I’m not gonna lie. I was a Morrissey nerd before I ever set foot in Manchester. For a certain subset of Americans who grew up weird and outcast in the post-industrial suburbs, loving The Smiths and Morrissey was at once a form of therapy and a calling card, a way of letting other awkward, tormented souls know you were a kindred spirit. The Smiths were a gateway drug to other cool pop culture: bands and styles and interests that showed you had transcended your miserable, boring time and place and someday, dammit, you were going to get out and finally be cool. It hasn’t happened, but at the tender age of 39, I can still hope. I carried this baggage with me as I landed in Manchester on an appropriately rainy April morning, earnestly wearing a Joy Division t-shirt. Strangeways, here we come.
Clearly the first stop had to be the Salford Lads’ Club. Since 1903, the volunteer-run Salford Lads’ Club has provided athletic and enrichment
activities for kids in the local community. Its most iconic moment happened when the four members of The Smiths posed for a photo in front of the Club that would grace the album sleeve of their 1985 album The Queen is Dead, forever making the Club a pilgrimage destination for the maladjusted. I left my hotel in North Manchester with a sponge and a rusty spanner and asked the first person I saw where to catch the #17 bus. In what was to become a recurring theme, the poor guy couldn’t understand my thick Northern California accent and after 10 minutes of loud, slow talking and pantomime, he dropped, “Love, why in hell would you want to go to Salford today? The Man City-Man United match is happening in Old Trafford. I wouldn’t go there today for a thousand pounds!” I thanked him for his time and concern and promptly boarded the #17 bus going in the wrong direction. After another 10 minutes of pantomime to make myself understood to the bus driver, I got myself turned around in the proper direction. Meanwhile, the rain set in.
It turns out that the day of the Manchester Derby is the best possible time to visit Salford because you will have the streets entirely to yourself. That and the pissing rain had everyone indoors as I struggled to navigate with an inside-out umbrella, stopping briefly to frighten the patrons of a pub on Regent St. by asking for directions in desperately broken English. After snapping several bedraggled selfies in front of the Salford Lads’ Club, I abandoned my walking tour and hailed a cab to the Southern Cemetery. The Smiths wrote “Cemetry Gates” about the Southern, the largest cemetery in the UK and key destination of my pilgrimage. Joy Division manager Rob Gretton is buried here, along with his Haçienda co-owner and Factory Records founder Tony Wilson, and legendary producer Martin Hannett. This proved a great time to switch up the play list in homage to Hannett. “Shadowplay” from Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures album set the right tone.
You can’t visit the Haçienda anymore. The building that once housed the infamous nightclub, epicenter of the Madchester acid house scene, was torn down in 1997 to make way for that most gauche example of urban architecture: the luxury loft. But don’t let that stop you from queuing up some Madchester on your play list and snapping yet another soggy selfie in front of the sign. It still says “The Haçienda” because Joy Division/New Order bassist Peter Hook owns the rights to the Haçienda name and kindly licensed it to the real estate developers responsible for this brick monstrosity. Happy Mondays “24 Hour Party People” (with or without ecstasy) will help you overlook that.
If at this point you, like me, become a soggy, exhausted mess, hoarse from trying to explain yourself in a foreign language, now’s the time to let the experts take over. Queue up “This is How it Feels” on your playlist and let Inspiral Carpets drummer Craig Gill hook you up with a bus tour. In 2005, Gill founded Manchester Music Tours to handle poor souls like me who visit to Manchester in hopes of getting in touch with their misspent youth. If you email Manchester Music Tours for their tour schedule, Craig will personally reply, giving you what is sure to be your most significant first-hand brush with Manchester stardom. Standard bus and walking tours include Oasis, The Stone Roses, Joy Division, the Smiths/Morrissey, and the more ecumenical Manchester Music Walk. While the Smiths/Morrissey tour and Manchester Music Walk are offered daily M-F from 11-2 and 10:30-12, respectively, you must plan ahead for the other tours, which are offered only on “select dates.” A quick email to Craig will fill you in on which dates are available during your stay. Prices range from £10 per adult for the walking tour to £25 for the longer bus tours. If you’re feeling flush, Craig offers private tours for £150.
Finally, no Manchester pilgrimage is complete without a side trip to nearby Macclesfield to visit the Lourdes of post-punk: Ian Curtis’ gravesite in the Macclesfield Cemetery. If you can’t get on a Manchester Music Tours Joy Division bus tour, which includes the side trip to Macclesfield, you can take the train from Manchester Piccadilly station to Macclesfield. This 40-60 minute round trip will set you back £15-£20, but is well worth the effort and expense. From Macclesfield Railway Station, board the #4 bus toward Upton Priory. During the 20 minute bus ride, queue up two songs. Joy Division’s “The Eternal” is essentially a suicide note set to haunting piano and a hypnotic bassline. “Elegia” is just what it sounds like: New Order’s memorial to Ian Curtis. In your somber reflections on the brief flash of genius that was Ian Curtis, don’t forget to leave a memento to honor his memory. I won’t judge if you decide to snap a selfie here, either.