Barely out of high school, Nalinee Darmrong lived in a kind of indie-rock fairy tale when she followed around and photographed The Smiths for two years in 1985 and 1986. More than 30 years later, Darmrong, who is a freelance house photographer for the 9:30 Club, has packaged those photographs in the form of a book.
The Smiths, edited by Roger Gastman and released by Rizzoli Publications on Tuesday, provides a cool, intimate glimpse of a critical juncture in the fabled Manchester band’s history. Operating at the peak of its creative powers, Darmrong’s photos also capture the band just before its dissolution. Last week, we talked about the book with Darmrong ahead of an exhibition of her photos at Studio 1469 that opens on Friday.
WCP: How did the book come together? Did you pitch it?
Nalinee Darmrong: No, no, no. Not at all. A few people came over to look at 9:30 Club stuff for the book they put out. I had this small binder of Smiths stuff. I went to them and said “Hey, do you guys like The Smiths?” I showed them and they said “Holy crap. You need to show Roger.” That was it. Roger knew my senior editor at Rizzoli, who is huge Smiths fan.
WCP: How did you end up going on the road with the band?
ND: I was 17 going on 18. It was the Meat Is Murder and The Queen Is Dead tours in 1985 and 1986.
WCP: For a band that even today is shrouded in mythology, it’s kind of mindblowing that you got that access.
ND: But see, I didn’t think so at the time. But now there’s all these people flipping out about them, which is great. I’m finally ready to share this with everyone, but back then. I was just going with the flow.
WCP: At the time, I’m sure there was no telling they’d grow in stature the way they have over the last 30 years.
ND: The timing was insane. I just graduated from high school. My friend Tony, who got me into music, got me my first ticket (to a Smiths show) in D.C. for my graduation. Then my other friend got me a ticket for Philly. We talked to Johnny Marr after the D.C. show. There were about 10 of us who sat outside of the Omni Shoreham Hotel on the sidewalk all night playing Duck Duck Goose. We just waited for them. The next morning, they all came down to the cafe. They were all really relaxed and really kind. Johnny just put us on the guest list for New York for two nights. After that, they just kind of knew us. They were like, “We’re going to California, are you coming?”
WCP: Did you just keep following them around from there?
ND: It really was pretty organic, the way it all happened. After the second New York show, we heard somehow that they were going to this club called Danceteria. We were just hanging out with them. It was mainly Johnny, Andy, and Mike. Morrissey didn’t really go out to the clubs that much. Johnny was like “I’m getting married to my fiancé in L.A. If you guys can make it, that would be amazing.” There were the D.C., New York, Philly, and California shows, and then we went to Scotland in the fall. By then, they were having us on stage, dancing during the encores.
WCP: How were you getting from show to show? Were you paying your own way?
ND: On the last U.S. tour, sometimes I got a lift from the band. There were a lot of buses, Greyhounds and stuff. Sometimes I got rides from fans or other bands. Then it was a lot of paying off my credit cards for the next three years.
WCP: Was it just an open ended deal with the band, like “If you can make it you’re on the list?”
ND: Yeah, I’d be able to take pictures and get into the show. That was enough for me, and that’s how I started. I didn’t know what I was doing at 17 with my junky camera. I had no idea. After a while, they just gave me a laminate to save paper and time. I always appreciated their trust in me.
WCP: Were you ever given any instruction as to what you could or couldn’t shoot, or were you free to do what you wanted?
ND: No, no. They didn’t say any of that. It’s crazy, because these days it’s just not like that.
WCP: Also when you’re a touring band and you’re in a different city every night, it’s hard to find people you can trust. Do you think that helped you to get the kind of access you had?
ND: Maybe. I’m closest to Johnny, I’d say. Andy, too. I’ve seen Johnny on his solo tours the last three years. The first time I saw him after so many years, we just started flapping like there was no tomorrow. I hadn’t seen him in 25 years. I was really curious of what he thought of me back in the day. He said “I thought that’s what you did. I thought you were a photographer.”
WCP: What did you learn about the band through your time on tour with them? How do you look at that period in their career in retrospect?
ND: The first thing that I think of is this perception of Morrissey as being miserable and gloomy. He’s not like that at all. He’s gregarious with the driest wit, obviously. He’s hilarious. Johnny, as cool as he seems and as beautiful as he is inside and out, he’s also super smart. He’s really philosophical and gentle, a very kind man. Andy and Mike, I guess, were just really free spirited. Mike had a lot of energy. He was always really talkative with people. I think Andy was the most shy, I would say.
WCP: Was it interesting to see how they worked together?
