The first time I heard The Smiths, I was on my friend Tom’s bed. They were on vinyl.
Tom was my housemate and partner in crime through my university years in Sheffield, in England’s Industrial North.
I remember that night so clearly. Half cut, lounging on dirty sheets in a room not a million miles away from Tracey Emin’s Turner prize bed. Stacks of The Face and NME magazine, Prince records, three-day-old espresso cups, ashtrays, vodka bottles and pretentious art books. Barely opened.
I remember the smoke of our Mayfair Lights (cheaper than Marlboro) rising and swirling towards the low, stained ceiling. And most of all, the wiry effeminate melodies of Stephen Patrick Morrissey curling, creeping, seeping through the smoke.
And if a double decker bus,
crashes into us
to die by your side
well the pleasure the privilege is mine.
Sure.. we were 20 years too late, but it didn’t matter. We were discovering The Smiths like no one had ever heard them before. No one had ever fallen in love with the literary witticisms, the hyperbole, the desperate whiny romanticism. No one. Not like us anyway. We understood them. And Morrissey was ours.
After all, we were living in the cold industrial north of England: a backdrop of working mens’ clubs, factories and social unrest. The odd dichotomy of both loving and loathing it all was something Tom and I completely understood. We too were literary and gangly and fairly effeminate. We too never felt at home in a room of lager louts in football shirts. But it was all we knew. And so, with some kind of Stockholm Syndromic dysfunction, we both hated it and felt lost without it.
This sense of displacement yet affection was a tension in which we’d made our home.
We’d grown up on ’90s Britpop. Swaggering, beer-fuelled anthemnic, dance up and down at Glastonbury three-chord guitar stomps. And although we loved it, it was never ours. It never understood us. We listened to it because we couldn’t be bothered to find anything else.
When Morrissey strode into our world in his angular suits, we felt like we’d come home.
Our university years were spent obsessing over him: his lyrics, his wardrobe, the daffodils,and the misery and wonder of the north of England.
Five years later, university long gone, I was deeply ensconced in a career in the British media. And Tom was gay.
And due to a strange run of events, for a short time, Morrisey and I became acquaintances. We used to hang out in LA restaurants and radio studios. And he didn’t disappoint; he was every bit as effete and creative and whingey and angry and brilliant as he always was, but somehow, it all felt a bit silly. Like a pantomime.
But he hadn’t changed. And it wasn’t that I’d misunderstood his music, or that he hadn’t lived up to it. He had – completely. But I’d changed. I’d grown up.
And in the process, I’d realised that he didn’t have any answers. He certainly had some questions, some of which were clever, some of which we were not. But he didn’t have any answers.
And neither did I. But I knew that I’d got to a point where I needed some.