I was 16 years old when I first heard The Smiths. By this point of my life I was growing more and more in to indie music and rock music, veering away from the rap, hip-hop and dance I’d loved as a kid growing up in Birmingham. I knew of The Smiths, had seen several of my favourite bands talk about them, but I’d not taken the time to listen.
My first encounter with the band, with Morrissey, came one day when I was watching MTV2. I’d watch the Zane Lowe show, ‘Gonzo’, and it became central to me finding new music. Lowe was, essentially, the John Peel of my era. I was watching for Biffy Clyro, Nirvana, White Stripes and Franz Ferdinand when suddenly I had the image of a band playing atop floral decoration with the lead singer swinging gladioli from side to side singing of punctured bicycles on desolate hillsides.
The lyrics were fascinating, the video was beautifully simple, Johnny Marr’s guitar was hypnotic and fused with Andy Rourke’s bass and Mike Joyce’s drums it felt like the perfect indie song. I was enamoured by it. From then I went on to hunt more Smiths music and discovered ‘How Soon Is Now?’, ‘Girlfriend In A Coma’ and ‘Hand In Glove’. I ended up buying ‘Hatful Of Hollow’ and I played it on loop. I ate in Morrissey’s lyrics and fell in love with him and his music. I found his solo work and loved that, too. ‘Everyday Is Like Sunday’ became my own private theme tune to Lowestoft, where we’d moved to just before my 15th.
It never dawned on me the impact that The Smiths and, more so, Morrissey’s lyrics would have on me as a teenager growing up but I always view The Smiths as more than a band. Morrissey is a man that, for a long time, I gave god-like status to. It’s only really in recent years, as I’ve become far more political that I’ve veered away from that thought but that’s only because I can’t stand the political leaning Morrissey takes. Despite that, I still regard him as one of my heroes. He is a man that if I met in real life I’d probably freeze or break down or both. Either way, it’d be hugely embarrassing for me and, most likely, for him so it’s probably good that the likelihood of it happening is so slim.
To give an example of how The Smiths affected me is actually genuinely difficult. When I first started writing this series about songs that changed my life I very nearly titled it “The Songs That Saved My Life” as a roundabout testament to The Smiths’ song ‘Rubber Ring’. Even picking ‘This Charming Man’ as the Smiths song to write about was difficult, and, in a way, a lie, because there are a number of Smiths songs that I relate to far more. However, it was ‘This Charming Man’ that got me started on the band and for that reason it’s the one that will always, deep down, mean the most.
Aged 16, I was very much the type of boy Morrissey sings about in ‘Half A Person’. “Sixteen, clumsy and shy; that’s the story of my life.” I was very quiet, I had my close circle of friends and, for the most part, I really tried to keep myself to myself. The move from Birmingham to Lowestoft had knocked my confidence a bit and I struggled initially to ever really feel comfortable in my new surroundings.
Part of the issue for me was that it took a month for me to get in to a school. At the time I was probably loving the fact that I was 15 and getting a month off for free but in reality it actually made things a little harder when it came to starting at my new school. My classmates all knew one another, they’d mostly grown up together, and here I was, an outsider with a weird accent, with the challenge of fitting in.
In that month of no school I got bored. It taught me that I’d never want to be the type of person that just does nothing at all because I just couldn’t do it myself. I learnt the guitar to fill my time. No real inspirations, just something to fill the time. Over the years, my guitars came to be a way to release emotion. Any thoughts I was having would disappear when I started playing any song or just, in a lot of cases, made noise. The day I found out my dog had been put down the first thing I did on getting home was play on my guitar and butcher a few Led Zeppelin classics.
It was also that month out of school, when I started playing guitar, that I started to listen more intently to music. Between the ages of 15 and 18 my musical tastes blew wide open. I never stopped listening to the rap and hip hop, but I also began to appreciate the music my Dad listened to such as Pink Floyd and Led Zep, and I started to appreciate heavier, darker music as well as indie. I started to get more in to literature, too, and started to write. Words were powerful. Pete Doherty wrote incredible lyrics for The Libertines and I became totally invested in them. I often felt The Libertines wouldn’t have existed were it not for The Clash, but when I listened to The Smiths I realised that many of the bands I loved would never have been the way they were had it not been for Morrissey and Marr.
At school I was in the middle. Never one of the cool kids, but in touch with them just enough to not be recognised solely as a ‘geek’. I found it easier to associate with the kids outside of the “cool” group, but my love of football, more than anything, meant that I could approach a lot of them and talk about the weekends matches. It meant I got through school quietly, really, and I was left to just enjoy the time with my mates when I wanted to. However, there were some issues.
I suffered some mild bullying from a lad called Louis in my art class. We started at the school around the same time and initially got on alright. As the weeks went on, he became friends with one group, and me another. He tried to become the alpha male in that first year through bullying. Maybe thought it made him look strong. I don’t know. I’d put up with the insults, and if anything ever got physical (which only really happened a couple of times) I was strong enough to hold my own. I’m a skinny guy but I’ve always, somehow, been strong on my feet and it throws people. Once it became clear he couldn’t knock me down it all became verbal. Sticks and stones and all that. It all stopped towards the end of year 10, but the worst stuff happened elsewhere.
