An exhaustive, exhausting book about the Smiths

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. I brought a marker, intending to ask Moz to sign my arm, then head to a tattoo parlour 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, New Jersey, 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 favourite 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 recognise 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 recognise 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 neighbourhoods, 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.

In reality, the only stumbling block to A Light That Never Goes Out is its first 200 pages. But from that point forward, this is the most meticulous telling of the story of the Smiths that I have read to date. 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.

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.


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