An American academic and an English poet talk about The Smiths

Pam Thurschwell and Jeremy Page

PT: I am now an ex-pat American living in England and have been for almost twenty years, but hearing The Smiths still takes me back to an early, all-consuming, adolescent Anglophilia of the early '80s. I grew up in the suburbs of Philadelphia, a long psychic distance from The Smiths. My friends and I, hungry for new wave, post-punk, anything English, devoured everything that came through the one cool radio station. I remember discovering this amazing band, the Jam, who had this great new single called “Beat Surrender”; minutes later I realized that we’d missed the entire boat. We were constitutively behind the times. There was a sense of belatedness already built in to my relationship with British music—and the coolness it signified—that seemed appropriately in keeping with The Smiths’ repeated rehearsals of breakdowns and bad timing (“In a darkened underpass I thought, oh God my chance has come at last, but then a strange fear gripped me and I just couldn’t ask." The Smiths, Wordsworth, and I: we never noticed that the Alps had been crossed). When my high school friends and I finally got to see them, at the Tower Theatre in Philly on the Meat is Murder tour, we managed to miss the opening act (Billy Bragg, whom we loved but didn’t realize was opening, so we showed up fashionably, or in this case, stupidly, late) and then had to endure the humiliation of watching one of the popular girls we most despised from our high school dance on stage with Morrissey during the finale. We were so incensed, we could barely see or hear the end of the concert. That feeling was so right. The Smiths were all about breakdowns and humiliation in a way that no American bands were, or would ever be. American bands sang about failure, and occasionally dabbled in a fleetingly attractive self-loathing—Nirvana, for instance—but there were and are no American aesthetes; Morrissey, like his idol Wilde, was an English/Irish/European phenomenon.

The Smiths hemorrhaged a version of Englishness that I coveted (even if their English was never just English). They transcended all the floppy-haired new romantic bands I was also digging in the early ‘80s and with whom they were inevitably lumped in America. I was pretty naïve, but even I could see The Smiths were no Flock of Seagulls. For one thing, Morrissey was a mass of contradictory impulses. In a 1984 interview, he said he chose the name "The Smiths" because it was ordinary, and that it was time that ordinary folk showed their faces. But no ordinary person’s face was like Morrissey’s. Those great performances from the Old Grey Whistle Test and Top of the Pops at the time capture the contradictions—the floppy new Romantic shirt that would have looked right on Lord Byron or Adam Ant, matched with jeans that gestured toward "working class boy from Manchester" but with a bouquet of flowers hanging out the back pocket of the jeans, which seemed to say "Oscar Wilde on a really odd day." A lightbulb went off when I listened recently to the first line of David Bowie’s “Aladdin Sane”: “Watching him dash away / swinging an old bouquet of dead roses." Did Morrissey grab this image and run with it? And what do we make of the NHS glasses and the large, clunky, NHS hearing aid? Could you be cool and disdainful and weak and abject at the same time? What kind of sex symbol was he? Or was he a sexless symbol? When I first saw The Smiths, I’d never heard of the NHS and probably hadn’t heard of Manchester. The confusions around them just seemed to multiply for me. 

The Smiths had clever, camp, and literary sewn up, but they also had access to my world of teenage pain; they were the opposite of bombastic, but they were best played loud. They had amazing guitar riffs and wilting self-deprecation. They were full of outrage, but not the way punk had taught me. And they were funny in a way that no American music was. I can’t think of an American artist then, or now, who could have written, “I want to live and I want to love / I want to catch something that I might be ashamed of." That line from “Frankly Mr. Shankly” sums it up: hilarious, grandiose, and bathetic—wanting it all, wanting to dance to it, wanting the disease that comes with it.

