The Smiths and Me: I Spoke to the Guitarist in My Favourite Band, About My Favourite Band
The iconic guitarist sits down to dissect the Smiths fall-out, why indie isn't dead, and a lifetime of reunion rumours.
Five minutes into meeting Johnny Marr and my cover is blown. I can see him looking at my arm.
"Oh, yeah," I mumble. "I have a tattoo."
"What is it?" he asks, peering closer.
I'd been doing well up until this point. I meet Marr at RAK Studios in North West London and shake his hand without letting on that I know the lyrics to everything he recorded between 1982 and 1987. I admire the gold Suzi Quatro records that line the walls without blurting out that I have the photo of him outside Salford Lads Club framed above my bed. I tell him who I write for and don't confess that the first piece I ever had published was a painfully sincere op ed on Hatful of Hollow for my student newspaper. As far as Marr knows, I'm a disinterested journalist who thinks "How Soon Is Now" is pretty cool but never really got into the whole jangly guitar thing.
Until I have to explain the tattoo.
"It says 'Moz.' It's a Morrissey tattoo."
Alright, Johnny, I admit it. I'm a diehard Smiths fan. The kind with diary entries and strong opinions about bus stops and rain. I applied to Manchester University not because it had a good humanities department, but because I wanted to live in a rented room in Whalley Range. I own a copy of Mozipedia: The Encyclopedia of Morrissey and The Smiths and refer to it in a real-world situations to settle disputes over reissued B-sides. I've seen Morrissey live more times than any well-adjusted adult ever should. I'm vegetarian. I want "Well I Wonder" played at my funeral because "There Is a Light That Never Goes Out" is too obvious.
And now I'm sitting here, opposite Johnny Marr, someone whose band has impacted my life from the moment I first heard "Bigmouth Strikes Again," trying not to come across as an IRL version of the heart-eyed emoji.
Marr seems to sense my embarrassment and laughs kindly. "Oh yeah! Is it his signature?"
"It's not his signature exactly, I just kind of … "
I spent four hours PhotoShopping Morrissey's handwriting into the design, then made the tattoo artist reposition the stencil three times before finally settling on my left arm because it's the one with the vein that flows directly to the heart.
"Appropriated it?" Marr finishes. "Ah yeah, it looks good."
"Thanks. You have a few tattoos now too?" I say, desperately attempting to divert the conversation from the fact that I have the name of Marr's estranged bandmate indelibly injected into my skin with ink.
"Yeah," he laughs again. "But they don't say 'Morrissey.'"
Of course, as co-founder and guitarist of The Smiths, the 80s band that introduced outspoken frontman Morrissey to the world and pretty much invented British indie, Marr must be used to dealing with overly invested fans. Our interview falls on the day after his 53rd birthday, 29 years and three months since The Smiths disbanded. He was 23 when that happened, and yet here we are, still discussing songs he wrote and friendships he formed when he was barely an adult.
He must be tired of talking to people like me.
"I'm fairly philosophical about it," Marr says, leaning back into the squashy leather sofa we're sharing under the rows of framed records. He is a human being in compact size: 5'8" with narrow shoulders and rock-star-skinny legs. "You can be really hung up about it and bitter and begrudging, which isn't very gracious but it's also not very healthy. So I've got no other choice than to look at it like: in that case, we must have done something that's quite incredible."
He suddenly sits up straight.
"Hey, I've got some friends who don't think The Smiths are that good, believe it or not—news flash—which is very healthy for me, and I had them at the time," he continues. "I'd put on a new mix and I'd walk out the room. I'd come back in and The Velvet Underground would be on."
This humility has served Marr well. Despite being cast by the music press as the guy who broke up The Smiths (he left in 1987 over long-running issues with the band's management), he managed to sidestep the media fallout, instead turning his attention to the job offers that came his way as an unattached guitarist. Marr played on Talking Heads' 1988 album Naked and joined childhood friend Matt Johnson to tour and record with The The. He continued to reinvent himself in the 90s, working with Bernard Sumner on his dance supergroup Electronic, and recording with artists as diverse as Kirsty MacColl, Pet Shop Boys, and Billy Bragg. Between 2008 and 2011, he was an official member of The Cribs, lending his sound to their album Ignore the Ignorant.
Marr has no professional regrets.
