Tales of a Reading

IMAG1441 IMAG1430The space was a narrow alley of books, filled with folding chairs. Every chair was full by the time I sat down, glass of wine in hand, to listen to Tony Fletcher read. In other cities, Tony has arranged for performances of the Smiths’ music by local artists, but there wasn’t room for that here in the tiny second floor space. Green Apple Books, on Clement Street in San Francisco, held this reading in the Philosophy section. It was intimate, but it worked.

Tony read several sections of his biography of the Smiths, entitled “A Light That Never Goes Out,” after asking the audience how many of us were fans and how many had actually seen the Smiths live. He allowed that we would have to be at least 40 in order to have been around when the Smiths were touring, in the mid-80’s.  The crowd at the reading was a mix, but we were all interested in the details Tony had to share.

Tony read about the first meeting between Morrissey and Marr, as well as about their first and second American tours, giving us detailed background of the people he knew and their roles in the Smiths’ story. His voice, which hasn’t lost the English accent, despite more than two decades of living in America, took me there, into the recording studio and the hotel rooms on the road.

The biography is long and dense, but the narrative shines through. Tony tells the story with an authenticity and an understanding of the reader’s interest. This isn’t a dry, purely academic tale, which is not to say that it isn’t thoroughly researched and footnoted. But Tony is interested in digging deeply into the reasons for the Smiths’ popularity, for their near immaculate conception, as well as their excruciatingly sudden dispersal.

I have only dipped into the book so far, reading scattered sections, but there is so much there, that I will go back and enjoy it more fully. And when I do, I will hear Tony’s voice in my head, telling me his story.


Silicon Valley Reads 2013

It’s the new year and time for Silicon Valley Reads to choose a new book, or in this case, two new books. walk1 Minefields-of-the-Heart-lg

This year, Silicon Valley Reads will be focusing on an important subject: the aftermath of war, the human impact on those who return and the people left behind.

It seems to me that in the past, the primary casualties of war were on the battlefield. We mourned our dead and dealt with the rehabilitation of our wounded. But the wars of this century have been different. I’m not sure that they have taken a greater psychological toll than any previous wars, or we are more aware of it.

I think it will make for both compelling reading and interesting discussions and I encourage all of you to take part.

The kickoff event will be Wednesday, January 30, at the Heritage Theater in Campbell. Both of the authors,Brian Castner and Sue Diaz, will be speaking at Books, Inc. in Palo Alto on Thursday, Feb. 1 at 7pm.

You can find out more about all the events planned for this year at http://www.siliconvalleyreads.org

Embracing the Smiths

For most of the 80’s I lived in New Jersey, newly married and still willing to drive 200 miles back to Baltimore just for a party with my sister and her friends. The Smiths formed in 1982 and broke up in 1987, but during that brief period, they created something extremely powerful.  For me, the sound of Morrissey’s voice brings back long drives down rain-slicked highways, the flick of the wipers and the smear of headlights going in the opposite direction.

Tony Fletcher was born in Yorkshire, England and grew up in South London, a fan of the punk rock scene. He got into writing about the music as a teenager, publishing a fanzine called Jamming! from the time he was 13. He moved to New York in 1988 and was a fan, as well as a reviewer, of the Smiths. He’s written an amazing biography of the band, entitled “A Light That Never Goes Out: The Enduring Saga of the Smiths” and he’s agreed to be interviewed for my blog.

1212_SBR_LIGHT_AUTHOR.jpg.CROP.article250-mediumA Light That Never Goes Out - Jacket-1

Baird: Tony, I’ve read in your comments on Amazon that your history was interconnected with the band and their music, which primed you for writing this particular biography, but why now? Was there an inciting incident, a moment when you decided to go forward with the project?

Tony: There was no one inciting incident. I did come of age with the group and was very much part of their audience, although having started out young in music, I was already editing a magazine by 1983 and so, rather than follow the Smiths around the country (as I had done previously with the Jam), I followed them as a fan but also perhaps something of a peer.

I saw them in concert many times, interviewed them, put them on the cover of my magazine, and eagerly anticipated their frequent single releases. Their impact at the time was absolutely enormous, and yet it hasn’t withered over the years; if anything, the Smiths’ influence now is greater than ever. Realizing that there had only been one biography on the Smiths, and recognizing that it would be twenty years old in 2012, I decided to take on the subject for myself, and hopefully improve upon that previous biography.

Baird: This book is enormous – over 600 pages of text, 25 pages of notes, 10 pages of bibliography, 5 pages of additional interview sources. The research is astonishing. Did you know it was going to be this complex when you began?

Tony: Probably. Brevity is not my strong point, and my Keith Moon biography was actually about 25% longer! It’s difficult to strike the right balance: there are those who seek something shorter and more concise, but there are plenty of ardent Smiths fans out there who would read as much as you could give them.

In hindsight – or rather, with the benefit of a little more editing time – I think the book could have been satisfactorily 10% shorter or so, but that’s always the case, and personally, I am proud that it has this much detail. The Smiths were, after all, a very literary band.

As for the additional notes, etc., much of that is mandatory nowadays with large biographies; gone are the days when you didn’t have to cite all your sources or reading materials.

Baird: Can you talk about your writing process? Were you writing the entire time as well as interviewing, or did you have a distinct research phase and then a writing phase?