JP: My journey to The Smiths began with this EP: All My Loving by The Beatles. It was the first record I ever owned, and it's one of the few possessions I would strive to save from a burning house. It caused me to embark on a love affair with rock/pop that saw me through the '70s following the demise of The Beatles in 1970, and took me to concerts featuring artists like Procol Harum, Thin Lizzy, T Rex even—also Frank Zappa, Bob Dylan, The Boom Town Rats, The Stranglers, and The Adverts during that mad summer of punk in 1977. Following that, in the early '80s I rather improbably ended up working in a record shop in London, and my period in the record shop coincided more or less with the break-up of The Jam after their Beat Surrender tour, and with that came a total disillusionment with music that would last for several years and ultimately result in me missing out on The Smiths until it was too late. I blame Orchestral Manoeuvres in The Dark, A Flock of Seagulls, and various other bands from that era for that. So appalled was I by some of the stuff I heard in the early '80s that I drifted away and embarked on an ill-advised Italian adventure, only to return just as The Smiths were breaking up in 1987 and become aware of them then. My most recent experiences had taken place in what Morrissey in his autobiography calls "a barren time." He says, "The music was horrendous, synthetic, fake. The punk ideal seemed dead." Amen to that. But with the end of The Jam, with that disillusionment, I went away. I came back years later, discovered The Smiths, but it was too late, and to my eternal regret I never got to see them live. And I will always hold Orchestral Manoeuvres in The Dark particularly responsible for my missing out on that experience. Okay, let’s reorientate us a little to the world of The Smiths. I think we can agree that Morrissey and The Smiths did create their own world in a way that was highly unusual: Morrissey compares the act of creating that world to what George Formby did, but its essential features according to Jonny Marr are "NHS glasses," "flowers," and "standing up for the dork." And as for the songs, they were described by Melvyn Bragg in his 1987 South Bank Show documentary as "witty, unexpected, viewed from a resolutely northern perspective." So, as a reminder of the singular world of The Smiths, we are now going to bat back and forth a few of our favorite songs.


“Stop Me If You Think You’ve Heard This One Before”


PT: We’re beginning our conversation with a late Smiths moment: in the video for “Stop Me,” Morrissey’s image is already sedimented to the point where hundreds of Morrissey wanabees on bikes is a surprise to no one. The video gets to the heart of the strange crossings of The Smiths: Strangeways (the famous and famously brutal Manchester prison), Salford Lad’s Club (originally opened in 1904 by Robert Baden-Powell, founder of the Boy Scouts), and Oscar Wilde on the wall bringing it all together. The Smiths brilliantly mine their different historical contexts; you always think you’ve heard this one before, but then you never really have.

“I still love you, only slightly, only slightly less than I used to” is really mean, or really heartbreaking, or both. I hear this song as part of the small but significant “coming out to your girlfriend” genre. (The Pet Shop Boys’ brilliant “Can You Forgive Her?” is also a masterpiece of this oeuvre, and surprisingly one of the few great pop songs named after an Anthony Trollope novel.) “Who said I lied because I never?” is a line that leaves you uncertain of the contours of those lies. Did he lie to her, or was he perhaps just lying to himself? Is it any less painful either way?

“Stop Me” also contains the violence which is never far from the surface in The Smiths—homophobic violence, I assume here: “I was detained, I was restrained / and broke my spleen and broke my knee / And then he really lays into me.” In some of his songs, it feels that if he is not hiding out, Morrissey will spend Friday night in outpatients or be hit by a bus or beaten up or worse (See “Suffer Little Children”). Much better to find a safe haven at the YWCA. (“I like it here, can I stay?”) Is “Stop Me” finally parodic (at the end of the line for The Smiths, they became a parody of their former selves, drowning in bicycling effete Morrissey clones?) or is it still walking that line, so well-mined by Wilde, between comedy and self-mocking, self-aggrandizing tragedy?


“Half a Person”

PT: I chose “Half a Person” to remind us, again, of just how funny The Smiths were. This song has one of my all-time favorite first lines: “Call me morbid, call me pale.” This could easily be from The Importance of Being Earnest, but I also hear a rhyme with “Call me Ishmael.” Morrissey’s narcissism and his glorious self-putdowns are never very far apart from each other. Another fine line, “If you have five seconds to spare, let me tell you the story of my life,” becomes even funnier when we consider the grand claims and the 500-page length of the Penguin Classics autobiography. The song, like “Stop Me”—although more obliquely—develops the theme of the rejected straight woman telling the gay man some things she just has to say; this is dangerous, emotionally fraught, and also potentially very bitchy territory. According to Morrissey, a woman he knew did actually write him a letter in which she said, “In the days when you were hopelessly poor / I just liked you more.”


