The Boy with the Thorn in His Side:
posted by Jen on 9/21/01
The year was 1982. A little girl was smearing finger paints and munching on no frills cookie sandwiches at The Lollipop School for children. Her knowledge of sex and/or The Sex Pistols was grossly limited to peeping into the cracks of her brother's dresser drawers and spying the infamous pink and green cassette tape, underneath piles of "Penthouse." Her record collection, including but not limited to, Kenny Loggins, Kon Kam, Corey Hart, and Pat Benatar, was really only her brother's collection on loan from 3:30 to 5:30. Politics meant being tactful to other children to persuade them to concede their pudding snacks at lunchtime. Economics meant counting the pennies in her band-aid box at night and grinning proudly at her stash. For this little girl, anything outside of the realm of Crayola and Hydrox was incomprehensible.
Got it all figured out.
Across the world, some 5,000 miles away, two chaps in Manchester, England were forging a partnership that would someday define this child's existence for years to come. This was the year that Johnny Marr and Steven Patrick Morrissey forged the blessed union of their incredible minds into The Smiths, and subsequently transformed the beat of English (pop? punk? rock?) music forever. After Mike Joyce and Andy Rourke joined, The Smiths went on to produce twelve of the most poignantly witty and melancholy albums of our time. Lyrics smacking of irony, political dissertations, child abuse prevention and love delivered in the melodious, probing voice of Morrissey, rocked my little world beyond belief.
Fast forward to1988. My preppy brother Brian was driving to school behind a busload of high schoolers not lucky enough to have licenses. Being doubly blessed with boyish good looks and a Mustang convertible, back when they were cool, Brian reportedly created quite a stir among the girls on the bus. One of the girls noted the Bergen Catholic sticker on the back of the ‘Stang and did some research to find out just who he was. One week later, they were dating. Two weeks later, they were madly in love. Stefanie Kautzmann was, to this day, the only alterna-girlfriend my brother ever dated, and probably the coolest girl he ever let go.
The most important role Stef plays in the story of my development is her creation of mix tapes for Brian. I can name every song on some of those mixes from the tops of Side A to the bottoms of Side B, but I won't bore you with the details. But I can tell you that if I could somehow find those mixes now, I would be listening to them almost every day. Pressing stop. Flipping the tape over. Pressing rewind to catch that three seconds in the beginning of the song. Playing all the way until finish. And repeating the process. My favorite tape opened with "Personal Jesus" and contained other favorites from Yaz, Erasure, Nine Inch Nails, They Might Be Giants, Alphaville, and OMD. But nothing got me going the way The Smiths' "Rush and a Push…" and "The Death of a Disco Dancer" did.
Now, when I was nine years old, I can tell you I had no idea if "Rush and a Push" was about a struggle for land or a struggle between a ghost named Joe and the amount of caffeine in his bloodstream. I didn't care if "Death of a Disco Dancer" was about the events surrounding the end of pop disco culture or someone plugging the Bee Gees with a revolver full of lead. I just knew I liked the plucky guitar riffs in the beginning and Morrissey's sexy, British inflection. There was something about the way he sang, like he really just felt with all of his soul and spilled it out of his lips because he couldn't keep it contained any longer.
Months later, my brother and Stefanie broke up because she was just a "weird girl with strangely-colored hair" and my brother was busy playing football and dating pretty blondes. But her mix tapes stayed in his room, and I found myself in there every once in a while, rewinding/fast-forwarding/rewinding until I could hear those strained guitar strings in the beginning of that disco dancer song.
As the years went by, my enjoyment of The Smiths was only muted by my desire to appeal to the unsympathetic nature of seventh and eighth graders. I fit in quite nicely with the misfits and "tough" kids placed in that position only by virtue of being more awkward-looking than our cooler counterparts. We listened to Queen Latifah and Digital Underground, because it was the thing to do among our little in-group. Unlike most girls our age who bought Debbie Gibson and Paula Abdul tapes, we would only purchase N.W.A and Snoop Doggy Dogg, in an attempt to convince ourselves that we liked it. Needless to say, I was musically and socially at odds with whoever it is that I was.
After getting myself in heaps of trouble, I was sent off to Catholic school kicking and screaming at the behest of my frustrated parents. Thrust from a public grammar school that only accommodated attractive and/or Jewish and/or wealthy individuals, I found, for the first time, that I actually fit in and fit in quite nicely with all the gray plaid skirts and white oxford shirts walking around my Catholic school. My frizzy bangs and hideous perm were growing out quite nicely and I was no longer quite so ugly. Somehow, the "popular" girls invited me to come to the table, to be specific, the second table in the cafeteria, all the way to the left. I was so proud to be among the ranks of these cool cats, but drinking with seniors on the weekends was so obviously out of the realm of my social capabilities. I felt so mixed and strange, I felt like I was denying who I was and racing to find someone else to become.
In an effort to find some stability in my tortured 15-year old life, I decided to go back to basics. I walked into my brother's room one night in the beginning of freshman year and popped in one of Stef's old mixes. The quality was bad, the volume was off, but I played that music and never felt so right in my life. The "Death of a Disco Dancer," had somehow revitalized my withering identity, strange as it sounds. I decided that I had to buy that CD immediately, and perhaps develop a little collection. And for all of my high school years, I can say that at least one of the twelve Smiths albums I acquired thereafter correlated with a social turning point of sorts for me, and helped me to cope in some strange way.
