WE'LL MEAT AGAIN
Dave DiMartino, Creem, 1985
"I must be quite honest," announces Morrissey of the Smiths. "I can understand that people can find me very irritating. And I accept that to an almost absurd degree, because I know that I'm not... I'm not... well, I'm not really a pop pushover."
"And that can irritate people, because they want their music to be quite simplistic, and they don't really want any fuss and bother and any seriousness. And I know I'll certainly never fit into that bill. But ultimately I feel that if people are saying no to the Smiths, they're saying yes to Madonna. And I find that the biggest sin of all."
Morrissey, the eminently quotable lyricist of England's best band in many years, speaks confidently and with good humor in a small room in a theater just outside Detroit. In a few hours, the same lanky vocalist who once threw flowers to his audience, who has been known to wear a hearing aid onstage though his ears function perfectly normally, who with horn-rimmed glasses and short pants looks the very antithesis of Madonna and many other popular rock 'n' roll performers, will be appearing in this same theater. That he and his band will be playing before a capacity crowd who - through divine mystery, curiosity and no airplay whatsoever - have come to witness England's Brightest Hope in action is something of a puzzle.
For the Smiths are a very curious band indeed.
There is no flash to the Smiths; they are, to be frank, quite ordinary looking. In this age of video and no substance, they refuse to make videos and they insist on substance. There is every chance in the world that you don't know what they look like: they've yet to put their picture on a record sleeve, and unless you read the British music magazines or witnessed their brief American tour, the pictures that accompany these words are probably the first you've seen of them. But you'll surely be seeing them again.
Between you and me, they can't be beat.
The Smiths, their debut LP of last year, was 1984's finest album and Meat Is Murder, the '85 model, is running neck and neck with Prefab Sprout's latest for this year's honors. Very quietly, The Smiths are putting to vinyl some of the finest songs in ages. Songs attuned to a consciousness that is uniquely tied to the '80's but, as the saying goes, timeless. Songs that are brutal, open and honest - about sex, about love, about despair and about hope. About a lot of things that it is very easy to make fun of these past few years, because making fun is sometimes easier than making love. And if you can understand that, perhaps you can understand The Smiths as well.
Morrissey writes the words and sings, Johnny Marr writes the music and plays guitar, Andy Rourke plays bass guitar and Mike Joyce beats the drums. In all, a traditional rock band. And if Morrissey played guitar, they would be even more traditional.
But traditional rock quartets do not write songs like The Hand That Rocks The Cradle or This Night Has Opened My Eyes, and in truth very few bands ever have. The latter song - found on the imported Hatful Of Hollow collection, released between the two "real" albums - is likely the best Smiths track there is.
In a river the color of lead
Immerse the baby's head
Wrap her up in the News Of The World
Dump her on a doorstep, girl
This night has opened my eyes
And I will never sleep again
The same song's chorus contains two final lines - "And I'm not happy/And I'm not sad" - that may well crystallize The Smiths' message, if indeed they have one. Morrissey writes with a detachment that recalls, say, Ray Davies's surprisingly poignant "Art Lover" from his all-too-aptly-titled Give The People What They Want album; unlike the Kinks, however, The Smiths do not delve deep briefly, only to return to surface slush. Put simply: they do not let up.
There is a tension in the Smiths' music that too few bands have ever achieved. Guitarist Johnny Marr has already become something of a modern-day guitar hero; his slashing, chord-filled style suggests a dreamy, impressionistic landscape that at times seems directly at odds with Morrissey's grim lyrical musings. Consider Nowhere Fast, in which Marr plays the Hooterville Cannonball rolling toward Uncle Joe while Morrissey confides, "And when I'm lying in my bed/I think about life/And I think about death/And neither one particularly appeals to me." Or the oddly funky Barbarism Begins At Home, featuring Morrissey-as-parent-type chiding, "A crack on the head/Is what you get for asking/And a crack on the head/Is what you get for not asking."[sic] Or Girl Afraid, a rocking B-side that at two minutes and 45 seconds clocks in as the most concise summation of an empty '80's relationship you're ever likely to hear. Typically, Morrissey neatly voices the role of both parties in keeping with the duality that makes most of his lyrics studies in frustration, futility, and impotence. Or their opposite.
It's all part of the appeal.
But as Morrissey has admitted upfront, there are certain parties out there who have heard The Smiths and have loved their music, but have found his contributions - lyrically and vocally - quite irritating.
He says he won't accept that. "Because ultimately people must accept that The Smiths are a body of people who are very, very close and get on very, very well, to say the least," says he. "And if people start to separate Johnny from me - to me it's uncaring, and it's very tactless. Because you either like the Smiths or you don't."
"So many journalists try to quiz me on this point, and they maintain that the Smiths have two audiences - an audience of Morrissey disciples and an audience of Johnny Marr disciples. And to me it's wrong, because if you really care about the group in any degree - whether you like the words or you like the music - you wouldn't really want to bring it down in any department. Because to me the whole of the Smiths is so essential - and it's so perfect, that really to cut it up and to start picking holes in certain sections, is pointless. It's ludicrous."
Originally he was named Stephen [sic] Morrissey. He's dropped the first name. "I'm afraid that name was buried a long, long time ago," he remarks. "It was never of any use to me." He once started a New York Dolls fan club in Manchester, England, his hometown. "It was a very threadbare affair," he remembers, "very rudimentary. I merely stuck a few stamps on an envelope one day. It wasn't very dramatic - I was 13 at the time, quite an infant." He is a thoroughly charming man - in the manner of that very same Smiths song - but, as you speak with him, you realize that he is very conscious of what he is doing. He is in a country in which his band is barely known - yet in Britain they are close to being a true phenomenon. As he will certainly tell you. "In England," he offers, "we have equal status to all the English groups who mean a great deal in America now."