“There Is a Light”

JP: On that issue of self-parody, of not quite tipping over into it, it seems to me Morrissey is well able to walk that line. In “There Is a Light,” there’s something quite interesting going on because Morrissey the man is singing "Take me out tonight." Is he singing to a man? Is he singing to a woman? We really don’t know. He is deliberately non-gender-specific in many of his lyrics, but perhaps nowhere more so than here. That’s the first thing that strikes me about this song, and the second is that the balance between the poignancy of it and the utter ridiculousness of what he’s singing is so beautifully managed, because I think we must acknowledge that it is absurd. Clearly the reality of being mown down by a double-decker bus is anything but romantic. It’s actually likely to be bloody and horrific. The irony of the line about the ten-ton truck perhaps strikes us with particular force the day after some people were tragically killed by one. Yet Morrissey manages it rather brilliantly. And I think the tension between poignancy and the ridiculous is underlined for me by a more controversial version of the same song, which some of you may have seen or heard before. It comes from the BBC comedy series Gavin and Stacey, and in it Doris, the elderly neighbor with the insatiable appetite for young male flesh, gives a rendition of it at a barbecue.

These lyrics are perhaps the most quintessentially "Morrissey" lyrics. Simon Goddard has described "There Is a Light" as being The Smiths "at their most morbidly romantic"—this notion of bliss preserved, but only at the cost of the loss of life, of death. There is a very deliberate absurdity there. But, of course, it’s a song within an identifiable tradition, a tradition Morrissey is particularly interested in and keen on. I remember as a young child being bemused when the BBC banned a record called Terry by Twinkle, which was about the death of a boyfriend in a motorbike accident. Even then, I was struck by this marked reluctance to engage with the messy reality of death, which I don’t think Morrissey could be accused of. He just engages in a highly individual way, I’d say. For me it’s epitomized by the absurd appropriateness of Doris breaking into her version of "There Is a Light" in the context of that barbecue in South Wales. 

PT: This is a wonderful song, a lot like “How Soon Is Now,” in that it’s funny but also pierces your soul. “Driving in your car I never ever want to go home, because I haven’t got one, no I haven’t got one” is the heartbreaking line. Again, I read this in relation to a coming-out narrative gone wrong, when your home becomes unheimlich; it no longer belongs to you, and you no longer belong to it.


“How Soon Is Now?”

PT: This video clip from 1986 shows Morrissey dancing with an otherworldly, awkward weirdness. Are these sexualized movements? Are they pushing you away? What are they doing? For me this goes far beyond camp. I’ve been trying to figure out how camp Morrissey is, or whether he is in fact very camp at all. Of course, in one sense he is the definition of camp: Wilde is everywhere on him. But there’s an oddness to his place in British lad culture that is interesting, too. The football hooligans who loved him, the flirtations with nationalist, little England imagery. And the weird gyrations that are so beyond what you’d expect. Maybe it is the otherworldliness of Morrissey that opened up so many different identifications at the time—so many different kinds of fans found him compelling: young girls, gay men, straight men.

“How Soon Is Now” is both totally characteristic of them and totally uncharacteristic of them. Pounding Johnny Marr guitar riff, a dancefloor phenomenon. It revels in structuring dichotomies: is it funny or is it serious? Is it heartbreaking or self-parodic? It is incredibly literary: “I am the son and the heir of a shyness that is criminally vulgar / I am the son and heir of nothing in particular” is taken from a Middlemarch line describing the undistinguished, ploddingly middle-class, totally unfabulous Fred Vincy: “To be born the son of a Middlemarch manufacturer, and inevitable heir to nothing in particular…” Who else quotes that Eliot? No one does. Take that, Robert Zimmerman.

