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In his overlong introduction to A Light That Never Goes Out: The Enduring Saga of The Smiths (Crown Archetype), author Tony Fletcher makes the claim that, of all the books concerning The Smiths, this is the first one that focuses on the whole band rather than lead singer Morrissey or guitarist Johnny Marr. There are more books about The Smiths than you’d think; while their stellar stateside reputation has grown to Velvet Underground-like proportions, they were always a big deal in the UK, and can rightly be identified as the leaders of the pack if 80’s new wave music were to be classified as a second British Invasion. Several of these titles get mentioned in the introduction: exalting hagiography Saint Morrissey and Mozipedia, a peculiarly opinionated exhaustive encyclopedia about all things Morrissey and thus The Smiths. The review copy of The Enduring Saga of the Smiths came with a two-page letter detailing how many people were interviewed, including two members of the quartet, which makes the absence (surprise, surprise) of the mercurial Morrissey’s participation all the more glaring. But who knows, it’s possible that his pontification would have just obscured the process.
The book begins with the history of Manchester and the shared Irish-emigrant background of the band members, giving a rich, contextual platform to better tell their story. Still, once Morrissey and Marr meet, they rightly dominate. Now Morrissey’s never, ever, been at a loss for words (his reportedly 660-page autobiography is due out from Penguin this December), and Fletcher has a rich trove of interviews and lyrics to mine, so a successful book without access to him was a distinct possibility. Still, be warned: readers won’t hear from any of Morrissey’s boyfriends, and his sexuality is mostly dealt with as if it were immaterial conjecture. Sure, some mild gossip along the lines of “is he or isn’t he” are duly recorded. For all The Smiths earnest politics, AIDS is never mentioned yet the band formed during the darkest days of a pandemic? On that front, we do get Morrissey attacking gay band Bronski Beat “who are so steeped in maleness (that they) quite immediately ostracizing 50 percent of the human race.” Fletcher rises to the occasion and smacks down this weird assertion by noting other popular British bands with openly gay lead singers that, like Bronski Beat, were appreciated by wide audiences–but it’s a missed opportunity to delve deeper. Ultimately, a biographer without an opinion is like a compass without a needle.
The influences, the singles, the albums, the tours and band strife are detailed with earnest balance. It’s cool to read about how favorite songs formed. And it’s stated over and over that The Smiths could have produced more and lasted longer if only they were properly managed, yet what they did achieve is staggering and historic. But back to that protracted introduction: where Fletcher feels as if he’s stating his case–really he’s hedging his bets. He declares that it was never his intention “to write much beyond the group’s breakup, the details of the High Court case that embarrassed The Smiths. . . are not examined in any more detail than on this page” yet later he’s surprised that Morrissey’s devotion to Oscar Wilde didn’t lead to a more successful performance during the trial. Ladies and gentlemen, the saga of The Smiths actually begins in 1895 London and ends with Morrissey and Marr losing their shirts in court after the other two band members successfully sued for an equal share of the royalties. Oscar Wilde’s conviction and jail time are probable early life lessons for the young and highly literate Morrissey. It was okay to be a dandy, just not “out.” And oddly, Morrissey might just have a point when it comes to lyrical prowess; the solo work of a closeted George Michael is treasured by millions, his openly gay stuff, not so much. Fletcher is wrong in his assertion that the story of The Smiths ends with their breakup; bands breakup all the time. The Smiths irrevocably ended with the lawsuit, meaning they could never truly reform.
I’ve happened to have read both Saint Morrissey and Mozipedia, and they’re as a wonderfully partial lot as A Light That Never Goes Out is researched. The difference is one of perspective: their cultish reverence delights the page, while Fletcher displays commendable competence. With his background as a music writer that’s no shock and I’m interested in picking up some of his other work (I’m still surprised anyone would write a book about Echo and the Bunnymen!). Like I said, a triumphant book without the Great and Powerful Moz was a possibility, but nowhere in that two page letter listing interviewees were the names of any fans, the folk who went to every show, slept on the floor of the band’s hotel rooms, and rode in the van with them on tour. And Fletcher dutifully affirms that the fans’ perspectives are collected in yet another book about The Smiths.
Given a choice, I’d rather rush the stage with them than a well-connected journalist.
A Light That Never Goes Out: The Enduring Saga of the Smiths
By Tony Fletcher
Hardcover, 9780307715951, 704 pp.