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Benjamin Kunkel: Still Ill

August 28, 2011 11:37 pm | Posted by: stephen pierson

(from Issue Three)

Rosalind: They say you are a melancholy fellow.
: I am so. I do love it better than laughing.
—As You Like It

IN 1986 I WAS living with my family in the humdrum town of Eagle, Colorado. I had just become a teenager and was applying to prep schools in New England. I considered myself a rather tragic, intelligent, and solitary figure, and was accordingly full of fantasies of escape from the baffled cows and squinting hicks who swelled my middle-school class. At the same time there was obviously something wrong with me, a basic temperamental deficiency that prevented me from taking life with that casualness, amounting almost to grace, displayed by normal people. Suicide or fame seemed likely destinies.

Meanwhile I had picked up a bad case of Anglophilia; in one egregious instance, when I and a friend DJ’d a middle-school dance I delivered my patter in what I took to be a British accent. Prep school, in my imagination, was a waiting congregation of superior youth, rather than the hothouse of class distinctions it would prove. Does it go without saying that I had as little sense of humor as a dog? If someone slipped and fell I thought this was funny, but otherwise couldn’t find a reason to laugh.

The songs on the radio said nothing to me about my life. And as the elder brother of two sisters I had no one to induct me into the mysteries of sophisticated music for teenagers. My method was to choose a band, almost at random, from the “college” chart at the back of Rolling Stone, and to buy the band’s latest tape whenever I could get to a record store; the nearest was 30 miles away. One challenge with parents who themselves grew up on rock and roll is the difficulty in scandalizing them with your own tastes, and it’s clear to me now that the bands I selected from the college charts were those whose names suggested my parents might find their music offensive or at least bewildering. The appeal of the Smiths’ name came from the strangely arrogant declaration of commonness, and I liked the punkish implication of regicide in the title The Queen Is Dead. That went God Save the Queen one better, without implying, as listening to the Sex Pistols would have, that I harbored any intention of ever having sex.

My method was a risky one. Screaming Blue Messiahs, for instance, had a name satisfactorily suggestive of madness and violence, but I found I didn’t really like their music. With the Smiths I got lucky. The folky tastes I’d picked up from my parents allowed me to take right away to the bright acoustic texture of Johnny Marr’s arrangements, which then conveyed me into an atmosphere far removed from any ’60s-ish mood of barefoot good health and slack openheartedness. Both side-opening tracks, “The Queen Is Dead” and “Bigmouth Strikes Again,” were surging anthems of destruction, spiteful in their very rhythms— and even where the music itself was not in the least rebarbative, inflected instead by jazz or rockabilly or Jamaican high-life playing (strains my ear identified years before I could name them), Morrissey remained at all times an obnoxious vocalist. Most exciting, maybe, was his way of boasting of his inadequacies. When he broke into the palace on the title track and the Queen said, Yes, I know you and you cannot sing, he replied in his unpleasantest voice: That’s nothing, you should hear me play piano.

The Smiths were the first contemporary band I encountered that enabled the all-important act of identification with the singer. No one could touch Morrissey for literateness and melancholy, and if I knew anything at the time it was that I too wanted to write and was unhappy—woebegone, that is, in the trackless way of early adolescence, where I couldn’t see how I had ever come into this condition or might ever get out. Then there was the more curious fact, according to Rolling Stone, that in a literal sense no one could touch Morrissey. This witty, famous, and in my opinion handsome man was a self-proclaimed celibate with no interest in sex. His superiority was his sadness, his sadness his solitude, and his solitude his martyrdom. He was too good for this world, or at least for famously miserable Manchester, never mind the bypassed cow town of Eagle, Colorado.

