When I moved from Moline, Illinois, to Phoenix in 1990, I quit chewing tobacco. I quit for all the reasons someone might quit tobacco. I didn’t want to get cancer. I knew girls thought it was gross. I kind of thought it was gross. But perhaps more importantly I didn’t want people in the “big city” of Phoenix to think I was a hick. So on New Year’s Eve 1989 I took my last pinch of Skoal Lung Cut Straight, spit until midnight, and a few jittery days later hit the Interstate heading for new climes and, hopefully, a new me.
Within weeks of arriving in Phoenix, I got into a band, signed up for college and started smoking. It was a happening time in the Phoenix suburb of Tempe, where clubs featured original bands, and a very small, pre-Nirvana alternative station called KUKQ played the latest singles by Suzanne Vega, Dramarama and School of Fish. One of the songs they played was called “Suedehead,” which was sung by Morrissey, the famous lead singer of the recently defunct English band the Smiths. I wouldn’t have called myself a fan of the song at the time, or of the Smiths. Morrissey’s voice was too stylized for me, too effeminate. Once, at a party after a few beers, I started imitating the singer of “Suedehead” for a roomful of folks. I was playing the style for a yuck; an onlooker might have accused me of making fun of him for “sounding gay.” Then, worried I’d revealed my midwestern, former tobacco-chewing self too readily, I went back to my cigarette, hoping no one noticed.
Fast forward to 1997. I was in a successful band that had started in Tempe and from which I’d made my living. We’d released one album in 1996 that had sold hundreds of thousands of copies, and we were getting ready to make our follow-up. This involved getting a producer, and our record company sent us a sample tape of many to choose from. One was John Porter, who flew in from England to meet us. Porter was largely known in our circle for having produced many of the Smiths’s classic albums and singles. By that time, I was a Smiths fan, but not a devoted one. I loved the compilation Louder Than Bombs, and I was intrigued by the way many of their albums sounded, and again by the singer’s approach to lyric and phrasing.
We took Porter out to eat, and I asked him about producing the Smiths.
“Morrissey wouldn’t put down a single word until the rest of the track was finished,” he said.
“Yeah. He’d come strolling in after the rest of the guys were done, set his notebook on a stool and pull lines from it to sing over the music.”
This was revelatory to me on two levels. First: As I saw it to that point, there were two ways to write a rock song. The first was for a band member to come into the practice room, say “I wrote a song,” sit down, and play and sing it for the band. Then the others would add their parts. This is what I called the Beatles way of songwriting. The second way involved the band jamming the music for the song, then the lead singer adding his part. This I called the Zeppelin way of songwriting. The Beatles way, as I saw it, tended to be the method of pop rock acts like Oasis and Fountains of Wayne. The Zeppelin way tended to be the method of heavier bands like Metallica or Soundgarden. There were many variations on these two methods, but they were the exceptions. In short, I felt I could listen to a band and tell you if they were a Beatles band or a Zeppelin band.
The Smiths flipped upside-down my perception of the kind of music a Zeppelin band could write. They didn’t write musical jams with the singer more or less screaming over the top. Their songs were melodic, emotionally complex, eloquent. And now that it was pointed out to me that the Smiths were a Zeppelin band, I could hear how that might work in their unique situation.
The second way this information blew my mind: As a songwriter, I’d jotted down my share of random lyrical ideas in notebooks, but unless I had some notion of the melody and/or accompanying music that went with the idea, the words were almost always useless. Many attempts to put my random musings onto random music led to square-peg-in-a-round-hole conundrums. It just didn’t work. It was much easier to come up with words for a song that already went with a certain piece of music.
That Morrissey could walk into the studio, hear something guitarist Johnny Marr and the boys had polished, and pull something out of his notebook to fit the piece amazed me, and it’s totally revealing when you listen to the Smiths music. It’s actually what makes the songs so special.
