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Ode to The Smiths

By Bernard Chapin
web posted June 23, 2003

I generally don't buy magazines at the bookstore as I am content with the three to which I subscribe. After I supplement my journal reading with books and thousands of free online essays I am usually too blurry eyed to investigate much else, but, when I heard that Anthony Gancarski had written a piece about the late band The Smiths, I dutifully headed to the Borders up the street. I wasn't happy about supporting the receptacle that the article came in, The American Conservative, but sacrifices must be made in honor of compact discs which yield a lifetime's worth of service. My main problem with that particular publication is that one of its editors, Pat Buchanan, is not a free marketeer and if you don't believe in the free market then you can't ride with the Bern -- well, not on more than this one unpredictable occasion I suppose. That being said, the magazine showed fine judgment in publishing "The Smiths: A Conservative Rock Band." Publicity like this brings neophytes to the band's records and that is a noble act indeed.

The Smiths
The Smiths

I will now admit to you something that I've never admitted to anyone before and that is The Smiths are one of my favorite bands of all time. Whenever I'm asked who my favorite "artist" is, I usually answer with Elvis Costello, Bob Dylan or Cake, but never mention The Smiths. Perhaps it's because they haven't been heard from since 1987 or maybe it's because I try to distance myself from the image of being a "creature of the eighties lagoon." Regardless of the rationale, my not mentioning the band is futile denial. I am grateful to Mr. Gancarski for writing his piece and bringing their immaculate talents to everyone's attention.

There is much right about the essay although the writer in no way makes the case for The Smiths being conservative. Gancarski does make some excellent observations such as today, "America's popular music machine gravitates toward synthetic beats and the construction of pop stars indistinguishable from exotic dancers." He's completely right about that. Who hasn't seen a Brittany Spears video and thought the same thing? Our culture has been irrevocably degraded and the post-modernists like it that way. All cultures are the same, even those who practice cannibalism (wouldn't it be helpful though, on a multitude of levels, if a few of those multicultural advocates went back in a time machine and lived with some of those human eating south-Pacific tribes and documented the exact extent of their cannibalism?).

The Smiths did not need syncopated gimmicks or pasties covering their privates. They got by with brilliant energy and magnificent talent. Johnny Marr is not a physically imposing specimen but he played the guitar like a nine foot titan. The music on their albums is as good as any you'll find anywhere. I'm reminded of a rumor regarding their breakup. It was whispered that their implosion was due to a song that Marr created which Morrissey found repugnant and not worth putting to words. Marr, in disgust, supposedly took it to Brian Ferry who happily recorded it. That song, "The Right Stuff", became a big hit for Ferry. This rumor is believable because of the personalities involved. It was inopportune that their comet extinguished itself just as young listeners like myself became utterly devoted to their serenades.

Gancarski makes an unique argument when he states that The Smiths could be considered reactionary or "conservative in the historical sense" if you define conservatism as being "a mindset that demands meaning in its music." I agree that there is meaning in The Smiths music but such meaning alone would not make it conservative, perhaps anti-relativist, but not conservative. We would not consider the opus of Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young to be conservative in the least, but meaning, they certainly had. The same is true of John Lennon's solo work. Ultimately, any music that enhances one's mood has great meaning to the listener. Whether it was the lyrics of Morrissey or the riffs of Marr that contributed to this heavenly uplift, matters not.

I personally do not see The Smiths as being classifiable on the political spectrum. They confound whoever wishes to analyze them but the one thing they do not appear to be is conservative. When Morrissey sang "I'd like to drop my trousers to the queen…the poor and the needy are selfish and greedy on her terms" we do not think of laissez faire economics. It certainly does not reflect regal respect or would have been greeted favorably by the Torries who were in office when the song was released.

To me, and you're welcome to disagree, Morrissey's lyrics rarely refer to anything political at all. Even the song "Hand in Glove" which Gancarski refers to as embodying "the death throes of English socialism" seems to me to more denote homosexuality than the evil practice of socialism. "Hand in Glove" includes the lyric, "the sun shines out of our behinds" which is rather suggestive. Also, as far as government intervention in the economy is concerned, Morrissey's announcement that "England is mine and it owes me a living" is more reflective of some of the welfare recipients that I've met than a true conservative. Furthermore, the majority of conservatives would take issue with the line "shop-lifters of the world, unite and take over."

Their oeuvre contains countless references to ambiguous sexuality such as "If you ever need self-validation, just meet me in the corner of the railway station" and "let me get my hands on your mammary glands." Yet, for every ambiguous reference, there are several more homosexual ones such as "in a scholarly room, who will swallow whom" which could only apply to the male members of our species. Another lyric, "you can pin and mount me like a butterfly" leaves little to the imagination. Neither does the "he kicks me in the showers and he grabs and devours." Welcome to Stateville my friend!

The case for conservatism gets even weaker when one examines the tune "Meat is Murder", which they liked so much they named their album after it. The lines "the flesh that you so fancifully fry/ is not succulent, tasty or nice/it's death for no reason/ and death for no reason is MURDER." Ah, no it isn't. It's survival. No human societies have been strictly vegetarian. Anyway, such arguments don't really matter but you see the point. This was not even John Major's conservative band let alone Margaret Thatcher's.

Even discarding sexuality or politics, the words are beguiling and rare. To this day I'm still laughing about "writing frightening verse to a buck-toothed girl in Luxemburg" and use the quote "some girls are bigger than others" at least once a month. I dread the fact that there possibly never will be another band like The Smiths. This worthless era of hip-hop and rap is infinitely depressing but the present is redeemed by the fact that you can still buy all of The Smiths catalogue. After all, there are far too few moments of euphoria in life and I envy you if you've never heard their music before. I just wish I hadn't so I could hear "The Queen is Dead" for the first time again. To those of you who are unfamiliar with The Smiths, I close by echoing a line from another band of the eighties, "Why can't I be you?"

Bernard Chapin is a school psychologist and adjunct faculty member in Chicago. He can be reached at emeritus@flash.net.

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