Bigmouth Strikes Again: Smiths Bassist Andy Rourke Tells All
Last week, Penguin Books announced that it had purchased the rights to the long-awaited memoir from Morrissey, the boundlessly talented and mercurial former front man of The Smiths. There were two odd things about the news: it would be published almost immediately—it will be released on Thursday in the United Kingdom—and it would be released as a “Penguin Classic,” the series hitherto reserved for writers like Waugh, Tolstoy, and Austen. BBC Radio 4 devoted a mildly outraged segment to the decision; The Independent called it an object lesson in how to “wreck overnight the reputation of a global brand.”
We all love Morrissey, but let’s be serious.
For a moment, the deal appeared to have unraveled, Morrissey reps said, over a “financial dispute” with Penguin. But The Independent reported that negotiations stalled over his demand that the book by published as a “classic.” Penguin soon acquiesced. And, at long last, Keats and Yeats were on his side.
All of this was unsurprising: the terrifically wealthy singer is both notoriously prickly and embarrassingly tight-fisted. The Penguin affair reminded me of a lovely afternoon I spent in the East Village with his former band mate Andy Rourke, the talent behind (partially) bass-driven Smiths classics “This Charming Man,” “Pretty Girls Make Graves,” “Barbarism Begins at Home,” and “You’ve Got Everything Now.” Morrissey and Rourke haven’t spoken in decades; he has since dismissively referred to The Smiths’ rhythm section as mere session musicians. When we chatted in 2011, Rourke dryly noted that his songwriting credits with Morrissey resulted in no royalties.
During a long, meandering conversation lubricated by much beer and wine, Rourke discussed Morrissey’s famous avariciousness (“If anyone asks for a pay raise, they get fired”), his move to New York, and the just-emerging Anthony Weiner scandal (“He looks like a douchebag”). Unlike Morrissey and former Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr, Rourke—who since the Smiths breakup has played with Sinead O'Connor, Killing Joke, and members of the Stone Roses and Happy Mondays—lives an ascetic life, though not by choice. When I met him, he had just moved into Manhattan from the part-hipster, part-terrifying Brooklyn neighborhood of Bushwick.
I’m not entirely sure why, but when Rourke later disappeared during negotiations about being photographed for a piece I was writing on him, the tape of our 2011 conversation disappeared. In honor of next week's publication of Morrissey: Autobiography I offer an edited and condensed version of our somewhat bibulous discussion.
So you abandoned Manchester, England for New York. Were you just tired of it?
Yeah, more or less. I was just getting lazy.
Sitting around doing nothing? That kind of lazy?
Watching daytime television, and then four years pass by and I was like, “Oh, shit.” What happened in Manchester was, people would approach me who wanted me to be in their band or do something. But they wouldn’t ask me because they always assumed that I was busy doing something else or they’d think I would say no.
It’s a big city, but it has this small-town mentality and there’s a lot of gossip and bullshit, and everyone’s back-stabbing.
This quintessentially English band, The Smiths, and you all move to America. Johnny Marr living in Portland, Morrissey living in L.A., you in New York.
It’s a mass exodus! Like I said, for a big city, Manchester has a small-town mentality and it just becomes tiresome after awhile.
New York is home now?
It feels like home. And it took a while for it to feel like that, but now, it definitely feels like home. I like it.
What do you make of this NME cover: “The Queen is Dead” is “the greatest indie album ever made.” [In 2011, the venerable music magazine so christened The Smiths' 1986 classic. In 2006, they deemed it the second greatest British album of all time.]
At the time we made it, sure, it was a great album, but none of our heads were so big that we thought, “this is the greatest album ever made.” Some people in the band, their heads were getting bigger than others. [Singing] “Some heads are bigger than others.”
They shall remain nameless.
But easily deduced.
You can work it out.
Wasn't the original name of “The Queen is Dead” “Margaret on the Guillotine”? Was that changed because it was too political? Because “The Queen is Dead” was still controversial.
