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

Q (UK) - - Contents -

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.

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