"I don't regret any of the bands I've joined, I don't regret leaving the bands at any time that I've left," he tells me, before suddenly remembering, "You know, Massive Attack gave me a cassette of their second album to play on and I just fucking lost it. I was so into tripping at the time that I had no idea until a couple of months later, when their album came out and I was like, 'Was I supposed to be on that?' But hey, they didn't do too badly without me."
Nowadays, Marr is teetotal and vegan; always happy to lend a soundbite to earnest BBC Four documentaries on the history of the guitar or let PETA use his image for a World Vegetarian Day drive. "I think if you can't be alright with yourself when you get to my stage in life, then you've got a problem, really," he reasons.
And so, the guitarist sat down to write his autobiography with no scores to settle, no rehab stint to confess, no list of people who've really fucked him off over the years. Set The Boy Free is published this week and traces Marr's happy childhood growing up in a large Irish family on a Manchester council estate, through the five years and four Top Five albums he had with The Smiths, and his career thereafter.
"It's important that I tell the story of my life but without tipping over into self-indulgent rock star neurosis," he explains. "You have trials and tribulations just like everyone else, and being an artist doesn't necessarily make life easier. But moaning about your life as a rock star is pretty rich, really, cos you've had a lot of luck."
I wonder if that's a dig at Morrissey's Autobiography, which was published in 2013 as a Penguin Classic – an accolade usually reserved for dead literary icons. Set The Boy Free's conversational tone certainly contrasts with Morrissey's maudlin descriptions of Stretford streets and the abyss in which I live [that] hasn't the wit to save itself from savage ignorance. In contrast, Marr wanted his writing to be like Joan Didion, "very good but unpretentious, not all purple prose and flowers."
And while Autobiography dedicated 50 scathing pages to the 1996 court case that saw Morrissey and Marr pay £1 million in royalties to Smiths drummer Mike Joyce, who sued them for not receiving an equal share, the guitarist limits his version of events to a short chapter. He sums up the ordeal beatifically: [Morrissey and Joyce] continued their legal battles for a further 18 years. I paid my share up in full and have done ever since. I wasn't going to have it in my life anymore.
Did Marr read his former bandmate's memoir before writing his own? "No, I didn't and I'm glad I've not read it. I can tell you honestly that I haven't. It's not really my thing, I might get round to it one day but I don't really need to."
Autobiography isn't the only account of The Smiths that Set The Boy Free has to contend with. Countless books and blogs and documentaries claim to tell the real story of how the lad from Wythenshawe and a blouse-wearing James Dean fan formed one of the most important songwriting partnerships in history.
"Luckily for me, I regard most of the accounts of The Smiths story as utter—not utter, well yeah, utter—bullshit. At best, nearly right; at worst, third-hand cynical cash-ins—and there's been a few of them. The most well known one is the Johnny Rogan book, which is the most cynical cash in of all of them."
Marr wrote Set The Boy Free in nine months but was offered the book deal years earlier. He used the intervening time to make notes and decide exactly which bits of his personal life and career to include. Happily for my fellow Mozipedia scholars, a whole chapter is dedicated to Morrissey and Marr's first meeting.
"When I talk about being given Morrissey's address on a piece of paper by my friend in the sunshine, that moment holding the piece of paper felt like a moment of destiny," Marr tells me.
Ah yes, that moment. Inspired by a TV documentary he saw on the American songwriting duo Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller (who met after Stoller turned up unannounced on Leiber's doorstep), Marr had a eureka moment. He immediately tracked down the address of a guy called Steven Morrissey that he'd met at a Patti Smith gig once.
"I remember to this moment standing there with the sun scorching that white piece of paper with the address on it," Marr says. "I'm glad that those moments are represented in the book because they not only are they unique experiences, but they're not always done noticeably."
But perhaps what's more exciting is the meeting Set The Boy Free recounts 25 years later. Marr writes that in 2008, he and Morrissey met for a drink in a pub in Manchester. They caught up on personal news and compared stories about living in America, but as the hours passed, the conversation turned to that subject . Tantalisingly, Marr recalls: Suddenly we were talking about the possibility of the band re-forming and in that moment, it seemed that with the right intention it could actually be done and might even be great.
A juicy extract from the chapter was released by the Guardian last week, and The Smiths reunion rumour mill predictably lurched back into overdrive. Could we be about to get what we want for the first time?
"We're probably even more different now than we ever were, which is fine by me. We're different in our … well, our personalities were always different but we're different philosophically and it appears that we're different politically as well," Marr tells me, obviously referring to Morrissey's recent remarks on Brexit. "But you know what? A lot can happen in 30 years so I'm not really that surprised. I wrote songs for Morrissey 30 years ago and now the last song I wrote was for Blondie, so things are different."