There was actually a song called “Margaret on the Guillotine.” I think that the title from “The Queen is Dead” came from Last Exit to Brooklyn, but it's always very political with Morrissey. I remember my mom, she's lived in Spain for about thirty years, and we were playing the Royal Albert Hall, and she was with some friends from New York. Morrissey came out with the sign The Queen is Dead, and my mom's friends are like, “Oh my God.” They took it literally. Said, “No, it's not real.”
After the Smiths broke up, you went on tour with Morrissey, right?
I did a little bit, yeah. I mainly played in the studio for the … I dunno, because it didn’t actually turn into an album. Initially it was just me and Mike Joyce. And then it was just me on my own, and I wrote, “Yes, I'm Blind” and “The Girl Least Likely To.”
You get the writing credit on those?
Yeah. But I don’t get paid for it.
I guess a year ago they re-released those on...
On the Very, Very, Very, Very Best of Morrissey. “The Girl Least Likely To” is on that.
But why not argue with Morrissey about royalties? Is it just not worth it?
He’s impossible to get ahold of.
But lawyers do these things.
Lend me some money to get a lawyer. It’s Laurel and Hardy here: give it to him, to give to you, to give to him.
But you're still friends with Johnny Marr?
Yeah. Last time I was in Manchester, we went out for a curry with my dad, which was a bit bizarre. Because I live like two minutes away from the Indian restaurant, Johnny said he’d give me a ride home, and I said, “Oh, no, no.” And he said, “No, no I'll give you a ride.” And he drove round the block like ten times and played some of his new songs, and he wanted me to do some work with him on that, but obviously, our proximity is a bit difficult.
I found his first solo record weird, just to hear him sing.
Yeah. It was for me. But the new stuff that he played me, his voice has got so much better, and it sounds amazing. It floored me. It sounds amazing.
Morrissey famously fired you from The Smiths by leaving a postcard on your car. Do you still have it?
My ex-wife has it. Because I left in a hurry, she has a lot of my stuff.
You're not going to get that back.
Probably not. Might see it on eBay one day.
When you DJ, you play Smith songs, right?
Yeah, when I'm DJing for two hours, I might play two or three Smiths songs
.Nothing weird about that for you? Does it feel weird when you drop the needle onto the record?
I actually like it loud, it’s nice to hear it in different environments with a PA. Yeah, there’s emotions, but it’s positive emotions. I’m proud of it, what we did, and luckily the music has aged well. It’s timeless, I think.
But young people come in with the Smiths T-shirts on. Does that shock you?
It does because I never get cut in on the merchandise. For every T-shirt I see, I think, shit, I should get 25 percent of that. I’m going to walk around with scissors. Cut 25 percent of your T-shirt.
What do you make of these Smiths tributes bands, like the Sons and Heirs.
That’s really strange, I’ve been to a few of those.
But you DJed before them once or twice. You’re DJing before somebody who’s pretending to be you.
I did, yeah, about a month ago. Twice I think. It’s a very surreal evening, not one I really enjoy. I don’t know why I do it. Because these guys love the band, and they’re really passionate about it and I feel bad about it just saying, “No, I don’t want to do this.”
Why does it make you feel strange?
Because you’re watching a band trying to recreate what you did, and it's impossible that they get it right.
You’re critical of them?
Yeah, and I can’t help it. Not in a negative way, but I can’t help it to be, “You got that wrong, you got that wrong, and oh, you’ve missed a beat there.” I just can’t help it and it stresses me out.
Do you talk to [former Smiths drummer] Mike Joyce?
Yeah, all the time.
So Morrissey plays at Glastonbury and I see Mike talking about it on Twitter.
Oh, it hit the fan.
It was a little tweet where he said, basically, “Yeah, Morrissey played a good show, I just didn't like the cover versions.”
No, the cover band.
