Sunday, December 3, 2017

Johnny Rogan's "Morrissey and Marr: The Severed Alliance": Book Review

Morrissey & Marr: The Severed Alliance by [Rogan, Johnny]
Twenty years after this first appeared, this diligent chronicler returns to the book that made him famous. Johnny Rogan incited Morrissey into barbed jabs against this joint account which, as he notes in the new introduction, revealed only that his subject had not yet read it. This is much more detailed than all but a Smiths fanatic will wish, and like Rogan's book on Ray Davies (which I reviewed), you get such trivia as who Rough Trade's Geoff Travis dated, as well as seemingly half the classmates Morrissey ever entertained or angered. (The subsequent autobiography by Morrissey serves as a neat balance, as M. evokes powerfully his Mancunian-Irish childhood; Rogan to his credit provides historical context for the wave of post-war Irish immigration which all four Smiths shared in recent family trees.) Despite the massive amounts of data early on, for Morrissey at least, a reader understands the Sixties pop and English culture which made such an impact on his formative years.

For Johnny Marr, far less background is included, and by comparison bare-bones looks at Mike Joyce and Andy Rourke. This, however, demonstrates as so much of this dense book does in numbing proof (a feature echoed by Morrissey's vitriolic attack in his autobiography on the drummer's lawsuit for lost wages) of how little the rhythm section would share in the Smiths, in terms of credit and power.

Astutely, Rogan explains: "As in the Jagger/Richards axis, Maher [soon to go by Marr] was content to allow his partner to become the public face while he imperceptibly and effortlessly won the accolades for his virtuosity. It was a perfectly conceived musical partnership." Even if it needed four.

"What the group shared was a quest for the subliminal magic moment in pop. It was there in Morrissey’s unearthly vocal yelping; in Marr’s experimental open tunings; in Rourke’s ability to create 'a song within a song' through his imaginative bass lines; and in Joyce’s tendency to alter the timing to unorthodox but spectacular effect." Rogan takes us through the standard high points and most of the recordings, in helpful illustrations of lyrical and musical influence, and exacting manner.

As with Morrissey's self-portrait in print, the downside after the first two LPs comes and after that, it's never as fun. "Pop at its epochal best provides an almost frightening expectation and exhilarating sense of instant history in the making. The all too familiar alternative is a depressing anticlimax, akin to the disillusionment produced by a soured love affair." The crowds grow, the concerts get louder, and the band gets tougher in its attitude on stage and off. Magnified in this is, of course, the frontman.

Bouquets are thrown and hugs attempted of M. But as Rogan knows, it's tricky. "The overt politeness and irrational benignity with which some people treat nuns, negroes, priests, mental patients, royalty, foreigners, the disabled and the deformed, were bestowed upon Morrissey with alarming regularity. Whether intentional or not, he had the power to make people extremely wary of causing offence."

It's sad to learn of Rourke's addictions and Joyce's taciturnity, for they sustained the fabled alliance. Its unraveling comes as the "jingle-jangle" wears down Marr, limiting his creativity. Like Rourke, his funky side had to be suppressed in the Smiths, and he yearned for release, and he forced his hand. The punk energy of Joyce worked to boost the band on stage to new heights, but behind the scenes, squabbling, drugs, and drink led to the separation of the three musicians from their songwriter. "The Smiths projected a semblance of pop group solidarity and camaraderie, but all the power and influence lay with Morrissey/Marr. Beyond that dynamic was the increasingly incandescent spectacle of Morrissey the media star, burning up fame in blazes of publicity and rent-a-quote accessibility." So, too soon, the saga ends in lassitude and the band fades. A sobering tale. (Amazon US 12/3/17)

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