In September, the Smiths
' final album, Strangeways, Here We Come
, will turn 30. September is three months away. I do not want to wait until September to have an excuse to talk about the Smiths.
Here's the thing: I'm currently in college as an English major, meaning that I am preparing extensively for my future post-graduation career of working as a Starbucks barista. But I'm willing to drive myself irretrievably into debt to ultimately make beverages-posing-as-coffee for tired, early-morning commuters, simply because writing and literature are so important to me. And, course, I'm only studying English because of the writers that have inspired me. I could list some of them off for you, but I'd only feel more pretentious. Besides, you might have bad memories of being forced to trudge through their books in your high school English classes. That's totally understandable.
But there's a form of writing that, I think, doesn't get the attention it deserves: songwriting. I think that this is quite strange, especially considering how embedded music has become in our daily lives. Most of us can't even go for a walk down the block without our headphones in. Because of this, I think that we are, inherently, more connected with songwriting than any other form of writing, even if we're not aware of it. And yet, when Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize for Literature, it was this massive controversy. I won't delve into the back-and-forth discussion of whether or not Dylan should have won, because even I'm not entirely sure where I stand on it (and also because this article isn't at all about Dylan), but I do wholeheartedly believe that at least a small portion of the backlash Dylan received was due to a widespread, subconscious belief that songwriting is not as legitimate a form of writing as poetry, fiction, and the like. It's as if, to many people, songwriting is a lower form of art, not meant to be taken seriously.
I could not disagree more with this. A lot of my favorite writers are songwriters, and some of the most profound writing that I've ever come across has been in song lyrics. If I were to put that long list of my favorite writers into this piece, you'd eventually come across Bob Dylan, Patti Smith, Paul McCartney, etc etc.
And, most importantly, you'd eventually come across Morrissey.
Morrissey is a well-read, witty Oscar Wilde fanatic that somehow became one of the most influential rockstars of all time. Above all else, he is a writer. As Noel Gallagher once said, he is "without a doubt the most literate man ever to write music," but don't let that give you the impression that his writing in the Smiths was pretentious or high-brow. His lyrics were always funny, insightful, and clever. I could go on and on about lyrics of his that have actually made me burst out laughing in public places (to my own embarrassment, and to the bewilderment of grocery store cashiers). To list a few:
"She said I know you and you cannot sing!'
I said, that's nothing, you should hear me play piano!'"
Run Manchester schools;
"Frankly, Mr. Shankly, since you asked:
you are a flatulent pain in the ass."
"I'd like to drop my trousers to the queen.
Every sensible child will know what this means."
"I've come to wish you an unhappy birthday
Because you're evil
And you lie
And if you should die
I may feel slightly sad
(But I won't cry!)"
Morrissey's writing also cemented him as an icon for shy, bespectacled introverts everywhere. "I Know It's Over," for example, is probably one the greatest ballads ever written about loneliness and dejection. The song's lyrics follow a hopeless romantic as he chastises the groom-to-be who rejected him ("Fat veiled bride, please be happy/ handsome groom, give her room"), falls into self-deprecation when he gets into bed by himself ("If you're so funny, then why are you on your own tonight?"), and finally realizes that he can't cover up his heartbreak any longer by throwing shade at the happy couple ("it's so easy to laugh, it's so easy to hate/ it takes guts to be gentle and kind"). With lyrics like these, it's no wonder why Morrissey was once referred to as the "Pope of Mope." But moping never sounded this poetic. Morrissey articulated the thoughts of lonely men and women better than they ever could.
I've thought about a lot of Morrissey's lyrics in the same way that I've thought extensively about my favorite short stories. After all, they often said just as much in the span of just a few minutes. "There is a Light That Never Goes Out," is one of the most famous songs by the Smiths, and that's entirely deserved. Since I first heard it, I'd find myself lost in these long trains of thought about the characters in the lyrics. I'd think about the lines, "driving in your car/ I never never want to go home/ because I haven't got one anymore," and "it's not my home, it's their home/ and I'm welcome no more" until I interpreted the song to be about a gay young man being picked up outside his house by the person he loves, after his religious parents kicked him out for his homosexuality. I realized that the repeated line, "Take me out tonight," has a double meaning: it's the narrator literally begging the other man to take him out dancing so that he'd feel better, but it's also a longing for death that coincides with the lyrics in the chorus: "If a double decker bus/ crashes into us/ to die by your side is such a heavenly way to die." And then there's the second verse:
"And in the darkened underpass
I thought, Oh god, my chance has come at last!
But then a strange fear gripped me
And I just couldn't ask."
Does the narrator's nervousness in these lines mean that the guy coming to his rescue is not actually his lover? Is this love unrequited? Is the narrator in love with a straight man? The fact that a pop song could give me this strong a sense of a person, and fill me with this much empathy for a character in four minutes, just goes to show how great of a lyricist Morrissey is.
