By Jacqueline Howell
Johnny Marr is a man that needs no introduction to anyone who grew up listening to his music with The Smiths, his perfect 1990 super-group with Bernard Sumner, Electronic, his contributions with The The, Billy Bragg, and many more. Marr has made a habit of guesting on more albums than has been publicly tracked, but you know his unique sounds when you hear them. In the 2000s, Marr kept innovating and collaborating with up and coming bands, joining Modest Mouse and The Cribs for periods of time. This month, Marr has been touring album three across the U.S., with a full slate of dates in the U.K. and Europe to follow into early December.
Music fans in Toronto and the same clusters of kids around the globe would talk about Johnny Marr over cases of Molson Special Dry in dark, loud living rooms of their teens and twenties the way sports fans talked about Michael Jordan, George Best or Wayne Gretzky. This beloved star was a natural, but also, a champion, one who weathered the pressures and obstacles of his profession with an impossible grace. We were not nostalgic, rather, eagerly awaited Marr’s next appearance on other bands’ records and tried to best each other with news. Fans like us were well versed in the U.K. music press from downtown music stores that were this city’s beating heart, passed from hand to hand and cherished, dog-eared, like hardcover books, and we were innately tuned to his signature sounds in a way that is almost impossible to articulate without sounding like bad poetry. But it’s true. Once, our hearts beat to jangly guitars, the sound of our own beating, hopeful lives. Once. This is the place Marr’s music holds for many and it’s a flag held aloft, with joy, to this day.
A bit of history: we got The Smiths late over here. Once we found them, they were already flirting with Strangeways. Most people never saw them play live in this city, and the lore of such a thing is treated to this very day with reverence and skepticism. That was the downside of being Canadian. We kids had no mobility, or notion of following a band, or of an overseas flight. We got the music just a little late, but like all great music, the rarest great music, The Smiths transcended not only genre, place and time, but also space and geography for a generation and now, the generation that has followed our own. There is a strange sort of nostalgia going on in the youth today, one that wants to know and understand a phenomenon that cannot be synthesized through retro TV shows and films. The places where everyone is dressed just a little too day-glow or cookie-cutter Goth, in a climate where everyone’s references are Tumblr-shallow. The attempt is endearing. They want to know. They want to believe. And that’s a good thing, because they are right to covet what was special and forever misunderstood. Curiosity is welcome as long as the young leave the memes and imagined silly feuds alone, and know that art never sits still or it would turn to dust. The past is long gone. Johnny Marr can only talk about the work he did at 23 for so long. His Smiths legacy matters. It’s not either /or. But what matters most is what lives on within us. What we took out of our own youths, and what he gave us in his. It’s here, before the crowds who understand, on tour. Some are still seeing this artist for the first time.
On his 2014 tour, Johnny Marr, on the stage of Toronto’s Danforth Music Hall, produced something indescribable to fans who’d been waiting a lifetime. 90 minutes slipped away like a music video: we wanted to hit repeat, repeat, repeat. To hear him sing the songs our young hearts beat to, our older legs still dance to: “Big Mouth Strikes Again” and “There is a Light That Never Goes Out” (and so well) in harmony with those guitar riffs left a standing concert hall of people gobsmacked. JFM T-Shirts were seen everywhere in block text that even ex-Catholics can’t wear in the street, flown like flags that night. The new material fit seamlessly and energetically with the classics. The only thing to do the next day was to fantasize that we were rock stars: that a trip and a ticket could be procured for the next tour stop, stateside. It was one of the five or ten greatest sets of a lifetime of shows we’d seen, even as none had ever had more anticipation built up, or more risk for the nostalgic.
