Where new writing finds its voice

Well I Wonder

Peter Wild

Peter Wild considers words, music and The Smiths

About ten or so years ago, the NME’s letters page was a hotbed of Morrissey-fixated debate. It had raged in The Smiths’s lifetime but it seemed to increase in fervour as Morrissey’s solo career progressed (and, at that time, seemingly declined). There were those, of course, who didn’t get Morrissey and didn’t get The Smiths. Kids who rated Faith No More, say, or Henry Rollins. The Smiths were for pussies and Morrissey was King Pussy of PussyLand. And there were those who worshipped at the shrine of La Moz and could hardly see their idol over the glare of his genius. Unfortunately, the latter camp were much harder to bear than the former. Clucking like dyspeptic mothers watching their first-borns struggle to float in the teeming diaspora of the schoolyard, they sought to defend Morrissey (and occasionally The Smiths, but more often than not just Morrissey). It was a horrible sight to behold, week after week. It got so I couldn’t read the NME any more. I just couldn’t face it. But there was worse to come. I realised – as I sat down to write this piece for the ever-excellent Pen Pusher magazine – that all of those clucking hens had made writing about The Smiths nigh on impossible. More than any other band, they forbid contemporary examination. If you even attempt to write a sentence that includes The Smiths alongside words like ‘literary’ or ‘poetic’, your attempt is lost, derailed, taken hostage by a welterweight world championship bout of pretention. It doesn’t matter how clever you think you are. In fact, the cleverer you think you are, the worse it gets. 

Still, maybe enough time has elapsed since those heady days to give it the old boxer’s one-two and see where we get to, eh? Can we talk about The Smiths in terms of the words and the music, and the influence of the words and the music? We’ll see … we’ll see.


* * *


Almost two decades have gone by since the hey-day of The Smiths and, in that time, the songs have been played and played and played and played and played until it’s almost impossible to hear them as they were once heard. The Smiths were an unsettling revelation. They upset people. Either you got The Smiths or you thought they were miserable as fuck. Nowadays, though, you could listen to
the tunes and maybe even sing along as you get ready for work without actually hearing what it is that you’re singing. Take ‘This Charming Man’:


     Punctured bicycle 
     On a hillside desolate
     Will nature make a man of me yet?


I want to write, has e’er a pop singer aspired to poesy quite so well as here? But I’ll resist the urge. Instead, I’ll merely wonder whether ‘This Charming Man’ is to Morrissey as Daffodils is to Wordsworth? Both of them are widely taken to be symbolic of the rest of the work. Certainly Daffodils is largely remembered for its opening lines (‘I wandered lonely …’) with the nugget of solipsistic introspection present at the poem’s close (‘when on my couch I lie in vacant or in pensive mood’) often overlooked in case it detracts from the popular view of things. And yet while Wordsworth is lying vacant or pensive on his couch, Morrissey is busy asking us, ‘Why pamper life’s complexities when the leather runs smooth on the passenger seat?’

And – if you’ll indulge this train of consider-ation for a moment longer – is ‘Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now’ perhaps like The Smiths’s ‘Jerusalem’? These days, the great unwashed know ‘Jerusalem’ because of its hymn-like status (whether it’s Last Night of the Proms or the Rugby, you can be sure to get a rousing chorus of ‘And did those feet in ancient time/Walk upon ...’ blah blah blah). But these words are, in fact, an excerpt (and a very small excerpt, at that) from the preface to Blake’s Milton: A Poem. The most interesting thing about ‘Jerusalem’ is, however, the fact that it has been taken up as an alternative national anthem when it is in fact a thinly veiled assault on the church and the establishment. God bless William Blake, I say; the subversive bastard. 

What’s that got to do with ‘Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now’ you might ask? The thing is, if you look at the way in which the song itself is now perceived, ‘Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now’ looms largely in the great ‘Are they miserable?’ ‘No, they’re hilarious!’ debate. Every time someone moans and groans about how miserable The Smiths are, this song is run up the flagpole. Look at the wit, the self-parody. Morrissey knows that you think he is miserable – and he has written a song about it! Have at you, varlet! But to dismiss the song as nothing more than a riposte to those people who don’t like The Smiths does it no favours. Like ‘Jerusalem’, ‘Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now’ is a song that has been misdirected by those who profess to sing its praises. There is scalding meanness here (the kind of acerbic vitriol you’d find in Larkin):


     In my life
     Why do I smile
     At people who I’d much rather kick in the eye?


