Most people are disabused of muttering “I could do that” about someone rapping or while looking at a work of abstract art at the age of 16. If one maintains this viewpoint into adulthood, they display an ignorance about the production of art, the ability to do art for a living, and the level of confidence, focus, and resourcefulness it takes to create art. At that stage, their ignorance is probably terminal. That being said, were an engineer and a couple of studio musicians to arrive at my door in the next 30 seconds and spirit me off to a recording studio, I have little doubt I could come up with lyrics and melodies to match the lifeless music Richard Ashcroft has made on his 2016 single “They Don’t Own Me”, from his latest solo album These People. My pitch is suspect at best, but there are ways to get around that now. But I don’t begrudge Ashcroft one bit. He’s got bills to pay — a mortgage and a family to help support. Ashcroft was at the heart of the best British rock band of the ’90s. He and the other three members of The Verve are responsible for two masterworks, A Storm in Heaven (1993) and A Northern Soul (1995). Throw in a slew of incandescent B-sides, and Ashcroft’s contribution to British rock is secure.
I had the same reaction I had to “They Don’t Own Me” recently when I heard Morrissey’s new single. In the video for the song that popped up somewhere while I was trawling the web, he didn’t even bother to stand up while singing. Enough said. But then again, I’ve been having the same thoughts about Morrissey’s solo work since 1994’s Vauxhall and I. He’s been turning out uninspiring music for decades. And again, Morrissey has nothing to worry about when future rock historians catalogue the peaks of 20th century rock with the Smiths taking their place in the pantheon of all-time greats. In other words, it’s a long way down once you’ve been to the top. I don’t begrudge Morrissey telling us since 1992 that he’s been making music that is better than he did with the Smiths. What’s he supposed to say? Yes, I had just turned 28 when the greatest band of the last 20 years broke up; we created inimitable, once-in-a-lifetime music, and the next 30 years of my artistic life are going to be a drag and full of regret.
A lot of the best musicians from the ’80s and ’90s are releasing music again. I would have never known the Stone Roses had released their first song in 20 years were it not for my tennis buddy, who remains a committed fan to whatever new music Ian Brown or Noel or Liam Gallagher puts out. He’s the loyal fan, akin to parents who will buy anything the neighborhood kids are selling to raise money for the swim team. Of course, I’ll take a couple. Ten dollars apiece? Yes, one for me and one for my husband. And the baskets of rubbery chocolate go right in the trash can as the door closes. Again, “All for One” by the Stone Roses was atrocious in the way that only the newest music of older geniuses can be — the aural pain comes from simultaneously hearing the new music, while also holding “Elephant Stone” or “Mersey Paradise” in suspension next to the new song. The latter insinuates itself into the former in a vain attempt to galvanize the corpse-like present music with some life. It’s the musical equivalent of watching The Godfather Part III.
But the music that Morrissey and Ashcroft are turning out now is so bad that we clearly hear they have nothing left to say in the medium. Writing perhaps? Sure. Large swaths of Morrissey’s memoir, Autobiography (Putnam 2013) were delightful. But not in rock ‘n’ roll or pop or whatever you’d like to call it. Morrissey and Richard Ashcroft have said everything of import on record that they were ever going to say. Accordingly, I’ve never understood the rock fan that likes the entire corpus of a particular musician or band. Actually, I understand it, but I’m irked by the lack of honesty. Morrissey has developed a legendary following. His fans will buy whatever he produces, and if he’s touring in a region where his following is strong, they will turn out in droves time and time again to support him. That’s fine. In fact, it’s very kind. But if you can’t tell the difference between “Rusholme Ruffians” and “Spent the Day in Bed”, then you never understood the man’s genius. Wouldn’t it be more honest to say, I love the man, I forgive him for having gone completely off the rails politically, I’m thankful for the joy and comfort his work has brought me, and I would give him my $15 if he produced a record of him reciting vegan soufflé recipes?