Yet Morrissey, in Detroit this fine summer afternoon, is not exactly the happiest of fellows. Especially, it seems, when he is asked if he is pleased with the way the Smiths have been marketed in the States by their record company.
"We've had no satisfaction whatsoever," he swiftly replies.
"They've not really supported us on any level. And even on this current tour that we're doing, they were quite against it - because they thought it was too ambitious, they thought the venues were far too ambitious in size. They seemed quite certain that we could only possibly appear on a very tiny, club level. And we've proved them wrong and they're quite shocked, and once again they're tongue-tied."
"But I can't really be hesitant about the opinions that I have of Sire because I do feel quite bitter about the way we've been treated. I feel we were signed originally as a gesture of hipdom on their part, and that was really it. And they had no intentions of The Smiths ever meaning anything on a mass level. And they still don't.
"And they've made several marketing disasters which have really been quite crippling to us in personal ways. For instance, the release of the last single. How Soon Is Now ? was released in an abhorrent sleeve - and the time and the dedication that we put into the sleeves and artwork, it was tearful when we finally saw the record. And also they released the album Meat Is Murder with the track How Soon Is Now ? unlisted, without printing the lyrics. They released the cassette without the track That Joke Isn't Funny Anymore which is absolutely central to our new stage performances."
"And also we can discuss a video they made. It had absolutely nothing to do with the Smiths - but quite naturally we were swamped with letters from very distressed American friends saying, 'Why on earth did you make this foul video?' And of course it must be understood that Sire made that video, and we saw the video and we said to Sire, 'You can't possibly release this... this degrading video.' And they said, 'Well, maybe you shouldn't really be on our label.' It was quite disastrous - and it need hardly be mentioned that they also listed the video under the title 'How Soon Is Soon,' which... where does one begin, really?"
A good beginning might be a realistic appraisal of just how the Smiths are making inroads into territories previously unexplored. There have been scandals, especially in Britain. The first Smiths 45, Hand In Glove, was issued in a sleeve featuring the nude backside of a man. With an accompanying lyric of "Hand in glove/The sun shines out of our behinds" - and you haven't lived until you've heard legendary songstress Sandie Shaw's Smiths-produced version of the same - and a theme of "different" love, was it any wonder most people perceived the band, or specifically Morrissey, as openly gay? The flipside, the sublimely powerful Handsome Devil, actually was more controversial; lyrics like "Let me get my hands/On your mammary glands/Let me get your head/On the conjugal bed" and - particularly - "A boy in the bush/Is worth two in the hand/I think I can help you get through your exams" led to charges of paedophilia that This Charming Man didn't exactly dispel. Morrisseys' summation of the furor? "Reasons which are really too bleak to go into." And there have been more scandals. "Seven, actually," says he, with the start of a smile on his face.
But don't let this devilishness suggest the obvious - that Morrissey is creating controversy for controversy's sake. If it's true, it's only minimally true, and not even relevant. There are many miles between the Smiths' I Want The One I Can't Have and W.A.S.P.'s "Animal (Fuck Like A Beast)"; the bottom line here is that there is a sensitivity running throughout all of the Smiths' songs that negates whatever shock value they may hold and creates real, true and honest art, painful as the word may be in 1985. And to carry on with the Ray Davies examples - the distance between the Kinks' "Headmaster" from Schoolboys In Disgrace and the Smiths' The Headmaster Ritual may be found in the following passage: "I wanna go home/I don't want to stay/Give up life/As a bad mistake."
There are very few recording artists who've managed to plumb the psychological depths The Smiths regularly explore. I can think of a few offhand. Leonard Cohen. Van Morrison. "T.B. Sheets." Lou Reed. Big Star Third. Maybe Costello on Imperial Bedroom. In a perverse way, Tim Buckley's Greetings From L.A.. If you've connected with those albums or those artists at least once, you may find yourself connecting with The Smiths, eventually. There is an artistic integrity in evidence that can't be dismissed: The Smiths are not this year's Hip English Band but instead a unique group that is coincidentally releasing records in this decade.
"For me," says Morrissey, "it's good enough that people just actually think about the songs, regardless of what conclusion they come to about them. And I know that people do think about the words a great deal, because they tell me so. And ultimately that's the biggest prize of all."
"But I don't like it when people - certainly journalists - make serious conclusions about me as a person, which in many ways are not true. I don't like that. Because they're telling lots of people, 'Morrissey does this, and he does this, and he thinks this way because of this.' In some instances it isn't true - but then again, this is pointless, because this is just the way the whole thing works. Ultimately, you just throw your words out and however they land, they land."
"But in Rolling Stone, obviously, which got me into lots of trouble, there was a statement that 'Morrissey is a man who says that he is gay.' Which was news to me. And it had an absolutely adverse effect on our chances in America. And obviously Sire backed away immediately. But the journalist who wrote it - who is himself very steeped, he's a very strong voice in the gay movement in New York, I think it was just wishful thinking on his part - well, I don't want to be slotted into any category like that in any way. Because it's pointless. I mean, all these terms and all these categories, they've not really proved to be of any value within music."
You should be told that the Rolling Stone writer who wrote that statement is not very steeped, not a strong voice in the gay movement in New York, and it wasn't just wishful thinking on his part. You should be told that Morrissey is a man who delights in controversy wherever he can find it - even if it comes down to volunteering erroneous information to another magazine that might print his words verbatim without checking the facts. You should be told that Morrissey's favorite singers during his appearance in a Detroit suburb in the summer of 1985 were Gladys of the Marvelettes, Timi Yuro and Rita Pavone. And you should be told about The Smiths. Which you just were.