ND: Absolutely. That’s why I feel lucky to have been where I was at that time, because it was right before everything went down. They may have seemed a little tired, but they had been working non-stop for three or four years at that point. There were singles, one after the other, and tours one after the other. I think it was especially hard on Morrissey and Johnny. That’s who everyone revered the most, because to a lot of people they were the Lennon–McCartney of their time. But they also had a kick-ass rhythm section with Andy and Mike. When I first saw them live, I thought “Ok, these guys are amazing.” It kind of reminded me of the Dischord punk shows in D.C. because there was this energy to it. People were moshing and stage diving. Another thing was they broke down the audience barrier. They always encouraged fans to go onstage.
WCP: Did you have any close encounters with the band on stage at all?
ND: One of my favorite memories was in New York at the Beacon Theater. I was in the front, and the fans were propping me up to go onstage. The bouncers, though, were punching me to get down. Morrissey just extended his hand to me and pulled me up onstage. I’m so thankful to him for that. I hugged him for about a minute, so thankful to be still.
WCP: There are fans around the world who would kill to have that moment.
ND: Right, and that was before I had any access to them. That could have been anyone.
WCP: Had you thought about doing anything with the photos prior to the book, or were you content just to have them?
ND: Yeah. You have to remember that they broke up right afterwards. I lived in that Smiths bubble for many years, so I was heartbroken like everyone else was. I kind of didn’t want to go and revisit that stuff for a long time.
WCP: What was your reaction to the news that work on the book was moving forward?
ND: I was completely petrified. I think over a matter of a week to two weeks, it became clear that it was going to happen. Only now is it sinking in. There’s so many books about The Smiths, you know? But Roger said “This is as much about your story as it is about The Smiths.” It kind of makes people think “What were you doing at 17?”
WCP: What was the process of putting the book together like?
ND: It was daunting just finding all the stuff. It was really five months of hardcore scanning. Like, really hardcore. My most intense moment was in the very beginning when I had to get everything to the publisher. With all the ephemera, Rizzoli only used, like, a fourth of it. They wanted to use more of the personal items rather than all of the covers and passes and stuff people might have already seen before.
WCP: Are there any photos or memorabilia that are particularly memorable to you looking back on them?
ND: One of my favorites is a photo a friend of mine took of me on stage with Morrissey. He’s wearing this blouse from Shetland Islands in Scotland. At the end of the show, he ripped the shirt, buttons flying everywhere, and gave it to me. I went into the crowd and was like “No, no. Just stay away, people.” I have a picture of that and the shirt.
WCP: Is there anything about the finished product that surprised you when you saw it?
ND: I was really happy with some of the choices Rizzolli made. There are a lot of soft pictures, or blurry pictures, that they blew up in such a way that they captured the ambiance of the gig. Those were cool.
WCP: Did you get any feedback or help from the band in putting together the book?
ND: I reached out to Andy when this was first happening, and I only just heard back from him about a month ago. The buzz about the book came around and it got his attention. I’ve also been in touch with Craig, the fifth Smith a lot of people didn’t know about unless they saw them live. A lot of pictures are important because they set the exact time of the gigs. If you see Craig, you know it’s The Queen is Dead tour in 1986.
WCP: You also worked with Andy Bell from Ride and Oasis. How did he get involved?
ND: Ride was the second band I toured with after The Smiths. It was the same kind of deal. I saw them in 1990 or 1991, before the first album. They hadn’t been to America yet. I read about them in NME and bought their first single and thought “Holy crap, I really liked this band.” I just asked my best friend, “Vicki, I really like this band. Do you want to come to England with me and check out a couple of shows?” We just saw a few shows and eventually we got to know the band. Years later, Ride came back to the 9:30 for their reunion tour. Gus Vitale (house sound engineer at the 9:30 Club) said “Nalinee, did you see Dave (Ride’s tour manager)?” I talked with (Ride bassist) Steve Queralt, who I knew the most, and Loz, their drummer. Steve and Dave said, “You know Andy’s a really big Smiths fan, right?” I asked Andy and he just gave me this blurb.
WCP: And now you’ve also got the exhibit, right?
ND: Yeah. It’s two nights. There’s an opening night on the 17th followed by a Q&A on the 18th. It’s weird, I just think “Who wants to hear me flapping for an hour (laughs)?”
WCP: I think you’d be surprised when it comes to The Smiths.
ND: I understand, but I feel that there are definitely other people who could tell a similar tale but maybe on a smaller scale, gig-wise. I don’t feel particularly special in that regard. They were amazing to everyone.
WCP: Still, there’s generations of fans now, myself included, who never had the opportunity to catch the band during their lifetime. For them, there’s a lot to uncover. People obsess over that band.
ND: I know. I’m beginning to see that. My whole goal with the book is to make people feel like they’re there. Anyone who has ever thought “I wish could have seen [The Smiths],” This is for them.
“The Smiths: 1985-1986” opens on June 17 at Studio 1469 and runs through August. 1469 Harvard St. Rear NW. Saturdays, 1-6 p.m. and by appointment.