May I admit that my headlong identification with handsome Morrissey was enabled by another circumstance? Now at 35 I begin to have the face I deserve, and already in high school it was clear I was not to be a tall man, but in middle school things were different. After having been a boy ignored by girls, suddenly I was fending off requests to “go” with them; and when away games and tournaments took us to other schools (I was a starting linebacker on the football team, a benchwarmer at basketball, and an erratic wrestler), more girls petitioned me with folded notes containing phone numbers. This change was a boon, since being found attractive, if you’re feckless and morose, can substitute for actual activity and permit you, above all, to feel that your isolation from the human race owes as much to your rejecting it as to its rejecting you. In practical terms, however, I had no idea what to do with my looks besides trade them for the opportunity to get my hands on some mammary glands. And yet when I succeeded for the first time in effecting this momentous transaction I learned that tits, to the touch, were no different from regular skin, like you’d find on someone’s ankle or belly.

With male classmates, things weren’t much better. As a boy without a sense of humor I felt ill at ease and almost foreign among them. When the friends I would soon abandon for prep school came over, I never played the Smiths; this was music for listening to alone while you lay in awe on your bedroom floor. And there would have been equally little sense in admitting that in emulation of Morrissey I’d adopted a program of celibacy—a commitment I couldn’t explain or, probably, should an opportunity present itself, uphold. In general, the phenomenon of other people was a matter of polite endurance while I waited to resume my self-contemplation. I was especially uncertain whether to class my traits as virtues or defects, and for this state of narcissistic suspension the Smiths were the perfect soundtrack. Already I must have apprehended that Morrissey’s eloquent words possessed the supplemental eloquence of meaning the exact opposite of what they said. Because in truth he liked to be alone. He wanted to be unlovable. Which didn’t really mean he was—it just meant he didn’t want to know if he was or not. The problem with other people is that ultimately they have to decide what they think of you and how much time they’d like to spend in your company—whereas you, being stuck with yourself, are spared the necessity of such conclusions.

Before long, I had added to my Smiths collection the eponymous first album, as well as its follow-up, Meat Is Murder, on which my favorite track was “That Joke Isn’t Funny Anymore.” Best of all, though, was Louder than Bombs. Bought at a mall in Denver on a trip with my family, this stupendous compilation of singles and B-sides remains one of happiest purchases of my life: 24 songs that I’d never even known existed! It was all but unbearable to sit in the back seat of the car reading the lyric sheet during the long drive back to Eagle—but there could be no question of asking my parents to play the tape.

Up to then they’d listened to even the worst of my music with curiosity or at least without complaint. They’d never protested the heavy metal affectations of Def Leppard or Ronnie James Dio’s forays into Satanic imagery, never mind the soggy lugubriousness of Denis DeYoung, former lead vocalist of Styx and the living low point of my prepubescent tastes. And once I graduated from the Top 40 to the college charts, my parents were similarly unperturbed by the fuzz and churn of Hüsker Dü and the nasal nonsense of REM’s Michael Stipe. Ruinous tolerance of the baby boomers! In fact my father helpfully explained that REM meant rapid eye movement—I know, Dad— and that Hüsker Dü was a memory game played by Norwegians.

But the Smiths my parents could not abide. Morrissey’s voice on the living-room stereo seemed to cause my mother genuine physical distress—The moaning, she said, in pain, the droning, the monotone—and more than once she’d insisted that I put on something, anything else. It was great: I felt credentialed as a teenager. I had duplicated the Smiths’ own discovery: Namely, that if there is one adolescent attitude more insufferable than the punk rock sneer, it’s that combination of superiority and self-pity best expressed by Morrissey.

While beneath the abject vocals runs—most perverse of all—a current of delight!

I LIKED TO think of myself as miserable at the time, and can’t have been completely wrong about this. But I believe that as I plotted my escape from home and from rural idiocy, and contemplated the vocation of poetry, I was happier than I knew or could say. I was becoming someone I might enjoy knowing, for all that the ineluctable sorrow of the poetic personality would forever remain my cross to bear. And in listening to the Smiths now, as I’ve never stopped doing for long, I detect an analogy to my smuggled cargo of enjoyment—because it isn’t really, though it can seem so, that Morrissey’s miserabilist lyrics and free-style moaning have nothing in common with Johnny Marr’s jangling, joyous music. It’s more nearly the case that the music supplies the secret truth of the words, an occult gladness at their heart.

