I got what I wanted thanks to an old friend
Let me tell you a little story. In the summer of 1987, a 17-year-old me was eagerly anticipating the release of a new album from one of my favorite bands, The Smiths, and chomping at the bit to see them live for the first time at the Fox Theater in Atlanta that fall, where it was rumored that they would play on their US tour in support of the new album (Strangeways, Here We Come). Well, the album came out that fall, but by that time news had trickled over from the UK that The Smiths were no more. Young me was pretty devastated.
I assumed that it was a temporary falling out and that the band would be back together soon. They were just too good to call it quits so early, and Morrissey was obviously a truculent fellow, so after a little cooling off period all would be well and I’d be 4 rows back at the Fox, stage right, so as to get the best view of the guitar genius and honest to god rock star, Johnny Marr. The gladiola boys hurling themselves at the stage could have Morrissey to themselves – for me, the true greatness of The Smiths stemmed not from the admittedly wonderful and literate lyrics and calculated showmanship of its frontman, but rather came from the churning guitars of the man with the impeccable Brian Jones haircut.
It’s hard to describe to people how much bands like The Smiths (and R.E.M. and The Replacements, and later The Pixies and Stone Roses) meant to those of us who were seeking them out at the time, pre-internet when all the music in the world was NOT available to stream with a few keystrokes. It was a signifier to others that you thought there was more to music than hair metal power chords and maybe more to life than sneaking Coors Lights in the Burger King parking lot on Friday nights. This stuff wasn’t easy to find generally – you had to seek out the videos on MTV’s 120 Minutes on Sunday nights, or, in my South Carolina hometown, hope the weather was in your favor and you could pick up the college and alternative radio stations in Atlanta and Athens that played the kind of music you were looking for (seriously, we taped stuff off the radio). Then, in the case of UK bands like The Smiths, it was a matter of haunting the local record store and trying to find out when the next import shipments were coming in so you’d be first in line that day to score the latest 12″ import. Needless to say, losing The Smiths prematurely was left a pretty sizeable void in my carefully curated music collection.
Two years went by, and Morrissey had gone on to release a solo album, while Johnny was playing with some of the best musicians in the world, sill making phenomenal music, but I couldn’t help miss what should have been. Eventually I saw Morrissey play at the very Fox Theater should have hosted The Smiths years earlier, and while he played a great, though abbreviated set (his 45 minute, no encore performance had a real Simpson’s feel to it – “Good night Springfield, there will be no encore.”), he steadfastly refused to perform any Smiths’ material, much to the disappointment of the crowd.
Over the years I saw Morrissey a few more times, and while he had by then begun to sprinkle in a few Smiths tunes, it always seemed rather joyless. I even got the chance to see Johnny play once, as a member of Modest Mouse, and even overloaded my fanboy system by watching him play with REM’s Peter Buck, but I’ve always wanted to see him play music that he had written, something I never had a chance to do until last night.
You know how people always say to be careful what you wish for, because those things that you really want never live up to your expectations? I’m here to tell you that those people are utter and complete idiots. Johnny Marr’s show at the Beacham in Orlando more than lived up to my own considerable hype. He and his very tight band plowed through a mixture of songs from his new solo record, The Messenger, a choice selection of Smiths’ classics, and one or two excellent surprises (Electronic’s “Getting Away With It” and a frankly amazing cover of The Clash’s version of “I Fought The Law”) with a huge amount of energy and outright joy that you rarely see in a rock show these days. Marr has grown into his role as a frontman, looking every bit the British rock star with his awesome Beatle-esque jacket and guitar hero riffs and displaying a growing confidence in his abilities as a vocalist (though the vocal mics were noticeably loud and distorted, while the guitars rang crystal clear throughout the room – perhaps this was not a coincidence.)
The sizeable crowd was appreciative and receptive of all his new material, especially Upstarts, The Right Thing Right, and Generate! Generate!, but of course it was the handful of Smiths’ songs that drew the biggest response, and Marr seemed to really revel in finally revisiting some of these songs. Stop Me if You Think You’ve Heard This One Before (!), Panic, Please, Please, Please Let Me Get What I Want (every bit as gorgeous as the version on Jimmy Fallon the night before), and an frankly awesome version of Bigmouth Strikes Again were woven throughout the set. Two songs in particular stole the show, however, and sent 19-year-old me home smiling. The shimmering and frankly eerie guitar chords of How Soon is Now? still amaze after 25 years and the closing There is a Light That Never Goes Out ended with a sing-a-long that brought out the requisite swaying arm cell phone light response (and more than a couple of old school lighters.) A great way to close out the show.
I realize can’t emphasize enough what a thrill it was to watch him play some of these songs live. In retrospect, having him shy away from performing the Smiths’ material for so many years was a blessing, because he really did seem to relish playing these songs again, and there wasn’t a hint of rote by the note boredom that you often see when an artist plays older music that they have played the same way 1000s of times before. It was also great to see the positive reception that most of his new material received, and bodes well for the future should he continue to record and perform as a solo artist. Though I’ll admit that there are one or two tracks on The Messenger that I would love to hear with an Isaac Brock, or yes, a Stephen Patrick Morrissey providing lyrics. No mind though, this is now and I’m happy that he’s decided to write and perform these songs on his terms, the result of which is one of my favorite albums of the year.
So, thanks to you, Johnny Marr for allowing me to check that off my musical bucket list. You made both 19- and 43-year-old me extremely happy.