Not Just a Consumer Monkey
When I first heard The Smiths, I was in a club, surrounded by drunken Swedish girls in Motorhead shirts. It was an ironic statement, they told me, while giggling and sucking at bottles of beer. I said nothing; I actually liked Motorhead. But don't worry, this is not going to be a rose-tinted trip down a little alleyway off the Memory Lane thoroughfare. When I heard 'There Is A Light That Never Goes Out', I thought it was awful. Risible. The sonic equivalent of a lovesick 16 year old's diary. I drifted away from the dancefloor, ordered a double gin and tonic, and sat down until The Stooges came on.
But the mind is a strange beast, capricious and prone to change. Several months later, while rifling through the racks in Tower Records, I came across The Smiths Greatest Hits I. I wasn't looking to find it. If I were prone to belief in some omniscient being governing the destinies of its little earthbound playthings, I would be inclined to say that the record found me. But I'm not, and so we shall simply call it serendipity. Before I knew what was going on, my fingers were clasped around the jewel case, and I was walking towards the check-out. 10% off with the student ID in my wallet. 11 pounds in all; can't be bad for an opportunity to chuckle at Mozza's tales about loneliness and unrequited love.
The thing is, however, that I've experienced love unrequited and pangs of loneliness in the depths of long nights. I've lived in provincial towns, felt words die on my tongue in front of the person I wanted to communicate with the most. When I put the record on at home, Morrissey's lyrics started to burrow their way into my heart and mind, just as Johnny Marr's gently beautiful harmonies echoed in my ears. The record that caprice bought became the record that was never off my stereo. I found myself singing 'Girlfriend in a Coma' on the Underground, 'Cemetary Gates' in the shower.
Now, when I meet people, one of the first things I ask is whether they like The Smiths. I do it cautiously, of course, so as not to place too much weight on their answer. People have a tendency to tell you what you want to hear, so I play at being indifferent. Toss a seemingly meaningless question into the conversational stew. But I am listening intently to how they respond. Their answer is all important. Although I have many friends who cringe whenever I try and surreptitiously place The Queen is Dead on, and one who has resorted to specifically requesting I leave my Smiths records at home whenever we meet, I cannot escape from the lingering feeling that there is an invisible barrier wedged between us. It strikes me that anyone who cannot sympathise, just a little, with another individual's heartfelt words and emotions, islacking in a basic type of human empathy. They seem, being totally honest and running the risk of sounding too judgemental, shallow and emotionally numb. I don't tell them that, of course. If they say they loathe The Smiths, I smile innocently and deftly change the subject.
So what makes The Smiths great? Or, at least, the best company I've found for those long nights when I have to hide all the ticking clocks to allow me to forget that time is forever passing me by. It is that Morrissey means what he sings. Simple, really. But sadly rare. The scarcity of artists since the 1970s who actually mean what they say would warrant their inclusion on the Endangered Species List, were it not for that fact that dying breeds of humans attract less attention than their animal counterparts. It is easier to save a flock of fluffy birds than people. But be that as it may, Morrissey was sincere. You can hear it in his voice; he was not there to prove himself, make money, chase fame or any other will o' the wisp that motivates people to action like a carrot dangled before a donkey. The plaintive strains of his voice carried with them the higher, more elusive, sound of a real person engaged in real struggles, experiencing real sadnesses and real joys. Sincerity is at a premium now more than ever, and to hear the sound of honesty can be more soothing than anything else.
I could go on, talk about the wit, wry humour, and the crime of lyricism of which Mr. Steven Morrissey is a repeat offender. Perhaps one day The Smiths will be universally regarded as ridiculous. Where is the irony and profusion of references to popular culture? Where's the plasticity? What would Andy Warhol have said? But no, there will be a place for honesty as long as people love, lose and regret. And a place will always be reserved in my heart for The Smiths as long as there are nights without company, pangs of longing, and a stereo close at hand to remind me I am not alone after all.
© Ruvi Simmons