"Farewell to this land's cheerless marshes/hemmed in like a boar between arches."
I had no idea what these album-opening lines meant, but I knew, somehow, it would change my life. It was August, 1986. I had just graduated from junior high that spring and felt on top of my game. I looked forward to all the John Hughes-style fantasies that high school promised, in my mind anyway. It would be high drama and cool clothes. The movie Pretty in Pink would be my life story and I would be Molly Ringwald. As a boy, I mean.
On that film’s soundtrack, the last track was a two-minute tale called “Please Please Please Let Me Get What I Want” by the Smiths. It was the first time I heard their music and what a revelation. It seemed like folk music to me, all acoustic guitars in the midst of the soundtrack’s synthesizer gloss. This singer with one name, Morrissey, was like no one I had ever heard. Soulful, in the strangest, non-R&B way. That summer of ‘86 was when I saw my first Smiths’ video as well, if you could call it that. Famously, the Smiths never made “music videos”. This “film” for the song “There Is a Light That Never Goes Out” was all waves of shadowy, gold-flecked bodies. Not much to look at, but the song was hypnotizing. So these mysteries were what the Smiths were all about: dramatic strings, soaring voices, gentle guitars. I jotted down the album title for purchase later.
A few weeks before school started and my Mom had taken me to Burnsville Mall, a suburban Minneapolis establishment of mammoth food court proportions, to go school-clothes shopping. After buying frankly vulgar yellow shirts and gray pants for my Catholic high school uniform, I convinced my Mom to buy me a cassette tape at the mall’s hideous Sam Goody/Musicland-style record shop. I zeroed in and found the forest green cover of The Queen Is Dead. It depicted a shadowy, handsome man lying on his back, looking like Romeo after downing that vial of poison. It was like a Shakespeare book cover from my upcoming English class plastered onto a rock album. It seemed so otherworldly (those song titles!) in the middle of suburban hell, propped up next to a Janet Jackson Control record.
I took it home to discover, to my eternal delight, that multiple folds came out of the cassette cover. Columns and columns of lyrics poured out on the bedroom floor. I put the tape on and pressed play, lying back to read all those words while the music played.
The first song, the title track, began with a haunting nursery-rhyme chant followed by whistling guitar, pounding tribal drums, feedback and the various mumblings and wails of one Steven Morrissey. It was epic and overwhelming. Prince Charles in his mother’s bridal veil? Castration? “Some nine-year-old tough who peddles drugs / I swear to God, I swear / I never even knew what drugs were”. Neither did I. The topics were so academic, perverted, alien, and sexual. The rhythm was propulsive and mesmerizing.
“Frankly, Mr. Shankly” was more sing-songy and traditional, musically, but with witty jabs and controversy: “I want to live and I want to love / I want to catch something that I might be ashamed of”. Brilliant. “I Know It’s Over” floored me. Slow and dark, it was a song about lost love, unrequited love, never-appearing love. It seemed to be written by and for my consumption only. Morrissey knew me! Who even thinks of romantic clichés when it’s happening for the first time. “Never Had No One Ever” is like a coda to the previous track. More sentiments to the same.
“Cemetry Gates”(yes, purposely spelled incorrectly) ended the first side with a jaunty acoustic guitar overload courtesy of Johnny Marr. Walking through a graveyard with a friend (a lover?) indeed. Pop songs had never touched on this kind of thing before and certainly not in my Duran Duran past. It mentioned 19th century English poets for chrissakes. “A dreaded sunny day / So let’s go where we’re wanted”.
Side two opens with another violent, sprawling song, “Bigmouth Strikes Again”. All my Catholic school education put through a dark and beautiful pop music grinder. “And now I know how Joan of Arc felt” Morrissey sang, his backing vocals sped up to sound like a woman singing (the credited pseudonym: ‘Ann Coates’). “The Boy with the Thorn in His Side” is an album highlight. This is Morrissey at his falsetto, tender best. I had seen his photo in rock magazines, all tall, pale, and handsome. I was in love. It all seemed like gay liberation pop without really saying a word. I was fourteen without the words yet. “How can they see the love in our eyes / And still they don’t believe us?”
“Vicar in a Tutu” is a funny tale of religion, rebellion, and cross-dressing, naturally. More weird Englishness that seemed so amazingly new but a million, aching miles away from my Minneapolis middle-class life. “There Is a Light That Never Goes Out” is arguably the album’s crowning glory. It’s like Morrissey’s whole career encapsulated in under five minutes. It had it all: cinematic drama, teen angst, escape, nightlife glamour, romantic death. “If a double-decker bus, crashes into us / To die by your side is such a heavenly way to die”. It seemed impossible for life to be that fascinating, but I spent weeks, months, years dreaming it could be. “Some Girls Are Bigger Than Others” is a meditative closer. The title put me off at first, confused by Morrissey’s odd humor. Still, by the last line: “Send me your pillow, the one that you dream on / And I’ll send you mine”, I knew this album was perfection. I had fallen in love and had my heart broken simultaneously, as did millions of others I’m sure.
High school started and it was not quite the teen movie of my dreams. I purchased the rest of the Smiths catalog within weeks as armor and education. Who knew the band would disintegrate the following year? That fall, it seemed like they would go on forever. High school and college came and went. Morrissey became a solo artist and released many CDs, from fair (Kill Uncle) to Smiths-level brilliant (Your Arsenal). I saw him live three times in one year (1991-92) and my twenty-year-old gay boy fantasy came true. I fought my way onstage, more than once, to drape my hero/icon/muse/idol in hugs and kisses. I came away with tatters of his gauzy shirts as souvenirs. As he lives and hides now in Hollywood, Morrissey has yet to release new material anytime in the past five years. I wonder now, at age thirty, if I could ever feel like August 1986 again. God, would I want to?