I move in circles that love The Smiths. On my thirteenth birthday I was gifted three CDs: The Kooks (don’t judge me, at that tender age they appeared the most promising tall, skinny, curly-haired musicians around), The Stone Roses and The Smiths – Meat is Murder.
I was instantly enamoured with Meat is Murder. Brought up a vegetarian, I was in tune with the album’s sentiment and I remember feeling as if I had much more of a right to it than my peers as, I too, like Morrissey (and Marr who after the album’s release also became a vegetarian) believed meat to be nothing short of murder.
From that point on I learned what it’s like to truly love a bunch of northern blokes sporting musical instruments (or bunches of gladioli) and to stand by them in a staunchly uncompromising manner. Through my love of The Smiths I nurtured my argumentative tendencies and developed my ability to defend and reason, to the point where relationships ended and English teachers were converted. At the meagre age of fourteen I rather self assuredly declared that you simply couldn’t be a teacher of English Literature and not like The Smiths – his lyrics being poetry within their own right. By the end of the academic year the NQT (now friend) in question proudly exhibited a photograph of Morrissey behind her desk.
The Smiths, as Tony Fletcher notes, have never defended themselves. People like me do it for them, passionately and more often that not, too enthusiastically for the sentiments we’re upholding. At risk of sounding tacky, they are very much like Marmite, both loved and hated in equal measure.
This is not to say that the general public at large shares a mutual love and respect for the Smiths. Due to Morrissey’s untrained and limited vocal range, which he compensated for in early days with the addition of yodelling, yelping, and the occasional grunt; abetted by the politically personal stance of his lyrics, which sought to tease, amuse, comfort, and confront […] aided by such a determined collective refusal to compromise that the Smiths were often misconstrued as awkward or arrogant, confirmed by the manner in which they stood musically and visually at direct odds to the mainstream soundtrack of the mid-1980s […] For all these reasons the Smiths were either loved or hated. There was no room for mild acceptance in between.
As Fletcher acknowledges, to love The Smiths (as it is not enough, or perhaps possible, to simply ‘like’ them) is to belong to a group that is outside of the mainstream. To identify with Morrissey and Marr is to affiliate oneself with the left-wingers, the vegetarians and pacifists of the world, to stand unashamedly outside of the collective.
From Meat is Murder I progressed onto Hatful of Hollow, The World Won’t Listen and Louder than Bombs. I discovered What Difference Does it Make? and This Charming Man. I remember one other girl at school liking The Smiths and she shared William, It Was Really Nothing and Some Girls are Bigger than Others. I couldn’t get enough. Fully out of the grunge phase that occupied me throughout my twelfth year I now lived for Morrissey and Marr.
It was around this time that the BBC aired The Seven Ages of Rock series and it was the final episode that I would become obsessed with. It was entitled What the World is Waiting For and focussed on the birth of British Indie and the subsequent explosion of Britpop. Less bothered about Oasis and Blur and their now immortalised endeavours for top spot on the album chart, I religiously watched the first half of the episode in which the rise and fall of The Smiths, and their influence on the British music scene as a whole, was painstakingly documented. I watched it every single day for months, having recorded it onto our Virgin box, each time learning something new and congratulating myself on my ability to hold onto this knowledge. Eventually my dad deleted it from our recordings library. I was gutted.
It was here that I witnessed Morrissey’s infamous refusal of a microphone on Top of the Pops. If they were insisting he mimed, he would make it apparent. Morrissey, flailing around with a bunch of gladioli, singing about how he would go out if he had a stitch to wear, alongside a roll neck wearing Johnny Marr, was an image that epitomised coolness and non-conformity.
I remember being pleased that I had fallen so much in love with The Smiths. Now, I can’t imagine my life without them. When my parents announced that they were separating I shut myself in my room and played Bigmouth Strikes Again at full volume. They sound tracked many a journey to uni in Sheffield to the point where I wrote half my undergraduate dissertation on them. When I ended a four-year relationship last year Morrissey, Marr, Rourke and Joyce were there to vocalise my feelings and comfort my (extremely Morrissey-esque) aching heart. A Rush and a Push and the Land is Ours gets me out of bed most mornings (quite literally – it’s my alarm) and to commemorate receiving my Masters my dad bought me The Queen is Dead reissue. And, although I find its existence ironic (see Paint a Vulgar Picture) it’s still one of the most beautiful of my possessions. I Won’t Share You, the final track on Strangeways, is perhaps one of the most beautiful yet simultaneously heart-breaking songs I’ve ever heard. Morrissey’s voice on this album is at its most tender and Marr’s guitar at its most melancholy. Just for today it is my favourite Smiths album. Its final track is the perfect goodbye, a love song about an irretrievable relationship, with an ‘I don’t want you, but no one else can have you’ attitude. It is undeniably human and in my opinion would make an exceptional and emotional first dance!
If you were to visit my flat my love for all things Smiths is apparent, from my physical music collection, to the artwork on my walls, to the rather fabulous mug I drink my tea out of, to the books I keep on my shelves. When Penguin announced that Morrissey would be penning his autobiography and that it would be published in the realm of their Classics editions I was nothing short of ecstatic and amused. This, to the general public, was a sure sign of his arrogance and misconceived perception of himself. To me, it was a hilarious assertion of his knowledge of this perceived self-confidence. Only Steven Patrick Morrissey would have the ability to persuade Penguin to publish his autobiography as an instant classic.