Marr and Morrissey may have changed, but the guitarist says that the people bleating the eternal Will-The-Smiths-ever-reform? mantra are exactly the same. "Those journalists are always men and they're always older and they're often from the UK. They're just too nostalgic, those guys. Everybody else has moved on but those guys won't let it fucking go."
Set The Boy Free certainly makes a good case for letting The Smiths fucking go. Some of the most interesting chapters are those that recall the Manchester scene in the 1970s, when Marr was working at alternative clothing shop Crazy Face and hanging out at The Haçienda with Angie, the beautiful and assured and totally cool girl who would later become his wife.
"It was at a place in the late 70s and early 80s that has not been documented properly; [During] that switchover from post-punk to New Romantic to what became indie. That twilight world before The Smiths happened."
Understanding the experiences that shaped Marr pre-Smiths show a different side to the guitarist—one we never got to see when he was pegged alongside Morrissey as two characters from a Beano comic, with me as Dennis the Menace to his Walter Softy.
"When a big part of your image is all about being the opposite to somebody else, it can become incredibly inaccurate. I think it started to come as a surprise to some people in the 90s that I actually did know what a book was. When I was young, I used to get frustrated about it because I did like the Beat poets more than anyone else in the band, and I knew plenty about things besides smoking dope and The Rolling Stones … "
As if aware of sounding petulant, Marr suddenly breaks into a smile. "But you know what? Being me in The Smiths was fucking cool so I can't complain!"
Perhaps to further distance himself from the Keith Richards cliches, Marr uses his book to go long on the experimental collaboration he formed with Modest Mouse in 2003, as well as his more avant garde work with Hans Zimmer.
"When people like Brian Eno collaborate and jump around from thing to thing, it makes more sense. Because I got known for being a rock 'n' roll guitar player, all those collaborations are not seen as the usual thing."
But here's the elephant in the room: Now that nearly ever sentient person has their heads around the idea of women playing instruments and perhaps even headlining festivals, as well as grime and UK rap having a real, generation-defining moment, the gobby indie rebel feels redundant. Marr's recent solo stuff is nice in a comfy-old-Brit-Pop-slippers kind of way, but no one would say The Messenger or the legions of mediocre guys with guitars he inspired before that are breaking new ground. Does anyone still care about guitar music?
"Yeah. One hundred percent. Absolutely."
That's me told, then.
"We just live on an island that's fairly fucked up but loves culture and that's a good combination," Marr continues. "[Maybe] not politically, but it's a good combination culturally."
He name checks Thee Oh Sees and Nottingham band Kagoule as guitar music he currently cares about. The other night he watched his son Nile's band, Man Made.
"I usually don't go and see Nile in Manchester or London because he doesn't need his old man showing up when he's doing his thing," says Marr, as if he were an average bloke going to watch his kid's five-a-side match.
Marr moved back to Manchester in 2011. It's nice to think that while the Gallagher brothers decamped down south and Morrissey lives fuck knows where—maybe a villa off Sunset Boulevard or a quiet tax haven in Lausanne—at least one of the city's most famous sons still resides under its grey skies.
"It's a special place because it's the second city culturally," Marr says. "The attitude is: we're great because we're not in London. It's that backstep away from the capital from where all the media is happening. You have all the resources—designers and decent clothes shops and venues and good unis and all of that—but you're not right under the gaze of the media."
Marr works from Manchester too, and tells me his latest project is a spoken word collaboration with Shameless actor Maxine Peake. "I've got a new space that's creative in a different way. It was an old factory, outside of town. Unusually for me, I invited a couple of journalists over," he says, before having an idea, "Maybe on the next album, come up and we'll talk there. It's a good place."
Was that … a personal invitation from Johnny Marr to his studio? Before I can ask, like, how exactly would that work, Johnny (Can I have a go on the Fender Jag? Would we eat vegan protein balls? Maybe I should book train tickets now, just to be on the safe side), our interview time is up.
Which is for the best, really. Today I weaseled my way further into the inner sanctum than any Smiths fan ever should. I say my goodbyes to Marr, asking awkwardly for a selfie before I go, and head out of the studio towards the bus stop.
It's raining. Of course it is.
Set The Boy Free by Johnny Marr is out now.
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(Lead Illustration by Dan Evans)