Marr returns: Smiths guitarist lives up to his legacy

By Mark Guarino

In 1987, Johnny Marr walked away from The Smiths, the most beloved band in Britain alongside the Beatles and so adored by its fans, its legacy is coated in myth.

In five years The Smiths recorded seven albums which struck a chord for their melodic beauty and sad, gothic drama. The songs wrestled with tension, directly the result of the two different men who wrote them. Marr was responsible for the music and his guitar playing was strong-willed and tough but always restlessly upbeat. Morrissey was the band’s quixotic frontman who crooned with pain on his sleeve, singing lyrics he wrote about suicide and unrequited love. Their partnership ended up doomed, but before it was over, the music they made together became what tightly-wound passion sounds like when it explodes with elegance.

Afterwards, Morrissey embarked on a successful solo career, while Marr took pause. He was only 23, already with his back to a legacy. So he quietly slipped into the shadows and accepted invitations to play roles that made sense — playing lead guitar alongside someone else.

“I didn’t have any plan,” he said last week by phone. “It may seem peculiar to some people who are more careerist. But the right people showed up in my life at the right time. It’s pretty much the path I started on in my mid-teens — I made music with people who I had something in common.”

In the past 15 years, Marr played and wrote songs with A-list bands like the Pretenders, Talking Heads, The The, Pet Shop Boys, as well as Bryan Ferry, Kirsty MacColl, Beth Orton, Beck and Neil Finn. He also released three albums with Electronic, the band he formed with New Order’s Bernard Sumner.

But two years ago, Marr decided it was time to finally go solo and he formed a trio that includes drummer Zak Starkey, the son of Beatle Ringo and most recently the drummer for The Who. The Healers released “Boomslang” (iMUSIC) late last fall and he embarked on a tour this month. They arrive at the Double Door Tuesday.

Marr holds a particular fondness for Chicago. The Smiths kicked off their first-ever U.S. tour at the Aragon. The city’s perennial grey skies and working class backdrop also remind him of Manchester, his hometown. The Smiths were formed in the height of the conservative Thatcher administration and a neverending recession, two factors that helped maintain punk rock’s popularity. “The people in Manchester took the politics of punk rock and the philosophy of punk rock to heart,” he said. “Anger was a message that (they) had an affinity with.”

Marr grew up in a household of Irish immigrants. His parents held down a series of odd jobs while at the same time grooming an obsessive passion for music. Besides playing U.K. folk music (“basically mournful and sad slash-your-wrist music with almost a gothic melancholy beauty to it”), they were relentless about keeping up with the pop charts. His mother would make a game of guessing chart positions each week and when Marr was ten, he was encouraged to buy his first record. He selected a single by the ‘70s glam rock band T. Rex, motivated by a photograph of leader Marc Bolan on its sleeve. “He was beautiful and intriguing,” he remembered. “I got lucky. It could have been Engelbert Humperdinck.”

Punk’s first wave had lost it freshness by the time Marr hit his teenage years and was busy forming bands. He considered punk dead and “actively wanted to rebel against that.” So he got further into early glam rock like the New York Dolls and started carrying a flag for the girl groups of the ‘60s. “Liking the Ronettes was a badge of honor for me,” Marr said. “I loved the passion in it.”

The Smiths formed on the heels of Joy Division, the first post-punk band in the U.K. that emphasized melancholy, not spite. Marr re-interpreted the guitar’s role during a time the instrument was beginning to be replaced by synthesizers. Instead of machinegunning riffs, his playing emphasized the melody and solos were forbidden. For a reference, he had to skip the ‘70s entirely.

“The people I’ve most admired growing up tended to be people who knew there was a dignity in holding things together. I guess Keith Richards comes to mind. I don’t sound anything like him though. John Lennon’s guitar playing was really solid and appropriate and I liked George Harrison’s discipline. They were aware of putting together a picture. The guitar culture of the mid-‘70s, the whole nature of guitar playing as an Olympic sport, that seemed to not have a lot to do with music. It’s obviously just a thing young teenage boys found attractive,” he said.

That’s not to say he’s the same guitarist in The Healers. The music is rougher-edged, sounding far apart from his work in The Smiths. “I certainly didn’t want to get a signature thing developed. To me it would be odd to make music that sounded like 15 years ago,” he said. “There are few Healer shows where I surprised a few people. That’s not say they were calling in the taste police.”

Marr sings for the first time, the result of auditioning several singers but being told by his band that he had the better voice. His new album’s best song, “You Are the Magic,” is a synthesis of his new roles. His guitar settles into a sensual groove while his singing, squeezed low and flat, helps create the feel of a psychedelic drug trip.

Writing lyrics for his own music was also a first. In The Smiths, Morrissey’s lyrics often received more attention than the music, which Marr said was due because he was “absolutely a fan” of his frontman as well. But what bothered him was the misconception that Morrissey’s doom-laden lyrics spoke for the band as a whole. “He had a point which was fascinating and so personal, it couldn’t possibly relate to me. I am personally blessed with plenty of friends and have no great inclination towards jumping off a bridge with my journal,” he said.

Even though he wishes the record would get remastered someday, music The Smiths made endured, he said, because it was designed to be one step out of time. “”There is absolute passion and love in it which transcends sonic limitations. It’s quite mindblowing.” He also realizes he had luck on his side: “I could have been in Flock of Seagulls.”

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