The Smiths: In My Life“People say to me: ‘don’t have a go at Morrissey, he helped me get through my depression’. No he didn’t! YOU helped HIM get through HIS depression!”
~ Jerry Sadowitz
I sometimes wonder if The Smiths didn’t royally fuck things up for me. At least for a while there, during my typically English, angsty adolescence when being the awkward, sullen miserable little shit came as natural as breathing. There is a sense that The Smiths, and Morrissey’s words in particular, not only gave succour to my growing sense of alienation but actually gave it a certain validity, as if there was something noble or righteous in finding yourself frozen in uncertainty, locked in your own bedroom world, utterly folded in on yourself. Christ, perhaps without the songs giving me a reason to wear my fatalism like a fucking medal I would‘ve just knuckled down and got on with getting on in life. Perhaps, perhaps not. Anyway...
Sometime during the late ‘80s then, on a holiday somewhere in Wales - probably Borth, it usually was - I’m sitting in the front seat of a caravanette, listening to the radio as torrential rain turns the world outside the windscreen a wavering, wet blur. It’s then I first hear - or at least, take notice of - The Smiths. Janice Long plays ‘William, It Was Really Nothing’, “the rain falls hard on a humdrum town / this town has dragged you down“. It’s one of the few times a song has made me stop, look at the radio and think: ‘what the fffuck is this?’ - not in a negative or positive way, I just didn’t know what this was.
Ostensibly it’s fairly conventional, some jangly guitars - slightly sprightly for a downbeat song, interestingly - and no rough stuff, but... what is that voice? All mannered croon, a too strangled swoon and barely in tune. At the end it’s crying out in a keening wail, “Williahh-aah-ahhm”. So silly. After, I listen out to catch the band’s name: “never really dates that, does it? That’s The Smiths, of course”. So ordinary as to be strange, and I can’t believe anyone thought they could get away, get anywhere, with sounding like that.
The day after we get back home I go out and buy ‘The Smiths’.
And so, more (words) about The Smiths. And (so much) more to say. Is there more (to say)? And so what (difference did they make [to me]) anyway?
Well, firstly, if it’s May 2003 when you’re reading this then you can raise your pint of light ale in celebration of the 20th anniversary of the band's debut single, ‘Hand In Glove’. And it sounds today, as it almost certainly did back in 1983, like a true musical odd-one-out, all unlikely flamboyance and heightened drama: the moment when Manchester bedsit misfit Morrissey made a break for freedom, the moment that dreamy loser Morrissey willed himself into being, darted from the shadows of the enclosed grey Manchester streets, and miraculously made good his escape, “for the good life is out there somewhere”. Quiet, introverted weirdo Morrissey made his voice heard. And, so it goes, many were ready to listen.
I played my newly purchased cassette copy of the album on my walkman as I travelled home on the train and I couldn’t believe it. To hear my tightly tangled, confused and unhappy heart being given a voice and sung back to me, and saying what I couldn’t even begin to articulate, was startling but at the same time delightful but at the same time it changed me and challenged me and woke me up. All I knew was that I needed as much of this music in my life as possible.
‘The Smiths’. And listening to that same cassette copy today with its famously awful, foggy production - which gave it a rather apt sepulchral air of gloom that I never really minded, but... - it still excites me but it still strikes me that, even now, at this late stage, I wonder what on earth other people ever saw, and still see, in The Smiths. Their popularity, never mind their endurance, confuses me. So personal, so singular and so idiosyncratic is their sound that a (world) wide appeal was surely to be unlikely. And yet... here we sit.
And something happened. Walking around the worn-out West Midlands council estate where I was born; isolated, insular and dreaming of leaving, ‘The Smiths’ then appeared to me as a revelation, a heart and soul revolution, like a flare shot up into the night sky over the soul-diminishing, endless, dark terrace rows: yes, yes, yes we are here. I saw a way out and it was in this music, The Smiths weaved a magical spell and - I didn’t know what else to do - I followed the light.
