But don’t forget the songs that made you cry
And the songs that saved you’re life.
Yes, you’re older now
and you’re a clever swine.
But they were the only ones who ever stood by you.
~ The Smiths
We went out on a school night for the first time in weeks. Not that it was a school night for me, but it was for the hundreds of black-clad, well-coiffed adults who’d secured babysitters for the evening. We were, demographically, people who were beginning to truly understand the importance of 401Ks and supportive footwear. I’m certain that I wasn’t the only one with an orthotic slip-in-sole in my combat boot. Judging by the way people danced—hesitantly—I’m also certain that I wasn’t the only one who felt a bit out of practice.
We were there for Morrissey on (what he claims is) his last tour. For some of you readers, just the mention of Morrissey will cause you to cease reading immediately, to go in search of an article about best asanas for a banging yoga booty.
For others, it may remind you of that melancholy girl you dated in college, whose shoulder bag was stocked with Victorian novels and anti-depressants. Or your bisexual boyfriend who, sure enough, came out shortly after prom and ended up getting married, years later, at the NY Gay Pride Parade.
For others still, you were and are a fan and have your copy of Louder Than Bombs hermetically sealed on the bookshelf, along with your old women’s studies books and illustrated Oscar Wilde compendiums. You’ve long grown out of your desperately awkward teenage periods and transitioned into (only slightly) less awkward adulthoods. You keep your vinyl copies of the albums as a talisman against going back, and to torture your offspring when you have too much wine and plug in the old turntable to school them.
Morrissey. The Moz. You may love him or hate him, but he inspires some reaction in almost everyone—the dredging up of some distant, youthful memory.
There are several things I’d prefer over ever having to go through my teenage years again: swine flu, scabies, and Keeping Up With the Kardashians marathons among them. Those weren’t exactly my salad days. As a matter of fact, I don’t think I ate too many salads, then. I was plump—not pleasantly but morbidly. I was overly bookish, so much so that very few people from my school remember my face; it was always hidden by a library book and a curtain of inky black hair. I was frightened of mirrors and terrified of class presentations and group work. My OCD was also working overtime, so high-fives, hugs, even the carefully folded, germ-laden notes from friends, were psychological impossibilities.
Enter: The Smiths.
So, without the pressures of running for prom queen or deciding which of my many suitors I would choose, I had a lot of time on my hands to brood.
If there had been a crown for this, I would have been the rightful heir. I’d learned from the Bronte sisters and Anne Sexton that proper brooding required unrequited love, isolation, daddy issues and cigarettes. Check, check, check and check.
Few of my friends were content to spend their Friday nights in my bedroom watching me roll around on the floor with a book in my hand and a menthol in my mouth (there were a few patient friends who will always have my eternal devotion). Luckily, there was a local college radio station with a host of lethargic, depressed DJs who also stayed in on Friday nights. Who had gone to college only to sit in a padded room in the basement of the A/V department and broadcast their old records.
There was one DJ that I was convinced was my soul mate, a disembodied voice whom I think was named Chris. Chris apologized often for the long pauses between songs while he looked for that night’s playlist.
I swear I wrote it down and put it in my bag. It’s here somewhere. Seriously, sorry guys. Technical difficulties. Is this mic still on? Sorry, guys.
Chris’s records were always skipping or stopping or left behind on his dorm room desk, for which he apologized profusely. He was, even without the visual, one of the most brazenly awkward human beings I’d ever encountered, and therefore the only soul mate I could envision having.
I vividly remember the night that he played what he called a Brit-pop block: The Housemartins, The Stranglers and Suede. It was the height of the grunge era, and it was all about long-haired boys from dreary northwestern towns. It was flannel and more flannel. Everyone looked like they were on lunch breaks from their logging gigs. It was a dreary, testosterone-fueled time for music.
But the music Chris was playing was a celebration for the maladjusted. It was silly, fey, witty, danceable, depressing and joyous all at once. While grunge belonged to the guys who couldn’t make the high school football team and learned to play guitar instead, Brit-pop belonged to those who had never even considered trying out in the first place. The ones who weren’t even picked last for the team because they had a doctor’s note for their asthma or psoriasis or ADD. It was the music of those who were happy to be on the sidelines because it gave us more time to read.
Morrissey, along with his band, The Smiths, was the official pied piper of this group of outsiders. He knew far more about Oscar Wilde’s theories on aesthetics than touchdowns. He wrote songs about child molesters and vicars and obscure, British films. He was a pale, bespectacled man with flouncy blouses and James Dean hair, whom many suspected was gay (though he claimed to be asexual.)
He was the defiant Pope of Mope, and I heard him first on Chris’s show that night, sandwiched between Joy Division and The Happy Mondays. There are only a handful of memories I have from high school, and of these three stand out:
I remember the day my mother told me she had breast cancer.
I remember being threatened in the hallway by a girl who said she hated dykes.
I remember hearing The Smiths for the first time. Crystal clear.
These three moments helped shape my identity. My mother’s cancer allowed me to truly understand fear and the tenuousness of life. It wasn’t a death sentence, but it could have been. I wasn’t gay, but the words of a bully in my small, pre-Glee southern town were irrefutable evidence to many merciless kids that I was. That harassment continued for two long years, but it left me with a warrior spirit—a desire to fight not just for myself, but for all who face discrimination. And Morrissey… well, he and The Smiths put all this to music. Fear, uncertainty, anxiety, loneliness, disenfranchisement, self-consciousness—all those things I’d been trying to hide were gloriously loud and proud. It was life-saving.
At the Morrissey concert last weekend, I couldn’t help but think of those years. At 34, I am two decades past Chris’s radio show, size 18 jeans, high school bullies and at least one cancer. I’m no longer alone, but surrounded by a group of eccentric yogis, artists, and dedicated friends. I don’t feel isolated and self-conscious, but connected and confident. As I looked around the room, I saw hundreds like me. We survived our teenage years and outgrew our acne. We, much to our own delight, found partners who actually requited our love. We went to grad school and put all those books read on the bench to good use. We are the intellectual freaks of our offices, but our vegan baked goods are always welcomed by our co-workers.
We look good because we are good, really well taken care of and healthy, having avoided sports injuries, keg parties and red meat. The things that once isolated us not only made us stronger, better people, but also brought us together to celebrate with our beloved Morrissey, who stalked the stage, blurring the line between sultry and sulky before our very tear-filled eyes. Yes we were crying, but we were crying together. Namaste.
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Ed: Kate Bartolotta