Johnny Marr is no nostalgist and deserves to be free of same from fans and reporters. The Smiths’ break up assured their greatness, mourned as it was, hijacked as the narrative might have been at the time. Marr is a musician’s musician, brimming with ideas, full of creativity, a musical prodigy. And so he didn’t sit idle, allow himself to become melancholy. He never will. Which brings us to the new era of Johnny F*cking Marr. Through his continued musical collaborations, Marr took his time going solo. It’s clear that the man likes to work and play with others, to be part of a band. This was the way for many years. But when he was ready, Marr carefully waded in and did it in Johnny Marr fashion: with care, grace and quality. It couldn’t have been an easy or natural progression to begin to sing after so many years standing beside others in control of the mic, other frontmen. His playing is intricate and unique, and this would be like adding another job to the list to be done simultaneously. But Marr built his vocal sound like everything else he’d done before: with care. Gradually. Step by step, layer by layer, the hard work unseen, unpaid, until it looked effortless.
There is something rare and special about the artists that came from Manchester, that global kids knew at the time was a hotbed of innovation, of cool and of talent. Some are household names, others are not, but their own culture and scene was and still is something to behold. It is, to this observer, loving and kind, the biting, quick Mancunian wit reserved for keeping oneself humble, for football commentary and that world of sport that serves as therapy for everyone in the UK, while their unabashed affection and familial ways are reserved for one another, bottomless, awe-inspiring. They cheer for each other, whether on Glasto’s pyramid stage or trying out new sounds in intimate rooms, through the waxing and waning of the fickle and brutal industry and the shifting sands of American culture and the music world with all its seduction, heartbreak, and brutality. These great men and women can laugh and still weather all that has happened to music, to the business, to the radio, to journalism. They are stalwart, iconic, they carry on.
Johnny Marr’s cool, measured return to music as a solo artist brings along his signature traits: he will always have a crisp haircut and a relaxed but well-turned out look, head to toe. He stakes a new marker in his long and beautiful journey with a new band who he collaborates with and with whom he finds new colours. Marr is still evolving, never falling back into the self-referential. Call the Comet hits that third record sweet spot. He’s found a niche, he’s grown more comfortable and playful with his vocals and with each strum, the long ago past falls another inch away. So much is happening today. So much urgency, so much need for pure and driven music to keep us aloft, fighting, getting out of bed.
On Call the Comet Marr, joined by former members of Haven Iwan Gronow (bass) and Jack Mitchell (drums) as well as Doviak, casts his keen eye at the world, issues he cares about, and the diciest of all subjects today, the news, interpreting each of theme artistically and calmly. There’s a global perspective here that Manchester artists, uniquely, have a way of capturing. It’s rare, and impossible to generate from within an American mind. There is something in the mix that Johnny Marr has always expressed, something about being northern. That context versus London, versus the neon blinking myths of America, gives an outsider perspective that can allow for detached reason even when you’ve lived everyhere, and it’s coupled with a sense of humour that relates well to the one Canadians like to think of as our own.
But then there’s this:
“I’d climb in under skies so blue it yearns
Hand over hand, carried all the memories
And don’t look down in fate or fame
I tumble and glide into the white wide tide
Whirling and whirling
And let the slamming waves decide my fate
Because hope is all I need” (Walk into the Sea)
This reads like the energetic and open-hearted song writing of a young man, a fearless sort of writer. It is the eternally open creative mind at work, but it’s also the work of someone with life under his belt, survivor stories, brushes with fate, a cool kind of fame that is understated, and an ability to reflect on life. He has said in earlier press for the album, which came out in June, that he explored magic realism on this album. Marr is having fun with literary approaches that people don’t often link with music, but they should. All great writers find their way to the surreal, the magic realism, and the archetypal stories, if they develop enough. This is the album on the other side of a very well-received autobiography, Set the Boy Free. This is also the album made in a time of increased risk for artists and crowds, stages and arenas. It’s made by a man who stepped on the stage in Manchester one day after the attack in May 2017, with our own Broken Social Scene, no less. (Kevin Drew had also appeared on Johnny Marr’s Toronto stage in 2014, to the delight of all of us in a crowd that sees little spontaneity in big Toronto gigs, but is ever hopeful, and waits for news. Call the Comet is Johnny Marr’s strongest yet (and we loved Playland) further, with its storytelling, layered riffs and psych references, an innate ability to create anthemic sounds, and having come into his own as a singer, it stands up next to anything Marr’s done in his storied career.
Johnny Marr is on tour (U.S./ Canada then U.K. / Europe) through November. For more information visit the official site.