The songs. Morrissey is in some senses straightforward (and in other senses, bent forward), the songs on ‘The Smiths’ scored repeated direct hits on me. Unlike the band’s progeny, the sensitive indie boy likes of The Field Mice, Belle & Sebastian and so on, The Smiths were never actually the shyly mumbling, shivering, apologetic type. Quite the contrary, bolstered by fear and fury Morrissey’s songs heralded a frustration unbuttoned.
And such urgency! Such glee! Such relief! Listen to how the ideas tumble over each other in these early songs, it’s like someone who’s been holding their breath their whole life, finally breathing out, but what I found completely staggering was the display of vulnerability.
In ‘You’ve Got Everything Now’ he sings “no, I’ve never had a job / because I’m too shy”, admitting to being too shy to get a job just seemed an unusual, jolting admission to me, strangely endearing and brave.
(It’s also probably worth noting that the song was written during a time of mass unemployment in Great Britain, and for Morrissey to claim he was jobless due, not to crushing Tory policies that all the other contemporary politicised bands were bemoaning, but his own feebleness - later in the song, he also says he hadn’t had a job because he “never wanted one” - was a perverse way of cocking a snook at the government and retaining some personal pride: you didn’t break me, he seems to say, because I never took part, my ruin is my own doing. Morrissey refuses to be a victim to anyone but himself.)
Shy as I was myself, when I left school I had no other option but to get a job, and when I found myself working the night shift in a vacuum cleaner factory, the thunderous anti-work ethic in ‘You’ve Got Everything Now’, and others, provided me with a life belt to buoy me up from sinking into a numbed acceptance of the workplace. But while ’YGEN’ acted as a buffer against the everyday, the song's tart detail of “back at the old, grey school / I would win and you would lose / but you’ve got everything now / and what a terrible mess I’ve made of my life” tuned into my nascent, ever-growing bitterness as I slipped on life’s surface, the world racing past me as I floundered.
The theme of disappointment is central to many of Morrissey’s songs, he is not quite the pessimistic conspiracy theorist like Thom Yorke, more the bruised idealist, the naive romantic who sees his hopes dashed, his dreams crashed, his happiness snatched, as his future beyond the “old grey school” turns out to be a false dawn. Life: The Big Let-Down, is what ’The Smiths', if anything, is about - though not in defeatist acceptance of the fact, instead in sharp defiance of it, the songs struggle and thrash against society’s bonds, trying to make a space, to mark their own place in a falling, failing world.
It was the snowy-dawn mournfulness of the slower tracks, though, that burned themselves into me the deepest, and on ‘The Smiths‘, oh girl, are they ever slow. We’re talking continental drift slow, a slowness to bask in, a barely imperceptible current that gently draws you away from shore out into the open sea.
‘Reel Around The Fountain’s funeral procession slowness makes it a daring opener. A possible paean to Warhol and/or some other lover “fifteen minutes with you / well, I wouldn’t say no”, Morrissey lowly mooing over Johnny Marr’s glacier-scape guitar. ‘The Hand That Rocks The Cradle‘ is a lullaby infused with the kind of elegiac poeticism that is uncommon in popular music - just as well, it‘s doubtful too many would have anything like the deftness shown here to pull it off.
