Rock ‘n’ roll can will a peculiar sort of transformation upon a musician. For former Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr, the transformations he’s undergone since starting this life in 1963 as John Maher have been subtle yet profound.
A music obsessive who fronted several go-nowhere bands, Marr made the jump to guitar hero at the tender age of eighteen by co-helming the Smiths with singer and fellow romantic Morrissey. Whatever differences drove Morrissey and Marr apart, one can easily see where Maher-turned-Marr — a determined young buck who gained ideas and influence from British punk rock journalists like Jon Savage — would strike a bond with his former frontman, who shared Marr’s obsession with music in his youth by indulging his dandy witticisms frequently in letters published in Melody Maker.
After the Smiths split in 1987, Marr transformed himself into a strong and silent partner, playing on recordings by The The, Billy Bragg, the Pet Shop Boys, and Talking Heads. Yet another transformation followed as the Second Summer of Love arrived in Manchester in 1988 and apostate rockers like Happy Mondays began futzing around with dance music and hip-hop. Marr eventually contributed to this movement himself alongside New Order’s Bernard Sumner with their band Electronic.
Now, as Johnny Marr and the Healers, Marr has shifted styles yet again into a vocalist and leader of his own band, which includes Kula Shaker bassist Alonza Bevan and Ringo Starr’s drummer son, Zak Starkey. Listeners who have followed the Healers through 2001’s The Last Ride EP or the current album Boomslang already know that Marr hasn’t abandoned his rock roots. The Healers are a classic power-pop trio, buoyed by the strength of Starkey and Bevan’s rhythm section and Marr’s patented neo-skiffle flourishes and melodic-yet-aggressive riffing. Marr played with both musicians for several years before forming the band, and feels he has developed an almost extrasensory communication with them. “There’s plenty of studio guys, just anonymous people that I know who would come in and do a fine job, but I wanted a bit more of a family atmosphere and a bit more of a team,” he says. “They obviously have as much input as they want to put in, and sometimes they just leave me alone to get on with my side of things.”
A workaholic in the studio, Marr insists his dedication isn’t an exercise in self-flagellation, but a basic desire to see through a particular project. “Passion can go a long way, really, and I kind of get caught up in what I’m doing, and if I end up working real late, then that’s what I do,” he says. “It’s not something I live as a philosophy, because it’s very easy to get cabin fever and burn out. I’m not a great believer in doing it for the sake of doing it.”
The years have taught Marr to see music as some sort of renewal, and he intends to teach this to others for as long as he can still play a guitar. “The main thing to be taught about music is that it’s magic,” he declares. Marr speaks of a palpable yet hidden force when describing this so-called magic, a force he gets from working closely with other musicians, including those in his own family. “[We] always lived in a recording studio rather than having a studio in the house. It was kind of the other way around, with instruments all over the place,” he recalls. “I come from a family of passionate music lovers and, I guess, frustrated record producers. I learned the art of standing over a record player and playing the same 7-inch 45 fifteen times consecutively from my mother.”
Most people who begin as music obsessives eventually channel this focus into other areas or obsessions as they move through life, but Marr still outpaces musicians decades younger than him. As for modern rock, the only performer Marr singles out as a particular favorite is P.J. Harvey. Currently, his obsessions draw him towards Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Boards of Canada, and Air. He enthuses about their work as completely as any record-store geek — and you’ll hear their influences if you listen closely to his new record.
Possibly the biggest difference from the past, at least musically, is that Marr has made his debut as a singer, making quite a good showing for himself. Apparently almost everyone around him knew he could sing, but a little encouragement was needed. Matt Johnson of The The was one of the first people who took him aside and suggested he should try it. “I listened to [my voice] with that objectivity that I would listen to somebody else I was working with, and I thought, ‘Well, you know, it sounds right,'” Marr says.
For the Healers’ Boomslang, Marr rose at dawn to write lyrics during the “magic hour.” Observations such as “Some things you’ve got to cry about/Some things you’ve got to smile about” are a long way removed from his former soundtracks to adolescent self-pity. Marr describes this as a silent epiphany. “I think what I’m trying to say in that song is that we all think we know a hell of a lot, but at the same time, we know it’s not very much, and that’s really the way it’s supposed to be, and that’s cool.”
Especially at this point in his life, Marr’s muse has led him into a particularly spiritual place. After all, any band named the Healers certainly evokes some degree of mysticism; the band’s name is taken from The Secret Doctrine by 19th-century occultist Madame Blavatsky, who is credited with being the first person to introduce Eastern thought and philosophy to the West.
Marr continues to learn lessons from listening and playing with sound. “Whether you’re in a band or whatever walk of life you want to get into that’s creative, you get out of it what you put into it. …You’ve got to really believe in it and have a passion for it and if you do have those things, then when the consequences of it come along, whether it’s the rip-offs or the disillusionment, or things that come your way, they’re worth it.”