Thursday, June 9, 2016

A Look At The New Smiths Photo Book By D.C.'s Own Nalinee Darmrong

While I'd seen Nalinee Darmrong around the (old) 9:30 Club for years, I probably didn't speak to her too much back in the day. She certainly seemed cooler than me for one and now here's proof of exactly how cool.

Back in the Eighties, Nalinee actually had the nerve to follow The Smiths around on tour, both here on these shores and in the U.K. That she did that is impressive enough, that she had the good sense to photograph the band so expertly is a thing to be thankful for some 3 decades later. Collected in the new book, The Smiths, published in June by Rizzoli, her photographs are both a wonderful chronicle of the band, as well as a sort of snapshot of exactly what indie rock was long before it was even called that. In a sense too this book is about fandom itself as her adventures with the band say as much about her devotion as a fan as they do about why this band was worth following around to begin with.

All that being said, one holds this art book in one's hands and wonders: "Why the heck didn't someone think of making a book like this about The Smiths before?" Yes, there are some unnecessary tomes amid the glut of rock coffee table books in this world but this isn't one of them. What this is is a supremely high quality (thanks to the folks at Rizzoli) photographic survey of the peak performing years of one of the U.K.'s most important bands. Even for those of you who might not be fans of The Smiths -- and Dear God in Heaven why the heck are you even reading this blog if you aren't!?! -- the book still works as it captures a few moments in time when it was actually possible to follow a band on the road, across a few continents, and produce rather intimate shots of the group both on stage and off.

That Nalinee did all that when some of us were barely aware of The Smiths is nothing short of impressive. And, thankfully, she's such a skilled photographer that the pics here in this book are probably some of the best you're going to see of the band too.

Nalinee staked out The Smiths at their hotel in D.C. around the time of a local show on the Meat is Murder tour in 1985 and shot some pics of the musicians in a casual setting. After that she got put on the guest list for a Smiths gig in NYC by Johnny Marr himself and things took off from there. Not quite an official photographer of the band at the time, it seems that she was indeed warmly welcomed by all 4 members of The Smiths as she followed them both here and in the U.K.

Perhaps my favorite shots in the book are the ones of the band off-stage as the pics reveal the group to be seemingly not as pretentious as they perhaps had a right to be. Rather than dour, Morrissey appears jovial in a few of these shots as he signs autographs for fans. Johnny Marr, Andy Rourke, and Mike Joyce -- and later, additional guitarist Craig Gannon -- also look so young in these pages. This perfect indie band look so un-spoiled here that one sort of marvels how the enormous the effect of the band's Art; how did these 4 guys do so much in such a short amount of time? Additionally, the look of the group seems both of its era and timeless; Morrissey, Marr, and crew wisely avoided the egregious trappings of Eighties fashion and stuck to a look that now seems undated and fresh. For all of those people who think the Eighties was all big hair, Kajagoogoo-style crap, the shots here are a blessed reminder that Morrissey and Marr were making a fashion statement that wouldn't go out of style so instantly.

Elsehwere in The Smiths, Nalinee Darmrong chronicles the ephemera of life on the road with the Mancunian legends -- ticket stubs, hotel bills, flyers, etc. -- and a reader is rewarded with a glimpse at these little mementos that make these larger-than-life artists much more human and less the stuff of classic rock books of another sort. That Nalinee lived through all this -- that all the photos are hers and the souvenirs of another age things she shot -- is a fact that makes the book more special and oddly touching. For fans of this band, you're liable to want to binge-play all their singles and albums after flipping through this book. Better yet, you'd spin 'em while you were flipping through it.

In addition to all the pics of the band live on stage and in backstage settings, there are a few curios of Nalinee's adventure -- a pic of Morrissey's (beautiful) paisley shirt that he presumably threw off while singing and which she grabbed. And the two-page spread of Smiths buttons gave me a little chill as I recalled having some of those and wearing them proudly on a suit coat over a paisley shirt. (I found myself trying to remember in which record shops I bought those same buttons -- Smash! in Georgetown, maybe? -- long before I started working in D.C.-area record stores.) The shots here of those trinkets, and the band, obviously, reveal a freshness that is more than the simple pangs of nostalgia. In an era of Stock, Aitken, and Waterman -- and I'm a fan, don't get me wrong -- The Smiths were the real deal. And they've been made all the more real by these dozens and dozens and dozens of photos. It's all here -- an era alive again in glorious black-and-white and the band that now, like The Go-Betweens, seem more and more important and rare with each passing year of time.

The Smiths by Nalinee Darmrong, out Tuesday via Rizzoli, is the book Smiths fans always needed but little dreamed could exist.

Decades ago -- probably when I was trying to look hip at the old 9:30 Club and seeing some band that would never be The Smiths -- I remember passing Nalinee Darmrong in the club and she looked like the coolest girl in the room. Having seen her around at the old location on F Street I knew who she was and I remarked to my friend: "I bet that girl has the best taste in music."

Yeah, turns out she did and she was having adventures that music fans then and now should seriously envy. Luckily she documented them in order to produce this book, The Smiths by Nalinee Darmrong (Rizzoli).

D.C. peeps: there will be an exhibition of some of the photos in this book next Friday (June 17) at Studio 1469 in NW. More details on the event's Facebook page here.

[All photos (c) Nalinee Darmrong, The Smiths, Rizzoli, 2016.]