Q MAVERICK: JOHNNY MARR
From the moment he stepped into the spotlight as the stylishly distinctive 19-year-old guitarist with The Smiths, Johnny Marr has been the object of deeply devoted fan love. Thirty-six years and countless reinventions later, his desire to be seen and hear
The ex-Smiths man goes back to his roots in Dublin, where we probe him on Moz, why he’s turning into Al Pacino and the price of success.
Johnny Marr is in his ancestral homeland, sitting inside Maureen’s Bar in the Olympia Theatre, Dublin’s oldest, stunningly preserved Victorian musical hall. The son of young Irish parents who emigrated to Manchester’s Ardwick in the early ’ 60s, Dublin sparks the ancient transmitters in Marr’s DNA. “It stirs memories and triggers associations,” he muses, sipping a green tea. “When I hear the accent. When I see a lot of people who, frankly, could be my cousins. When I came here with Modest Mouse in 2006, Isaac Brock said, ‘Shit, man, Johnny, everybody looks like you!’” Everybody does not look like Johnny Marr, who looks more like Al Pacino in Scarface with each passing year, a slight figure with dyed black hair, enormous teeth, still post-punk in his meticulous dress code: leather-effect jacket, skinniest black jeans, immaculate black desert boots. “I understand the way people here feel about music,” he carries on. “I know because I was entrenched in it. My parents are still entrenched in it. They’ve always gone out, seeing singer/ songwriters, dancing, more than my mates. Even in the Madchester rave days!” Back in the ’ 80s, Ireland responded acutely to the melancholic euphoria of The Smiths, all four members with parental Irish heritage. “If you’ve got a heritage,” he nods, “they know you know the score.”
Johnny Marr, 31 years after he split The Smiths up in 1987 (aged 23), after three decades as an onward-flying, collaborative butterfly (The Pretenders, The The, Electronic, Pet Shop Boys, Modest Mouse, The Cribs), in his third and best solo album, Call The Comet, has finally allowed himself to sound like The Smiths. After years of wilful avoidance, two new songs are profoundly Smiths: Hi Hello is a direct echo of There Is A Light That Never Goes Out while Day In Day Out is a sonic double helix of Girl Afraid and Hand In Glove. Did he think, “OK, this sounds like me, but I’ll take the heat”? “Like people think I should sound?” he smiles. “It’s funny, I’ve spent 25 years with people saying, ‘Why don’t I sound like me?!’” Those unmistakable Smithsian spangles were a symptom of sheer instinct, written directly after writing and promoting his 2016
autobiography Set The Boy Free, feeling an urgent emotional need. “To connect to music again, to that person I’ve always been,” he muses. “So this stuff just… came out. I absolutely stopped myself doing that in the past. And rightly so. But I understand it gives people a lot of pleasure, to hear me play that way. And The Priest with Maxine Peake sounds like what I was doing with The The…” Typical Johnny Marr. He counters every reference to his past in the most revered and beloved guitar band of the last 36 years with a reference to the present day, in this case his cinematic, electro-orchestral soundtrack to 2017 short film The Priest (voiceover from actor Maxine Peake) highlighting homelessness in Manchester. It’s a history-swerving ruse he’s adopted for decades to stop himself becoming “a fossil”. The mostly vigorously post-punk Call The Comet is a kind of concept album, Marr lyrically imagining “alternative societies” to the fractious, divisive ones we live in today. Recorded in Manchester’s Crazy Face Factory studios, Marr installed projectors beaming news feeds for inspiration (Al Jazeera, Fox) plus footage of the swirling cosmos (“For light relief!”). At 4am, his band long left, “creaks going, wind going”, the obsessive Marr would contemplate the universe, imagining “another intelligent life” visiting Earth with advice. “To help us rebuild and reset,” he explains. “Because religion isn’t doing it. Capitalism isn’t doing it. Politics isn’t doing it. What the fuck’s left?” There’s no specific mention of today’s Trump/Brexit-led chaos, “those fuckers don’t deserve to be in my songs!”, although Bug is “a pisstake, rockin’ track that describes the evolution of the alt-right as a virus on the world’s nervous system”. He sips his tea. “But it isn’t totally a concept album otherwise I’d have to dress up as a wizard.” At 54, Marr remains a romantic idealist, an “old-school bohemian”. Still a vegan, teetotal, many-miles-a-day runner, married to wife Angie for 33 years this June, their two kids all-grown-up: son Nile a guitarplaying frontman in Man Made, daughter Sonny an editor for Penguin Books (“great… free books!”). He’s a slow-talking, philosophical thinker who’s contemplated future societies since his literary boyhood immersed in JG Ballard and William Burroughs. “Their vision of the future was scary and imposing and bleak, but it was interesting,” he notes. “Interesting young people in decaying tower blocks with paperbacks in a pocket on their way to organise the resistance. Instead, it’s become a different numbing dystopia: strip malls, huge flat-screen televisions in tiny council houses, mobile phones, media control, the clever manipulation of information and people, this weird virtual existence. The impression of incredible wealth and opulence, where if you scratch under the surface, you see the effect, which is anger, frustration, abuse and we see that on social media. We walk around in these gentrified environments with this feeling of malaise and unease.” He has a lifelong default position, though, of positivity, sees hope for humanity in the young. “The modern world I see being handled really admirably by the young,” he decides. “Their concerns, over LGBT rights, ecology, globalisation, the effect of corporate control and dominance, is totally appropriate. And sexuality is not only not an issue, it’s not even a consideration. It’s now a demand that trans people just get what everybody else gets. Society is not perfect, there’s still toxicity, but it’s a long way from where we started out. They are fucking smart.” In 2018, there’s only one truly pressing question to be asked of Johnny Marr. In the year he lyrically despairs over the rise of the alt-right globally, Morrissey, his sometime musical soulmate, has done the opposite: endorsing far-right party For Britain run by former UKIP leadership candidate Anne Marie Waters
“The Smiths were about inclusion. Expressing things about, and for, the outsider. The disaffected. The misfit… And nothing’s gonna change that. For me. The Smiths were not about hate.”