All skill is joyful, said Yeats—and it’s worth remembering that the Smiths were not only a great band but also a very skilled one. Johnny Marr in particular was a guitar savant, and the band became expert around him. Born John Maher, he met Steven Morrissey for the first time at a Patti Smith show in 1979, but once the two formed a band, three years later, it was too late for punk, and anyway Marr’s finger-picking virtuosity and magpie tastes in music caused him to scorn any three-chord cloddishness. All that remained of punk for the Smiths was a chary attitude toward guitar solos (never indulged till the final album), a DIY approach to business matters that ultimately proved their undoing, and one more musical idiom to exploit at will. It was a typical of Marr to conceive of a chord progression (for “The Headmaster Ritual”) as, in his words, what Joni Mitchell “would have done had she been an MC5 fan or a punk rocker.” A similar cool lucidity, uncanny in a teenager, marked the way he recruited Morrissey: “I wanted someone who was just a singer and wasn’t playing an instrument. I didn’t want a musical cowriter. I wanted someone who looked good and was serious about words. But most of all, I wanted someone who was as serious about it as a life option as I was.”

Marr and Andy Rourke, the band’s bassist, had been in a funk outfit before the Smiths, and Rourke’s twirling “song-within-a-song” bass lines (as Marr called them), played at the high end of his instrument’s range, made for a lot of the Smiths’ distinctive sound, while the melodic work they did freed up Marr’s guitars for blooming chromatic excursions. The only real primitive in the Smiths, from a musical standpoint, was the drummer, Mike Joyce, late of the Manchester punk band Victim, and after the Smiths’ initial recording sessions exposed his limitations, he set about diversifying his attack. Before long Joyce was capable of high-hat dazzlement as well as a tom-tom fusillade or glam-rock stomp. And it seems to me that the Smiths’ music, considered apart from Morrissey’s words, often carries through from major to minor chord and back again a mood of continuous pleasure gained from the realization of one’s gifts.

The instrument-playing Smiths were all thrillingly young (Morrissey being four years older) when the band formed: Johnny Marr was just 18, and would only be 23 when they broke up. And note something else: Each of the four band members was a first-generation Englishman and the son of economic migrants from Ireland. Surely among the things you can hear the band forging in the smithy of its sound are the tools of release from the constrictions of immigrant life. “A rush and a push and the land that we stand on is ours,” sang Morrissey, adapting an old Republican slogan to the purposes of a conquest in reverse. The Smiths were in their own eyes a tremendous, historic band much deserving of popularity—Morrissey was notably obsessed with their position on the U.K. singles chart—and they knew they might get what they wanted.

Still, the question remains what the bright glad music of Johnny Marr and the rhythm section has to do with Morrissey’s ill-humored words and off-key moaning. After all, Morrissey couldn’t read music or play an instrument and often recorded his vocal only after the rest of the track was completed. And when you first listen to a song like “Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now,” it can seem that the Smiths are afflicted with as extreme a case of words/music dualism as anything the most riven Cartesian could suffer by way of a mind/body split, or else why should such a maundering recitation of self-pitying complaint be laid down atop a piece of music virtually simpering with felicity? I couldn’t have answered the question at age 14, but then I doubt I would have loved Morrissey so much at the time if I hadn’t detected at a level beyond words—the level, precisely, of music—that he too was having a good time.

The apparent paradox is that while Morrissey complains of his clumsiness and sorrow and self-doubt, the music that backs him up is deft, assured, and often simply happy. There’s irony there of course, but the deeper and more interesting thing is identity: despondency and exultation made one. The closeness of Morrissey’s vocal lines to Marr’s and Rourke’s melodies tends to produce the impression that the words have summoned the music, rather than the other way around. Listen again to the songs, and notice how when Morrissey wonders how you can stay with a fat girl who’ll say would you like to marry me and if you like you can buy the ring? and when he says that the story of his life is that he was once 16, clumsy, and shy, you can hear melancholy making a deal with happiness. The deal is off the books, but unconcealed.

