An illustrious guitarist steps to the fore

By Steve Morse, Boston Globe Staff, 1/19/2003

Start a list of guitar heroes and the name Johnny Marr should be right up there. Maybe not at the Jimi Hendrix/ Jimmy Page level, but for modern-rock players, few can match Marr's credentials. He founded the Smiths when he was only 18, back in the '80s when he was a fresh-faced prodigy from Manchester, England.
He then joined Matt Johnson's The The, followed by a stay in the supergroup Electronic with New Order's Bernard Sumner and the Pet Shop Boys' Neil Tennant. He has also played with Billy Bragg, Oasis, the Pretenders,Beth Orton, and Neil Finn - an impressive work history by any measure.

Now, as guitar heroes are sometimes prone to do, Marr is fronting his first solo group, Johnny Marr & the Healers, which also features Zak Starkey (Ringo's son and current Who drummer). They make their Boston debut at the Paradise on Friday, followed by the release of their first album, "Boomslang,'' on Feb. 4.
"The title 'Boomslang' came to me in a dream,'' says Marr. "And then I went on the Internet and was amazed to find that boomslang was really the name for a snake. And a Japanese journalist told me that a boomslang was a sign of imminent good fortune.'' Marr is not your run-of-the-mill rock star.As the years have passed (he's now 38), Marr has added an interest in Eastern philosophy and meditation techniques to his love of music. In fact, a couple of songs on his new album were inspired by a visit to a meditation center in Arizona and by wandering treks through the surrounding Catalina Mountains.

"I'm not into New Age fuzziness or what I call the mind, body, and wallet trend,'' he says. "But I do believe that if you connect with yourself, that's the way to personal freedom. And what this new album is all about is personal freedom.''

That is apparent in songs such as the ultra-pretty "Something to Shout About,'' the hypnotic "Another Day,'' and the acoustic-draped "Down on the Corner,'' which Marr admits is "a bit Smithsy.'' Another song, the swirlingly psychedelic "Caught Up,'' is about "how people feel as if they're caught up in the wake of other things in their lives, much like being caught up in the wake of a ship, rather than being in control of their lives.''
"Personal freedom is precious,'' Marr adds. "I feel the way a lot of other people do, that I'm targeted and bombarded to be part of a certain demographic, like almost being forced to be part of a cultural stereotype. Another song, 'InBetweens,'cq talks about people like me who feel that it's all right to be in between things. Like, it's all right to have beliefs that are in between Buddhism and Hinduism.'' What's also new about the music is that Marr does all the lead singing for the first time, in addition to the meticulously layered guitar parts. He's not about to rival Morrissey (the lead singer of the Smiths), but Marr does a more than adequate job on vocals, having built his confidence by singing on friend Neil Finn's live album last year, "7 Worlds Collide.'' Featuring other guests such as Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder, it was recorded during a week of shows in Finn's homeland of Auckland, New Zealand.
"We coaxed Johnny out of his shell in Auckland,'' says Finn. "He sang a couple of songs and did them quite well.'' But it's Marr's guitar playing that really prompts Finn to gush. "Johnny is an incredible musician. His guitar playing, obviously, is very distinctive. He doesn't sound like anybody else. Every note counts for him. There's nothing loose, whether he's strumming or picking out arpeggios. And he's always thinking of adding harmony in good ways.''

Indeed, the guitar work on the Marr CD is inspiring, from heavy electric sustains to acoustic filigree that is brilliant but not flashy. "I'm constantly trying to dodge the image of being a cultural snob,'' he says. "And on this record, I also decided that it's OK if I sometimes sound the way I did with the Smiths. I have had a long-standing agenda not to do anything that like sounds like the Smiths, because I didn't want to repeat myself. But I'm OK with that now. As I get older, I'm OK with my signature sound.'' Speaking of the Smiths, though, don't look for a reunion any time soon. "I hate reunions,'' Marr says. "I don't really know of one reunion that ever worked out. Trying to put something back together - when it was so perfect for what it was - would be a tragic mistake.''

For now, Marr is all about looking ahead. And that starts with this Friday's date at the Paradise, where he and fellow Healers Starkey, bassist Alonza Bevan (formerly of Kula Shaker), and synth player Lee Spencer will help Marr to "follow my instincts, which is what I've been doing for the last 20 years,'' he says.

"I've been fortunate to go down any road that I've felt comfortable going down. And I recommend that to anybody.''