JP: And the range of literary references is quite extraordinary, isn’t it? As well as the breadth of vocabulary. I read somewhere that The Smiths—in Morrissey’s lyrics—employ a wider range of language than any other band ever to have emerged from Manchester—1,100 words, I believe. And the references aren’t always the references you’d expect, although there seems to be a lot of evidence to suggest that Morrissey was a voracious and perhaps not always particularly discriminating reader as a young man, picking up influences here, there, and everywhere.


“Suffer Little Children”

JP: Shall we move on to the last of the four songs? My second choice is “Suffer Little Children,” which I suppose may be less widely known than the songs we’ve talked about so far. It comes from The Smiths’ eponymous first album, and the lyrics were actually written before Morrissey and Jonny Marr ever met. I think context is very important to an understanding and appreciation of this song. Let’s listen to it.

For me, this ranks as one of the most disturbing and haunting songs I’ve ever heard, and it’s haunted me since I first heard it. What I find particularly impressive about it is that it really is a genuine response to, an attempt to deal with, something that is truly appalling. Morrissey grew up in Manchester, and the Moors Murders were obviously a very significant backdrop to his early years, so the authenticity of his response is striking. Inevitably, perhaps, he and The Smiths were condemned for this when it came to public attention as an attempt to exploit terrible events for commercial purposes, but I don’t think that charge was ever credible. There have been other attempts to sensationalize the Moors Murders, certainly, and I think many would now say that Emlyn Williams’s book Beyond Belief is guilty of that. Also Marcus Harvey’s notorious portrait of Myra Hindley, which appeared in the Sensation exhibition at the Royal Academy in 1997—not perhaps the work itself, but the fact of its appearance in an exhibition called "Sensation"—arguably renders Harvey liable to the charge of exploitation. Morrissey’s response, on the other hand, seems to me to be a very human one. He doesn’t shy away from the awfulness of the Moors Murders: on the contrary, some of the lyrics are shockingly explicit. And I think we also have in there Morrissey’s fascination with sleep as a metaphor for death, which occurs in many of his songs. In his autobiography he actually asks at one point, "for isn't sleep the brother of death?" so there’s that recurring motif in his lyrics. But Morrissey’s motivation, it seems to me, in writing about this was that he genuinely believed that it needed to be spoken of, that these terrible events had been swept under the carpet by too many for too long. The murders were too horrific to discuss, so his intention in writing this was perhaps to confront us with the awfulness of it, but in an authentic, respectful way, and personally I’m persuaded of the authenticity of what he’s attempting here. I don’t know how you feel about it.

PT: I found myself thinking about in the folk tradition, calling up a specific place and a personal connection: “Manchester, so much to answer for” to make a universal point. And the constant recurrence of everyday violence and the horrific in The Smiths. It’s almost a gothic world, but a beautiful song. 

JP: For me, it’s the coming together of the greatest strengths of Morrissey and Marr. I saw somewhere Jonny Marr describing how blown away he was by these lyrics when he first saw them, and I don’t think it took him very long to arrive at the perfect musical accompaniment. It’s phenomenally haunting. Actually, if you haven’t listened to it recently, I’d urge you to listen again to the whole of that first album, which is perhaps not especially rated by many, because it’s an extraordinary debut album, and "Suffer Little Children" is the most memorable, impressive, and extraordinary track on it.

Shall we move on to a few brief words on Morrissey’s autobiography?



PT: I loved the autobiography, and I loved that there were so many outraged critiques of it before anyone had broken the cover. I thought the gesture of him saying “Yes, I’ll give you my autobiography, Penguin, but it must be published as a Penguin Classic. And it must look like Ovid and Chaucer and Henry James” was utterly brilliant. English professor friends of mine—ex-punks all, I’m sure—were incensed on social media. The fact that Morrissey can still bring out buried desires to defend rotting canons has to be in his favor. As a media event, it was perfectly staged.   

As a book, well, it’s interesting that it is written in the present tense. The effect of reading it in the present tense seems to be that all the pain in the world is still happening to Morrissey, and will always be happening to him.