Nothing beats the final two songs however. ‘I Don’t Owe You Anything’ sounds like Morrissey’s come off his bone-shaker bike and has had to limp home with a bruised ankle and a buckled wheel. In the drizzle. So overwrought is his complaining that it becomes entertaining. After getting his attentions rejected on his intended’s front step, Moz stands there and laments “did I really walk all this way?” and you can actually hear his shoulders sag. Oh Morrissey, you poor bastard. ‘Suffer Little Children’, on the other hand, is something else altogether
Between 1963 and 1965 upward of five children were tortured, killed and buried on surrounding moorland by Ian Brady and Myra Hindley. They were taken from the same Manchester streets that Morrissey - born in 1959 - was growing up in. ‘Suffer Little Children’, chilling like the North wind that whips across the Pennines, is Morrissey’s attempt to address the affect the murders had on Manchester. “Lesley-Anne and your pretty white beads / oh John you’ll never be a man... / Edward, see those alluring lights? / Tonight will be your very last night”, in naming the children and their murderers - thereby taking away any ambiguity the song might've had - Morrissey was courting controversy, especially in Manchester where the still vivid emotional scars ran like a fault-line across the city. Morrissey then becomes ‘the voice’ of the victims, a spectral murmur, drifting in from the moors, through the city’s streets “we will haunt you when you laugh... / oh Manchester, so much to answer for”. (Controversy came, of course, and Morrissey was subjected to his first - and, as we know, not his last - media demonising for straying into subject matter that some obviously feel should be left alone.)
‘Suffer Little Children’, an uncomfortable yet graceful and dignified song was thematically and musically different to everything else I'd heard up ‘till then. It’s here that The Smiths were/are really alien, and despite however many - God knows, too many - guitar bands that carried their influence, no-one ever quite hit home, never seemed to get it right, or rather, quite as fantastically, heroically wrong, as The Smiths.
This could, I admit, due to The Smiths being the first band that I needed, but where they could’ve sounded doomy and flat-footed like so many other miserablists of the time, they floated, Marr’s guitar shooting forth silver and blue sparks that hang in the air. The band’s shimmering shine came from looking past the monolith that punk left to earlier days of soul and English folk... and then there’s...
Morrissey, with his anti-rockist vocals, his threadbare glam anti-fashion, his preening and his posing. A pop snob, an odd sod, Morrissey’s also a funny bugger. The charge of him being merely miserable, though, I don’t think has gone away, which is ridiculous. Okay, calling The Smiths’ fourth, and biggest, hit single ‘Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now‘ didn’t do him any favours, but (and aside from the fact that it was a self-mocking play on the title of a Sandie Shaw song, ‘Heaven Knows I’m Missing Him Now’) I think it is worth pointing out that the title isn’t ‘Heaven Knows I Am Miserable’, it’s: ‘..I’m Miserable Now’: how compliancy to society’s regime diminishes the spirit, is the point of the song - and I was feeling it!
But Morrissey made me laugh. Smiths defenders will always point out the humour embedded within the songs, and they’re right to do so, but the humour is just another manifestation of Morrissey’s hurt and anger, it’s a useful - and powerful - tool to hammer out his point. This is why, to me, a line like “In my life / Oh why do I smile / at people who I’d much rather / kick in the eye?” is typical of The Smiths’ acid humour: it comes from great despair.
Shelagh Delaney‘s ‘A Taste Of Honey’ and Elizabeth Smart‘s ‘By Grand Central Station, I Sat Down And Wept’, ’60s ‘kitchen sink’ TV dramas and Carry-On movies all got scrambled together and mixed in, and filtered through Morrissey’s own [internal] life and out came ‘The Smiths': a sepia-tinted idealism, camp, innuendo-strewn theatre, feathery romanticism, homosexuality, resentment and the inside ticking of remorse. Some weird shit going down here, I’m telling you.
With The Smiths having split up before I discovered them, I was in the curious position of finding the band through archaeology. They weren’t of my time so I had to go digging, so The Smiths, therefore, felt like my treasure. Their music flooded my life for a while, Morrissey was my alphabet.
I don’t need them now. I’m a fan, but I’ve moved on, you have to move on. The Smiths can become a suffocating comfort blanket for those desperate enough and I was nearly one. In the end I just grew up, I’m grateful to have had them take up space in my life, but it’s more important to not let such a band get in the way of me being able to breathe.
Morrissey‘s voice still echoes in my ears from time to time though: “Don’t forget the songs that made you cry / and the songs that saved your life / yes, you’re older now / and you’re a clever swine / but they were the only ones that ever stood by you”
I know. I know.