April 23, 2014

‘A Light That Never Goes Out: The Enduring Saga of the Smiths’ by Tony Fletcher

Posted on 21. Jan, 2013 by in Bio/Memoir, Reviews

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
Crown Archetype
Hardcover, 9780307715951, 704 pp.
December 2012

Tom Cardamone is the editor of The Lost Library: Gay Fiction Rediscovered, author of Lambda Literary Award-winning speculative novella Green Thumb and the erotic fantasy novel The Werewolves of Central Park. His short story collection, Pumpkin Teeth, was a finalist for the Lambda Literary Award and Black Quill Award. In 2013 he published the novella Pacific Rimming and the anthology Lavender Menace: Tales of Queer Villainy! His short stories have appeared in numerous anthologies and magazines, some of which have been collected on his website: www.pumpkinteeth.net.

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5 Responses to “‘A Light That Never Goes Out: The Enduring Saga of the Smiths’ by Tony Fletcher”

  1. Tony Fletcher 25 January 2013 at 11:24 AM #

    Hi Tom,

    This is the author. I’d like to thank you for taking the time and interest to review my Smiths biography; I accept all the constructive criticism without reservations. There are a couple of small facts about the review I would like to have the chance to correct and then to make a more general observation.

    Morrissey’s autobiography remains rumor at this point – a rumor started by Morrissey, admittedly, but no deal has been struck with a publisher, let alone a publication date announced. Your reference to ‘this December’ is a copy and paste from a series of lazy British reviews that didn’t bother to fact-check the rumor, and actually refers to December 2012, i.e. the past.

    Regardless of the publisher’s press release, I most certainly did speak to fans of the band. I am a fan of the band. I was a fan of the band. I was around the band. I saw the band. Many times. I have grown up being surrounded by fans of the band, and we share stories about them; my interest with the Smiths did not begin with the commission to write the book, nor will it end when I start my next one. I did make an early and conscious decision not to let the biography become a fan-atic’s story; at the same time, I chose to quote quote two specific male fans who came to the band from what I thought were interesting angles and who could talk about what I saw as the noticeable shift in the group’s audience towards a more masculine, testosterone-driven mind-set in 1986. That said, your final comment brought a smile to my face and I don’t disagree with that conclusion!

    More to the point thought, I’d like to respond to the comments around the paragraph that “readers won’t hear from any of Morrissey’s boyfriends, and his sexuality is mostly dealt with as if it were immaterial conjecture… Ultimately, a biographer without an opinion is like a compass without a needle.”

    Firstly, as a straight male, I don’t believe it’s my job to ‘out’ people, neither then nor now. I lived through that period when musicians gradually came out, but it seemed to me then, and my opinion has not changed, that it was up to those of us who were straight to provide a positive environment for them to do so, and ultimately up to the individuals themselves to make that personal decision. I did not want to delve into what I would consider tabloid journalism with regard to Morrissey’s own sex life and I chose to ignore various allegations and rumors that I felt would lower the tone of the book. When I included the quote from Liz Naylor on p. 207 that “Steven was a lot more of an active gay man than he ever let on,” it was both because I felt that she had been close enough to Morrissey to form that opinion and because she has remained active within the LGBT community; when I used a similar quote from journalist Frank Owen on page 550, I did so again because I felt that Owen had been very much a part of the same Manchester scene as a pre-Smiths Morrissey and because he is open about his own bi-sexual past.

    To some extent, though it remains of great interest to his fans, I would agree with you that I did find Morrissey’s sexuality “immaterial” and I would like to explain why. Whether or not his claims to celibacy throughout his time in the Smiths were factual (Johnny Marr certainly believes they were), in 1980s Britain they opened up an entirely new option for the youth that had never been addressed before by a popular musician. In a society that traded/s on sexual gossip and titillation, one that placed the value of sexual activity very high on the pursuit of happiness (whether gay or straight, monogamous or p), Morrissey’s insistence that one could actually choose to eschew the chase and still live a contented and fulfilling life was absolutely revolutionary. As a straight male who didn’t want to put myself about, or to go out with girls for the sake of it, who was getting a greater kick out of involvement in the music scene than the dating scene, I found Morrissey’s approach liberating; it was one of the reasons I was greatly attracted to the Smiths. In addition, by refusing to define himself by his sexuality, Morrissey became something of a cipher, by which people could project their own desires upon him based on their own interpretations of his personality, and this too was very powerful. And at the end of the day, I still believe that any final statement about Morrissey’s sexuality remains his to make. Not mine.

    I note all of this not as argument but as part of a positive conversation on what was always bound to a difficult aspect of the book. Thank you for bringing it up.

    Tony Fletcher

  2. Tom Cardamone 25 January 2013 at 1:59 PM #

    Good stuff, Tony, I’m glad you took the time to make these remarks, and I think it will be of interest to potential readers of your book!

    Certainly what we create and how it’s viewed often occupy different planes of existence. However I wasn’t implying that you should have “outed” Mr. M, but rather explored his gayness as well as how fascinating it is that straight people find wisdom there. The underlying fact of my assertion is that a plague erupted around the same time as this band formed; gay men were persecuted, ignored, and left to die. I’m not passing judgment on how a young Morrissey dealt with something so horrific, but if it pressed him back into the closet, this puts your view of his asexuality as “revolutionary” in an entirely different light. And this may not be what happened. But by ignoring the historical context of being gay in the 80’s, an opportunity for a deeper exploration of his character was missed.

    T

  3. Tony Fletcher 27 January 2013 at 8:55 AM #

    Thanks Tom,

    It looks like we’re in a good place here on this. I would observe that AIDS was not front page news in Great Britain at the time the Smiths formed, or indeed for the next couple of years; homophobia and prejudice, however, remained a form part of the greater social-political landscape, in the schools, on the city streets, and at Governmental level under Thatcher. Fortunately, the world of music and arts in general has always presented something of a safe haven. Given all of that, I would stick to the observations I made in my original comment; the publication and publicity afforded my book has enabled me to clarify those thoughts to a greater extent than I was able to make in writing. Thanks for presenting another opportunity to do so, and for reviewing the book.
    Tony

  4. Phill 29 January 2013 at 9:19 PM #

    I’m a fan and I can confirm I was interviewed and quoted in the book!

  5. Middo 30 January 2013 at 12:19 PM #

    Firstly, I read the book and I enjoyed it. I thought it benefitted from having an alternative perspective to other Smiths biogs. I found it a little bit slow to get going, but I often find that I’m not terribly interested in what people’s grandparents did, or where they lived. However, bearing in mind the ange of this book, I suppose it was inevitable.

    I found Rogan’s book great at the time, he’s quite thorough in a way, but equally sloppy when it comes to presenting opinions as facts from time to time. I don’t particularly enjoy his prose style, which is my problem, really.

    However, in terms of the AIDS being all over the press in the early days of The Smiths, I’d say that it was, really.

    I started secondary school in 1982 and by 1984, in registration – every week – we got given the same leaflet that had a picture of a gravestone with the words, “AIDS – Don’t Die of Ignorance” on it. Perhaps I’ve got the dates wrong, but ’84 seems about right. I’m prepared to stand corrected.

    It seemed that either we were all going to die in a nuclear holocaust (Threads, etc) or we were going to have sex and die of AIDS. It was a grim time and the humour in Morrissey’s lyrics helped. If ever gallows humour was appropriate, it was then. For me, anyway. Not to mention Johnny Marr’s guitar playing, which complemented the bittersweet lyrics perfectly.


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