If you were ever 16, clumsy, and shy, Andy Rourke’s bass is part of the story of your life. That’s why the music world is in shock and grief today, mourning the beloved Smiths bassist who passed away from pancreatic cancer, only 59. His bass was the most underrated element in the Smiths’ sound, but it was a crucial part of their unique four-way chemistry. Andy Rourke is why you won’t forget the songs that made you cry, the songs that saved your life.
His unmistakable sound was there from the start, rooted in his lifelong friendship with guitarist Johnny Marr. “There was absolute synchronicity between myself and Andy because we were best mates,” Marr told journalist Simon Goddard in his definitive book Mozipedia. “We had that thing that friends have where you can sit around and not talk and it makes no difference. And you can hear it in the music. Some of the stuff going on in the Smiths between the guitar and the bass is unique, something no other group has ever done.”
When you listen to the Smiths, you can hear Andy and Johnny read each other’s minds, going back to the Manchester school days when they learned to play together. It was the oldest friendship in the band— the only two who were friends before the band started, in fact. Not to mention the only two who stayed close to the end. In so many ways, the sound of The Smiths was the sound of their brotherhood.
So many fans will mourn him with “There Is A Light That Never Goes Out” — or as Andy once wittily called it, “the indie ‘Candle in the Wind.’” But it’s not merely the greatest song he ever played on — it’s a tribute to the collaborative magic that made this band immortal. As Marr said last night, he “reinvented what it is to be a bass guitar player.”
Andy was always a music fan, the one you’d see constantly at shows in NYC. When I’d run into him in the crowd at Terminal 5, for gigs by Duran Duran or the Jesus and Mary Chain, it was impossible not to imagine what he was thinking: Why are these Eighties bands onstage killing it right now instead of mine? It was always a kick to see him DJ — one of my favorite times was his set at Coachella in April 2007, where he ended with Mark Ronson’s brand new remake of “Stop Me If You Think You’ve Heard This One Before,” as a mash-up with the Supremes’ Motown classic “You Keep Me Hanging On,” with vocals by Daniel Merriweather.
He was famous for being unimpeachably cool and gracious to fans who said hi. (As were Johnny and Mike Joyce. The other guy, not so much.) Whenever he hopped onstage to play with Smiths tribute bands, you couldn’t help noticing he enjoyed it as much as the bands did. His last time onstage was in New York in September 2022, joining his old mate Johnny Marr at Madison Square Garden, playing “There Is A Light That Never Goes Out” and “How Soon Is Now?”
They met at thirteen in St. Augustine’s Grammar School when Marr spotted him in the hallway, wearing a pin for Neil Young’s Tonight’s The Night tour. For these two Manchester rock geeks, it was basically an arranged marriage. They learned to play guitar together, forming a trio with another schoolmate. “It wasn’t really a band,” Rourke said. “Just the three of us sat around with guitars trying to harmonize, singing Neil Young covers.”
Marr was the one who suggested that Rourke give it a go on the bass, a decision that changed both their lives, along with the lives of millions of Smiths fans. The call-and-response they developed together as kids became the soundtrack to countless miserable teenage lives. Andy was working in a lumber yard when he got the call from Johnny, asking him to coming and play with this new band he’d just started, with a local literary recluse named Morrissey. When he quit his day job, Andy told his hated boss, “You’ll see me on Top of the Pops in one year.” It was a line that could have come straight from “Frankly Mr. Shankly” — but he was right.
The first time he ever met Morrissey or Mike Joyce was in the studio, cutting the band’s demo tape. But he instantly clicked, even though he was playing songs he’d just heard for the first time. “It was like it wasn’t me playing the bass, it was just like I ws possessed,” he recalled in Tony Fletcher’s bio A Light That Never Goes Out. “The energy was just there and it was right.” Indeed, many of the bass parts he came up with that first day are the ones that became permanently part of the songs. “We were all looking at each other, just going, ‘Fucking hell.’”
He never really got to know Morrissey — they were five years apart, with opposite personalities. After band rehearsals, he and Moz took the same bus but sat there in silence. As Rourke recalled, “You started counting the lampposts.” But with Johnny, the brotherhood came easily. “I would elevate him, and he would ground me,” Marr recalled. “So even aside from the fact that he’s one of the most unique bass players of all time, his personality was really important to the band.”
Nobody, in or out of the band, was a more passionate Smiths fan than Andy. “It was stuff me and Johnny had dreamed about since kids, being in the recording studio,” he said. “Living the dream and loving it.”
He was decisively younger than the rest of the band, looking like even more of a kid than he was. He was just a few months behind Johnny, yet he was the little brother who built up everyone else’s confidence. Listen to “This Charming Man,” and you can hear the reason Johnny pushes so hard on guitar is because he knows Andy can keep up with him every step of the way. And if you listen to the early demos, you can’t miss hearing that Morrissey didn’t turn into a real singer until he had Andy behind him.
Their music connection just went deeper, in the interplay of “The Queen Is Dead,” “Cemetry Gates,” or “Half a Person.” “Death of a Disco Dancer” was the most joyful racket they ever made, with even Moz joining in on pianner. Andy brought the crucial elements of disco, funk, dub, and hip-hop — in addition to everything else they were, they were a brilliant dance band, ironic as that might seem to Smiths-phobes. But he’s a key reason why so much of their legacy is what happens when “How Soon Is Now?” or “Still Ill” lights up a sleazy late-night club.
Andy had a mischievous sense of boyish fun that stood out from the rest of the band. He also struck a memorable pose in their most iconic photo, from The Queen Is Dead, in front of a local landmark, the Salford Lads Club. As he admitted later, “It looks like I’ve got two cocks.” He never could explain how it happened.
But the youngest Smith was also the one who kept getting into traditional rock-star trouble. His drug problems started young, in a broken home with two older brothers. (He was the only Smith who didn’t have a sister.) After a few disastrous Irish gigs in early 1986, he got busted for heroin. Morrissey famously left a note under the windshield wiper of his car, telling him, “Andy. You have left the Smiths. Good luck and goodbye.” Rourke was only out of the band for three weeks, but it was the beginning of the end.
He worked with Morrissey after the split, backing him at the famous 1988 Wolverhampton solo gig, along with drummer Mike Joyce. Andy co-wrote a handful of Moz B-sides, making great appearances in “The Last of the Famous International Playboys” and “Interesting Drug.” He played with Sinead O Connor, on her 1990 hit I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got, and the Stone Roses’ Ian Brown. He also joined The Pretenders, including — of all things — Chrissie Hynde’s version of “Every Day Is Like Sunday.” But his legal battles with Morrissey and Marr were a disaster for all concerned. That’s how the Smiths became posthumously notorious as the one rock band who absolutely would NEVER reunite, no matter how much money got thrown at them.
The Smiths were a one-time confluence of personalities — it’s a miracle that they happened at all, let alone that they managed to last five chaotic years. But none of it could have happened without Andy Rourke, which is why Smiths fans will always remember him with love and gratitude. And it’s why his bass remains in the heart of anyone who ever heard him play. The pleasure, the privilege was ours.