Saturday, November 12, 2011

Girlfriend in a Coma / The Smiths

I won't go into detail about what I was doing in 1987, but I can tell you one thing I wasn't doing -- I wasn't listening to the Smiths.  A pity, I suppose. On the other hand, it means that I now face the delicious pleasure of exploring this brave new world all at once.

I feel about the Smiths the way I feel about Robyn Hitchcock; what I find most compelling is their inimitable Smiths-ness.  When you figure that Robyn and the Smiths both wandered onto the music scene in the wasteland left behind by punk, it all makes sense; they were all trying to reinvent the wheel. As soon as their songs begin, you're immediately projected into some sort of parallel universe.  It's not just the oddball timbre of Morrissey's vocals; it's the whole ball of wax: the unrhyming lyrics, the mesmeric repeated phrases, the modular melodies -- like a pop equivalent of Legos -- and the quirky combination of romantic yearning and postmodern irony.  The emotional flutter in Morrissey's voice is simply not to be trusted. 

Having come to the Smiths late, I did the prudent thing:  I started out with a "best of" compilation, in this case the excellent Louder Than Bombs.   But I knew -- it was inevitable -- that eventually I'd have to go back and buy all the albums, as I slid further and further down the rabbit hole.  My latest purchase: the aptly titled Strangeways, Here We Come, released in 1987. All new tracks to me, since Louder Than Bombs was compiled as a sort of catch-up album for the overseas market, and was released well before they recorded Strangeways, which turned out to be their final album.   It's full of wonderful treasures, but this track in particular whacked me upside the head.  In a good way, of course.

Now, full confession:  I've got a friend who's just come out of a coma.  Tragic story, which I won't go into here, but I've been preoccupied for weeks, worrying about her condition.  So from the get-go, I feel ambivalent about Morrissey singing about something so sad -- not just singing about it, but singing about it in a jaunty pop song with a rather bouncy beat.  What gives?

"Girlfriend in a coma, I know / I know, it's serious."  Meanwhile, there's a perky little guitar riff, not to mention cello arpeggios as he wonders, "Do you think she'll pull through?"  At first he doesn't want to see her, then he's longing to see her to say goodbye.  He's tormented by the memory of thoughtlessly saying in the past that he'd like to murder her or strangle her.  Like so many Smiths song, this one homes relentlessly in on a callow emotional response; of course he's sorry, of course he loves her, blah blah blah, but really it's all about him, his guilt and his fears.

Maybe it's satire -- a comment on the shallowness of self-involved modern love -- maybe it's just being brutally honest about human nature. Either way, it's provocative, and yet so dreamily beautiful, in its Smith-y way, that it's been echoing in my consciousness all day.

YouTube wouldn't let me embed the official video, which is a shame. (Ah, the Eighties, when a video really mattered!)  Take a look at it though -- it's a curious artifact in and of itself.  There's Morrissey, earnestly emoting (in color!  at a tilted angle!) at the bottom of the screen, while behind him plays scenes from the 1964 movie The Leather Boys, a black-and-white kitchen-sink drama about young working-class marrieds estranged by the husband's attraction to a studly gay biker.   I haven't seen this film, but now I'm wildly curious.  First of all, anything with Rita Tushingham -- she of A Taste of Honey and The Knack and How To Get It -- has to be good.  But more importantly, it throws into the mix all the mystery surrounding Morrissey's own sexuality, especially because the young husband, played by Colin Campbell, looks frighteningly like Morrissey.  So is that why he really can't get too worked up about his dying girlfriend?

Punk rock smashed so many barriers, artists like the Smiths and Robyn Hitchcock had to find new ways to be transgressive.  Absurdist poetry about insects and transportation was Robyn's solution; the Smiths instead trained a discomforting spotlight on the worst banalities of human interactions. It's a very seductive view of the world.  I might just have to listen to more of it.


Uncle E said...

You are in for a treat. While Louder than Bombs is a great comp, I think Hatfull Of Hollow is a little better, but you can't go wrong. Funny you started delving into their albums by picking the last one (IMO their worst, which still ain't bad!)and moving reverse-chronologically. I would "rank" them as follows:

The Debut
The Queen Is Dead
Hatfull Of Hollow
Meat Is Murder (just 'cause it gets a little preachy)
Louder than Bombs

Have fun!

Holly A Hughes said...

I'm looking forward to the ride!

dante said...

My dad, who died in 1992 at age 62, tolerated my teen-aged musical whimsies, never complaining about Costello and Squeeze and GP and Springsteen and Joe Jackson et al. My Coltrane phase may have frayed his patience, but he abided. I think he actually appreciated Tom Waits. BUT WHEN I PLAYED THIS SMITHS SONG he asked me: "Do you really like this stuff?" and I must admit, he had a point. When I hear the Smiths now, I ask myself, "Do I really like this stuff?" and I'm not quite sure I do.

Holly A Hughes said...

The Smiths probably led modern music down a path where few other artists could really go. It's discomforting music, which is both its strength and its weakness. But so long as I regard it as satire, or social commentary, I have to admit I dig on its eccentricity.

Not that I have any desire to hang out with Morissey or anything....