I don't think Mike expected it to blow up like that but, I think, in retrospect it was a little bit naïve because, it’s like when Mani [from the Stone Roses] said that stuff about Peter Hook [from New Order], and that blew up. When you’re on a rant and you’ve got something in your head, you have to do it … but Twitter is not the way to go. Because the next day you wake up and the phone’s ringing off the hook, “Hey, what did you mean by that?”
Do you get irritated when Morrissey plays those songs?
These are songs that are personal to me, and when I see someone else play them, they’re not going to play them exactly the same way that I do and so it’s frustrating in that way. But also, maybe they didn’t want them to be like that. Morrissey still has the right to say, “Oh, I want you to play this song, but I want you to play it differently.” For instance, “This Charming Man.” They didn’t play into it; it was just thrashy chords. It’s kind of a naïve version of it, but maybe that’s how he intended it, I don’t know, I’m sitting on the fence on this one.
Morrissey seems to think, “Those are my songs, and I should get the lion’s share of the money.”
No, and I think that was Mike’s gripe. And he said, “You were in the group, you weren't in the band, because to be in the band, you had to be a musician.”
He said that?
Yeah. He said Morrissey’s in the group of the Smiths, He wasn’t in the band. He’s just a singer.
What do you think when the partisan fan websites like Morrissey-Solo talk about you?
They never say anything nice. I had a stalker for a few years, and she was actually banned from the Morrissey-Solo website. She used to say crazy stuff, and then people would go crazy on her, and then I used to get this backlash from it. Shit, what the hell did I do?
She would say crazy stuff about you?
No, she was fighting for my corner, but obsessively. And so she pissed off the Morrissey-Solo people because they were in Morrissey’s corner—not that there should be any corners—but that’s just how it worked out. And in the end, she got banned from this site. She had Asperger’s.
Did you have do you anything about her?
It got close. No, I didn’t want to get her arrested or anything.
But was she calling and emailing, and showing up where you would be?
She used to follow me everywhere.
Anywhere. For instance, me and Mike would be DJing in Newcastle or wherever, and she’d just show up. And it really hit the fan one day, we were playing in a band in Brighton—I can’t remember the name of the fucking band, I’ve been in a few with Mike—and she just showed up at the show. She wanted to come back to the hotel, and I said, “No, no, no, no.” And it turns out, she didn’t have anywhere to stay, and she was just going to try to sleep in a bus shelter or something. So me and Mike, we’re relaxing in our room, it about three in the morning. There’s a knock, this guy, he was a taxi driver, and he’d picked her up because he was concerned about her because she was wandering the streets and people were trying to steal stuff off of her, and he asked her where she was staying, she said, “Oh, I’m not staying anywhere” and then she said, “I know where Andy Rourke and Mike Jones are staying.” So this guy knocks on the door. “I found this girl on the street, she’s in danger.” And Mike paid for a room for the night for her, but we sat her down for about half an hour and said, “You have to stop this. This is stupid, you’re putting your life in danger.” And I got enough of my shit on my plate without having to deal with that.
So you become the guardian of obsessive fans?
Yeah. Back in the days of the Smiths, when we first started touring England—this is like 1984—there were these two girls. They were literally vicar’s daughters, and they used to follow us to every gig, no matter where we went. This one gig in L.A., our tour bus pulled up and they were waiting there at the back entrance. We were like, “What the fuck are you doing here?” “Oh, we just came…” and they basically ran away from home, they had nowhere to stay, no money, so we ended up taking them on the bus for like, three weeks, paying for their hotels.
There aren’t many other bands that inspire that kind of devotion.
There have been a couple of suicides that I know of because of the Smiths. And we used to get letters because of that. … A couple of people committed suicide because of the Smiths when we split up.
Obviously, people are disturbed for a number of different reasons. You can blame Morrissey, that's when he’s in the band.
“It’s your fault! I’m just playing the bass.”
A very happy bass line.
