TVD Live: Johnny Marr at the 9:30 Club, 4/29

A while back I dated this English girl, and everything was going swimmingly until we traveled to Tennessee to meet her father, a prickly old India hand in jodphurs with an acid wit and gin on his breath. He hated me from the moment I told him I didn’t drink. This seemingly ludicrous statement–I might as well have told him I didn’t breathe–led him to very drily reply, “In India, all the teetotalers died.” An avid fox hunter, after that he looked at me as if I were some two-legged species of vulpes vulpes that had somehow managed to infiltrate his home.

But while he may have been a bigoted old blighter–turns out he despised Gandhi even more than he despised me–he sure had some great stories. My favorite involved a tiger hunt in the Raj, during which he was thrown from his horse only to find himself face to face with the tiger. How face to face? As he put it in that cultured English way of his, “I could clearly discern the beast’s fetid breath, so intimate was our connexion.”

I’ve fortunately never been close enough to a man-eating tiger with halitosis to suggest flossing, but like that old tiger hunter I know a bad odor when I smell one. And in this case the unpleasant odor is emanating from the post-Smiths career of Mr. Johnny Marr. Marr has been lionized–and rightly so–for his brilliant work with The Smiths, which NME has called the greatest band of all time. But let’s face it: the light that never goes out that was The Smiths blinked out light years ago. So let’s be ruthlessly cold blooded for a moment, shall we, and ask, What has Johnny Marr done for us lately?

The answer, unfortunately, is not much. In the 26 years that have elapsed since his departure from The Smiths in 1987, Marr has been, how best to put this… slumming it. He’s been a journeyman. A perennial sideman–and for some truly lamentable bands to boot–whose long downward slide has made him rock’s equivalent of Val Kilmer. His fate reminds me of that of Jimmy Page, another legendary and brilliant musician whose destiny it has been to wander haplessly from the unspeakable (The Firm) to the insufferable (Coverdale and Page) since leaving the band that made him a rock immortal.

Marr began his post-Smiths career with a very brief stint in The Pretenders–a promising beginning, that–but things went downhill like Sonny Bono from there. In 1988 Marr inexplicably hooked up with The The, a wretchedly awful band with a stutter of a name and songs that–how can I say this politely?–smell wrong. I admit it, all you fanatical The The fans alone in your rooms in your knit sweaters with Matt Johnson’s face on them watching Sylvester Stallone’s Judge Dredd for the ninth time solely because there’s a The The song on the soundtrack: tunes like “Infected” are indeed infectious, by which I mean the Centers for Disease Control should establish a cordon sanitaire around the band’s entire body of work and hose it down with a potent combination of powerful disinfectants and napalm in the interests of public safety.

In 1993 Marr left The The The The–shit, now I’m stuttering too, and in print yet–but by then he had already ensconced himself in a band with almost as high a suck quotient, namely Electronic. A synthpop “supergroup” (like ELP, but without the gong) whose members included Marr and New Order’s Bernard Sumner, over the course of three albums Electronic produced a fusion of dance music and high-fructose pop pap that I like to call “musique merde.” Me, I’d prefer electrocution to Electronic, although I will admit to a shamefaced love for “Forbidden City.” But no matter what you think of the band and its music, there’s no denying Electronic was but yet another rung down the ladder for a fellow–and “Godlike Genius” according to NME–who used to share songwriting credits with one Steven Patrick Morrissey.

Fortunately Electronic shorted out in 1999, and in 2000 Marr finally threw off his sideman status long enough to form Johnny Marr and the Healers. Alas, while the Healers’ sole album (2003’s Boomslang) makes for pleasant enough listening, it carries the distinct aroma of a second-rate Oasis.

It’s not as if Marr hasn’t had some decent opportunities; he joined Modest Mouse–another journeyman’s move, but this time in a band actually worthy of his considerable talents–long enough to record 2007’s We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank, but that turned out to be but a musical fling. And in 2009 he recorded Ignore the Innocent with The Cribs, another promising group, but that too wound up being a one-LP stand.

In short, while former partner Morrissey has gone on to become a bona fide superstar, brightening our blighted lives with his hilariously morose songs and proving there are such things as second acts in the music business, Marr has spent his post-Smiths career fumbling about like an armless man in the dark, trying to find the light switch with his nose. Small wonder the Brian Jonestown Massacre–never a bunch to mince words–wrote his obituary in 2009’s “Johnny Marr Is Dead.”

Well I’m happy to report, to paraphrase Mark Twain, that reports of Mr. Marr’s death have been greatly exaggerated. Because he’s just put out his first solo album, The Messenger, and by God, it’s anything but the work of a dead man. Rather, it marks the triumphant return of a great musician who seems to have finally found his way.

The Messenger may not top any year-end “Best of” lists, but it’s a uniformly excellent LP and a fitting second act at last for Marr. There’s not a pukeworthy track on the thing, and there are some truly stellar ones, including “The Right Thing Right,” “New Town Velocity,” “Upstarts,” “Lockdown,” and “Words Start Attack.” And if we’re lucky, more solo Marr albums will come our way, that is unless Johnny’s unerring knack for musical self-sabotage perversely leads him to join forces with James Blunt.

Anyway, I was pleased to learn that Marr’s tour to promote The Messenger was making a stop at the 9:30 Club on April 29, especially when I heard through my top-secret journalistic source–we meet in a dark corner of an underground garage, where he answers to the mysterious pseudonym–that Marr was throwing some Smiths (Yea!) and Electronic (Hiss!) songs into his set.

