Andy Rourke, the quiet man ace bassist in iconic band The Smiths, has died from pancreatic cancer aged 59. His passing was publicly announced by his oldest friend, Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr, who hailed him as “a kind and beautiful soul” while their notoriously spiky frontman Morrissey was quick to pay tribute to Rourke as a “beam of light”.
Emerging fully formed from Manchester in the early Eighties, The Smiths were a band of a generation but their idiosyncratic music still resonates to this day, picking up new fans seduced afresh by Morrissey’s droll, pithy and painterly lyrics and Marr’s audacious guitar style.
Their stellar rhythm section were often unfairly overlooked in the dazzle from these headlights.
Rourke was an avowedly melodic bassist, having come to the instrument via guitar, and would riff off Marr as much as drummer Mike Joyce with lithe and funky runs.
He played on all four albums – The Smiths, Meat Is Murder, The Queen Is Dead and Strangeways Here We Come – though he was briefly sacked when he was arrested for heroin possession in 1986.
Describing heroin as something to spend his earnings on, Rourke later commented he was “at a dealer’s house trying to get possession”.
He was fired by written note from Morrissey, stating “Andy. You have left the Smiths. Good luck and goodbye” – and then promptly reinstated when it transpired that his arrest wouldn’t affect his visa for the band’s US tour.
The Smiths split in 1987, never to reform. The bad blood was further stirred in 1989 when Joyce and Rourke took Morrissey and Marr to court over the distribution of royalties, with the judge infamously describing Morrissey as “devious, truculent and unreliable” – surely the Smiths song title that never was.
Joyce held his nerve and eventually won backdated royalties of around £1 million and got his equal share of 25 per cent. Rourke had bills to pay and settled early for a lump sum of £83,000. A decade later, he filed for bankruptcy.
Yet his musical skills remained much in demand. Over the years, he played on albums by The Pretenders, Sinead O’Connor, Ian Brown – even Morrissey – and toured with Badly Drawn Boy.
Keeping it local, he teamed up with Joyce and Oasis guitarist Bonehead as Moondog One before forming supergroup Freebass with two other Mancunian bass aces – Peter Hook, formerly of New Order, and Mani from the Stone Roses. On hearing of his death, Manchester broadcaster and writer Terry Christian posted disconsolately that his passing meant “another hole left in the history of Manchester music”.
He was born Andrew Michael Rourke into an Anglo-Irish family, riven by divorce by the time Rourke was 11. His troubled childhood was leavened by music.
He began learning guitar from the age of seven and found his lifelong foil in one John Martin Maher (later Marr). The fast friends developed their playing skills together and when Rourke left school early at 15 they formed a group called Freak Party with future Fall drummer Simon Wolstencroft.
“It wasn’t really a band,” Rourke later recalled. “Just the three of us sat around with guitars trying to harmonise, singing Neil Young covers.”
Rourke switched to bass at Marr’s suggestion. Marr described it as “his true calling” and it proved a fateful move when his new band The Smiths had a bass vacancy. Steve Pomfret and Dale Hibbert had been tried and rejected, Rourke and his trademark 1964 Fender Precision Bass provided the last piece of the puzzle.
He met Morrissey and Joyce for the first time in the studio as they demoed future Smiths classics Handsome Devil and Miserable Lie.
Their impact was instantaneous and an enduring cult was born. Their second single, This Charming Man, catapulted this motley crew on to Top of the Pops – a nation was either enthralled or repelled.
Concerts were febrile affairs, adoration was the very least this group demanded, so Marr caused quite the cultural earthquake when he quit in 1987, taking the band down with him.
Before the chasm widened with the court case, Rourke played on some of Morrissey’s early solo material, including Last of the Famous International Playboys and November Spawned A Monster, and even co-wrote a handful of B-sides.
From then on he was destined for piecemeal collaborations, playing on Sinead O’Connor’s second album I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got and The Pretenders’ Last of the Independents.
In 2006, Rourke co-organised Manchester Versus Cancer, a series of concerts to raise money for cancer research, reuniting with Marr onstage for the first time in almost 20 years to play the Smiths’ totemic How Soon Is Now.
Rourke moved to New York in 2009, where he hosted a show on East Village Radio and DJed around with Olé Koretskyas Jetlag. The pair then formed DARK with Cranberries frontwoman Dolores O’Riordan, releasing their debut album in 2016, two years before O’Riordan’s untimely death.
His final live appearance was, fittingly, a guest spot at Marr’s 2022 Madison Square Garden show, playing How Soon Is Now and There Is A Light That Never Goes Out, another Smiths classic which Rourke wryly dubbed “the indie Candle in the Wind”.
Rourke, who is survived by his wife Francesca Mor, was releasing new music until the end as Blitz Vega – another Manchester collaboration, this time with the former Happy Mondays guitarist Kav Sandhu.
According to Morrissey, “he didn’t ever know his own power, and nothing that he played had been played by someone else. I suppose, at the end of it all, we hope to feel that we were valued. Andy need not worry about that.”
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