What is it about youth and rock ‘n’ roll? I like to ruminate about how old people were when they accomplished certain things. When I was younger these ruminations were done in a self-flagellating way to calibrate my own lack of ambition or accomplishment. I watched the years of my life pass by, 20 — that was how old the members of U2 were when they played New York for the first time; 21 — I’m dropping out of college; 22 — that was how old two of the U2 band were when they played Red Rocks while my band played its second and last show at a dumpy bar in Hollywood. Now I do it to intoxicate myself with a sense of wonder at the precociousness of these geniuses. The Smiths set the bar for youthful excellence, Johnny Marr in particular. Johnny Marr famously knocked on the door of the Morrissey home in May of 1982. Marr was 18 at the time. When the band broke up in 1987, he was not yet 24-years-old. That’s staggering. There are several clips online from The Smiths playing their third concert together as a band. It’s 4 February 1983, in Manchester at the Hacienda. The setlist already included masterpieces “Miserable Lie”, “Hand in Glove”, “Jeane”, and “The Hand that Rocks the Cradle”. Marr, Andy Rourke, and Mike Joyce were 19; Morrissey, the outlier, was 23. Rock ‘n’ roll, when it’s going to be done well, is going to be done by very young men and women. Jack Weinberg said not to trust anyone over 30. Don’t trust any rock ‘n’ roll made by people over 30.
The Verve were also prodigiously talented at a young age. Formed when no member was older than 19, their debut LP, A Storm in Heaven, was released before any member had yet turned 22. The album is magisterial. These were geniuses at work at a very young age. There’s nothing sophomoric, flimsy, or self-conscious on the album. By its release in June of 1993, they had also produced an EP and some excellent singles. Bands of the Verve’s stature seem to arrive fully formed and completely in control of their vision, just as the Smiths were. One sees a Richard Ashcroft or a Nick McCabe or a Marr or Morrissey performing, singing, hears the words they have composed, the melodies, the music, and is flabbergasted that this is true, that this could have happened. One rejoices to be alive and see this occur. My rhetorical question to myself, usually too silly to say out loud, is where did these people come from? What happened in their lives to precipitate such an ownership of the medium? My enduring impression of these geniuses is they have been beamed to us from another realm.
Fortunately for most of the great rock bands of the last 50 years, and for the listener, their output was committed to record over a short period of time: the Beatles: (1962-1969), The Doors (1966-1971), Joy Division (1978-1980), the Smiths (1983-1987), the Verve (1992-1997), Nirvana (1988-1993). The recorded output of these genius bands was all completed before one member was over the age of 30 with the exception of the Doors, whose Ray Manzarek was 31 during the recording of L.A. Woman, their last album. Fortunate, because the genius fades. By the time the Verve made Urban Hymns in 1997, there was only enough magic left for a handful of strong songs. Ashcroft had convinced himself he was better off as a traditional singer/songwriter, either because it was a more emotionally tenable posture after the decadence and barely contained psychosis of recording A Northern Soul, or he felt he was producing better music. One has no right to tell him to avoid the comfort of the former and who around him could have convinced him of the fallacy of the latter. I knew even before Forth, The Verve’s utterly unnecessary 2008 “reunion album” was released, it was going to be bad, mainly because of the poor solo work Ashcroft had created. Again, truly bad music. Nothing on Forth measures up to an early Justin Bieber or Taylor Swift album. Not because anything either of these artists produces ever rises above passable, but because at least there’s a zest to their songs. These performers were young enough that they believed in what they were doing; the songs, bad as they are, are at least delivered with purpose and belief.
The Queen Is Dead (1986) is the Smiths’ masterpiece.
When one encounters a song of Ashcroft or Morrissey’s (later) solo work, or the music on Forth, there’s a mummified quality to it. The voices sound roughly the same, the subject matter of the songs is of the same ilk as in the artist’s prime, but there’s zero urgency; there’s zero force. There’s no energy or delight in the music. People who have never understood Morrissey have thrown out labels like “depressing” or “whiney” over the years in reference to his songs, but they clearly haven’t been listening to the music, but rather regurgitating how they’ve heard certain portions of the media characterize him. There’s great whimsy and fun in songs like “Cemetery Gates” and “Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now”. Everything is done with a knowingness and archness. There’s sadness and regret and loneliness, yes, but Morrissey says, let’s experience those things with flair. The same could be said of Ashcroft’s lyrics. In songs like “A New Decade” and “History” off A Northern Soul, he sings “How long have I run for and who am I running from” or “I’m gonna die a lonely man” or “This bed ain’t made but it’s filled full of hope; I’ve got a skinful of dope”. None of these songs are depressing. They’re moving — that’s an important difference. These songs are rock ‘n’ rock par excellence, making that golden transformation of angst into beauty as great rock has done for 50 years. Regardless of the mournful content of the lyrics, an alchemy has occurred whereby a great lament has the power to heal.