Tony: It’s the latter. There are indeed very distinct phases. There’s a first phase of gathering up the idea, writing the synopsis and hopefully gaining a book deal at the end of it. During that time, I read other books, listen to the music, watch the various video/film clips and, by writing a synopsis, gain a sense of the book that I would ultimately like to write.

The second phase is the interview phase, which can go on forever if you’re not careful; in my case, it certainly went on for 18 months or so. At some point, you have to enter the third phase, of writing the actual book, whether or not you feel you’ve contacted every possible source or conducted every possible interview. Although the reality is that the interview process continues to some extent while writing, I like to separate the two, because once I go into writing mode, I get quite anti-social, which is not an effective interviewing technique!

There’s a fourth phase as well, working with one’s editor(s) and then even a fifth, making last-minute changes on the typesetting, but I guess those could be included as part of the writing process.

Baird: How did you organize all the vast information that you were gathering over a period of time?

Tony: I would like to say that computers make it easier, that one can drop various files into various folders and, should they get ‘lost,’ ‘find’ them again via a search toolbar. At the same time, I rather miss the old-fashioned technique of being surrounded by piles of magazine cuttings and interview transcripts and being forced to retype the entire book every time one wants to make significant changes. (Thinks about this some more…) Actually, no I don’t miss the old method. It truly is wonderful being able to keep everything on computer, from music to interview audio files to transcripts, notes, downloaded images etc etc. But for me it’s always been important for writing to be tactile and one of my favorite parts of the process is printing out a chapter, sitting back on my bean chair with a Uni-ball, and wreaking havoc on my words!

Baird: The Smiths have continued to gather a following of young fans, many of whom were born after the band broke up. What do you think is the most compelling reason for their continued fame?

Tony: In part, it’s because they broke up prematurely, before they could even make a bad record. The near-perfection of their career, and its prolific nature (70 Morrissey-Marr songs in four years) is somewhat jaw-dropping and inevitably inspiring. And also because they broke up prematurely, we feel almost cheated by the fact that we didn’t get a longer, more fulfilling story, and so I think we’re instinctively fascinated by the details that we have and are constantly seeking out more information.

But most importantly, it’s the music. I find it very pertinent that by swimming against the musical tide of the 1980s – you’ll find almost no Juno-8 synths, massive booming snare drums, very few Linn Drums, and of course a bare minimum of embarrassing promo videos – the Smiths have ended up sounding timeless.

In 1984, the year of the Smiths’ first album, it was Frankie Goes To Hollywood whose first three singles went to #1 in the UK, but who talks about that band now other than as a textbook example of overblown (and overcostly) hype? Similarly, when the Smiths toured the States in 1985, it was Tears For Fears who had the multi-million album sales, but the Smiths get more airplay and credibility these days. And that’s not unconnected to the other important reason for their continued longevity: Morrissey’s lyrics. He spoke to the unloved, the unlovable, the hopeless, the hapless, but also to the angst-ridden and the angry, the romantics and the ‘ruffians,’ and such people exist within each and every generation. A handful of lyrical references may be confined by their times, but for the most part, the message is immortal.

Baird: Do you have an idea for your next project? If so, can you tell us what you’re working on?

Tony:  My next book is a memoir, Boy About Town, published (for now) in the UK only, by William Heinemann in July 2013.

It’s a top 50 short-story countdown of my 1970s schooldays and sets out to be part pop music history, part coming of age story, part social commentary, and more besides. I’m absolutely thrilled with it.

Beyond that, and an update of my R.E.M. biography given that they broke up in 2011 and we wanted to bring that book Perfect Circle, as it’s being called. I haven’t settled yet on the next long-term non-fiction project. As you can imagine when you’re writing 700 pages or so, you have to be truly devoted to your subject to spend that much time with it!

Baird: Thanks so much for taking the time to answer my questions and share your story with us.

Tony Fletcher will be reading and discussing his book “A Light That Never Goes Out: The Enduring Saga of the Smiths” at Green Apple Books in San Francisco on Friday, January 18th at 7pm.


New Year’s Reading List

I usually get books for Christmas and then I have lots of books to look forward to reading. This year, I didn’t get any, but I still have a list of books I want to read. I’d love to hear if you have any on your “to be read” list!


The first one on my list is a debut, coming-of-age novel by Lisa O’Donnell, a Scottish screenwriter living in LA. “The Death of Bees” sucked me in from the first few pages. Two young sisters try to cope with the death of their parents. They bury the bodies in the back yard and try to avoid the notice of the authorities at least until the older girl, Marnie, turns 16, and is legally able to take care of her sister, Nelly. The voices of the characters are very compelling. Here, Marnie talks about her sister.

“Truth is Nelly’s a wee bit touched, not retarded or anything, just different. She doesn’t have many friends, she doesn’t laugh much and when you talk to her about something serious, she gets really quiet, likes she’s taking it in and then rearranging it in her head. I don’t know how she arranges it, I just know its different from how I might arrange it. She also takes things very literally, so you have to be careful what you say. For instance, if I said ‘You’re fucking mental,’ she’d say something like ‘I can assure you, Marnie, one is perfectly sane!’ I don’t know why she’s not dead to be honest. You can’t talk like that, not in Maryhill.”

I felt for the girls from the beginning and there were enough stray, mysterious comments to keep me turning the pages.

Even better, Lisa O’Donnell is coming to speak in Palo Alto this weekend! Saturday, January 12, you can see her at the Palo Alto Library, Downtown branch at 3pm. 270 Forest Avenue, Palo Alto.