Strangeways, Here We Come
As can be expected, this CD always reminds me of being a little kid, sitting in my brother's car and feeling a little bit cooler than my peers who had rejected me. I know that CD deals with the topic of death, unrequited love, and social disorder in a profound and startling way, but I can't help but listen to it and think of Stef and driving around in a cheesy Mustang. Whenever I hear "Unhappy Birthday," I think of all the mixes I made for my friend's birthdays, trying to spread my love of The Smiths. When I hear "Death at One's Elbow," I remember staying home on Saturday nights and laughing when he sang "Stay home, be bored, it's crap I know…" and then laughing at the end. Strangeways is not the first album I put in the CD player, but it's a good one.
Louder Than Bombs
I think buying this CD officially marked the obsession I developed for The Smiths, the time when my parents thought I was becoming severely depressed. I wasn't depressed, I was pretty damn happy locking myself into my brother's room and playing Nintendo with this CD playing in the background. I could probably relate each song on this album (with the exception of "Oscillate Wildly" and "Rubber Ring") to something going on in my own everyday life. Not even anything necessarily profound, just something I could sing along to and laugh about, recalling the events of my day. To this day when I hear "Hand In Glove," I can still remember my incredibly awkward first kiss with Ryan Coyle and the subsequent letters I wrote in different colored Crayola markers to him. I never gave them to him.
The Queen is Dead
I bought this next album right after freshman year, after my interest in Ryan was long unrequited and I spent the summer at different sleep-away soccer camps. My only refuge amid these grueling 8-hour days of dribbling, juggling, and hit in the face was sitting in my room at night and playing this CD. As most fans know, this album pretty much denounces the Church and the State, and any marrying of the two. Ironically, it's the funniest and most melancholy of all of their albums. "Frankly, Mr. Shankly" precedes "I know it's over" and the laughable "Bigmouth Strikes Again" follows "Cemetry Gates." This CD officially marked the turning point of my listening to The Smiths because I thought Morrissey was a hottie, and my listening to The Smiths because I actually was starting to appreciate the message. I know nobody else really thinks of Morrissey as attractive, but I am a strange and unusual girl who is keenly attracted to strange and unusual people. And then I found this book lying around my attic entitled "Handbook for the Recently Deceased." And then I drew a door on my wall and stepped into a cheery, sunshine-y world and escaped from the darkness.
Back to the story at hand. Though "Cemetry Gates" sounds like it might be a sad song, to the contrary, Morrissey makes enough literary and pop cultural references to win himself an invitation to write for whatever-dude.com. At first Morrissey was a willing journalist, but then he backtracked saying, "Fame, fame, fatal fame, it can play hideous tricks on the brain." You know, I can find a Morrissey quote to correlate with all of my written statements, but they're just not that funny or coherent. Neither are you, Jen.
By the way, one good thing did come out of soccer camp that summer: one of my teammates had an old Smiths T-shirt; she happily swapped it for my old Dead Milkmen T-shirt. 8 years later, I still have that shirt in my drawer. I can't even wear it out of the house, because it's covered in gaping holes, and Morrissey's ironed-on face is pretty much in tatters. Heaven knows I'm miserable now….
Meat is Murder
Officially my favorite Smiths album ever, Meat is Murder is the first and only album to officially make me feel bad about eating meat. (note to self: insert clever BJ joke here before posting). Although most would argue that the strength of this album is in the heady social commentary (war, scholastic violence, child abuse, again death, and vegetarianism), I again favored the irony in the tone of voice, the upbeat acoustical backdrop to the dreary topics at hand. Just pop in the CD and listen to the first song, "The Headmaster Ritual." The cynical title belies the happy-go-lucky musical score/voice intonations, which in turn, belie the actually horrified lyrics. While you're listening, you can't decide if Morrissey is laughing at the "belligerent ghouls (who) run Manchester schools" or if he really "want(s) to go home" or not. As for "Rusholme Ruffians," I've probably listened to this song over a thousand times, and I still can't tell if Morrissey is denouncing schoolhouse thugs, or siding with them. I hate using this word, but Morrissey (ew) juxtaposes (ew) the elated sounds from a carnival with a conversation about evil children. You are left wondering if he's evil, or distressed, or both. Trying to interpret Morrissey or any of his emotions are about as fruitless a challenge as trying to evaluate how Tootie felt when Mackenzie Astin joined The Facts of Life crew. You don't try to interpret, you just sit back and let yourself be entertained.
Over the years, my interest in The Smiths has waxed (after subsequently buying all of Morrissey's albums) and waned (after college roommates insisted on playing BNL and Dave Matthews at all times). But, amid a CD collection of bands I have outgrown like an old t-shirt (The Dead Milkmen) and new CDs that I am overplaying enough to hate (The Fly's), The Smiths will always be the fundamental, bread-and-butter musicians to me. It saddens me that a lot of people discredit them because OMG Morrissey is asexual what a gaylord!!!!!1 Whenever I listen to them, I think back to when I hesitantly turned up the volume in Stef's car, sang along in a timid little voice, and saw how proud she was that I knew the words. I'm reminded of a time when politics and economics were the furthest "ics" from my rhetoric. The Smiths always remind me that Hydrox cookie-eating, and Crayola finger-painting are pretty cool activities in their own right, regardless of outside influences.
Now, is it really so strange?
(bet you didn't realize I wrote such bloody awful poetry. HA!)