Another dead giveaway that one is about to hear an absolutely atrocious song by a faded genius is the excruciating mid-tempo speed of the song. There’s a metronomic mawkishness to the music, literally tolling the seconds as they pass. The boredom of the listener seems only to be matched by the boredom of the performer(s) , such as in songs like “America Is Not the World” and “All the Lazy Dykes” by Morrissey and “Buy It in Bottles” and “Music is Power” by Richard Ashcroft. It’s as though the artists have forgotten or lost their ability or used it all up to construct a song that has a dynamic tempo, capable of surprises or bravado. Songs like “Pretty Girls Make Graves” and “I Won’t Share You” or “Well, I Wonder” are all masterful, but each has a unique angle of attack and beautiful phrasing, not to mention Morrissey at his lyrical and singing peak. Great rock ‘n’ roll doesn’t have to be fast or rambunctious; Sinéad O’Connor’s “Black Boys on Mopeds” is one of the best rock ‘n’ roll protest songs ever penned, and it’s just her and an acoustic guitar, yet the energy and gravity of the performance are profound. The Verve has exquisite B-sides like “I See the Door” and “So Sister” that were instrumentally subtle and brooding, “I See the Door” almost a dirge, yet there’s nothing sallow in it, like Ashcroft’s new music. There’s a propulsive nature to all these great songs by the Verve and the Smiths — the songs are moving the listener towards something — transcendence? Redemption? Oblivion? Who knows and who cares? Their new work is going nowhere. The song is being pulled to its conclusion, seemingly by commercial and financial obligations, and the listener feels as though she’s being dragged across a vapid musical landscape for no good reason, leaving her feeling drained and bored — it’s the opposite effect their earlier work has upon people.
The Smiths The Smiths (1984) was an era-defining debut
Also, any hook that can be found on these new songs is trite and often a gloss on an earlier hit by their former bands. Great songs don’t need hooks. Most blockbuster commercial songs need hooks; most songs that are created in a lab by Swedish engineers need hooks, but if a hook it is to be, it needs to arise organically from the music. To say that Ashcroft and Morrissey are painting by numbers, to mix my mediums, would be to complement their new songs too strongly. By numbers would suggest a template of some worth undergirding the musical composition and lyrics. Rather it sounds like a computer has algorithmically spit out what a Verve song or Morrissey song is supposed to sound like. The input has been inputted, the knobs have been turned, the levels have been set, and out comes a deformed shell of the artist’s work. I remember listening to Morrisey’s Vauxhall and I when it came out in 1994 and hearing a variation on the melody of “Pretty Girls Make Graves”. It wasn’t hidden. It made up the chassis of the song. I think it’s “The Lazy Sunbathers”, and the more I listened to it, the more I realized Morrissey was now cannibalizing his own work. When the cannibalization becomes uniform throughout the newer songbook, you have parody of oneself, for example, Weezer. It was a fait accompli that Pavement was artistically spent when they released Twilight Terror in 1999. What I heard on that album was a band trying to make songs that sounded a lot like this unique, untimely, and brilliant band called Pavement. There’s a world of difference between that and Pavement producing new music. Sensibly, they disbanded six months after the album’s release.
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Where does the genius go and when it goes, why has it gone? I can’t name one song Johnny Marr has written after he turned 24 years old. Sure, a part of that could be due to the fact I haven’t followed his career closely since he left the Smiths, and there might be some gems in there or some great sides to LPs. But I strongly doubt that. I didn’t discover the Smiths until I was 17 — four years after the band broke up. I was entering my prime years of rock ‘n’ roll listening, a decade of talking about bands, concerts, albums, songs, upcoming releases with most people I came into contact with whether they loved the same music as I did or not. This was the time when everyone had CDs lying around their homes and everyone was sharing music with one another. Surely, someone would have told me about a spectacular album he had put together with Matt Johnson (actually, someone tried to — The The’s 1989 Mind Bomb; it was forgettable beside Johnson’s duet with Sinéad O’Connor) or Bernard Sumner. But there wasn’t this album. There weren’t these songs. Marr became a glorified session musician for the next 30 years, a celebrity collaborator brought in by other celebrity performers trying to recapture the magic. But Chrissie Hynde wasn’t going to recapture the best of her early work, and Bernard Sumner wasn’t going to recapture the genius of Joy Division, regardless of who was brought in.