(who’d tweeted anti-Islamic propaganda to President Donald Trump’s retweeting delight). How’s Johnny Marr been, in his head, with all this? “How am I in my head with it…” he muses, slowly, and does everything in his power, as ever, to avoid both the word Morrissey and any opportunity for a shrieking headline. “Well, I think you’re more interested in it than I am,” he swerves, deftly. “I don’t wanna say I don’t give a shit, but… I don’t care that much. Probably because… I’m really busy!” What bothers me is whether this could damage The Smiths’ legacy. (Silence.) By Morrissey becoming the Donald Trump of pop?! “Er! I think… journalists will probably make that decision.” He sits back in his seat and finally offers up a meaningful response. “See, The Smiths were about inclusion,” he decides. “Expressing things about – and for – the outsider. The disaffected. The misfit. Whether that was because of your sexuality, your gender, your lifestyle, your place of birth or your race. That’s what we were. And… nothing’s gonna change that. For me. The Smiths were not about hate.” Which is why there were T-shirts printed this year with the slogan “Gutted About Morrissey”? “Mmn… eheheh,” he responds, as a wry chuckle escapes. “Yeah. But it sounds like I’ve moved on more than you have.” D’you think it’s bulletproof, then, the legacy? (Enormous pause) “I think the songs are bulletproof. You can’t ever take… you can’t change… you can’t change history. You can’t change what those songs meant to people. And you can’t change that I wrote the music. That Andy played the bass, Mike played the drums. Those things can’t change. I just know what I know.” It’s become good cop/ bad cop now, you and Morrissey, hasn’t it? “Em. Well… thanks!”
After over 40 years as a musician, 36 as a famous one, permanently showered in adulation, Johnny Marr should be a tyrannical megalomaniac by now, irredeemably untethered from reality. But he isn’t. Is he? “I’ve had my moments!” he quips, merrily. He’s often said he wants to be “one of the good guys”, feels he still reflects his audience, “who are people like
me, still optimistic for a caring, sharing society”. It’s important to him, certainly, to be seen as a decent person. “Well, what’s the alternative?” he scoffs. “You’re supposed to be decent. You’re supposed to be able to handle it without turning into a complete jerk. People have come up to me for 30 odd years with… real joy. And gratitude. I don’t forget that. That’s worth people clawing on you when they’ve drank too much. And jamming their phones in your face. Small stuff, when it comes to the big picture.” Suddenly, Marr addresses Q’s zig-zaggy, red, white and black retro women’s shirt. “If you’ve ever gonna put that on eBay, tell me first, I love that blouse,” he announces. “I could so rock that shirt. Onstage.” It cost £ 3.50 from a charity shop. How much am I bid!? “I’m still in charity shops too! Get stuff completely chopped up and rebuilt.” Q now wonders how aware he is of turning into Al Pacino in Scarface and is met with an explosion of glee: “If you’d have told me that 25 years ago I would’ve been, ‘Yeah!’” He stands up to leave as a memory erupts: he was in Julie’s
restaurant, Holland Park, with Angie, back in the Smiths days, when he spotted the elfin, Oscar-winning New Yorker. “It was just after The Queen Is Dead so I was about seven stone four,” he declares. “And me’n’Angie were… there’s Al Pacino! I cornered him, going, ‘Man, man, man! The Panic In Needle Park! Serpico!’ This indie tsunami. And he was really sweet, dead cool. I’d never have remembered that until you just said it. That’s bonkers, innit?”
