When it comes to fandom, few bands have inspired the kind of unwavering devotion that The Smiths have. Their music was melodious, ballsy, moody and raw, delving at one moment into the awkwardness, despair and irony of love — for others and for one's self — and the next into society's ills, making the world seem equal parts grim and ridiculous. The members themselves were (are) as enigmatic as their music was (is) enchanting, and when the group imploded, their legend only intensified. One of their biggest fans, D.C.-based photographer Nalinee Darmrong, had the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to follow the iconic group and document their rise when she was just a teenager. More than 30 years later, the candid photographs, unique ephemera and life-changing memories she's cherished privately since the band broke up have been collected in a volume simply called The Smiths.
Flipping through, the book feels like a personal, almost diarylike historical document. Darmrong's camera captured Morrissey, Johnny Marr, Andy Rourke and Mike Joyce performing onstage, hanging out backstage and at various locales on the road between gigs. The book also includes images of venues' exteriors, stuff like set lists and laminates, and the photographer's own memorabilia from the time. It's mostly shot in black-and-white, and lot of it has a candid, fly-on-the-wall feel, which suits a band like The Smiths to pensive perfection. The book also includes one of the last writings of revered music journalist Marc Spitz (who died in February) in its foreword, as well as some thoughtful words from Ride's Andy Bell.
Los Angeles in particular has a deep devotion to the Moz (who lives here) and his former band, so it makes sense that Darmrong's first book event and release party would be here. In advance of her photo exhibit and signing at Mr. Musichead Gallery in Hollywood on Thursday, she spoke with L.A. Weekly about the book, the band and their impact on her life as both a photographer and music lover.
L.A. Weekly: How did you get into music photography?
Nalinee Darmrong: My father was a novice photographer. He had all the gear — huge lenses, tripods, camera cases — and I guess growing up with all of that subconsciously rubbed off on me, so I took a couple of photography courses in high school. I had started shooting bands at around age 15 at the 9:30 Club, as well as other all-ages venues in the D.C. Metro area. The Smiths were the first band I consistently photographed over a long period of time (about a year and 35 shows). I was so fortunate to have amazing friends into great music who took me to shows, but it was also about being in the right place at the right time.
Tell us more about the D.C. music scene, the 9:30 Club and how your connection with this band from the U.K. developed?
I began shooting live bands like Let's Active, Tommy Keene, Lloyd Cole and the Commotions, etc., at the 9:30 early on. But then I worked there for a while and didn't shoot so much. I'd still shoot pics of my friends' bands when they played there or at other D.C. area venues, such as the Black Cat, 15 Minutes, the Metro Cafe, Iota Club and Cafe, Galaxy Hut, DC9, to name a few. I also went to a lot of punk shows back then as a teenager, but didn't really take many photos; I was more about the experience. I do regret not taking more photos during this time.
I started shooting The Smiths in the summer of 1985 during the West Coast gigs on the 1985 Meat Is Murder tour. I was 17 years old. I had met all the members previously through my first four shows on the East Coast. I then traveled to California with good friends and decided to bring my modest Minolta X-300 35mm camera with me. Obviously that was one of the best decisions I've ever made in my life. I continued to shoot pics of The Smiths through Scotland, Canada and most of the U.S. 1986 The Queen Is Dead tour. Their subsequent tour in the U.K. was their last. They broke up in 1987.
What was your relationship like with the band? Were they welcoming of your shooting?
Yes. Morrissey and Johnny were so lovely. Actually, at the end of the U.S. Meat Is Murder tour, I got up the courage — with the help of my buddy Grant Showbiz, The Smiths' sound engineer — to have a chat with their then-manager, Sophie, who gave me the chance to show Morrissey and Johnny some shots I had taken. I had heard that they were interested in some new images for the next tour program. They both marked their faves on the back of my photos with an emphatic "Yes!" Unfortunately Sophie moved on after that tour, and I was too shy to follow up with Morrissey and Johnny on the next leg of the tour in Scotland. In hindsight, I realized that Morrissey and Johnny really were interested in my photos, because the next tour program had the same photos as the previous one. An opportunity for these photos to be seen was sorely missed. Until now, I guess.
The band were so great. I was definitely more comfortable being a fly on the wall, and I think that they really appreciated that, and with that notion they kinda let me shoot everywhere. To be honest, I was definitely spoiled by that experience. The current social media saturation/instant gratification aspect of digital photography has changed everything. I am currently one of the house photographers for the 9:30 Club/IMP Productions. Digital photography is quite different to the film photography that I had learned when I was a teenager. I basically had to relearn and rethink how I perceived an image.
Why did you decide to do the book?
I was contributing photos and ephemera to the 35th-anniversary book of the 9:30 Club, and I just got up the guts to show the editor's assistants (Jeanette Sawyer and Trina Calderon) a small binder of Smiths photos and memorabilia. I had never shown this binder to anyone, and I guess I just wanted to share this amazing part of my life with them. They were interested enough and they mentioned the images and ephemera to their boss, Roger Gastman (Swindle magazine, Exit Through the Gift Shop, Pump Me Up: D.C. Subculture of the 1980s), who passed it on to Jessica Fuller, the lovely senior editor at Rizzoli, and about a year later my photo book, The Smiths, will finally be released to the masses.
What is it about The Smiths that keeps music fans so obsessed? The band's mystique — Morrissey's in particular — is sort of unmatched. As a photographer, what do you think has made this band's image so captivating, even after all these years?
In my opinion, fans of The Smiths related intensely to Morrissey's insightful lyrics and to Johnny's amazing jangly pop-rock songs, and I think people just related to the band's whole notion that life was life; that it was OK to be miserable, and more importantly, it was more than OK to laugh about misery in the same breath!
But I also think a part of their magic lies in the brevity of their career, and how hard they worked in that short span of time (1982-87). Single after single, album after album, tour after tour, they had something to say, and the world definitely listened and responded in kind, city to country to continent to world. Morrissey's lyrics were (and are) witty, insightful, empathetic and nurturing. Johnny's anti-solo guitar hero sound spawned a great legacy for so many bands that came after. Andy Rourke, Mike Joyce and Craig Gannon (briefly) were an amazing rhythm section that perfected the musical compositions that Morrissey and Johnny created together. Musicians realized how intricate the songwriting was, even though hearing the songs sounded as though the writing process had been effortless, which was eerily comparable to what musicians in the 1960s and 1970s had said about The Beatles.
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Rock photography has changed a lot, hasn't it? It seems much more limited these days in terms of building relationships like you had with these artists, which makes it less intimate.
Photography-wise in the '80s, there was definitely less restrictions as far as amateur photographers were concerned, but The Smiths also gave me access, so I really felt quite free. Obviously, Morrissey loved the camera. Johnny, Andy, Mike and Craig did as well, but I feel Morrissey definitely had more freedom to dance, engage with the audience, etc., without the hindrance of musical instruments. But that said, I do remember a great moment where I was onstage, dancing with Johnny, while he was wailing on his guitar. The Smiths always encouraged that blurring of boundaries between artist and fan. And I was a fan as well as photographer. Truth is definitely stranger than fiction, and I really am one of the lucky ones to have experienced my youth and honed my craft with one of the greatest bands of all time.
The Smiths by Nalinee Darmrong, exhibit and book signing at Mr. Musichead Gallery, 7420 Sunset Blvd., Hollywood; Thu., May 4, 7-10 p.m. facebook.com/events/1296518427095974.