Clearly the lack of key collaborators, in fact, the lack of the other half of the writing dynamo that created the masterworks in the first place, contributes to the diminishing returns for both Morrissey and Marr. Morrissey fared substantially better than Marr post-Smiths. He made Viva Hate (1988), a very good album, Bona Drag (1990), a compilation of B-sides and singles, some of which were fantastic, Kill Uncle (1991), a very quaint and somewhat catchy affair (props for a strange yet appealing title), and a compelling album in Your Arsenal (1992) (again, brilliant title). Morrissey had a good run in the first five years after his split with Marr. Your Arsenal especially showed that Morrissey was not mailing it in, that he had something further to explore stylistically. There was still an edge to his music. Morrissey “lost” one of the great songwriters of his generation but created some excellent work with Stephen Street, Mark E. Nevin, and Alain Whyte. Morrissey had sublime music undergirding his lyrics and melodies with the Smiths, while he only had good, sometimes great music, doing so in the first four albums that followed the break-up. Perhaps Marr’s post-Smiths output is so paltry because he never found anyone close in ability as an interpreter for his music as he had in Morrissey, and he needed an interpreter more than Morrissey did. If there’s one thing that infrequently bothers a Smiths fan, it’s the vocal-centric mix of their music. The vocals command your attention; the guitar, at times, needs to be sought out. Marr’s guitar is often deeply recessed into the music, foretelling on whom the post-Smiths lights would shine the brightest.
Richard Ashcroft had a much shorter run at solo excellence than either Morrissey or Marr. In fact, he had one song, “A Song for the Lovers”, his debut single as a solo performer. The first time I heard it I thought, this might do. It was a step down from the material on Urban Hymns, which was a significant step down from everything The Verve had done before that, but it still had a certain élan to it. “A Song for the Lovers” was originally written for Urban Hymns but didn’t make the final album. And so the leftovers become the main course. The rest of Alone with Everybody, from which the song came, was a blank. Clearly he was in love, clearly being in love was awesome, clearly his wife was awesome — all fabulous things in the life of a man, but great feelings do not a great album make. Perhaps Ashcroft mistakenly felt he had finally found his calling in the classical singer/songwriter role. He hadn’t. Ashcroft’s genius was as a manic, mesmerized foil for the holy cacophony Peter Salisbury, Simon Jones, and especially Nick McCabe would raise.
Out of insane recording sessions came the best British album of the ’90s, The Verve’s A Northern Soul (1995)
Many Verve aficionados make the case, and it’s a strong case, that A Storm in Heaven is the band’s apex. While the noise that the band creates there is superb, just really untouchable, the songcraft of the next album pushed the work into another realm. Still, songcraft didn’t mean predictable song structure. Take “On Your Own”, the third song on A Northern Soul, for example, and one of two written by Ashcroft. Even at this point, either by dint of habit or lack of songwriting “maturity”, the song didn’t settle into a verse/ chorus/ verse/ chorus pattern. It’s verse, chorus a, chorus b, verse, chorus a, chorus b, outro. Ashcroft’s instincts as a songwriter were idiosyncratic and untutored, to his benefit. The other song he penned by himself, “History”, also has a unique structure. It builds wave-like, crescendoing, carrying the listener along, each peak presaging another peak. The song is a giant. No other songs in the Verve’s songbook have quite the same feel as “History” and “Bittersweet Symphony” — majestic, elegiac odes to lost love, lost hope, redemption, survival. In fact, no other rock ‘n’ roll band in the world could do what the Verve did when they did it well. It’s a combination of the estranged timbre of Ashcroft’s vocals and McCabe’s improvisational genius, paired with Jones and Salisbury’s simultaneous solidity and suppleness. When “History” was finally completed, engineer Owen Morris threw a speaker through a glass partition in the studio. Granted, capacious amounts of ecstasy, alcohol, and marijuana had brought everyone involved to the edge, yet this act still somehow makes absolute sense when you’ve just created perfection.
