The Smiths’ break-up in the summer of 1987 was a maddeningly confusing affair. Though the split between Morrissey and Marr was foreseeable, it came during a strong artistic period. By early summer, the group had continued its unbroken string of successes with a clutch of excellent post-Queen Is Dead singles. These were gathered on two well-received collections, The World Won’t Listen and Louder Than Bombs. Their fourth LP, described by Morrissey and Marr as their best yet, was due in September. On the other hand, they’d drawn flak for leaving Rough Trade for EMI, there were questions about their musical direction, and rumors circulated that Morrissey wasn’t pleased about Marr lending his talents to other artists.
Publicly, the reasons for the split were vague. In interviews, Morrissey spluttered with wounded fatalism as he limped into a solo career. Marr insisted on privacy and only broke his silence to claim he split ‘his’ band at the peak of its powers. Fans and critics served up a variety of unsatisfying explanations involving jealousy, ambition, and music industry pressure. Later on, lukewarm reviews of Strangeways Here We Come and the focus on new sounds coming out of Manchester left the search for the facts unresolved. The best British band of the Eighties had suddenly imploded and nobody seemed to know why.
Not until 1992, and the publication of Johnny Rogan’s Morrissey and Marr: The Severed Alliance, did a reasonable narrative materialize. Rogan’s book, whatever its faults—Morrissey and Marr loathe it—correctly attributed the breakdown of the band’s relationships to a lack of proper management. Rogan’s successors have only validated his basic argument, correcting errors while adding depth and texture. Tony Fletcher’s A Light That Never Goes Out is the band’s best biography to date, having earned Marr’s stamp of approval; Morrissey’s Autobiography explained his side of things in his customarily caustic style; and in 2016 the publication of Johnny Marr’s memoir, Set The Boy Free, presented fans with the last important piece of testimony.
For the first time, these accounts, through triangulation, make it possible to understand the inner dynamic of the Smiths’ personal relationships. In particular, the stories about one week of the band’s career paint a picture so absurd, so shocking, that the biggest question surrounding the group can officially change from “Why did they break up?” to “How in the world did they ever make it work in the first place?”
It’s the end of December, 1983. The Smiths arrive in New York for a few introductory gigs in Manhattan, New Jersey, and Boston. They will sign a deal with Sire Records in America. To date, only two singles have been released. The debut is two months away. The Smiths are still a young band on the rise, already darlings in the UK music press, preparing to conquer the charts. Though brief, the American visit is charged with excitement and hope.
Ruth Polsky meets the band at the airport with a limo. They check into the Iroquois Hotel on 44th Street. On New Year’s Eve the Smiths perform at Danceteria (sharing the bill with Madonna). The night is druggy, hazy, rock-starry, the gig unremarkable except for Morrissey’s stumble off the side of the stage. Writes Marr: “A combination of heavy jet lag and bad eyesight caused Morrissey to fall off the stage, but he gamely dusted himself off and carried on with the set.” Fletcher says Morrissey’s pre-show intake of wine, to calm his nerves, contributed.
The next morning drummer Mike Joyce wakes up with red spots covering his face, scalp and tongue. Officially it is declared chicken pox (Fletcher says the illness was “possibly shingles”). Joyce is confined to his hotel bed, unable to travel, and the two remaining gigs are duly canceled.
The other Smiths are left to idle in New York for a few days while Joyce recovers. Morrissey and Marr take care of business, signing with Sire on January 2, 1984. Seymour Stein, fulfilling a promise made to Marr in London, takes him out to buy a new guitar. Johnny returns to his hotel room with his Gibson 355 and writes “Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now” and “Girl Afraid”, tracks which will later become the Smiths’ fourth single.
They wander the city. Marr tells of a trip with Morrissey to buy records on Bleecker Street. The guitarist also watches label-mates The Go-Betweens at CBGBs, though only Grant Showbiz accompanies him. Fletcher reports that Morrissey, having “clicked” with Polsky’s eighteen year-old assistant, Amanda Malone, spends at least one day in her Brooklyn Heights apartment watching old movies. Rourke attempts to buy pot and returns with “strawberry leaves”. Still ill, Joyce remains in his freezing-cold bed doing his best to avoid marauding cockroaches. After several days the trip ends. The Smiths board a plane and return to England.
On the surface, the excursion was a disappointing but hardly catastrophic first trip to the States. They played a debut American gig, signed with Sire, made key New York contacts, and Marr penned the music for a future single.
So why, then, did Marr call the New York trip “torturous,” Grant Showbiz moan about it being “a fucking nightmare,” and Simon Goddard (The Songs That Saved Your Life) tag it an “unmitigated disaster”?
In reality, the trip was doomed before they got on the plane to New York. Two critical problems came with them across the Atlantic, one circumstantial and one inherent in the makeup of the group.
