Some songs are composed on piano, some on guitar; this one was composed on a secondhand typewriter. That’s because Morrissey is not a musician and doesn’t play any instruments. He could, of course, just go around with a notepad like a normal-person, but in Morrissey’s world, it’s all about the aesthetics. And the image of the poet with his dry toast and his tea and his battered typewriter pretty much defines the aesthetic of The Smiths, and by extension, their fandom. Sad, but proud of it. Devoutly romantic but too socially useless to do anything about it. I too spent my teenage years clicking away on a thrift store typewriter. It’s wildly impractical, but the sound is very satisfying. It’s a great hobby for someone who spends too much time alone and really only sees other people as vague abstractions and doesn’t have any ambitions in life besides appearing poetic. My teenage self was not a Smiths fan. I just lived a Morrissey-approved lifestyle.
I love Morrissey’s references to boys with pretty white necks. It’s both sexy and self-consciously glib. And he has got quite a pretty white neck himself, which isn’t meant to be lost on anyone. The winking and nodding to pretty boys’ bodies – coming from a pretty boy who claimed that his pain is too grand for mere labels of sexual orientation – was naughty and subversive, and as telling as you wanted it to be. Morrissey will probably never ‘come out’ the way some people are still rooting for him to do, nor should he; the business of pinning down personal identity is dreadfully dreary when you don’t particularly care for any of the options. That does allow the singer to remain pliable and easy to project onto, hence the rabid devotion he still commands. The fact that he’s kind of a crappy person doesn’t matter very much to fans who’ve identified with the music for whatever reason. The singer may be a challenge to admire, but the songs remain impossible not to latch onto. We will probably forever be debating just how knowingly Morrissey’s music addresses depression-case gay boys, or romantic-pretender depression-case straight ones, or sad-sack wallflower girls. But there’s one thing that everybody in the fandom relates to: people who’ve learned about the world in cemeteries and libraries experience love differently, with sweaty palms and shaky knees, and being pretty is frankly no reprieve from it.
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.