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A Light That Never Goes Out
The Enduring Saga of the Smiths
By Tony Fletcher
Crown Archetype, 698 pages, $35
A lot of ink has already been spilled on the Smiths — more than one might imagine for an '80s British pop-rock band that lasted five years and put out just four studio albums and 11 non-album singles.
The adulation and analysis might seem even stranger to readers unfamiliar with the work of Steven Morrissey, Johnny Marr, Andy Rourke and Mike Joyce — and there are plenty of them. Despite critics' and fans' assertion that the Manchester band was among the most influential of all time and despite the quartet's lingering sway, the Smiths always hovered on the edges of mainstream acceptance, especially in North America.
There is no doubt that what the Smiths were doing was unique and worthy of posthumous tribute (ask the 35- to 45-ish folks in your acquaintance how many of them dabbled with — or stuck with — vegetarianism in the thrall of the band's Meat Is Murder album).
However, Tony Fletcher's almost-700-page tome might not quite be the tribute fans or readers want.
The New York-based transplanted Brit, the author of biographies on R.E.M. and Keith Moon, is certainly dedicated to the task. Though he fails to secure interviews with singer Morrissey and drummer Joyce, his exhaustive book uses conversations with many other insiders, as well as Marr and Rourke, to confirm or deny long-standing rumours and get to the bottom of events.
As a work of reportage, A Light That Never Goes Out is peerless; as an appreciation of a complicated pop band, it is somewhat lacking in poetry. One can almost imagine Oscar Wilde-loving frontman Morrissey wincing at the dearth of wit in Fletcher's mostly workmanlike prose.
The author is also at pains to present the Smiths in the context of their working-class background in Manchester — so much so that he dedicates about 200 pages to talking about the gritty northern town — its census, its council estates, its school system and its struggles.
This history is far from irrelevant to the evolution of the Smiths, but Fletcher's approach is so dry and tedious, all but the most dedicated fan will likely flip forward to get to the good stuff.
A Light also suffers from a case of too much information — not TMI as in Motley Crue's can't-look-away The Dirt, but simply an overabundance of blow-by-blow detail that bogs down Fletcher's clear affection for the band and his appreciation their dynamic, especially that between Marr and Morrissey.
Mono-monikered Morrissey is one of pop music's most interesting, conflicted frontmen, and Fletcher gets at all his contradictions: a self-professed celibate and yet a sex symbol to women and men alike; a non-drug-using vegetarian in an arena of excess; a poet and political animal, as equally at home bashing Thatcher as quoting Elizabeth Bishop; a fey, misanthropic misfit who still desired the adulation of the masses (and got it, from fellow depressive outsiders and rowdy lager louts alike).
He admits that stardom is all he's ever wanted, all that matters, but then he goes to great lengths to subvert it.
He bitches and moans about the Smiths getting short shrift in the pop charts, but refuses to make music videos, arguably the billboard currency of the time, and won't hire a proper manager, something that proves be more and more essential as the band's star starts to rise and business negotiations and tours become more complicated.
These aren't facts that are unknown to even casual Smiths fans, but Fletcher's research and interviews (there are 70 pages comprising notes, bibliography, acknowledgments and index) illustrate the way these peccadillos, along with the usual rock-band excesses, led to the group's demise.
True Smiths completists may lap up every detail, but most will find themselves singing a refrain of I Started Something That I Couldn't Finish.
Jill Wilson is the Free Press acting arts and entertainment editor.