The Verve were unique in that they broke up twice in their first eight years as a band. Noel Gallagher told Ashcroft, after Ashcroft wrote “The Drugs Don’t Work”, that he had finally written a song that had a proper structure. And it is a fantastic song. However, unwittingly, Gallagher, making both a joke and compliment, had identified the kiss of death for future Ashcroft output. These conventional singer/songwriter efforts, acoustic guitar, plaintive lyrics, and pristine production, were passable on Urban Hymn‘s “Lucky Man”, “Sonnet”, “Space and Time” — but the best songs on the album beside “Bittersweet Symphony” and “The Drugs Don’t Work”, were the rollicking, psychedelic affairs composed by the whole group — “The Rolling People”, “Catching the Butterfly” and “Come on”, the latter ending the album and leaving the listener with regret at what might have been were McCabe present and involved in the writing process for the whole album. Once Ashcroft got into his solo work these straight-ahead “serious”, “emotional” songs were brutal. The biggest problem with being a faded genius is that nothing he or she ever produces again can be analyzed, critiqued, or appreciated in a vacuum. It all comes in the wake of their prior transcendental music.
The Verve were at their most improvisational and psychedelic on their first album, A Storm in Heaven (1993).
Perhaps finally, and most important, in addition to growing older and to losing invaluable writing partners, rock just can’t be made very well by people who have reached a certain point in their lives. Despite the impression I may have given thus far, it’s not an age-thing, although 30 will do as well as a marker as any, but rather, it’s a point marked in one’s life when one starts to think differently about the world, oneself, and what one believes is important and needs to be said. I was going to write something about wives and husbands and children and financial obligations, and all of that is incredibly clichéd and also undeniably true. It’s almost impossible to theorize about this aspect of why rock is created by young people without devolving into or reducing things to hackneyed explanations. Noel Gallagher summed it up well when he said there’s only a small window where rock ‘n’ roll aspirants wear the same clothes, are just as poor, and live in the same circumstances as the people coming to their shows. Once that window has closed, and they (the rockers) are no longer skint, and there’s a Rolls Royce in the driveway, it becomes difficult to write from a position that their audience still occupies. In other words, a lot of what he wanted to say about his dreams and desires and hopes for rock ‘n’ roll stardom, and which his audience could viscerally connect with because of their similar positions, was done and dusted in his first album.
The great rock geniuses believe in rock ‘n’ roll when they are young. And we, the listeners do too. We believe in not only the emotions and uplift such music creates, shockingly thrilled over and over by its power to engulf; we believe not only in the ideas and feelings being expressed in the lyrics, but believe in the rightness, the uniqueness, and the necessity of the undertaking. Obviously, if the listeners’ belief is such, then the artists themselves have even more invested in the undertaking. I’m not talking just about bands like U2, the Clash, the Verve, Fugazi and Bruce Springsteen, who wear their belief on their sleeves, but bands like the Smiths and Joy Division, who just as much as they have belief in the greatness of their music are also committed, to a fault, to their vision of creating music. Perhaps with age comes wisdom, comes more self-reflection, and comes less enthusiasm for the unitary approach to art that has sustained them. At this point the once-great artist doesn’t have the belief in or commitment to this vision of creation. Or they’ve said all they could say through the medium they were so gifted to speak through. The cliché “I wish I knew then what I know now” is never uttered by faded rock geniuses. In fact, if they knew “then” what they know “now”, they would never have had the wherewithal to plunge so mercilessly into their art.
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I also don’t imagine anyone begrudges these faded geniuses from touring. I went to the Rose Bowl a couple of months ago to see U2 play The Joshua Tree in its entirety. It was mind-blowingly good. From Jimi Hendrix to Jim Morrison to Kurt Cobain, the cri de coeur of artists who don’t feel the music anymore arises when an adoring audience wants them to deliver the goods, sometimes right over their dead bodies, and the artists are faced with their own inability to summon the passion, or even the interest, to give them what they want. What I witnessed at the Rose Bowl was the opposite. Four artists climbed back into powerful songs they once believed in fervently and for one night believed in them completely again. In U2’s case, they were believing in songs that are conspicuously better than anything they’ve written in 25 years.
