Thirty-nine years ago today, The Smiths fetched up in Cork for the first time and played a storming, head-bending set at the old Savoy complex on Patrick Street. The band’s history with the city, and the impact of that show, are covered in detail elsewhere on this site. So its especially disconcerting that this weekend we’re mourning the passing of one of the four who made The Smiths the distinctive and important band they are. Andy Rourke, whose death after a long illness has been announced, was the band’s excellent bass guitarist and he was one of our own.
Those of us who came of age in the untamed world of independent spirited music in the 1980s were blessed to have encountered him: in the great traditions of classic rock music, he was a humble, gifted musician, happy in the shadows, who did his talking with his nimble fingers. In the complicated hierarchy that under-pinned The Smiths, he laid the foundations as part of an exceptional rhythm section alongside the band’s drummer, Mike Joyce. But Rourke was an outlier too: in a genre often pock-marked by unsophisticated plodding and the fall-out from the worst aspects of high-spirited d-i-y, he was far more than just an upholsterer. His contributions to the band’s output are busy, stylish, varied and rich, a point noted by Johnny Marr, one of The Smiths’ principal songwriters who, in announcing Andy Rourke’s death on social media, referred to him as ‘a supremely gifted musician’.
I was in my car yesterday morning when I heard of Andy’s premature death – he was 59 years of age – on the country’s biggest and most influential current affairs radio programme, Morning Ireland. I’m not sure if many other bass players who lurked in the side-stage could hope to be remembered on such a prominent platform but then Andy Rourke’s significance wouldn’t have been lost on either of the programme’s presenters, Rachael English and Áine Lawlor. Both of whom are as comfortable deconstructing the vagaries of vintage indie as they are the hapless public representatives that are routinely slapped up to them for carving.
So much so that when, shortly before 9am, Rachael cued the opening bars of ‘This Charming Man’, The Smiths’ second single, it sounded, with its proud, coquettish bass-line, even more urgent than it did when I first heard it, late at night, forty years ago. In my mind’s eye I saw Rachael and Áine back in their studio, ridding themselves of their headphones and silently pounding out the key punctuations built into that song, in homage.
Like the knackiest of corner-forwards, Rourke is constantly moving: his instrument has become, over that explosive two minutes and forty-one seconds, an extension of his body, a wand. It did so on practically all of The Smiths’ material too, of course, a point not lost on another industrious bassman, Mat Osman of Suede. Who nailed it when, also via Twitter, he described Andy as ‘a rare bassist whose sound you could recognise straight away’, before referencing ‘Barbarism Begins at Home’, The Smiths’ grooviest ever cut.
Some of were privileged to hear ‘Barbarism’ at close quarters when, in November, 1984, The Smiths introduced it to us during a live set at The Savoy that too was cut off in its prime. But not before Andy – with Mike Joyce in support off the shoulder – gave the concept of the bass solo a veneer and a venom few of us, in our thickness, believed possible. ‘Barbarism Begins at Home’ is at odds with much of the band’s canon but is perfectly in tune with Andy’s own influences which, to these ears, always seemed far broader and more interesting than the indie set tended to allow. To this end, I refer you in particular to his work on ‘How Soon Is Now’, ‘I Know It’s Over’ and most of his inputs to the band’s last elpee, ‘Strangeways, Here We Come’.
I point you also in the direction of ‘Yes, I Am Blind’ and ‘Girl Least Likely To’, a couple of tasty, off-Broadway cuts he wrote with Morrissey, the Smiths singer, and that appeared on the reverse sides of the ‘Ouija Board, Ouija Board’ and ‘November Spawned a Monster’ singles respectively.
Away from his considerable contribution to The Smiths, Andy Rourke also played on a number of other high-profile elpees, most notably Sinead O’Connor’s ‘I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got’. In recent years he performed regular ‘DJ sets’ at clubs and festivals all over Europe, Ireland included: his driver and co-conspirator on many of those excursions was Morty McCarthy, the multi-skilled action hero who, among other things, has long manned the traps with The Sultans of Ping FC. Raised in Ashton-upon-Mersey in the borough of Trafford by an Irish father, Rourke was later a member of D.A.R.K., a group he founded in New York in the late 2000s and that also featured Dolores O’Riordan among its number.
For a band that was together for barely five years – and who had the good sense to get out while they were still ahead – an awful lot has been written about The Smiths, then as now. But to many of us they were as important as The Beatles or The Rolling Stones might have been to the generation that paved the way. We were gaudy, clueless teenagers in search of whatever glamour and cheap thrills we could locate and, however fleetingly, The Smiths provided that for us in spades. They opened us to the art of the possible and the possibility of the art: the fact that they were roughly the same age as us only makes Andy’s passing all the more poignant.
As with far too much entertainment history, the story of The Smiths is also one of acrimony, recrimination and addiction. Andy was briefly fired by the band before the release of ‘The Queen Is Dead’ in 1986 because of an ongoing problem with heroin and featured in a high-profile action for legacy royalties taken by Mike Joyce against Morrissey and Marr that concluded at the Royal Courts of Justice in London ten years later. That case was initially instigated in the aftermath of The Smiths’ break-up by both Joyce and Rourke but, on the point of bankruptcy, the bass player settled early. The band’s best-known biographer, the late Johnny Rogan, claims in the The Severed Alliance that doing so ‘proved a disastrous decision on Rourke’s part and one that he would regret’.
A point acknowledged in a roundabout way by Johnny Marr in his 2016 autobiography, Set the Boy Free, which strikes a regretful tone in respect of how his school-friend was treated during, and especially after, his tenure as a member of The Smiths. The eventual reconciliation between the pair is one of the book’s more memorable takeaways. Given that news of Andy’s death was broken by Marr on social media seems to complete what, at one point, had become a very broken circle.
Andy Rourke was among a cohort of ground-breaking bass guitarists to emerge from the independent-skewed, guitar-led scene in the 1980s and who – like Paul McCartney twenty years previously – re-defined the position within the standard four-square line-up. Like Mike Mills of REM, Peter Hook of New Order, Les Pattinson of The Bunnymen and Mani from The Stone Roses, he aspired to far more than just silicone and grout, instinctively counter-pointing melody lines rather than simply sealing them. He made the whole thing sound so seamless as he did so.
Andy Rourke took his final bow almost forty years to the day since the release of The Smiths’ majestic debut single, ‘Hand in Glove’, and he features on some of the most important and influential records of the 1980s. So, with a nod to Morrissey, who yesterday, in paying tribute, channeled his inner Jack Lynch: as long as those records are played, the story of Andy Rourke will be told. And that will be forever.
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