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.”
Behold a relatively rare thing, a Smiths promotional video. If you’ve been up to date here, you know the import. The Smiths didn’t film very many videos during their brief time on Earth, and although Morrissey has made a great many videos in his solo years, most of them have been notoriously terrible. So this one is rare in that it both exists and isn’t in any way awful or bizarre. It is also rather relevant towards understanding the Morrissey appeal. It features Moz as the leader of Manchester’s least intimidating gang of bikers, cruising around with a crew of motley acolytes decked out in poorly fitting jeans and government issue spectacles. To say that it illustrates the cultish nature of The Smiths’ fandom might be incorrect, insofar as nobody likes being labeled a cult, and as far as cults go Mozfans are a mild bunch. But it’s definitely an element that’s always been present. Being a Morrissey fan is maybe like belonging to a secret society, united by a love of cats, thrift store clothing and Oscar Wilde. I can only guess at what the action on the ground looked like in the 80’s but to this day you can still spot true believers sporting the tell-tall anti-gravity ‘do. Perhaps it’s less notable since the Morrissey look has pretty much been absorbed into the generic morass of hipster style. For which perhaps we can shovel a little blame on Moz himself. For he was self-consciously ‘uncool’ decades before self-conscious ‘uncoolness’ became a universally recognized cry of “look how cool I am!” His look crops up in fashion magazines and on runways often enough – every season some enterprising designer orchestrates a collection of saggy cardigans and droopy, rolled-up pants modeled by undernourished waiflings with impeccable hair. Not entirely inappropriate either, given that the teenaged Steven Patrick’s ambition was to become a top fashion model. A lot of people, not necessarily fans, would like to make Morrissey’s sad outcast chic their own, but for the real fans the desire to be more Mozlike often extends to more intimidating lifestyle choices. How many people have become bicycling, cat-hoarding vegetarians because Morrissey makes it look so appealingly unappealing? A lot, I’d wager. Although I myself have no intention ever to quit eating dead animal flesh or driving a car with smooth leather seats, and I can’t help but look askew at anyone who would make those decisions based on the opinion of some rock star with a typewriter, I do have a lot admiration for the object of such following. It’s amazing when a person has the stature and personal appeal to wield that kind of influence, and insists on using his powers to promote literacy and kindness to animals. Instead of, like, invading Poland or something equally stupid and destructive.