Where It Began
Thirty-five years ago, The Smiths, an alternative pop band from Manchester, England, showed the world what it would sound like if ideas about sexual purity and vegetarianism were set to a punk beat, driven home with an acrobatic bass line, and sung in painful clarity by one of the clearest tenors in modern rock. The Smiths’ lead singer, Steven Patrick Morrissey, known simply as “Morrissey” or “Moz” was responsible for shaping the band’s ethos and as a result, generations of fans turn to Morrissey to get a heaping serving of reality with sarcasm and wit on the side.
A Thought Pop Legacy Continues
Morrissey, who turns 58, May 22, 2017, still packs concert venues. After a brief tour this spring, there are rumors of more tour dates, and this excites many. In addition, public celebrations of his birthday are planned. Why so much buzz about a man whose heyday had supposedly ended in the late 1980s?
The Smiths came to prominence in an era when almost every musician was wearing makeup, using synthesizers and dressing in over-the-top outfits. In contrast, the four guys from Manchester known as The Smiths, showed up in regular jeans and denim jackets and simple lace-up shoes or boots. The lack of pretense in their look was in stark contrast to the weighty subjects they tackled lyrically. Any subject relevant to troubled adolescence, to living life on the dole, to abusive teachers and notorious child murders, were covered by The Smiths. This kind of reportage is one of the reasons that Morrissey is still relevant. It is rare that pop musicians function as cultural informants the way Morrissey does . His lyrical references to Keats, Yeats, and Wilde earned him a place in bookish fans’ hearts. In addition, his onstage nod to Wilde with an untidy bunch of gladiolas in his back pocket, and his wearing glasses and hearing aids he didn’t need, made Morrissey the lovable weirdo of alternative rock. When all the other rock stars were trying to see how sophisticated and cool they could look, Morrissey was having none of it.
I was introduced to the sound of The Smiths when I was in high school. This was after the group had broken up, and Morrissey was on his second or third solo album. What The Smiths and Morrissey did for “art kids” in flyover country was make us feel less weird. We were stuck in the same kind of provincial, industrial, gray city as Morrissey had grown up in, and we shared a number of the same ideas, and while some people listened to The Smiths and gave it up as “too gloomy”, we heard the humor and the wisdom and gladly accepted what The Smiths had to offer.
Morrissey encourages the artistic, and the emotionally sensitive, to accept themselves, even when the world declares they must do more to fit in. He has given generations of fans permission to be themselves. Through his music, he provides the assurance that they are not alone in their odd thoughts and keen observations–this is why Morrissey still matters.