First the circumstantial. In a surprising turn of events, the Smiths traveled without two people who were nearly as important to the group’s early success as Morrissey and Marr: Joe Moss, their de facto manager, and Angie Brown, Marr’s girlfriend (later his wife). Right before they left, Moss told the band he wanted more family time and would no longer look after them. Separately, Angie and Johnny fought and broke up, although Marr downplays it as a “stupid argument” and Fletcher has him calling it “one of those kids’ bust-ups...that you have for about ten days.” Whatever the case, Angie was a vital part of the Smiths’ circle and her absence, along with Joe’s, cast a pall over the trip.
Next the inherent problem. Morrissey’s Autobiography comes in, now, although the value of the memoir isn’t in the truth it contains—reading his delightful torrent of words, the term “poetic license” comes to mind six or seven times a page—but rather in the ways his view of things was, to say the least, not shared by his mates.
Start with the New Year’s Eve show. Recall that the band regarded his plunge as a slight mishap “gamely” managed by Morrissey. Here’s how Morrissey remembers it:
I walk onstage the following night at the Danceteria, and as I do so, my blindness and bewilderment lead me directly off the lip of the stage, and I crash at the feet of the assembled human spillage. Unaided, I scramble back up and onto the stage, and I limp directly off—past three blank musicians who are unable to cope with such embarrassment. My right leg is bruised from top to bottom. I step out of the toilet to a cold-blooded stare from Geoff Travis.
“You know you’re going to have to go back on, don’t you?” he says, my well-being mattering less and less as the seconds pass. The other three Smiths say nothing, but Andy is laughing.
This is a far cry from “Morrissey carried on.” As the singer tells it, he falls offstage and must get up “unaided.” Rather than helping him, the other Smiths stand there “embarrassed” and silent. Meanwhile, Morrissey is forced to deal with Geoff Travis by himself, the label boss acting with his usual thoughtless brutality. After the gig the band abandons him to a week of abject loneliness. Knocks on hotel doors go unanswered. No mention of Bleecker Street record shops or amiable assistants. When he escapes the dingy hotel, in which those “hamster-sized” cockroaches are scuttling about, he portrays himself as a solitary figure trudging down frigid streets, an exiled Wilde moping down Broadway.
His version of the New York trip is the first of Autobiography’s many bear-claw swipes at the perception of the Smiths as a tight-knit unit. From the start, as far back as 1983, implies Morrissey, the die was cast, the fault-lines were clear. Nearly every other passage describing the Smiths is a variation of this foundational pattern.
If Morrissey’s account isn’t always factually credible, it is probably true in the larger sense that the singer’s drift away from the others was inevitable from the get-go. Their personalities were simply incompatible. Marr knew it, too, though he concedes this in a less aggrieved, more matter-of-fact manner. Of course, critics and fans alike understood the glaring contrast between the two long before the split. Loose caricatures though they are, Morrissey’s image as the tender poet and Marr’s as the hard-living muso are accurate insofar as they mark a fatal personality clash. It was never going to last.
One could leave it at irreconcilable differences. But nothing Smithsian is straightforward. According to Morrissey, his isolation in New York wasn’t an accidental, early manifestation of an inherent rift between him and the band. In fact it was a case of orchestrated betrayal: “I am deliberately cut off from everyone as a prearranged plot kicks into full gear. I am being frozen out.” The other Smiths are “taking great steps to oust” him. So dramatic is his separation from the other, scheming Smiths that, when he arrives at the airport, “there is enough silence to indicate the end.”
Nor does Morrissey fail to supply a villain angling for his downfall with Iago-like treachery: “Joe Moss has coerced Johnny, Andy and Mike into axing the singer, and Joe carts all three buffos off to a legal firm in order to sharpen the blade against the Morrissey monolith.” And why has Moss done this? “Since Joe himself has written himself out of the picture, he has no wish to see the little tugboat sail on, and the Morrissey monsoon must go.”
Morrissey provides no evidence that Moss tried to turn the others against him. His account conveniently leaves out other facts, mentioned by others, that would explode his conspiracy theory. Besides, his reasoning is specious. The notion that Moss resigned as a clever feint to enable a “prearranged plot” to expel Morrissey is unconvincing to say the least. Psychologically it is incongruous; the man Marr described as a “mate” and a mentor would never have sabotaged the Smiths, a band he’d helped launch, and certainly not out of sheer spite.
In any case, the key point isn’t so much Morrissey’s paranoid belief that the other three members were plotting to oust him as much as the stark contrast between his view of Joe Moss and Johnny’s. For Morrissey, the Smiths were stained by Marr’s original sin: his relationship to Joe Moss, the first and worst of the schemers who tried to come between him and Marr. In Autobiography, Moss is cast in the role of Judas and Morrissey makes no secret of his disdain for him. “Hanging by a thread,” Morrissey writes, “We resume—deloused of Joe Moss.”
It’s an understatement to say that Marr took the opposite view. Joe Moss was nothing less than a hero, a vital ally without whom the Smiths might never have existed. Now that Marr has described his deep, almost filial affection for Moss in his own words, it’s clear that his departure wasn’t just an early stumble, a harbinger of exits to come. It was a giant emotional landmine, planted squarely in the middle of the Smiths’ camp, waiting to explode.
