like ‘Let’s Rock!’ and Mozzer’d be ‘Well, somebody’s gotta ask me another seven times.’ ”) 

Marr descending into the life of a party boy, Morrissey’s diva nature presented not as a caricature but as the quick, natural, and unfortunate evolution that occurs when you remove an awkward and opinionated youth from his bedroom and make him the biggest rock star in his country within two years: These are the glimpses into the reality of what it was to be a Smith that any fan should love. Many stories accepted as canon among Smiths fans have largely existed as hearsay before this book; there are many incidents recounted here through actual quotes that prove the facts were as outlandish as the rumors have long suggested. The fights were as fierce, the concerts were as violent, the ridiculousness was as ridiculous as we’d always heard.

With a little editing and some restraint on the part of the author, A Light That Never Goes Out might have been an all-time classic of rock biography. Still, it will occupy space on my shelf alongside a number of other books related to the Smiths that I hold dear. Now that I know which parts to skip, the book is a valuable source of quotes and anecdotes I haven’t found anywhere else.

Of course, it’s possible that some Smiths fans will consume every one of the many hundreds of pages in this book without experiencing the same frustrations I did. In my heart, I know that a book that satisfies only the most devoted can’t be what Fletcher was hoping for. But then I would say that. I only own every Smiths album, most singles, and thousands of bootlegs and B-sides. And I only have two tattoos—so far.

A Light That Never Goes Out: The Enduring Saga of the Smiths by Tony Fletcher. Crown Archetype.

See all the pieces in this month’s Slate Book Review.
Sign up for the 
Slate Book Review monthly newsletter.