Take, for example, “The Boy With a Thorn in His Side” from The Queen is Dead. There’s a line repeated in both verses, with slight variation, that goes, “And if they don’t believe me now, will they ever believe me?” The line always has this pleasantly strange feel to me, that last “believe me” feeling tacked on in an almost funny way. Listened to with this new information, I started to imagine Morrissey with his notebook, willfully planting the seeds of these words almost wherever he wanted, and those seeds growing all the more fruitfully for that. Morrissey seems to stick so loyally to the way the sentence went down in his notebook, and delivers the line with such perfect authority, it comes across not as awkward but tour de force. I can never know for sure if this line came from Morrissey’s notebook, but hearing its phrasing, it’s exactly how I imagine a notebooked Morrissey line might sound over a piece of music. The lesson was, do anything with confidence, and the rest will take care of itself.
I must’ve been listening because in 1998 I left my successful musical career in Tempe and with my wife headed to San Francisco, where I vowed to become a writer. I would have to work a day job to make ends meet, and my first was doing administrative work at a college. Believe it or not, I was excited about this. I set up an early morning writing schedule, bought a few ties, applied for a graduate degree, and got ready to administer … whatever needed administering.
Such a life proved more difficult than I thought. People bustled around me, trying to make their nut or improve company efficiency, but I didn’t get it. It just didn’t sink in. I felt like an impostor. I had to fight the knot in my stomach as I pushed my way through the company doors every morning, and I felt worthless most days. At night, I helped keep fledgling microbreweries in Portland and Chico in business.
Although most of my wife’s and my music was in CD form, we still had a cassette player in our car, which meant I was stuck listening to one of our half-dozen cassettes while I drove to and from work. Luckily, one was the Smiths self-titled first album.
That tape was the perfect yang to my workaday existence. I was working forty hours a week, struggling to write a novel in the mornings, attending classes at night, and too busy to dwell on any of it. I was also too repressed to understand that what I was going through was called pain. That cassette was my outlet for my private travails. Lines like “What a terrible mess I’ve made of my life” (“You’ve Got Everything Now”); “Sorrow’s nature’s son / He will not smile for anyone” (“Pretty Girls Make Graves”) overtly described my condition. But more than that, it’s the way Morrissey sings on the record that allowed for release. His voice was oddly formal, and always sad. The singer was no doubt that emotionally raw, barely-adult narrator of the songs looking for fulfillment. I was thirty, married, and had already been in and out of one career, but on another level I was an emotionally raw kid looking for fulfillment as well. I didn’t take the tape out for a year.
Morrissey, of course, wasn’t all maudlin. His witty take on work life helped me at least as much during that time. In “Frankly, Mr. Shankly,” the narrator fantasizes about telling his boss to take his job and shove it, claiming “You will not miss me / I want to go down in musical history.” Substitute “literary” for “musical,” and you’d pretty much have me at the time. At one point Morrissey goes so far as to call old Shankly a “flatulent pain in the ass.” What working stiff can’t relate to that?
As clever as Morrissey’s lyrics can be, it was the lament in them I related to most. In “Heaven Know I’m Miserable Now,” the singer sings, “I was looking for a job / And then I found a job / And heaven knows I’m miserable now.” You couldn’t have nailed my paradox more eloquently, or coated it with more Wildean irony. In “Half a Life” the singer asks during a trip to the YWCA, “I like it here, can I stay? / Do you have a vacancy for a back scrubber?” I could imagine the young Morrissey desperate for love, glory, the ineffable—or maybe just a vacancy to fill. I worked seven jobs with five different companies in my four years in San Francisco, and as I bounced from job to job, Morrissey cushioned my inevitable fall at each with humor and pathos. I left San Francisco for Oregon in 2003, and I’ve somehow managed to keep afloat since then without venturing back into workaday life. The only thing worse than looking for a job is finding one.
In his years since the Smiths, Morrissey has become one of the most popular solo artists in the world, and his autobiography, the paperback version of which comes out today, has been widely read in all corners of the world. Still, Morrissey’s lyrics are rarely about success. They’re almost always about the misery of not getting—or getting—what you want. There were few avenues for this tobacco-chewing, employment challenged, music-career abandoning Midwestern kid to express that easily for himself at the time. He needed a guide to learn to lament with dignity—or the dignity of the lament—and Morrissey was—if not happy—willing to oblige.
About the author:
Art Edwards’s third novel, Badge (2014), was a finalist in the Pacific Northwest Writers Association’s literary contest. His writing has or will appear in The Writer and Salon, among many others.