I really do believe that, if anyone demands proof that songwriting is as legitimate a form of writing as any other, all you have to do is point them towards Morrissey's lyrics. When Morrissey was asked in 1985 what right he had, as a pop star, to attack the Manchester Education Committee for their abusive practices in the song "The Headmaster Ritual," he replied, "If you say, ‘what right do you have?' the implication there, to me, is that popular music is quite a low art. It should be hidden, it can be there, but let's not say anything terribly important. Let's just, you know, make disco records or whatever."
I think that says it all, really. Morrissey felt, not only entitled, but obligated to write songs that said important things about the lives of everyday people (the band is named "the Smiths" because Morrissey thought that it was the most ordinary-sounding name for a band, as he felt that "it was time the ordinary folk showed their faces").
He's one of those figures in music history that followed his intuition, and, because of it, ended up in one of the most successful groups of all time rather than being doomed to… well, make disco music. But, again, he did this without being self-indulgent or overly-serious. His writing in the Smiths was as witty as anything his greatest hero, Oscar Wilde, ever wrote.
He's a singer that found inspiration in literature, playwriting and poetry more than anything else. So how did he become one of the most successful pop stars of the 80s? Well, through the tunes of one of the most inventive guitarists of all time: Johnny Marr.
Johnny Marr inspired a whole generation of guitarists through his catchy riffs and reverberant, often lengthy chord progressions (go dig up "That Joke Isn't Funny Anymore" off of Meat is Murder
to hear what I'm talking about). Because of his partnership with Morrissey, the Smiths became everything you'd want from an alternative rock band: great music coupled with great lyrics. What more could you want?
I think "How Soon Is Now?" best exemplifies how well the two worked together. So many guitarists have tried to imitate Johnny Marr's playing in that song, but nobody has ever really come close (I think this is most notable when you look up various covers of the song on YouTube). It's one of the most unique and recognizable guitar parts from any rock song, ever. Then, in addition to that, Morrissey's lyrics on the track are some of his very best.
"I am the son
And the heir
Of a shyness
That is criminally vulgar.
I am the son and heir
Of nothing in particular."
These lyrics have become ingrained in alternative rock's DNA, as has Marr's guitar part. Because of the partnership between Morrissey and Marr, "How Soon Is Now?" is the most epic rock song about shyness ever written.
I always got the feeling that Morrissey was writing a screenplay, and Johnny Marr was scoring the film. After all, so many of Johnny Marr's tunes emotionally communicated the themes in Morrissey's lyrics. To go back to "There is a Light," the swelling strings that Marr arranged for the track really get across the desperation and sadness that the narrator feels.
I think this idea also applies to one of my favorite tracks off of Strangeways, Here We Come
: "Death of a Disco Dancer." Lyrically, it's about Morrissey's observations on culturally accepted anti-gay practices ("The death of a disco dancer/ well it happens a lot around here/ and if you think peace is a common goal/ that goes to show how little you know") and his inability to do anything about it, because he doesn't want to be the next victim in the witch hunt ("I never talk to my neighbor/ I'd rather not get involved"). But musically, it's a slow-burner that eventually results in Johnny Marr going freaking nuts
on the guitar! His playing is just as frustrated and emotional as Morrissey's words, they work in tandem with one another. I wouldn't be surprised if all of Morrissey's lyrics actually drew direct inspiration from Johnny Marr's guitar melodies, seeing as how Marr was the one who began the songs (he'd put his part down on cassette, and Morrissey would live with the cassette for a few days until he had the finished lyrics).
Obviously, I haven't even touched on the two men in the background: Andy Rourke and Mike Joyce. They deserved way more acclaim for the way they shaped the sound of the Smiths. Andy Rourke's bass parts are some of my favorite of all time (check out "Barbarism Begins at Home" and "Rusholme Ruffians"). Much like Flea draws attention for how he plays bass like a lead instrument, so did Andy Rourke. And as for Mike Joyce, give the entirety of The Queen is Dead
another listen to hear how vital he was. His talent especially comes through on that album's title track. His drumming was energetic and infectious, and he, along with Rourke and Marr, is the reason why so many of the Smiths' tunes make you want to dance.
The Smiths' influence on modern music cannot be understated, but I think that, as corny as this sounds, their influence on the lives of everyday people is even more important. To speak personally, their music made me want to be a writer, as well as a guitarist. But to speak more broadly, their music made hordes of men and women charge the stages they performed on for a reason: fantastic songwriting, plain and simple.
Oh, and one more thing: if you need more proof of the Smiths' far-reaching influence, watch the first few minutes of this documentary about Morrissey. Among the interviewed celebrities who found inspiration in his songwriting are Noel Gallagher, Bono… and even J.K. Rowling.