“I wear black on the outside because black is how I feel on the inside”
“I am the son and the heir of a shyness that is criminally vulgar”
“I am sick and I am dull and I am plain”
“Call me morbid, call me pale…”
“Sixteen, clumsy and shy…”
“Don’t try to wake me in the morning ‘cause I will be gone”
I was, and to a certain extent, remain the archetypal boxroom rebel, the ambitious outsider, half a person, a sweet and tender hooligan desperately pleading for someone to please, please, please let me get what I want.
It’s very difficult to explain the why and the what of The Smiths now.
In 1989 shortly before my sixteenth birthday a friend gave me a cassette with two albums recorded onto it. On the “A” side was an album by a band called “Westworld” who are now only remembered by the members of the band and their parents. On the “B”side was an album by a band I hadn’t ever heard of; “The Smiths” and the album was a compilation of singles and album tracks called “The World Won’t Listen”.
When I finished listening to “Westworld” I turned the cassette over and started to listen to “The World Won’t Listen”. I can remember, quite clearly, thinking that it was an odd name for an album and that “The Smiths” was an even odder name for a band…it was so, well, dull. My expectations were not high.
The first track was called “Panic” and the first thing that struck me was the peculiar, and peculiarly English, vocal of the singer. Then the chiming, crashing guitar. Next the references to Leeds and Dundee. Finally, most importantly, came the line that changed my life forever…oh, I know how melodramatic that sounds but it’s true…”Burn down the disco, hang the blessed DJ because the music that they constantly play, it says nothing to me about my life”
That was it.
Nothing would ever be the same again.
I had always felt that I didn’t really fit in…I had friends but no “best” friend. I didn’t have a girlfriend. I had acne, greasy hair and was a bit, well, eccentric in my own way. I wanted to belong, I wanted to fit in but I just didn’t. I wasn’t bullied or ostracised but I just didn’t feel like I was a part of what was going on around me.
To hear someone say something as shocking as “…the music that they constantly play, it says nothing to me about my life” was just incredible. Here was someone who understood, someone who knew what it meant to be, forgive me, me. What was more astonishing was that I didn’t even know who I was yet but this voice, that voice, did. The next track was “Ask”; “…shyness is nice and shyness can stop you from doing all the things in life you’d like to”, then “London” with its desperate tale of a young man running away from home and heading for the smoke, the bloody and brutal violence of “Bigmouth Strikes Again” with it’s smashing and bludgeoning, references to Joan of Arc, “Shakespeares Sister” a hymn to suicide…on and on it went, each and every track doing exactly what every other song I had heard couldn’t manage; to say something to me about MY life.
From then on I searched high and low for everything I could to do with this band…I bought all of their albums then began an expensive and extensive hunt for the singles, the 12” records, posters, magazine articles, fanzines. My bedroom became a shrine to The Smiths…not an inch of wall left uncovered.
The voice, of course, belonged to Morrissey and soon his beatific face looked down on me from every corner of the room. I hung on his every written, sung and spoken word…I was a disciple; “Meat is Murder”…I became a vegetarian, a photo-shoot with a bottle of Ecover washing up liquid used as a water bottle…I did the same, never seen without it, flowers in his back pocket during the early days of The Smiths…I had a bunch of flowers at every social occasion, a reference to Oscar Wilde…I bought his complete works and memorised witticisms, Shelagh Delaney…I found and learned every line from her “A Taste of Honey”, name-checks for bands like the New York Dolls or Patti Smith…I gobbled up their back catalogue.
I even adopted the look…hair quiffed, vintage Levi jeans, suit jackets. Wherever He went, whatever He said, whenever He spoke…I was there, a clumsy, pale immitation. Like hundreds of other young men up and down the UK I had found something to make life…livable, bearable.
The developmental psychologist Erikson argued that the conflict that must be overcome during adolescence is identity versus role confusion. In other words the adolescent must fashion some sense of who they are, begin to “fit in”. For me that was impossible in high school…I wasn’t popular enough, clever enough, handsome enough or athletic enough to ever truly “belong” but in the world of The Smiths I found an identity. I entered a world with a moral code…respect for animals, tolerance of all sexuality, where knowledge and intelligence were praised and desired. It even gave me a “look” and opened up doors to other worlds…books, theatre, music, film and more.
Clever old Morrissey…the saviour of the rebel without a cause.
Even now, some years later, I cannot escape the influence of The Smiths and Morrissey. My walls are lined with framed Smiths/Morrissey related artwork, I still use lines from their songs in conversation, I still have the quiff (however thin it might now be), I still buy magazines He appears in, even as I write this I’m listening to His music. Why? Oh dear, I’m afraid I can’t answer that…a psychologist would have a wonderful time attempting to! A desperate desire to cling to my youth? Maybe, but I didn’t much like my youth. A stubborn refusal to let go? Maybe, but I’m not really sentimental. I think it comes down to the fact that He and they got me at the right time…they wormed their way into my life and into my heart and they’’ve never left. I’’m happy (as happy as I can ever be) about that.