The Light That Never Goes Out: A personal tribute to journalist and author Marc Spitz

Guest post by Mark Phinney

Marc Spitz died.

When I heard the news, I was sitting at a Starbucks, working on getting How Soon Is Never? made, the film adaptation of Marc’s seminal 2003 book, which I have been doing for the past year, and, really, the past 12 years before that.

When I first read How Soon Is Never? in 2005, I knew I wanted to make the movie. I had to make the movie. I felt an obligation to bring the story to the screen. Marc’s story. I didn’t know Marc at all, but I felt like I did through just reading the pages. Every line read like a scene from my own life. The awkward, lost teenage years; the adult who wanted to relive his past; and most of all, the obsessive, longing, passionate love for a band called The Smiths.

The book was an ode to all things youth, pop culture, and a love letter to the band all at once. It was the kind of book that you inhabit. That you move all your posters into and put on the bookends. You could almost hear the music coming from the pages. It was confessional and secret at the same time. Not many people can strike that balance the way this book could. I later found out that Marc was able to do this with most of his work. It’s there in his articles, his plays, and in his memoir.

I thought I was cool until I found out about Marc’s writing and life. The two were one in the same. Marc wrote the way I wanted to write. He wrote the way I wanted to live. He wrote the way I felt. He wrote about things that I loved: Hal Hartley, Morrissey, and all things cool, with a dramatic flair.

A dozen years ago I was living in Los Angeles trying to write, act, and make movies in one way or another when I found out about the book. I read it cover to cover in two days and then started it again, right away. It was the story I wanted to tell. It combined my love for The Smiths, my own life, and a great story all wrapped up in four hundred pages. My friend Sean and I called his agent and Sean even had a brief conversation with Marc about obtaining the rights to the book, but no dice. It was already taken, as we expected. I didn’t even really know what an option was back then.

For years the book made the rounds to lots of writers, actors, and directors but it just couldn’t quite get off of the ground. I always chased it though. I was determined to make this movie no matter what. Throughout all those years, many things went on in my life and career — good and bad — but I always thought about that book and kept up with it and Marc’s career. Then in 2014 we became Facebook friends and I could bother him directly, which he was always cool about.

Finally in January 2016, the day I had waited for finally came along. Marc asked me if I was still interested in the book. I said YES! We talked on the phone for almost two hours and when we were done, I was the guy who was going to make this movie! Me. I was the director of How Soon Is Never?

Now all I had to do was figure out the in the hell I was going to do that.

Marc was so into it with Sean and me from the get go. I was beyond thrilled and relieved. I had never written anything from someone else’s work. Now his life story was in my hands. I had a debt now. An obligation. When we spoke, Marc told me how much this book meant to him. It was his first published novel and the one closest to his heart. We clicked, bonded, and connected so much on the phone that I almost didn’t have to send him a picture of my “There Is A Light That Never Goes Out” tattoo. But I did.

Maybe it put me over the top.

We agreed on six months for a first draft and being whom he is, Marc gave me the rights for free. He was surely within his rights to charge me thousands of dollars. A sign of his generosity and dedication to art. This was a bigger thing. It would not be a Phinney $7,000 flick that we make in the backyard. Even though it’d be on the smaller end of indie budgets, it was still clear that it’d be a larger project. We needed a name actor and a pretty decent amount of cash and support for this to happen. Marc made it clear that this was my script and gave me space, while still managing to support and give his thoughts as it went along.

I handed in the first draft five months later and I screenshot the emails he sent me as he was reading it. I was so relieved that he loved it. I felt I had done this some sort of justice.

Throughout the next year I would become pretty close with Marc. We stayed in close contact by texting almost every day about the movie, music, and girls. It really was like we knew each other since high school. I realized more and more that we were the same in so many ways. Not just in upbringing or interest but the texture of who I was. How I felt. The way we both saw life. The things we desired and how we felt lost and like we failed in certain ways. We confided truths about one another. A trust formed. Not just a trust for the script, but a trust for friendship. We formed a solid foundation in a very short time. I get the impression this was the same with Marc and many other people in his life. Of course we always talked about Morrissey and The Smiths. It was the cosmic thread between us. This longtime story arc that we both lived, without knowing one another, over time, in different cities. It was different for each of us, but the same. There was no end to the stories we traded. Of course Marc always had it over me because not only did he write a book that Morrissey approved, but he also spoke with him. Interviewed him. Twice.

In September 2016 we decided it was time to move ahead trying to raise money and cast an actor for the lead role. We planned on meeting that month in New York to see Morrissey play in Brooklyn. I had a panic attack on the train there. This was happening. After almost 13 years, I was not only going to make this film, but I was meeting this guy. This author, who wrote books and hung out with rock stars.

Here I was in Greenwich Village, about to meet Marc and I’m primping and trying to make myself look cool. My girlfriend told me not to wear a Smiths shirt to meet Marc on a trip to see Morrissey live. “Don’t be that guy,” she said. Of course, I did wear it. The minute Marc saw me in it, he gave me shit and cracked a smile. Then he told me he would’ve done the same if any of his were clean.

I met Marc at his local haunt WXOU Radio Bar. It was that bar that you think it is and when Marc sauntered in, he was that guy I thought he would be. He was the cool guy. The blazer. The sunglasses. Rock pins on the jacket. The whole thing. We sat at the bar of course. He ordered whiskey and I had soda water. (Nice going, Phin. Real cool.) He loaded the jukebox with all the best songs, of course, and we talked for a long time about the movie, other movies, our lives and everything else under the sun. We clicked yet again and this time it was in person. We weren’t just two teenagers on the phone, twirling the chord with stars in our eyes. This was real.

We got to the Kings Theatre in Brooklyn to see Morrissey and he performed one of his best shows to date, including a kickass Ramones cover which made this New York night even more New York-like.
When we got back to the Village, we parted ways as we were both too old now to take the night any further.

For the rest of the year we kept working on the film and I read Marc’s memoir, Poseur, which gave me even more insight into who he was and what he represented. Marc did everything I loved and wanted to do. He was a Lower East side playwright. He stayed at the Chelsea Hotel when he was a teenager. Marc was also all the things I was. We both did time in LA. We both related to the poetry of Morrissey. We both spent our youths in record shops and were both dandies in our own, modern way.

Marc devoured life and music. He was rock and roll. The way Lester Bangs was. He was the real thing. He knew how to make it personal too. He made you feel a part of it all. A part of him. He was, after all, just a kid from Long Island that wanted to be known for his art. To be cool. He achieved that. Art all costs. The art was the thing for Marc. Not the money. The work. The experience of doing it to do it. To live in New York City and be a writer. That’s it. I respected this and am proud to call him my friend for that alone.

Then Marc died.

February 2017: I am still making this film. I have to. As a tribute. To my friend.

That night in NYC, Marc told me, “Look, just make this fucking movie before I die.”

That’s all I’ve been thinking about since February 4. I’m sorry, Marc, but I will still make this for you.

I promise.

Mark Phinney is a Boston-based actor, filmmaker, and writer, and the director of 2013 independent film Fat.