upstart vocalist Marrs musical legacy

Still don’t care for Björk, thanks. I suppose she was mildly interesting for a few months there back in 1987. Otherwise, no. Hey, I’ve picked my heroes; I’m sticking with them.

Or, at least, I thought I was. Re-enter one Johnny Marr. Time was that the man could do no wrong by me. The guitarist responsible for those impossibly infectious Smiths guitar licks. The man who managed to appear cool even in the face of Morrissey’s woe-is-me whining. Easily the coolest member of the last great British singles band. (Arguably, the last great British band.) True, in terms of coolness the competition within The Smiths was far from fierce. Still, how cool was Johnny Marr?

This cool!

To this day, when I’m onstage playing harmonica with Ottawa’s fabulous Fiftymen (not that I’ve joined them lately) I am Johnny Marr in this video, quietly lurking in the background until my moment to shine arrives. Now, I’m not sure Johnny Marr circa 1984 is what cowpunks The Fiftymen have had in mind, but that’s what they’re getting. I tell myself.

Marr’s coolness factor extended to knowing his place within The Smiths as well. Morrissey was welcome to steal the spotlight; Marr, like many great guitarists before him, was content to provide the musical magic. To bring it back to me (see harmonica playing, above), I don’t mind telling you I play a pretty mean guitar (mean in that it has circuitry issues). But I sing not. Or, rather, not well. Not at all well. Hence, I have the utmost respect for the guitarist content with his lot as a mute sideman. Or even a mute showman. Your Pages. Your Becks. Your Santanas. Your Renbourns. And, to a lesser extent, your Satrianis. The singing is in the guitar.

When The Smiths dissolved a quarter-century ago, Marr seemed set to follow that example, signing on for a bit of jangly sweetening with the likes of The Pretenders, The The and The Bryan Ferry. Still cool. Still quietly lurking in the background awaiting his moment. He tried his hand at singing, fronting a band he dubbed The Healers and releasing an album that came and went with little fanfare. Throughout, he remained the mysterious Mr. Marr, ace guitarist.

Until this year, when Marr has suddenly made a determined stab at stardom on his own terms. He’s gone solo, handling all singing and stepping up to pen lyrics as well as melodies. An album of original Marr material, The Messenger, arrived on our shores yesterday. (Watch for Snorri’s review in the coming days… just as soon as we can get the damn Monkees disc out of the CD player.) And, true to form, Marr demonstrates he can still pump out a fine foot-tapper worthy of his band from another generation. European Me is a charmer. Morrissey would kill for a riff as fetching as that of Generate! Generate! The rocker World Starts Attack is a driving would-be Smiths gem.

Until, that is, the guitarist starts to sing. “Upstarts now are on their way,” an unsteady voice declares. “Upstarts now have to pay.”

Not exactly “There’s more to life than books you know/But not much more,” is it? Elsewhere on the album, Marr demonstrates that far from remaining idle lo these 25 years, he has studied well the rhyming dictionary. Hence, he kicks off the typically pointless New Town Velocity with a flurry of mystery, poetry, velocity and “them not me.” And so forth. Oh, for a single “Hang the DJ!” Now that’s a lyric. And Morrissey didn’t even need to find a rhyme.

Oh, I know, he’s still a guitar god. And being a UK music legend, he will continue to be bowed down to on both sides of the Atlantic by a select few. Which is unfortunate, in a way, because someone should really alert the emperor to the fact that he is in dire need of a vocalist and lyricist for his band. Has been for 25 years, I suppose. Whatever happened to that Morrissey fellow anyway?
But hey, I’ve picked my heroes. I suppose if I’d chosen Björk instead of Johnny Marr, I would have considered this a good week.

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