Marr, Morrissey and the notion that comebacks don’t work
Last week, as I write, this blog and its beloved went to see Johnny Marr play at that lugubrious Dublin venue, The Academy. For anyone in their 40s who had seen The Smiths in their heyday (i.e. any point in their brief career), it was an extraordinary experience. Johnny Marr has finally settled back into his skin, reclaiming his role as the guitar hero of a generation and the man behind some of the most delightfully crafted chord sequences ever created. He not only has a fine solo album, The Messenger, out, but he’s now merrily playing some of those old greats like it was the most natural thing in the world.
And really, it should be the most natural thing in the world. They’re 50% his songs.
The ‘surprise’ (and, really, we should have had more faith) is just how natural it is for him to play – and for us to hear. His former sidekick Morrissey has been playing the same songs on and off for nigh on 20 years, as he was the voice and the melody we had all known and adored on those records. However, it was but a bar or so into Marr’s rendition of ‘Stop Me If You Think You’ve Heard This One Before’ (the second song of his set) that it becomes obvious what we’ve been missing all these years – hearing those songs played properly.
One of the big issues with Morrissey’s generally euphoric gigs is that we, the audience, fill in the blanks. The blanks tend to come from his band. His line up has changed regularly over the years but all the members have had a single thing in common – none of them can play Johnny Marr’s guitar parts. In many ways, it didn’t matter – we were getting to hear these songs played live, in Morrissey’s voice, and where else would we hear them with such authenticity? Well, the answer came to all of us old codgers last week.
The only ‘blank’ we had to fill in was Moz’s voice in our heads – and, as everyone was singing along anyway, it didn’t really matter. The power of ‘Stop Me…’, ‘Bigmouth Strikes Again’, ‘London’, How Soon Is Now?’ and ‘There Is A Light…’ came from our guitar hero. He is back and as good as ever he was.
There was also a big trumpeting neon elephant in the venue that night, as it was known that Morrissey was also in Dublin. Rumours were rife of a reunion, then quickly dismissed; just as quickly, rumours that he was in the venue sprang up – but if he was there (and many swear he was), he was hidden from me and escaped without being seen, only to scurry over the river to safety of the southside. It would have been a sort of miracle, the kind of night legends are made of. It wasn’t to be – and I’m kind of glad.
As a Smiths disciple, I’ve never wanted them to reform. Part of me would like Morrissey and Marr to work together again as Morrissey and Marr – there’s a genuine alchemy there that neither have been, or will be, able to replicate elsewhere in their careers. However, as tantalising as that would be, perhaps it’s a bubble that should remain intact. I have no issue with these two halves of a partnership of fleeting genius separately reminding us of what they created together – my fear would be it would just go horribly wrong if they did it as a reformed unit.
Comebacks for nostalgia’s sake tend to make people cringe; they’re fine at the time (unless it’s The Stone Roses), then you realise you’re one of those people who have never really moved on. Artistic rock comebacks don’t really work at all.
Keep our memories and our idealism intact. Of course The Smiths story isn’t perfect but the musical legacy they left us is as close as it gets.