The situation doesn’t quite come off that way in Marr’s memoir; one of the disappointing aspects of the otherwise candid and lively Set The Boy Free is Marr’s decision not to analyze Moss’s departure in any depth. While Marr accepts that Moss genuinely wished to spend time with his family, he also concedes, in a highly suggestive aside, that “people around the band felt that [Moss’s resignation] was because of a conflict between him and Morrissey, but neither Joe nor Morrissey expressed that to me at the time. I resisted speculation for everyone’s sake.” That’s as far as he goes.
He wasn’t always as diplomatic. Rogan quotes him in The Severed Alliance: “I wasn’t disappointed with Joe because it was obvious that he was feeling forced out. He and Morrissey stopped seeing eye to eye. ... Joe told me, ‘I know what you’ll do, you’ll say you’re leaving as well. Don’t. You’ll be making a massive mistake.’ He knew me really well and said, ‘Don’t do anything about it, Keep your mouth shut.’ I followed his advice and from then on I tried to forget about it.’” (Indeed, in Set The Boy Free, Marr admits to being in a fog of denial, perhaps accounting for his brief bout of amnesia.) “To this day, I don’t know why Joe wasn’t our manager,” Marr continued to Rogan. “Morrissey knows and Joe knows, but I don’t know and I never did know. The only side I could understand is that if Joe realized Morrissey wasn’t happy, then he wouldn’t have stayed. It seemed like an involuntary resignation to me.”
In late 1983, then, the band’s trajectory was established. “Fatality shrieks”, as Morrissey remembers of meeting his bandmates at the airport. Putting his various quotes together, Marr surely recognized it too. Already Morrissey’s persecution paranoia was in full bloom; already Marr was forced to deal with the departure of a trusted manager. Ironically, Moss, who did so much to help the Smiths take flight, inadvertently became the wedge that broke them up. Mind, this was true before The Smiths hit the shops. It’s astonishing they held it together long enough to release any music at all.
Indeed, anyone who reads these books must wrestle with the unavoidable conclusion that outside of their musical partnership Morrissey and Marr’s friendship was never better than wobbly, at the start, and deteriorated in ways that were sadly predictable. While Autobiography is often bitter, bitchy and exaggerated, there is sincerity in Morrissey’s sad acceptance of the chasm dividing him from his partner. The admission is there in Marr’s book, too, though less directly. Although he repeatedly assures his reader that he and Morrissey were close friends, even apart from the music, his protestations ring hollow beside his memoir’s shortage of anything like actual affection. A friendship is declared, never described. There are curious omissions of praise. Readers of Set The Boy Free will be surprised to realize that, by the end of the book, Marr has admiringly quoted lyrics written by Matt Johnson and Isaac Brock but none by Morrissey. Pointedly, the one and only Smiths track Marr quotes from is “Work Is A Four-Letter Word”, the Cilla Black cover he hated. Let that passive-aggressive savagery sink in.
To be sure, nearly everyone around the Smiths has always insisted Morrissey and Marr were close friends. The two have described a love between them. Their bond can’t be doubted. But what was the essence of that bond? It seems that Morrissey and Marr were never friends, in any conventional sense, apart from the music. They were true partners—friends, lovers, soul-mates, brothers—solely within the realm of pop, the common ground from which their music blossomed, and something like a friendship sprang up in support. But, after all, isn’t the artistic union everything? Isn’t that precisely the magic of pop music both men have always celebrated?
Somehow, among the seas of ink spilled to explain the demise of the Smiths, in the face of the obvious conclusion that Morrissey and Marr could not have been more unlike in almost every way, there is even more to admire in the Smiths’ music. Set The Boy Free is a final liberation for long-suffering Smiths apostles because it frees them up, as well, to stop rifling through the rubbish bins of the merely personal and return to the grandeur of the records. The love Marr speaks of is real, it’s louder than bombs, and it’s to be found in the songs and nowhere else. To go back to the records is to come full circle to the earliest Smiths interviews in which Morrissey and Marr spoke of the Smiths not as four individuals but a movement, a one-band new wave crashing down on the world in a shower of gladioli.
It was always about the music. When Morrissey offers lurid plots and squalid betrayals, and Marr performs a lawyerly dance of neon elisions and wan praise, they’re adding nothing to Marr’s mighty declaration, in 1987, that he broke up the Smiths when he knew they’d made the best record they’d ever make. Those were the words of an artist who perfectly understood his work and the nature of his collaboration. Fans craved the personal story behind the professional crack-up, but for Morrissey and Marr there was no friendship apart from music, nor music apart from friendship. Set The Boy Free hints that trying to figure out which perished first, and why, is irrelevant. The Smiths came to life when Johnny sat in Morrissey’s bedroom and put on The Marvelettes’ “Paper Boy” and died when Marr was forced to record songs he didn’t believe in. As soon as their songwriting partnership hit the first run-out grooves, they split. That explanation is not only complete, it’s as bittersweet and beautiful, as fitting for the Smiths’ legacy, as anything they put in their songs.