Andy Rourke Paid His Dues

With the Smiths, Rourke (far left) helped shape a sound that inspired decades of dejected rockers and singer-songwriters. Photo: Lisa Haun/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

The career of the Smiths was a volatile study in contrasts. Morrissey loved fine art, literature, ’60s pop, and ’70s glam. Johnny Marr and longtime friend Andy Rourke had a balanced diet of transatlantic folk, funk, and blues rock. Mike Joyce fell in love with punk rock as a teen. The band was the sound of these interests pulled in different directions, giving heft and bombast and dimensionality to each individual player: the classicist/miserabilist singer and the guitarist who studied Neil Young and the versatile bassist and the punk drummer who complemented and expanded each other’s horizons. But that approach ultimately worked against them. The various points of acrimony that continue to loom over the legacy of the Manchester quartet make the business of remembering Rourke — who died last Friday at 59 and whose slippery bass lines added valuable melodic heft to Marr’s legendary riffs — an examination into the band’s problems, and the space between the lingering myths about success in the music industry and the harsher realities of trying to prop a stable career up on the whims of the public.

It’s one of the oldest stories in music: They got the splits wrong. Morrissey and Marr, fancying the glory of songwriting duos like John Lennon and Paul McCartney or Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, took 40 percent of the recording and performance royalties apiece, effectively treating the Smiths rhythm section like session players who didn’t need to be privy to the inner workings of decision making. Ten percent was an unfair assessment of what Rourke brought to the table. He could be every bit the virtuoso Marr was; he had to be. Morrissey wrote to instrumentals the other players sent him. And Rourke couldn’t just trace Marr’s fleet Rickenbacker lines and chord progressions from octaves below. It would’ve sounded thin. He needed a counterpoint. “It was just a guitar and a bass,” Rourke said of recording Smiths songs in a revealing 2013 interview, “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.”

The effort was obvious early on. In “You’ve Got Everything Now,” from their 1984 debut The Smiths, Rourke is a driving force, carving the path Marr’s chords dance around in the ominous verses and then, as the song brightens during the chorus, teasing a portion of the sadder melody from earlier on, preparing listeners to be pulled back into the maelstrom of the next verse. That sense of unerring, unresolved frustration, the crux of the Smiths, is often attributed to Morrissey. But when Marr felt like using his shimmering tone and amp reverb for ambience — splashing around the mix in “Never Had No One Ever” from 1986’s The Queen Is Dead, for instance — Rourke had to guide the ship.

Rourke could handle Marr’s intimidating speed and versatility because he was a brilliant musician in his own right. A survey of the classics finds him sneaking sounds from several other genres into the Smiths’ indie-pop formula. He could play irrepressibly busy punk lines (The Smiths’ “Still Ill” or “Handsome Devil” from 1984’s Hatful of Hollow compilation) or smooth soul licks (The Smiths’ “I Don’t Owe You Anything,” Hatful’s “This Night Has Opened My Eyes”) or faithful rockabilly riffs (“Death at One’s Elbow” from 1987’s Strangeways, Here We Come or 1985’s “Shakespeare’s Sister”). The swing on the bass in “Rubber Ring,” off the 12-inch pressing of The Queen Is Dead’s “The Boy With the Thorn in His Side,” is pitched somewhere between Iron Maiden and Whitney Houston. “Barbarism Begins at Home,” from 1985’s Meat Is Murder, crosses funk and punk’s wires in some of the same ways budding alt-rock heroes like the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Faith No More were learning to in the States concurrently. Rourke helped shape a sound that inspired decades of dejected rockers and singer-songwriters, from Damon Albarn and Chino Moreno to the National, who sought to investigate the many elegant emotional textures between sadness and ire.

While Rourke was adding these impressive colors to the music, he was under the threat of replacement. His struggle to curb a heroin habit and adjust to methadone treatment in the mid-’80s led to an arrest and an unceremonious firing, which was soon called off when the band came to realize they had been the ailing bass player’s lifeline. (They took Craig Gannon on as a second guitarist in 1986, but the initial plan was for the Colourfield and Aztec Camera alum to sit in on bass.) The Smiths thought they could bust up traditional rock-and-roll management arrangement the same way their lyrics attempted to challenge prefabricated gender and sexual roles and Thatcherism in those years; the entire project was sort of a monument to an insouciant otherness, a feeling of not being like everyone else but also not wanting to be. But the power imbalance coupled with the lack of an impartial oversight apparatus, of anyone on the inside not jostling for the favor of Morrissey and/or Marr, exacerbated problems wherever they surfaced. When the guitarist got sick of the bickering in 1987, there was no one to mediate, just like there was no one pulling for fair contracts for the members who were shocked upon finally seeing the band’s accounting. Rourke and Joyce later sued for royalties, and Morrissey and Marr couldn’t prove they’d explained the financial arrangement, but, needing money, Rourke took a quick payout, losing out to some of the funds Joyce would win in the end.

You can do a job better than most people in the world who share the occupation and still feel expendable. You can change rock-and-roll history without enjoying a cut of your own merch. (“For every T-shirt I see,” Rourke said in 2013, “I think, shit, I should get 25 percent of that.”) The enduring dream of sudden success doesn’t account for the tirelessness and the shrewdness and the luck it takes to keep a career in flight after liftoff, or how easily a miscalculation or a deliberate misdealing can put a person or an entire organization on a crash course. Marr liked the idea of having an outspoken front man; it took the heat off the guitarist. But in under five years, he’d begin to feel trapped and limited by the tug-of-war for control of the Smiths — the friction between his balance of retro rock chops and modern studio wizardry; Morrissey’s love of kitsch, smarm, and vintage pop; and Rourke and Joyce’s pining to make their value known. That marriage was apparent in songs like “How Soon Is Now,” “Money Changes Everything,” and “Shoplifters,” which seem to telegraph the baton pass between indie-rock bands, descended from Roxy Music and the Cure, and Madchester and alternative dance acts that would push the scene into the future. That Rourke got out and gigged with everyone from Stone Roses vocalist Ian Brown to Sinéad O’Connor goes to show that he was always itching for the challenge.

Andy Rourke shouldn’t have had to clamor for the sliver of the Smiths’ payday that he did receive. It shouldn’t have even been a sliver. Pull his parts out and the songs collapse. The maneuvers that put Rourke at a disadvantage in the band that made him famous are inseparable from the story of its hits. And the xenophobic rhetoric Morrissey has shared over the years is difficult to pry off of the smirking, aching loneliness that colors his early work. From the vantagepoint of 2023, where the pathway from jilted isolationism to nationalism and exclusionism is very well lit, it turns out to be a short trip from “England is mine, and it owes me a living” and “Has the world changed or have I changed?” to Brexit and the For Britain Movement. Sometimes, everything burns up just as quickly and magnificently as it gels. It’s important to understand why it happens, to view a creative endeavor as a series of plays people made, not just carving out bits we want to remember and papering over parts that make us uneasy. We’d have less idols to shatter that way.

Andy Rourke Paid His Dues