I ARRIVED AT St. Paul’s School in the fall of 1987. One of the few decorations I brought for my room was a Smiths poster, and the first time I left campus I went straight to the record store and purchased a copy of the just released Strangeways, Here We Come. It would have been a happier occasion if Rolling Stone wasn’t reporting that the Smiths had split up.

My mourning of the Smiths was complicated by actually listening to Strangeways. The use of synthesizers offended my teenage puritanism and, more than that, Morrissey’s lyrics had now vaulted so far over the top that even I could detect a hint of camp. I understood that “Unhappy Birthday” and “Girlfriend in a Coma” were humorous compositions, but didn’t see what was so funny— everything I felt was still too near the bone and too close to home. Nevertheless my fandom, my fidelity, were still enough that the first short story I wrote in high school was called, after the majestic cut off The Queen Is Dead, “There Is a Light That Never Goes Out”: a piece of teenage Gothic, all pallor and doom and trickling blood, with—I think so anyway—a shovelful of soil falling over the main character’s head.

The next year, I roomed with a preppy kid from Darien, Connecticut. He had a bowl haircut, played soccer, and favored the Allman Brothers. One day in early September, I returned to our double to find that my poster of Morrissey, Marr, Rourke, and Joyce standing outside the Salford Lads Club, the poster I’d tacked proudly to the wall, now hung inside my school-issued armoire, behind my shirts and jackets. When I asked why this was, my roommate replied that he wasn’t into Euro-fag music. I took the poster down and rolled it up, lest we be suspected of sucking each other’s dicks and putting product in our hair. Soon CD players arrived to overwhelm the age of cassettes, and since all I had of the Smiths were tapes, the band became a private indulgence, Walkman listening. By this time—I was 15—I’d realized that I might not be cut out for celibacy. But in my laziness and unhappiness and general unsuitability for life, I still thrilled to the words “I decree today that life is simply taking and not giving, England is mine, it owes me a living.” All the antiwork songs in the Smiths’ canon nourished my ambition of never having a real job and becoming a writer instead. Sex, after all, only takes a few minutes—but with a job they make you work all day.

I’VE NEVER GOTTEN over the Smiths. In fact, just when it seemed I would have to give them up because life had begun to wring occasional concessions of joy from me, I got the Smiths back again. Throughout high school the human capacity for laughter had remained a solemn mystery to me, and I can remember each of the three times, over four years, when I deliberately said something funny. But once I went to college and began to unlock the secrets of comedy and irony, once I perceived at last that you could exaggerate things and understate them and didn’t always have to speak in deadly earnest, I realized what anyone else could have told you right away: The Smiths are hilarious! Morrissey—he’s joking. He means it, but he’s also joking. And that feeling of pleasure running underneath the lyrics of the songs? It’s in part the pleasure of being witty. Aha: It’s arch.

The final twist was that the excuse of comedy gave all the old feelings a new justification. For going on 22 years now—longer than it takes to raise a kid and send him to college and buy him a drink—I have been playing the Smiths on heavy rotation. For more than two decades I’ve been able to think, about any number of abortive romances, I know it’s over, and it never really began, but in my heart it was so real…. I can never get over the bass line of “Cemetry Gates” or the opening guitar riff and first cracking drum beat of “Girl Afraid.” Even such throwaway production details as the children’s choir singing “Hang the DJ” on “Panic” and the sample from an old hypnotism record in “Rubber Ring” are things that I love.

In my experience, almost none of the Smiths’ songs has proven easily outgrown, and it occurs to me that I’m still sorry the band broke up, while I’ve always recovered from my own breakups quickly enough. Not that I haven’t followed Morrissey’s solo career, but when a great singer and a great band part ways, the future songs of the singer are always diminished, even if his solo work is musically every bit as good as his work with the group. This is because it gives words a special power to receive the loud, implicit endorsement of the entire band in whose name the singer is singing. The solo artist, like everyone else, only speaks for himself.


Benjamin Kunkel is the author of the novel Indecision and one of the founding editors of the journal n+1.



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