I was a teenager when I first heard The Smiths. Growing up in Pennsylvania, the radio stations only played pop or classic rock. But one day I ran across a small station, WXXP, that changed my life. It’s motto was “The station that dares to be different.” And for the first time I heard bands like Depeche Mode, New Order and They Might Be Giants. Yes, it was the 80′s. And my friends and I wore dark black eyeliner, black clothes and leather... frightening our conservative neighbors in the city. And going out dancing every weekend with our (unbelievably bad) fake IDs.
It was The Smiths who touched me most deeply. The songs were poetic, sad and defiant. Morrissey was obviously gay, and I admired his courage. He was the poster child for outcasts like me, and I identified with that. Also, his songs were full of literature references, and this sparked many library trips to find writers like Oscar Wilde (his fairy tales are still my favorite stories to read out loud) and poets like Keats and Yates. My friend Amy and I would hang out in the cemeteries (the quietest green areas in our city) and read, talk and write poetry.
Guitarist Johnny Marr and lead singer Morrissey met in 1979 when they both went to see Patti Smith in concert. By 1982, they were a band. The pulsing, lush sounds of Johnny Marr’s guitar, along with Morrissey’s Sinatra-like crooning sounded so different from the other -- more synth-based -- bands of the 80s. Who would have guessed that I’d get to meet Johnny Marr in person at my job almost 25 years later. He was really a sweet guy. Would still like to meet Morrissey. Does anyone want to introduce us?
The Smiths charted immediately with their first record (self-titled). And the next record, Meat is Murder, shot to number one on the Brit charts as soon as it was released. The song “How Soon Is Now” is a rare track in that it’s over six minutes long and still got radio play. It is still one of the best alt-rock songs ever released. The intro showcases the brilliant guitar texture that could be no one but Johnny Marr. And the lyrics “I am human and I need to be loved” always cut to the core... maybe it’s the delivery... like Morrissey has already given up but is reaching out to you anyway.
Years later, when I was in college at UC Berkeley, my best friend tortured me mercilessly for loving this band. He hated them, as did many of the punk rockers we hung out with. I refused to budge, citing talent, texture, poetry, delivery and all the reasons I love this band. To this day, I still turn to them when I’m down. Something about the sadness in the music makes me feel better. Understood. Why does sad music make you happy? Ultimately, I chose the greatest hits collection Louder Than Bombs to be The Smiths record that I kept in my home collection. There is a light that never goes out.
Michele Myers spins every Saturday on KEXP from 3-6pm. It’s a high-energy show that is geared to ramp you up for Saturday night. Every week she plays 3-in-a-row from the Saturday Afternoon Artist. She is the creator of KEXP Documentaries and hosts Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays 6-9am on WNYE 91.5FM in New York City.