Sunday, July 29, 2007
Barbarism Begins At Hove
The Smiths have influenced me more than possibly any other band I've listened to in my life, and Morrissey has been a muse of mine since before I was even in my teens. I never got to see them live, which is a significant regret, considering the force and elegance of Morrissey's performances and the almost maniacal fervour of their audiences.
There's a violence, a bravery about Morrissey, and something so primal, so achingly tender in his writhing and his crooning; something so perverse and contradictory in his gyrating nakedness and his saintly detactment. Everything laid bare, yet totally ambiguous. All this raw, sweating, complex humanity, this bizarre sexuality; it's like watching some kind of brutal boxing match, or an ancient pagan rite. Morrissey would detest this analogy, but to me he's a bit like a Spanish torreador, whipping the bull and the crowd into a frenzy before the blades go in. Numerous people have said The Smiths were miserable, wet and poncey; but they never realised they'd missed the point entirely.
It's very hard to describe Friday night for me without putting it in context. When I was eleven, although pretty grown up for my age, I was only just starting to discover music. I wore frilly white blouses and navy-grey kilts, an outfit I had swapped to from the battered jeans and geeky blue jumper I'd lived in up to that age - the age when I decided, enough was enough, I now wanted to look like a girl, be a girl, instead of being the odd, boyish thing I'd felt like up until then. I was tired of not feeling like I fitted into one gender or the other. So I grew my hair, became pretty, longing to be normal.
So the first time I saw Morrissey on Top Of The Pops, I was repulsed, as he flailed around the stage with flowers in his back pocket, a pale cardigan and bare chest. It took another year before any kind of interest in what Morrissey had to offer my psyche manifested. And it was purely, it seemed, by chance. Bigmouth Strikes Again had just come out as a single, and I hated it, hated The Smiths and all they stood for. Then, one evening, in my bedroom, I could hear my sister had the radio on; it was the John Peel Show. Then I suddenly heard these lines floating across from her room to mine: " I dreamt about you last night/ And I fell out of bed twice./ You can pin and mount me/ Like a butterfly"
I strained to hear the rest of that song, and was instantly converted. From that point on, I was obsessed. I bought all their LP back catalogue, got a load of Oscar Wilde out of the library and developed a rather frightening obsession with the Moors Murders. I gave up eating meat. This meant flushing the chicken off my Sunday dinner down the loo when my mum wasn't looking, or feeding it to the dog, or even throwing it out of my bedroom window onto the flowerbed below, as my Mum refused to let me become vegetarian.
When The Queen Is Dead came out that year, I played it to death and memorized every line, every word. Moving into my thirteenth year, I became fully immersed in teenage gloom. I dropped out in school, lost all my friends, became the class 'weirdo' (writing "Free Myra Hindley" on your Rough Book isn't the kind of thing to endear you to your classmates). I watched Andy Warhol films late into the night, took my first trip to Whalley range in Manchester, and got stoned on my sister's boyfriend's homegrown cannabis. I read more poetry that year than I probably have done in my whole life since. I wrote songs and poems. Lots of them. I drew. I played along to 'Well I Wonder' on my guitar. I discovered Buddhism. I self-harmed. I became intrigued by The Occult and Aleister Crowley. I tried desperately to Astral Project. Just all your regular teenage things.
I don't hold Morrissey or The Smiths responsible for this remarkable shift in my psychology. Or for the intense depression I kept falling into. Or for my plummeting exam results at school. In fact, looking back, it seems that, along with the books I read and the films I watched; my late night thinking sessions, Morrissey's voice coming out from my stereo was one of the things that actually got me through at least those two years of painful teenagedom without seriously fucking myself up.
I wonder how many other people who have a love for The Smiths have a similar kind of teenage tale to tell? The Smiths have always taken flack from the more superficial critics; it has been said that they promoted self-obsession, pretension and introspection. But The Smiths were never a refuge for the weak and navel-gazing. They showed strength and dignity. Yes, they attracted the shy, the geeky, the ones confused about their gender or sexuality. The clever ones who saw too much. But more than anything, they just stood up for what was human.
Morrissey was like the tall boy with the big feet who stood between you and the class bully, the one who wanted to smash your face in because he thought you were a wimpy weirdo just because you couldn't play football or you never got off with anyone at the school disco. The Smiths were for those who were sick and tired of hearing corporate shite on Radio 1, who didn't want anymore shoulder pads and perms, who needed a light to shine out in those dark, dour days of Thatcher's Britain.
November Spawned A Mozzer, was an entire evening dedicated to Morrissey and The Smiths, a night where die-hard fans could indulge their somewhat strange devotion to him and his music. This night was strictly for fans only. The ceiling was laced with Morrissey bunting, the walls covered in images of his naked torso; a TV played interviews with him, and a massive screen above the dance floor showed him in concert. Gladioli were handed out. There was even a 'best Quiff' Competition, with a John Betjamen book as prize.
To outsiders, it would have simply looked like madness. But far from being some kind of embarrassingly cringey tribute night, it was very touching. Almost everyone sang along, whether unabashed with their friends on the dance floor, or quietly to themselves, pints in hands, or in some corner. These people, undoubtedly having spent night after night in solitary communion with this music, were suddenly together. There aren't many opportunities in life to sing along with a crowd of people, the words "I am human and I need to be loved, just like everybody else does .."
When they played "I Know It's Over", I remembered what that song meant to me when I was 13. I'm not 13 anymore, but standing there, it reminded me how I'm not an altogether different creature from the one I was back then. And I'm glad for that.