This passage comes from a point at the height of their fame in the mid-'80s:

Undernourished and growing out of the wrong soil, I knew at this time that a lot of people found me hard to take, and for the most part I understood why. Although a passably human creature on the outside, the swirling soul within seemed to speak up for the most awkward people on the planet. Somewhere deep within my only pleasure was to out-endure people’s patience. Against sane judgement, I risked unpopularity with my adrift physicality; but there it was, and how could the world possibly be in need of yet another Phil Collins? The subject of sex remained theoretical, and no one expressed any interest in me, which I didn’t mind as long as I could create.

That “adrift physicality” reminded me of the otherworldly dancing from the “How Soon Is Now” video. The insane awkwardness. At the same time, here is this very beautiful man who is the biggest rock star in England. It’s impossible to imagine that he’s not getting a lot of offers, and yet he can create this space around himself where sex can be sort of pushed aside. That feint of the aesthete: “I don’t mind as long as I can have my art.”  

JP: I think that issue of agency is a very interesting one because throughout the autobiography, Morrissey presents himself as someone to whom things happen, and the only area where he really wants to claim agency for himself is art, as if that’s the only thing that matters, that’s what defines one version of the man. When I came to the end of the book, I found myself trying to establish how many different versions of him there really were, and asking myself if there was any point in trying to differentiate between those various versions, whether in fact any of them might approximate to any kind of reality that the rest of us would recognize. I concluded that there probably wasn’t any point in going there. But like you, I found it at its best an enthralling read, though I think it makes a very strong case for the reinstatement of the post of editor. Five hundred pages really are far too many, and some of it is truly appallingly written, though there are other passages, of course, that are absolutely brilliant. It’s not like anything else you’re going to read in Penguin Classics, which I guess was part of the point. It might be an interesting exercise to think about which other title in the series it most closely resembles.

PT: I think Morrissey really knows what it means to be a fan—something the autobiography also reveals. I love his description of his meeting with Bowie, which could stand in for all our imagined meetings, and missed connections to him:

At midday he emerges from a black Mercedes, every inch the eighth dimension, teetering on high heels, with all the wisdom of our ancestors. Smiling keenly, he accepts the note of a dull schoolboy whose overblown soul is more ablaze than the school blazer he wears, and thus I touch the hand of this inexplicably liberating reformer; he, a Wildean visionary about to re-mold England, and I, a spectacle of suffering in a blue school uniform.

A great description of an almost encounter, a missed encounter (to return to my original autobiographical point; my friends and forlorn in Philly’s Tower Theatre). That “I, a spectacle of suffering,” is one of the things we love him for. May his “overblown soul” continue to fascinate.


Pam Thurschwell is a senior lecturer in English at the University of Sussex and the author of Literature, Technology and Magical Thinking, 1880–1920 (Cambridge University Press, 2001) and Sigmund Freud (Routledge Press, 2000; second edition, 2009). She is the co-editor with Leah Price of Literary Secretaries/Secretarial Culture (Ashgate Press, 2005) and with Nicola Bown and Carolyn Burdett of The Victorian Supernatural (Cambridge University Press 2004). She has written on a wide variety of writers and artists including Bob Dylan, George Eliot, Elvis Costello, Henry James, Bruce Springsteen, and Daniel Clowes. Her most recent articles are on Carson McCullers and Toni Morrison in English Studies in Canada 38:3-4, and Freud and Willa Cather in Blackwell’s Concise Companion to Psychoanalysis, Literature and Culture (eds. Laura Marcus and Ankhi Mukherjee). She is currently working on a book manuscript on modern adolescence and anachronism, tentatively titled Keep your Back to the Future.

Jeremy Page has edited The Frogmore Papers since 1983, and he is the author of several collections of poems, most recently Closing Time (Pindrop, 2014). His translations of the Lesbia poems of Catullus were published as The Cost of All Desire by the Ashley Press in 2011. He works in the Centre for Language Studies at the University of Sussex.