Yeah, a happy bass line. “It’s your fault, it’s the lyrics that did it. You have to carry that around with you.”
What do you think of the lyrics? Because you guys would write music, and you Morrissey would come with lyrics later. It wasn't a collaborative process.
More often than not.
I don’t know, that’s just how it always was, and that’s how we always worked. In essence, those types of songs were kind of instrumental tracks, and that’s probably why, because when you think about it, it was only me and Johnny actually playing instruments, it was just a guitar and a bass, and that’s why we were both working our asses off trying to fill in the void because we didn’t know what the voice was going to do or how it was going to sound. So we filled it up as much as we could.
But this is your music becoming songs about vegetarianism, songs about sexual...
We didn’t know that until after the fact. Like I said, they were instrumental tracks, and then Morrissey used to sing over the top. I think a few, Johnny would be privileged enough to hear it or maybe look at a cassette tape Morrissey had done, because Johnny would say, “Look, Morrissey, I got this idea” and go up to his room and play guitar, and maybe Morrissey would maybe try and sing something over the top. But I only ever heard it when he would sing it in studio, and it was quite a magical moment.
You got on with him at the time, right?
So was it weird that this all of a sudden happens and that it’s so acrimonious?
That was when I didn't see him, when it all became creepy, it was after Mike’s court case [Ed: Joyce sued Morrissey and Marr over royalties], and I was subpoenaed to give evidence.
You didn't do it voluntarily?
No, I was subpoenaed. I had no choice. I just had to say how I thought it went down. And Mike won the case, and Morrissey didn’t like that fact. He thought that maybe I contributed to that.
So there was no communication after the case?
Did you guys fight about money when the Smiths were together?
No, I was way too polite. Not anymore, though.
The money went into the Smiths pot. But we’d do a three-month tour, but it’s not like at the end of the tour, he’d go, “Hey, here’s your massive check.” It never happened.
You got the postcard, but you ended up rejoining the band?
Yeah. I came back just before the last American tour. I think the understanding was that because I got busted [for heroin possession], I wouldn’t get a visa, but somehow my visa came through.
Did you actually get arrested?
Oh, yeah. All of the doors came down at once.
It was just possession?
It was at a dealer’s house. I was trying to get possession.
But did the band know? Was that an issue that had to be addressed?
Johnny knew. Mike he knew a little bit. Morrissey was kept in the dark because Johnny thought it would freak him out.
So when you went back on tour, did you get clean?
Yeah. For a while, it’s been an on and off thing for a few years. I spent a lot of money on that bullshit.
How long did that go on for?
When did you start using heroin?
When I was 17 or 16. I just started dabbling with drugs. You’re a young kid, and then overnight you're in a successful band. You start getting a bunch of money and don't know what to do. You start spending it on drugs.
But that's not a drug that you can hide.
I was very good at it. I was like Houdini.
You were the Houdini of heroin?
Yeah. I was. I was very good at it. Or so I thought.
Do you miss England?
Nah, I miss my friends, I miss my family. But England? Not so much.
What is it that drives you mad about England?
Negativity. I’m not saying that I love America … I love America, I'm not saying that I love Americans. I don’t know, it just seems a bit more optimistic. I don’t know, in England, if you do something successful, people hate you. Whereas in America, if you do something successful, people will pat you on the back and say, “Hey, well done.” People are jealous and negative in England.
Do you buy Morrissey’s solo records when they come out?
I’ve never bought one, no.
But you never make an effort to hear them?
Not really. Occasionally I'll go on YouTube and have a little look or whatever.
Do you like any of the solo stuff?
I really like the first album. [The unreleased song] “Born To Hang” I like a lot.
How do you like living in Manhattan, as opposed to Brooklyn?
I love it. It’s great. I don’t have to take the L train anymore.
I can't believe you took the L train. Did any of the hipsters ever recognize you on the L train?
Thankfully not, no.