This is a song about what Raymond Carver called ‘quiet desperation’. We’ve all felt it. Life is sometimes shit, and it can get you down and leave you feeling abject and lonely and worthless. To say ‘Look at the wit!’ is a little like having a tailor say, ‘Never mind the quality, feel the width.’ And you can find this clever, wry, melancholy in most Smiths songs:


     It was dark as I drove the point home
     And on cold leather seats
     Well, it suddenly struck me
     I just might die with a smile on my
     Face after all
                    ‘The Joke That Isn’t Funny Anymore’


Saying that, however, you can’t understate how funny The Smiths were. John Peel said they were one of the few bands able to make him laugh out loud. And that’s true. They are funny as all hell. Which just goes to show that what I said at the beginning of this piece – vis-à-vis how difficult it is to write about The Smiths – is as true as true can be. 

I could go on (if I haven’t already) but the point is, unlike any significant pop star before or since, Morrissey was a reader. The Smiths’ songs are full of lines pilfered from other sources. Just take Reel Around the Fountain as an example. Whether it’s Shelagh Delagney (‘I dreamed about you last night/And I fell out of bed twice’ is verbatim from A Taste of Honey), M Haskell (‘Take me and mount me like a butterfly’ is culled From Reverence to Rape) or Elizabeth Smart (whose By Grand Central Station I Sat Down & Wept has entered the canon of ‘books all Smiths fans should read’), they are all present and correct in the songs. But that is beside the point. After all, what did Morrissey choose to scratch into the run-out groove of the vinyl The Queen is Dead? Why, Oscar Wilde, of course: ‘Talent borrows. Genius steals’. Indeed. Just as any consideration of Morrissey as a ‘poet’ is besides the point. What Morrissey was (at least during his time with The Smiths) was a reader, a reader who just happened to front a band. You could say that he followed the Joycean dictum to ‘work it all in’. But, of course, where Joyce was saying ‘work all of life into what you do’, Morrissey took all that he read. Which probably goes some way toward explaining ‘There’s more to life than books, you know – but not much more’ (‘Handsome Devil’).


* * *


As far as the idea of their influence goes, The Smiths were fairly recently named the most influential band ever (!) by that vanguard of reasoned discourse, the NME. Influence for me, though, suggests a complex lineage and as far as The Smiths were concerned, their influence seemed to repeat the hoary old Marxist theory of history – it was repeated, first as tragedy and then as farce. When The Smiths were still around and still performing, you had a dozen or more bands who tried to sound like The Smiths – your Railway Children and your James and any of the shambling, self-conscious, cardigan-wearing C86/Sarah crowd – all of whom were, for the most part, tragic. They were, however, infinitely preferable to the diabolical shower that appeared about a decade later – your Shed 7s and Echobellies – all of whom seemed to think attaching the words ‘my dear’ to any old doggerel made them Smithsian. Strangely, however, these Johnny Come Latelys to the Smiths feast did infinitely better than the Railway Children et al. What a farce!

Much is made of the influence of The Smiths on everyone from The Stone Roses to Radiohead to The Libertines (to which I’ll say, The Byrds were more of an influence on The Stone Roses, Pink Floyd were more of an influence on Radiohead, and The Clash were more of an influence on The Libertines). Now that a bit of time has gone by, however, a third wave of influence is starting to make its presence felt over the pond. Bands like The Dears, for example, or even The Shins (much of the new Shins record, Wincing the Night Away, finds vocalist James Mercer coming over all Morrissey, both in his choice of words and in the way he chooses to sing said words) are demonstrating what you can do when you take an influence and do something interesting with it. And, lest we forget, Johnny Marr has himself joined an underground American band, Modest Mouse, and their new album, We Were Dead Before The Ship Even Sank, is chock-a-block with the kind of guitar playing we haven’t heard out of Marr for a good few years now.


* * *


Reviewing Mark Simpson’s Saint Morrissey and Simon Goddard’s Songs That Saved Your Life in the London Review of Books in 2004, author Andrew O’Hagan wrote:

[Morrissey]’s brand of loneliness and longing and hopelessness (all the stuff he sings about) is that of a person who finds it natural to have a relationship with the unreachable – that’s to say, with images and works rather than people.

The fact that The Smiths are no more (and have been no more for a couple of decades now, very nearly) means that they themselves now exist the way that all of the things Morrissey held dear exist – preserved as if in aspic, beyond criticism or comparison. All we can do now is doodle on the grave.