When I was younger, with more unforgiving and immature eyes, I saw the “reunion tour” or “x album” performed in its entirety as a cynical cash-in. And it is a cash-in. There’s something tawdry about the high ticket prices when our favorite bands come back into town in their 40s, 50s, and 60s. But other than the ticket prices, there’s little cynicism at all. In this case, U2 didn’t play anything composed after 2000. There was no new album to hawk, there were no dull moments in the proceedings while the band obligatorily trotted out two, three, five songs from a new, and likely, bad album. It was just a celebration of the gems from when they were younger. “Bad”, written and released before anyone in the band turned 25, had 60,000 people transfixed, enraptured, the cheesiest of all Bono’s younger proclamations about the salvation and power of rock borne out for a song 33 years after it was written. Of course we wouldn’t begrudge them, and of course we don’t need anything new.
A lot of bands are doing this now, from the titans of rock to the smaller acts — playing one beloved, perhaps their only beloved album, in its entirety. Just this summer, Interpol toured Europe in honor of their debut album Turn on the Bright Lights‘ 15th anniversary. It’s a spectacular album, one of the best of the aughts, and in truth the only Interpol album all but their hardcore fans want to hear songs from. In 2010, Weezer toured on the back of their first two, and only good records, their self-titled LP and its follow-up Pinkerton. The announcement of this tour (two stops in each city; first night debut album, affectionately called the “Blue Album”, second night Pinkerton) was telling about where their hearts were and also included a large dollop of irony. They had released a new album, Hurley, just six days before the announcement of the “Blinkerton” tour. If only Richard Ashcroft had been so sage and toured A Storm in Heaven as opposed to Keys to the World. Rivers Cuomo for years reputed and disowned Pinkerton. He really hated it. It was conspicuous because one isn’t used to hearing an artist disparage an earlier work so vociferously, especially when that work was miles beyond what Weezer produced after it. It went beyond the duplicitous, “We’re making the best music of our career.” The man clearly was ashamed of the album. Apparently he’s made peace with it and recognized it and their debut as their most important work.
No other band in the last ten years has heard a louder clamor for their reunion than the Smiths. Most legendary bands that disbanded before their output became rote, usually because of internal acrimony, put their differences aside, or make up entirely, and get the gang back together for an awesome payday. Their aging fans are more than happy to celebrate along with them. Many great bands disbanded because of a death and wisely, for reasons both musical and ethical, never play together again except for charity events or one-off award shows and the like. Those that forego this demurral, like the Doors, embarrass themselves mightily. It has been 30 years since the four members of he Smiths played on stage together. They, Morrissey and Marr, were offered $5 million to play Coachella in 2007 and then later in the year Morrissey, alone, was offered $75 million for a 50-gig tour in 2008-2009, the only requirement that Johnny Marr be on guitar. Morrissey refused the offer. This offer was confirmed by Morrissey’s publicist at the time, but now exists on the internet as a “rumour”, according to multiple websites. Whatever the case, this Smiths fan hopes they never do reform, least of all without Mick Joyce and Andy Rourke, and a reunion with them is fatally hamstrung because of the lawsuit both of them brought against Morrissey and Marr in the mid-’90s over royalties. Rourke settled out of court, but Joyce proceeded, and the toxic court proceeding seemingly took up a quarter of Morrissey’s memoir — no nasty, vindictive bon mot was left unsaid about Mike Joyce. So that reunion is highly improbable, whereas almost every other reunion of a great band is highly probable, contingent on when the members need a substantial cash injection.
Stateside there’s a near radio-blackout of the Smiths. They are completely ignored on “rock” radio, classic or contemporary, and the rare playing of “How Soon Is Now” is their sole presence on alternative radio. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame has ignored them since their eligibility in 2008. The greatest rock ‘n’ roll band of the last 30 years is virtually invisible, and that’s fine. In fact there’s something edifying about it, not in any what-is-unknown-is-inherently-cool way, but insofar as what has been done spectacularly, what exists as art, and what the Smiths did and the Verve did (for two albums) was exceptional art, does not need to be consumed or promoted or celebrated repeatedly in a public way. Least of all does it need to be re-commodified or commercialized anew. As Henry David Thoreau once said, “What is once well done is done forever.” Where their music is to be found and how it will be found will have to happen on a more intimate scale, the power of the music betokening the intimacy of the exchange.