Former Smiths Bassist Andy Rourke Dies at Age 59 | Under the Radar Magazine Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
Wednesday, September 27th, 2023  

Blitz Vega (L to R: Andy Rourke, Kav Sandhu)

Former Smiths Bassist Andy Rourke Dies at Age 59

There is a Light That Will Never Go Out

May 19, 2023 Photography by Lexi Bonin (Reybee, Inc. PR)
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When one thinks about The Smiths, the first image that comes to mind is that of Morrissey. A whirling dervish, bedecked with gladioli with a 1950s, National Health Service hearing aid dangling from his blouse. Your mind’s eye may then travel to Johnny Marr, coaxing rippling, jangling melodies from a big red guitar as he peers from underneath an immaculate Brian Jones hairdo. What you probably won’t bring to mind is bassist Andy Rourke. Standing at the back, next to drummer Mike Joyce, Rourke, with the minimum of fuss, added an extra layer of rich melody and a gorgeous supple groove to every song, making the music of the Smiths so easy to dance to. Sadly, in a social media post today (May 19th), his lifelong friend Johnny Marr wrote, “It is with deep sadness that we announce the passing of Andy Rourke after a lengthy illness with pancreatic cancer. Andy will be remembered as a kind and beautiful soul by those who knew him and as a supremely gifted musician by music fans.” He was just 59.

At the age of 11, Rourke met Marr (then Johnny Maher) at school and they took every opportunity to play music together. Both were budding guitarists, but when a band that Marr was putting together needed a bassist, Rourke effortlessly stepped up to that role. The bass became his voice for the rest of his career.

While his contemporaries were listening to The Kinks and The Who or playing along to records by Sex Pistols or The Clash, Rourke was busy studying Stanley Clarke’s jazz fusion style or Parliament and Funkadelic. It was these influences that set him apart. When he joined The Smiths in 1982, his precise yet funky playing was another unique selling point in an already unique band. Rourke’s skill in being able to play complicated, melodic basslines which never interfered with Marr’s intricate guitar parts and Joyce’s solid, unflashy drumming was a huge factor in the band’s sound. Songs like “This Charming Man,” “Barbarism Begins at Home,” and “Bigmouth Strikes Again” benefit hugely from Rourke’s contribution. Never once does he steal focus from Morrissey and Marr, but he adds a superb melodic counterpoint for those who choose to tune in to it.

The Smiths rose quickly from indie press-darlings to mainstream stars and after three albums (The Smiths, Meat is Murder and the brilliant The Queen is Dead) the cracks began to show. Rourke was fired from the band in 1986 as a result of his use of heroin and was briefly replaced by Aztec Camera’s Craig Gannon. After just two weeks, Rourke was back and Gannon switched to guitar. The band (minus Gannon) recorded their final studio album Strangeways Here We Come before they finally, inevitably crumbled.

Rourke could have walked away from music at that point, safe in the knowledge that he had made a significant contribution to one of the defining bands of that era. Instead, he kept on going, working with Sinéad O’Connor and Morrissey in the early ’90s before going on to play with The Pretenders on their 1994 album Last of the Independents. He toured with Badly Drawn Boy for two years and formed Freebass—an unwieldy ensemble originally consisting of Rourke with fellow bassists Peter Hook (Joy Division, New Order) and Gary “Mani” Mounfield (The Stone Roses, Primal Scream). His tenure was brief and he severed his ties with the band when he moved to New York in 2009 and began to work as a DJ. In 2014, he joined D.A.R.K with Cranberries singer Dolores O’Riordan, releasing the album Science Agrees in 2016.

One of his last projects saw him reunited with Johnny Marr—“Strong Forever” by Blitz Vega combined Marr’s signature guitar style with Rourke’s effortlessly danceable bass alongside former Happy Mondays member Kav Sandhu. Sadly, we’ll never know what this combination could have been capable of as on May 19th Rourke died from pancreatic cancer at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City.

Although he chose to leave the spotlight to people like Morrissey, Johnny Marr, Chrissie Hynde, Peter Hook, and Dolores O’Riordan, his contributions to their work were anything but slight. His lines were carefully composed and brought out the strengths in every member of whatever ensemble he played with. He was also aware of his status—in an interview with The Rocker in 2012, he said; “I’m always very polite to Smiths fans, my fans, because without them, then we’d be nowhere. I hate it when artists and musicians are dismissive of their fans, they won’t take a picture with them, they won’t talk to them, they just walk right through…I think that’s terrible. I always try and sign stuff, take photos.”

On his website today, Morrissey spoke fondly of his ex-bandmate, saying, “He will never die as long as his music is heard. He didn’t ever know his own power, and nothing that he played had been played by someone else. His distinction was so terrific and unconventional and he proved it could be done.” It was his old school friend Johnny Marr who best encapsulated Rourke’s legacy. On his social media channels, he wrote; “Watching him play those dazzling basslines was an absolute privilege and genuinely something to behold. But one time which always comes to mind was when I sat next to him at the mixing desk watching him play his bass on the song ‘The Queen Is Dead.’ It was so impressive that I said to myself: ‘I’ll never forget this moment.’”

As long as people listen to The Smiths or any of the other projects he was involved with, Rourke will be a presence. No matter how bleak the lyric, how intricate the guitar line, Rourke always made sure that there was something else to listen to. To dance to. He may have favored the shadows, but his masterful playing was at the forefront of an enviable canon of popular music.

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