When Nalinee Darmrong was 17 years old in 1985, a friend invited her to a Smiths concert in Washington DC. Before the show she didn’t have strong feelings about the Manchester band, but after that night she ended up seeing them play over 30 times across the United States and in the United Kingdom, making friends with the group and their fans along the way. Most of the shows happened when the band was supporting their albums Meat is Murder and The Queen is Dead. “I toured with them right at their peak,” says Darmrong.
Though Darmrong was a very amateur photographer at the time, she brought her camera along with her to these shows. This was a rare move during a decade long before there was an ocean of glowing phones clicking, recording, and Snapchatting through every performance. Now some the photos Darmrong shot of the group, both on and offstage, will be published in the book The Smiths, out this week through Rizzoli.
As she got older, Darmrong was inspired by Johnny Marr and started playing guitar in bands. Now she is one of the in-house photographers at DC’s 9:30 Club. But for almost 30 years she kept her photos of the Smiths and her fandom for the group to herself, peculiarly oblivious to how much of a passionate following they’ve continued to build long after breaking up. Still, she can understand the feeling, recalling, “It was definitely a cult band. I think every fan felt the band was theirs.”
Here she discusses how a Thai-American teenager ending up on the road following England’s saddest band.
What was it about the Smiths that made you want to travel the world to see them?
It really wasn’t about the Smiths per se. I was 17 when this all started and it was just a timing thing where I graduated high school and my friend Tony got me my first ticket [to a Smiths show] for graduation—he was a big fan. I listened to them before I went to the show and I was like, “Yeah, they’re definitely different,” and didn’t really know what to think about them. Then when I saw them live and it was like, okay, this is like a really great live performance. Another friend got me a ticket to Philadelphia, and then a bunch of us after the first show sat around all night outside the hotel and met the band in the morning, and they put us on the guestlist for New York. I was already going to three shows just because I was in the right place and the right time.
So it started off as more about the experience?
Right. I wasn’t initially like a diehard fan. It was the community of meeting new people of Smiths fans. And because I was a little younger than a lot of my friends, they always turned me on to like really good music. It was only until the live show where I was like, “Okay, I get it now.” They were just phenomenal. I still think of them very fondly now, and I’ve seen a lot of shows.
Were you always taking your camera to shows?
No, I was only 17. I had taken a couple photography courses in high school, but didn’t really take it seriously. I had this camera and it became apparent that I was going to be going to more shows with my friends. The band was comfortable with us, and I was like, “I’m gonna bring my camera and see what happens.” It wasn’t too big, it wasn’t too small, and I was like, “I’m going to learn how to use this camera.” And I did, and it turned into me seeing about 35 shows over a year and a half.
Have you ever followed a touring band again after the Smiths?
Again, the Smiths was totally right timing. I was between high school and college. I was always with friends though, I was rarely ever alone at any show. Before the age of the internet, email, and blogs, we wrote letters to each other before the tour, like, “Are you gonna be here? Tell me what days.” You brought that list with you and when you got to that show you were waiting for your friend to show up.
What did it take to convince your parents to let you do this?
I kind of begged them quietly.
Have you been following the growth of Smiths fandom since they broke up?
No, not at all. I went into my bubble. They broke up maybe like six to eight months after I saw them. I was devastated. People ask me, “Did you know? Were there any signs?” They looked tired, but had been on tour constantly for like four years straight. After they broke up, I had to go into my little shell. I saw Morrissey solo maybe a couple times, after that I was like, “No, I have to get back into my shell.” It was really hard for me, as I’m sure it was for other people.
Were you just sitting on these photos for all these years or did people know you had them?
Back then I was kind of scrapbooker. I was always into memorabilia and stuff. After I was 18 or 19, I would carry this small scrapbook with Smiths stuff. I treasured it then and I would show people who were into the band. But yeah, I sat on this stuff for 30 years. I thought about doing something, but not seriously, and I was content with that. I wasn’t aggressively seeking to get this published or anything. It’s just that I met the right people and my senior editor at Rizzoli is a huge Smiths fan. It was just a couple of steps to her and it was just done. I wanted to keep it to myself for awhile I guess. I’m married with a son now and I think about that younger generation, back then I wouldn’t have thought about that at all. I really am thinking about the legacy of the whole thing and how important it was and is now.