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.