Christmas morning 2013 saw me sleeping on my own floor, waking with an exceptional hangover and unwrapping this book. Not remotely bothered about any of my other presents (this, I had been waiting for) I began to read. Initially I blamed it on my emotional hung-over state; the fact that I couldn’t quite stomach his efforts, but as the day and subsequently weeks and months progressed it turned out I couldn’t handle his narration. I persevered however and a year later finally turned the page for the four hundred and fifty seventh time and completed the ordeal on a sun lounger in the South of France. It is a difficult read. There are no chapters; barely any sentences. It is the stream of consciousness of a damaged man with a persecution complex. This was the beginning of the end.
Johnny Marr’s however, was a complete contrast. Finished within two days, Marr conveys himself eloquently and tenderly. His experiences with different bands and musicians (in particularly those with The Smiths, and in sharp contrast to Morrissey) are treated with respect and resounding admiration. The negative parts of his life are acknowledged, yet not dwelt upon, and this makes for a mature work. Reading the final pages the reader is left with the impression that Johnny is just a top bloke who loves guitars, his peers, Manchester and his family. There is an entire lack of any animosity towards the dissolution of The Smiths and the court case that followed, whereas Morrissey’s portrayal suggests that it has haunted and infuriated him throughout his life.
As he’s aged, the public perception of Morrissey is that he has become more controversial. My opinion is that he knows what he’s doing and simply does it to gain a reaction. Normally, I laugh it off, acknowledge his ridiculousness and continue with my own life. However, recently he’s gone too far.
Last year, a friend of mine expressed her disgust with a certain Steven Patrick Morrissey as he announced an upcoming album tour that is defunct of any form of Manchester date. I felt a similar sentiment; who does he think he is? This icon of Northern misery refuses to play in the city that provided him with his best work. The man who once declared, ‘London is dead, London is dead’ etc. etc. is actually partaking in three (yes, three!) dates in that self-professed graveyard. His Northern stint begins in Newcastle and ends in Leeds. Surely it is only proper to see Morrissey perform in the North? And furthermore, not just the North but my North.
Northern regions, and more specifically Northern cities, are extremely distinct. Newcastle is as different to Leeds as the Amazon is to the Antarctic. Its industry is centred on coal mining and the impact of Thatcher’s Britain was felt in a wholeheartedly different way that far North. Newcastle is truly on the edge, easily overlooked, far from the capital and the centre of commerce. The attitudes in this version of the North are very different.
Leeds offers a further alternative version of Northerness. The city dealt in wool, which although perhaps not appearing to be, was exceptionally different to Manchester’s cotton. The aesthetic, attitudes and downfall all vary creating distinct versions of Northerners. As a proud Mancunian, a true descendent of Cottonopolis, I refuse to entertain the idea of watching Morrissey in Yorkshire.
Moving to LA as soon as he did demonstrates that Morrissey seems to have some sort of dissolution with Manchester. About as opposite as you could possibly get, I imagine Morrissey’s LA life is akin to Annie Hall. If you were to merge aspects of Woody Allen and Tony Roberts’ characters then you would be left with an accurate suggestion of how Morrissey conducts himself on the West Coast, with the cynicism and dissatisfaction of Allen and the narcissistic, self-conscious, obsessiveness of Roberts. It is easy to imagine him being driven around in a convertible covered with some ridiculous hood to protect against the effects of gamma.
For all his rational and welcome eighties radicalism, Morrissey is also entirely irrational. I do not intend to talk at length about his recent comments on high profile sexual assault allegations as this has been done. Dissatisfaction and disgust have been readily available and however he chooses to contend his words, the facts seem to speak for themselves. It is sad that I cannot now be both a feminist (or just decent human being) and a supporter of Morrissey. For all the defending I have mustered over the years, I feel let down. This is not a case of controversy for controversy’s sake, but rather the nonsensical delusions of an ageing man.
When he released Low in High School I know many Morrissey fans that were unwilling to listen based upon his increasingly challenging personal views. I don’t believe in this as a practice. I don’t listen to Michael Jackson because his music is awful, it just so happens that that also sits morally well with me. The pro-Israel stance through the second half of the album is somewhat unsettling, however musically, there are some really good tracks on there.
The Smiths and particularly Morrissey (as an outspoken, unapologetic, controversial figure) hold a special place in my being. They have inspired, comforted and supported me for eleven years. So, I will continue to go to Smiths Disco and relish in the weirdness that that invites. I will continue to wake up every morning to A Rush and a Push and the Land is Ours and feel as if I can (potentially) take on the world. I will continue to play Bigmouth Strikes Again at full volume in moments of crisis and take comfort in Johnny Marr’s cheerful, yet fatalistic guitar. And, above all, I will continue to staunchly defend the values and attitudes of these four outcasts from Greater Manchester, no matter how unpopular that may make me. In fact, in true Smithsonian fashion, that will only encourage me further.