Insert ‘mind blown’ reaction gif here. This here, this song right here, is the straw that broke up The Smiths. Apparently – and somehow I did not know it until just now – this is a rewrite of song by The Smiths. Not a proper Morrissey/Marr Smiths song that you would have heard of, but an instrumental B-side that Bryan Ferry handpicked as a potential hit, wrote some lyrics for, and then hired Johnny Marr to play session on. (Marr also played on the tour, and is prominently seen in the video.) Marr’s original composition, Money Changes Everything, does in fact sound exactly like a mid-eighties Bryan Ferry song without the vocal. Ferry has a bit of genius touch with picking unexpected things that suit his style, and Johnny Marr’s playing is perfectly suited for a Bryan Ferry album. Now that I think about it, having Marr on board might be part of why Bete Noire was so damn good. Ferry was right about the hit potential too; this was Bete Noire’s biggest single. Not-in-any-way-coincidentally, this was also right about the time that Marr left his day job for a less-illustrious but also probably way less stressful career as a journeyman session player. Obviously, Morrissey was in paroxysms of jealousy that Bryan Ferry would requisition one of the few Smiths songs that he’d had nothing to do with. He doesn’t directly say as much in his autobiography, but it’s heavily implied; he broke up the band because he felt ‘cheated-on’ by his songwriting partner for appearing in a Bryan Ferry video.
The Smiths are one of those groups that take you into their headspace, and you’d better be prepared for it. In Morrissey’s world even innocuous things like going to the beach are heavy with existential malaise. Morrissey has become almost entirely campy now, but he was serious as a tombstone when he first pined his way into the hearts and minds of the alienated and sexually confused. Shockingly enough, not everyone recognizes themselves in the fantasies of the Top 40, and the 80’s were particularly escapist and divorced from reality in that regard. Songs about people whose main priorities are sex and partying may not say anything relevant to you about your life, not when you’re the kind of person who doesn’t get invited to parties and can barely interact with another person for five minutes. If you’re the kind of person who for the life of you can’t understand how other people manage to form and maintain attachments, how they even manage to find, let alone follow, the prescribed path through life, then the Smiths are for you.
Morrissey himself can’t play this song with a straight face anymore, but if the singer has outgrown his own youthful angst, the sentiment lives on none the less. And frankly, the sensation that the one thing that you really, really, really want is always and forever out of reach may not ever entirely go away. Sure, the world is full of people who know of no reality beyond their own entitlement; they must have happy lives, the same way that some of the less-sentient animals must have happy lives. For the rest of us, there’s the nagging and pervasive sensation that personal satisfaction lies behind a door marked No Admittance. And while lack of access to material indulgences is fairly easy to salve away through zen mindfulness or some other philosophical contortion, the disinterest and rejection we face in the interpersonal realm is wounding. Again and again we bump up against the saddening reality that our feelings count for nothing, and no matter how passionately we may feel, the feelings of others remain untouchable, incomprehensible, completely and utterly beyond influence. So we mope. We mope and we cry and we shake a wan fist at the world. Then we mope some more.
“Could life ever be sane again?” Morrissey asked himself in 1986. In the wake of the Chernobyl meltdown and the blasted DJ’s insensitivity to it, it was a fair enough question. The world looked pretty bleak back then, and candy bubble pop stars just made the bleakness look worse. Morrissey set out to speak for all the mopes who saw the fuchsia and chartreuse of pop culture as a vapid distraction from the sorrow of reality. He succeeded and still does, and has lived to see his aesthetic cycle in and out of favor several times over. His miserabalism has outlived the rise and fall of grunge and emo, and The Smiths remain no less relevant. You can acknowledge that the world may well be whimpering its last, and yet you still go on living on the slim hope of romance or creative redemption.
“And if the day came when I felt a natural emotion, I’d get such a shock I’d probably jump in the ocean..”
That’s a line I’ve always related to, even before my Morrissey obsession went into orbit. It’s truly rare to find yourself feeling an emotion untainted by what you’ve been told you should be feeling. It’s just everyday alienation. It hasn’t changed much since 1985. We’re all still preoccupied with mastering new household appliances. But it would be nice to feel something. I think I have no choice now but to listen to The Smiths all day. Morrissey speaks for everyone who feels that they only have their wits keeping them above the sludge. The world is bleak and other people are a nightmare; your emotions are out of tune and your social functions don’t function – but at least your wit, your tongue and your pencil are all sharp.
If you haven’t figured it out already, Morrissey is not a reliable narrator. If you’ve read his autobiography (which I will be reviewing in depth shortly) you’ll have noticed that he is the least reliable source for facts concerning his own life. He long ago elevated being facetious in interviews into the realm of performance art. So of course the last thing you should ever do is infer anything factual whatsoever from his songs. One thing we do know, without doubt, about the singer, is that he sucks at relationships. Whatever mystery-shrouded proclivities he draws upon, this time, he nails with total accuracy the bitter disappointment of the young romantic who has learned that truly, love is a miserable lie and most windswept posturing is an empty prelude for a mere panty-raid. Grasping the absurdity of such a situation doesn’t make it any less miserable. Though most of us – even Morrissey – eventually grow out of the stage where every potential romantic interaction leaves us in a tangle of skin-crawling discomfort, we still look back and relate to those times. You know, those times when you’ve spent six whole years on someone’s trail, and when you finally get close enough to the object of your desire, you find yourself wishing only that they’d put their tongue away and leave.
“No hope, no harm, just another false alarm”
One of The Smiths’ more depressing numbers. Gloominess has been rather Morrissey’s thing, since forever. His other things, to balance it all out, are irony and humor. Which makes for a lot of Smiths songs that you can have a bit of a chortle to, once you figure out what the joke is. Not this one though. This one is grandiose sad romantic with no joke to temper it. And it truly is deeply depressing. What could be sadder than waking up from lovey-dovey dreams only to remember that you are alone and likely to remain that way? Morrissey has had the market on romantic discontent cornered for decades, and we’ve all grown quite used to it. In fact, now that he’s in his fifties, the persona of the lovelorn, asocial dreamer has become a bit ridiculous, which I suspect Morrissey realizes, as he’s become increasingly tongue-in-cheek about it all. There’s only so much whining you can do when you’re a 54 year old millionaire, so you really need to do it with a nod and a wink. But back in the day, the effect was entirely more serious. Young Morrissey cut a genuinely tragic/romantic figure. He was (and still is) a very handsome devil, with a truly remarkable hairstyle, but cursed with some shortcomings of the personality. His songs about romantic frustration strike a such a deep chord because he really has been romantically frustrated. He seems to have genuine trouble with basic human relations; being difficult to befriend, easily offended, socially awkward, prone to blurting out offensive and insulting things; and has never been in a confirmed romantic relationship (though there have been rumors of several.) Somehow, the idea of a hot person who has trouble getting their love life in gear strikes us as inordinately tragic and awful. All that wasted hotness! The underlying presumption being that hot people owe it to the world to get out there and enjoy the spoils of hotness to the maximum possible extent. Morrissey is a prime example of that tragic waste; so attractive, yet too dysfunctional to do anything but about it but mope.
And while I was typing all this, a Facebook notification popped up on my screen; it was the official Morrissey Facebook page and it said just one word – “yes.”