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.