Unfortunately I missed the opening act–I made the mistake of checking out the Dandy Warhol’s video “Boys Better” on YouTube before the show, and was so transfixed by the divine vision of Zia McCabe’s bare breasts that I lapsed into a pop-eyed lust trance and ended up watching it 430 times in a row–but arrived just in time to see Marr and Company (James Doviak on guitar, Iwan Gronow on bass, and Jack Mitchell on drums) take the stage.

And with a few exceptions, they put on an excellent show. Marr looked dapper in a grey jacket and a haircut that probably cost $9,000. And my journalistic source turned out to be correct; the band performed a combination of originals along with a smattering of Smiths and Electronic tunes, as well as a raucous encore rendition of “I Fought the Law.” And did I happen to mention that I was placed in the VIP section? That’s right. It’s about time people figured out where I belong. Every time I’ve been in a jail cell I’ve called to the turnkey, “There must be some kind of mistake! I belong in the VIP section!”

I never knew, I guess, just how fine a guitarist Marr is, because I’ve always been too busy listening to Morrissey’s miserablist lyrics to pay attention. Turns out that, while Marr may not be a Godlike Genius–Bob Dylan and the guy who wrote “We’re an American Band” are the only Godlike Geniuses I know–he plays one mean axe. And one of the great things about him is he’s not a showboat. He can kick out the jams like he Jesus’s son, but plays in an understated manner when that’s what’s appropriate. He reminds me a bit of Robbie Robertson, another guitarist who only plays the guitar god when it’s called for.

As for The Smiths numbers–which included “Stop Me If You Think You’ve Heard This One Before,” “There Is a Light That Never Goes Out,” “London,” (which opened with squealing feedback and was performed at Buzzcocks speed but with more volume), the great “Bigmouth Strikes Again,” and “How Soon Is Now?,” with its great air raid siren of a guitar riff–they were uniformly excellent. And while I was worried that Marr wouldn’t be able to handle Morrissey’s vocals–who in God’s name could?–a very curious thing happened. Namely, he actually sang those old Smiths’ warhorses with more verve and confidence than he did his own songs. Why, he even sounded a bit like Morrissey; it was almost as if he were channeling the voice of his old partner.

Marr and company also played Electronic’s beautiful “Forbidden City”–which featured a nice instrumental intro and some big power chords but unfortunately sounded stilted and clunky, lacking the liquid flow of the recorded version–and “Getting Away With It,” a rather weak song that Marr didn’t sing so well but that featured a big bass riff, a magical mirrorball moment, and a very long and low-key guitar solo by Marr.

As for the originals, Marr opened the show with “Right Things Right,” whose opening reminded me of The Who, but which soon morphed into a midtempo rocker with a cool chorus and a very effects-laden guitar solo by Marr. The excellent “Upstarts” was great musically but marred by Marr’s weak vocals. “Sun and Moon” was a speedy guitar rave-up driven by a really fuzzed-out bass, during which Marr crouched to play a spectacular solo, while the great “Lockdown”–probably my evening’s favorite, along with “New Town Velocity” and “How Soon Is Now?”–was a powerful uptempo number with a great chorus and strong vocals by Marr.

Not so great was album title track “The Messenger,” which despite its intricate guitar figure came off sounding sluggish and nondescript. In fact the song’s highlight was the little dance Marr did at the very end, and if it’s a song and dance man I want I’ll take Sammy Davis any day, even dead. Fortunately Marr and band followed “The Messenger” with the high-energy “Generate Generate” and the slow and very moody “Say Demesne,” which featured an opening I swear Marr filched straight from a Crooked Fingers song I can’t put my crooked finger on, a grey English sky of a keyboard figure, and a great chorus that goes, “You’re in for love/ You’re in for love/ And you will fight love/ You’re in for love/ You still fight love.”

What else? They played the tres cool “Word Starts Attack,” which featured a hypersonic Marr solo and reminded me of The Romantics, then went into perhaps my favorite song off The Messenger, “New Town Velocity.” A very beautiful midtempo number featuring a great guitar intro and a luscious melody, it brought to mind The Smiths, and featured some very understated guitar playing by Marr. Finally, the band played “I Want the Heartbeat,” a new-wavish number that reminded me of skinny ties with piano keys on them, but was really very good although it’s far from my favorite track on the album.

In short, the show rocked, but Marr needs some work on his vocals. And to drop the Electronic songs, which I say despite my love for “Forbidden City.” Finally, I find it interesting that Marr didn’t see fit to play a single The The song, which I can only hope means that in hindsight he looks upon that benighted part of his career as a kind of Dark Night of the Soul, much as I do.

What can I say, other than long live Johnny Marr? As for my Tennessee adventure, I was coerced into joining father and daughter one morning in an authentically barbaric English fox hunt, complete with red coats, bugle, and Tally Ho! Only to spend the entire time hiding from the old tiger hunter and his shooting iron. At one point I hurled myself behind a particularly large tree, and there, hiding too, was Johnny Marr. I said, “What are you doing here?” He responded, a panicked look in his eyes, “Are you kidding? That mad bastard hates The The even more than he hates Gandhi!” “Teetotaler?” I asked, knowing he was. “For years,” he replied proudly. “In India,” I drily informed him, “All the teetotalers died.”

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