Out in the streets of central Dublin, Johnny Marr is being cornered by an indie tsunami, by men aged 20 to 50 – “holy fockin’ shit!” exclaims one – all requests for selfies accepted. Standing on a bridge over the River Liffey for Q’s photoshoot, a teenager watches silently, clutching a vinyl copy of The Queen Is Dead. He approaches and Marr’s face lights up, asks him a stream of questions – “What’s your name?” (Conor), “D’you play?” (guitar and bass), “Who else d’you like?” (Oasis). Marr signs the LP with Conor’s specially-brought silver marker pen, reaches into his pocket and hands him a plectrum from the stash he always carries for moments just like these. A quick, private word with Conor tells us he’s 16 years old, discovered The Smiths via his 44- year-old dad (also an Oasis obsessive) and loves no contemporary music whatsoever. Conor, it turns out, had heard Marr was in Dublin today, so journeyed into town, album in hand, in the hope he’d simply bump into him. “On the off-chance,” he smiles. “Amazing.” He knows, too, all about Morrissey’s dubious recent pronouncements. “Doesn’t matter to me,” he says, boggling at his signed album. “I just care about the music.” The jury is in: The Smiths’ legacy is, officially, bulletproof. “So, tell me how looooong/ Before the laaast one?/And tell me how long/Before the riiiiiiiight one?/This story is old, I knooow/ But it goooes on…” Q wasn’t expecting this, a glorious replication of The Smiths’ Beethoven-esque masterpiece Last Night I Dreamt That Somebody Loved Me. As 500 sweat-soaked punters inside Dublin’s tiny Button Factory swoon as one, Johnny Marr, it seems, is even attempting to sing like Morrissey, to bend his own rudimentary vocals into vibrato/ soprano opulence (ultimately, though, it’s impossible). The first night of his tour, Marr plays seven Smiths songs, a full third of tonight’s set-list, every syllable sung by the crowd through Bigmouth Strikes Again (now with added meaning), The Headmaster Ritual, There Is A Light That Never Goes Out (after which Marr yelps, “I still like that music!”), How Soon Is Now?, Please Please Please Let Me Get What I Want and You Just Haven’t Earned It Yet, Baby. They are stunning, still, and yet… and yet… the missing Voice is deafening in its absence. There’s plenty appreciation, too, for Marr’s solo songs, but you get the impression, deep down, though he’ll never say it in public, Johnny Marr, who understands his heritage, knows the score. “First show in two years. The gear was melting. Second song, I snapped a string!” guffaws a relieved, glitter-eyed Johnny Marr backstage afterwards. Perched together on a tiny sofa, Q offers an observation: that the two most beloved British guitar bands of the last 36 years, The Smiths and Oasis, comprise four main characters, broken asunder for very different reasons, who are all vying for ownership of their legacies. Marr blinks, apprehensively. “Yeah.” Q has now seen what Morrissey does with Smiths songs, what Marr does, what both Liam and Noel do with Oasis songs. (Leaning away, suspicious.) “Yeah. Yeah.” And I know you’re Noel’s mate and all that, but right now you and Liam are winning. “Ahahaha!” cackles Johnny Marr, head flipping back in mirth. “I wondered where that
was going! Well, I know Noel’s motivation, he’s just incredibly proud of his legacy. But luckily we’ve all got a couple of big hits from our solo stuff as well!” Does he ever feel, when these four characters play their most loved songs, the missing other half is all too blindingly apparent? “Well I don’t feel like there’s anything missing… in my life!” he hoots. “I never felt like The Smiths should’ve stayed together, from the minute we split up. I never wanted to stand around with the same haircut for 40 years.” He contemplates his lifelong “obsessional” work ethic, how it comes with a cost, the instability, constant scrutiny, the bodywarping, exhausting travel, the four hours’ sleep on a tourbus overnight, for years, at his age. “I’ve so many quote-unquote ‘straight’ friends with proper jobs and they couldn’t do it,” he concludes. “They go, ‘Fuck that, you’re mad.’ But for all creative people, it’s your life force. It’s not just… a lark. And obsession can weigh heavy on you. Whether about your relationships or your work or your future or past. When you see things poetically, being a sensitive person with this… storm inside yourself. There’s a price to be paid for those beautiful glimpses around the curtain. There is. But I wouldn’t change a thing.” He leaves for his waiting tourbus, another four hours’ sleep ahead on the overnight drive to the next show. Like the mad people happily do.
“When you see things poetically, being a sensitive person with this storm inside yourself. There’s a price to be paid for those beautiful glimpses around the curtain. But I wouldn’t change a thing.”
The Johnny Marr Show: (clockwise from left) with… Morrissey in The Smiths, 1983; The Pretenders’ Chrissie Hynde, 1988; New Order’s Bernard Sumner in Electronic, 1991; Modest Mouse, 2006.
There is a light…: Marr performs a Smithsheavy set, Button Factory, Dublin, 12 May, 2018.
“I understand the way people here feel about music.” Marr goes back to his roots, River Liffey, Dublin, May 2018.