The school bus was hell in my first couple of years, to the extent that I’d often sneak on to another bus to avoid heading on the bus I should use. On our designated bus I’d become mates with a few people that suffered verbal insults and physical abuse at the hands of a lad called Michael. It’s crazy that you’ll remember the names of these idiots but not all of the people that were good to you. On that bus I saw one of my friends get abused for being a Jew, another abused for being gay…by association, I was in the firing line. The worst I would get for some time was stuff thrown from the back until one day my mates weren’t in and I was at the stop alone waiting for the bus. He walked over and pushed me, taunted me to retaliate. I didn’t fall, I didn’t retaliate. He threw his fist towards my face, stopping literally a few centimetres in front of my nose. It was my turn now.
The half hour to school and the half hour back could feel like the longest parts of the day. I tried regularly to avoid the bus because I hated it. I got slapped in the face one day for just being there. The worst part to it all was that there was no reasoning behind the abuse at all. I hadn’t done anything, but I was being beaten. Physically there was never anything that really hurt me but mentally it was killing me. And it was confusing, too. I was friends with several of Michael’s mates. They had no idea this was happening. I sometimes wondered what they’d say but at the same time I became too scared to mention it in case it deterred them from being my friends. He left at the end of year 11 and Sixth Form onwards was fine. Two years of emotional torment was enough, though, and the damage was done. I was a victim, there had to be a reason for that, and my mind would go in to critical overdrive as I beat myself up over why it was me. I formed the belief that there had to be something wrong with me. That stayed with me for a long time, even up to now, and the self doubt that was born in me over those two years is still something I battle with now.
Every now and then I used to see Michael appear on my Facebook as a ‘person I may know’. Several times I pondered contacting him to ask if he ever thought of the way he treated us on that bus and if he ever regretted any of it or felt guilty but why waste time? The only time I saw him after those years was some years later in a shop and he looked straight through me. He has no memory of me, and one day I hope to lose the memory of him. This is all stuff I’ve never talked about before.
The emotions I felt over that period created a huge sense of self doubt, and built my anxieties and low mood. At this point, I became addicted to The Smiths. Morrissey’s lyrics were no longer just words to songs…they were me. My self doubt increased how shy I was, ‘How Soon Is Now?’ opened with the lyric “I am the son and the heir of a shyness that is criminally vulgar” and it clicked. ‘Ask’ was somewhat of an anthem for me. I reached a point where I would listen to ‘This Night Has Opened My Eyes’ and associate so much with the lyric “And I’m not happy and I’m not sad”, knowing that I just felt numb. There were only a few people I talked to about any of this back then. Some of that was because I couldn’t understand myself so how could I talk to others? Another part was a fear of opening up and, as daft as it sounds, coming across as weak. At least in listening to The Smiths, and listening to Morrissey’s words, I felt like I wasn’t alone.
‘Asleep’ became a favourite of mine. I’ve always interpreted it as a song that challenges people to think about suicide and depression.
“Don’t feel bad for me, I want you to know,
Deep in the cell of my heart, I really want to go.”
Despite the tough topic of the song, it was one I felt comfort in. It’s a different Smiths song in the sense that it is essentially just piano and vocals but that bare naked feel of it makes it even more poignant. I know that to many, ‘Asleep’ will be one of those songs that several people, especially those that dislike The Smiths, would call too depressing. For me, I found it hopeful at the end.
“There is another world,
There is a better world.
There must be.”
It’s the one Smiths song that I listen to now that sends me back to those years at school, but those final lyrics are the ones I now cling on to. There is a better world, and fortunately I feel like I’m in it now. Despite still struggling with low mood and anxiety, I know I am in a better place now. And, as ridiculous as it may sound to some, I don’t know if I’d have got to a better place in the first place if not for The Smiths.
The older I have become, the more I see the humour in the lyrics of The Smiths. With my first job, I was insistent that there were no truer words in music than “I was looking for a job and then I found a job, and Heaven knows I’m miserable now.” I can laugh at the lyrics to ‘The Queen Is Dead’ (“Charles, don’t you ever crave to appear on the front of the Daily Mail dressed in your mother’s bridal veil?”). And then the tongue in cheek approach of a lot of Morrissey’s solo work; “Life is a pigsty…and if you don’t know this, then what do you know?”
I love The Smiths. I owe a lot to The Smiths. They made me feel safe. Morrissey helped me to understand my inner feelings in a way that no other artist could. I loved Kurt Cobain, but his lyrics didn’t transcend anything that Morrissey could do. Roger Waters of Pink Floyd wrote incredible lyrics, still does, but none of them spoke to me as much as, say, ‘Half A Person’, ‘Ask’ or ‘How Soon Is Now?’
‘This Charming Man’ may not be the Smiths song I listen to and say “I relate to this song”, but it is and it will always be one of my favourite songs of all time. Not just only one of my favourite Smiths songs. Without ‘This Charming Man’ I may have never fallen in love with The Smiths and I may never have fallen in love with Morrissey’s lyrics.
‘This Charming Man’. It probably changed my life more than any other song ever could.
(You can watch the video and listen to This Charming Man HERE.)