24 June 2009

Why The Smiths changed my life

So, as the occasional facetious correspondent has pointed out, it's been a while.

Well, what can I say? I do a beyond full-time job, and between you and me I mostly love the work, but at the same time my late 30s self still clings to those adolescent notions that I should do creative things alongside. The longer I've gone on, by the way, the more I've become convinced that the purpose of any creative act is not to win approval of or even find an audience; the primary point of creation is surely to give fulfillment to its creator. The act is all that matters, even if it is performed in a void. I believe it’s enough, although of course it may just be that I never really found an audience anyway.

Regardless, this is the time that gets squeezed when work takes over, as it has done lately, and only gets resumed when some chance conversation, usually with someone who is both younger and a woman, fires me into believing that I need to get going again. So I found myself disinterring something I started back in the cool, short days of February and never quite had the belief to complete.

The starting purpose of this website, albeit too often hamstrung by the sporadic nature of its contributions, is mostly to celebrate the new and exciting, to wax briefly and enthusiastically about something from the week that has made me smile, or excited me, or moved me in some way, before the next glinting, shiny thing comes along. But sometimes I must uphold the right to bang on about something of the past which somehow helped to make me whatever it is I am today.

My musical abiding love is, of course, and always will be, The Fall. They remain a guiding light, a magnetic north. They weren't my first love, though. The first shoots of a lifelong interest in music were provided by early 80s two-tone bands, and then lots of bands on a spectrum of electronic to new romantic, some of them good, like the pioneering Sheffield bands, and most of them so unspeakably bad I hesitate to recall their names. But then The Smiths came along, and after that everything was different.

They were the first band I got obsessed with. I mean, really obsessed. I would go to Manchester and in my head construct elaborate narratives where I would bump into Morrissey and floor him with carefully prepared, off the cuff bon mots. We’d bond; become friends. Maybe I’d guest on a b side.

Although when I say obsessive, I should make clear I stopped some way short of stalker status. I wasn't ever quite the gladioli wielding, hearing aid wearing acolyte. I don't do identity cults, have never believed in wearing the badges. Apart from a brief, ill-advised attempt to look like a young Bobby Gillespie, I cling to civilian clothes. I like to retain the option of passing unremarked in a crowd. And I was usually a chunky boy, whereas you needed to be slim-hipped and androgynous to get away with the Morrissey look. But there was a time, 15 or 16, lonely, vulnerable, and not yet having had my mind duly opened or softened by the discovery of girls and alcohol, when nothing mattered more to me than this band.

Of course it was singer Morrissey who I idolised. More than anything it was about the words, the ones he wrote and uttered. They were playful and pretentious, but self-undermining, smart but insecure, educated, obscure and iconic. They were words for any kid who though they were cleverer than the rest of the class but still desperately wanted to be part of the gang.

The Smiths looked, too, provocatively, deliberately, like outsiders. They stood apart. Even the record sleeves, with their cataloguing of obscure, often fallen, small celebrities were different, resembling nothing else, forcing you to do your own research. Then there was the name, with its deliberate anonymity: so right.

Imagine the impact on this white trash kid from a failed family in a small and isolated northern town where everything taught you to conform and accept your lot.

Occasionally, and usually when I've had a little too much to drink, I will insist to the unwilling listener that The Smiths changed my life. Said listener will assume I exaggerate.

It's impossible to convey, in an era of instant access to everything, and people thinking they're part of a community because they've joined an online group, quite how stranded you could be in the mid 80s. The occasional samizdat, roughly photocopied fanzine could give you a hint that people like you were out there somewhere, beyond the physical boundaries of your designated town. But you couldn’t find them, unless you had someone common to follow. And how to convey the drabness, the lack of glamour, the sheer defeatedness of post-miners' strike small town northern England, collapsed, redundant, bypassed by the pinstripe and braces yuppificiation of big cities and the south? We were Thatchered, and we had no response. Plus, as kids, we grew up members of a pre-millennial death cult, brought up on horror stories about nuclear winter and convinced, as Reagan made jokes about bombing Russia, that an armageddon was not only inevitable but imminent, so what was the point of an education, or even forming close relationships? Thatcher's adopted children, as compared to those born in her wake, were an unusually fucked-up generation. The consequences, as we became parents, we live with today.

So The Smiths came along and taught me there was more. They told me you could be smart, and clever, and you didn't have to hide it. You didn't have to fit in. It was okay to read books, to like art. Occasionally I think about the life I could have led: the WMC on a Friday night, bargain booze deals, knocked off fags, a tracksuit, an Ann Summers party-going wife, three mewling brats gradually being ground down, TV, a package holiday. That was what you prepared for. That was your lot.

The Smiths told me to aim higher. The irony is that the new right told us to be aspirational while marginalising our kind. It was the counter-force to this that made me aspire. I'm not always happy with my life - never feel I've done anything, know I'm never going to get more than a few thousands word into any novel I might write, and that first film will remain resolutely unmade - but I feel my horizons are broader than they might have been, that my life is more filled with art and ideas than would otherwise have been the case - and I think, in part, that was thanks to the education The Smiths provided at precisely the right moment. How can I ever not be grateful?

I leave The Smiths alone for long stretches these days. Other music crowds in. I can go years without listening to more than the odd thing. A quick blast of wilfully eccentric Shakespeare's Sister livens me, while the ultimate doomed romance of There Is A Light That Never Goes Out marks the end of an occasional compilation that the CD recipient never captures the full weight of. The songs can't always meet my expectations, when I hear them. I've made them mean too much to me. And of course I can't adequately explain this to other people.

When I do come back to them now, there are new things I hear and like. As if for the first time, I've come to acknowledge and admire Johnny Marr's exceptional guitar playing, appreciate how the tunes are neither subservient to nor undermine the words, and recognise how hard that must have been. I see now what an extraordinary, one off pairing that was. The tragedy of Morrissey and Marr is that they needed each other, and without each other, are a fraction, far less than half.

Because of The Smiths, I can forgive Morrissey everything, though I now find his persona tiresome, and care for only a handful of his solo offerings. But on each LP, the one or two semi-precious gems are enough, because of The Smiths. And while it's hard to resist the feeling that Marr has frittered away his talent in a slew of near session-musicanship, interspersed with spells of just wanting to be a regular dude in a rock and roll band, the serrated guitar of How Soon Is Now is always going to be enough

You know they're both never going to find it again, and that’s part of it. And this means they must buck the trend, must stay unique, and be the only band of any significance never to reform.

But then I never did seem them live, my gig-going days only starting when I escaped from my town to university, and carrying on pretty much ever since. So equally, as I always say, if they ever did get back together, I'd sell a kidney to be there.

What prompted this, sometime back in February, unfinished, was the issue of the two CD collection, The Sound of The Smiths, bought, in a wearying nod to my own personal zeitgeist, in some airport on the way to somewhere. It reminded me precisely how magical, how pivotal, how alchemical The Smiths were. If you don’t have this, if you don’t get it, how on earth are you going to navigate your way through the speed bumps and slaloms of the rest of your life?

Simply, find a guidebook in this.

2 comments:

The Vivos said...

Hi, your blog is very pleasant reading, hope you keep posting regularly.
Now, on the subject of this post, I think you are overlooking The Beatles as one of the most important bands (if not THE most) never to reform.
Love The Smiths!

Anita said...

I love this post and I adore The Smiths. You are a great writer. Just the way you put your words. I shall keep on reading. x