University of London Union, Malet Street, WC1, 1986
“Never touch your idols, the gilt comes off on your hands.” Gustave Flaubert, author,1821 to 1880.
There is something miraculous about a great song; something perfect, timeless, infinite. You know when you’ve heard one because everything around it seems empty and stale in comparison. This Charming Man was the first Smiths track I ever heard and I knew I was in the presence of greatness. Musically it was fresh and inviting, but the words won my heart. If music be the food of love, then lyrics be the chat-up line.
For me, The Smiths were the cultural cavalry – storming into the 80s on white stallions to save the world from Haysi Fantayzee. And with an armload of lupins, Morrissey led the charge. This organically grown writer from a grimy northern town used words I had never heard in a three minute pop song before: handsome, gruesome, desolate. It is possible they had never been used in the history of pop music, ever …
In the 80s I was living in a squat in Bayswater, London where I had the entire floor of a Georgian house to myself. I used the place like one vast bedroom. There was no electricity or running water, but the floor below had both and Mick didn’t mind sharing. A few Scottish lads had claimed the basement and there were some Spanish girls in the attic with bruises on their arms who kept nicking everyone’s stuff. It was a houseful of ramshackle kids with no adults in charge.
One night I spied a London University gig in the NME – four bands from Liverpool for £4. I tried convincing my fellow squatters to come, but they had other plans; or possibly the idea of a roomful of singing Scousers was just all a bit much. I went lukewarm on the idea, had practically decided not to go – then at the last minute, grabbed my coat, stomped into my Docs and left. For £4 it didn’t even matter, I thought, if some of the bands were rubbish.
Walking in, I hit a wall of stale air. ULU was a hothouse of tightly packed students sweating hormones and warm beer. The only band I remember was an experimental indie-jazz outfit called Crikey! It’s The Cromptons. Jazz enjoys itself far too much, in my opinion. Not wishing to offend those who love it, but for reasons explained elsewhere, I have a clinical condition which means I can’t possibly share the love. If you recall the effects of the Ludovico aversion technique in A Clockwork Orange – that’s how it is for me with jazz.
Half an hour into The Cromptons set, I felt sick as a parrot. I’m not entirely sure why I stayed; other than fate, of course. The second band was forgettable and I have indeed forgotten them. The third band thrashed through their set and I was just edging towards the door, when I spotted a Morrissey clone looking convincingly tortured behind a pillar. It wasn’t uncommon on a night out in the 80s to come across low-res versions of many a favourite musician. There might be a Morrissey or two, the odd Paul Weller, sometimes a Robert Smith slumped in the corner. But there was something different about this one. Something which made me look again.
I moved closer to study him and it began to dawn on me that, against all odds, this was in fact the real thing. My breathing went all bumpy and I felt unusual. I found a wall and leaned on it for a while. Once things had swum back into focus, I started again to inch closer.
I stood there, who knows how long, staring at the back of his neck. I marvelled at the height of his quiff, how nice he smelled and the fact that no-one else seemed to have recognised him. It was, I concluded, curiously fitting that at the height of his fame, Morrissey was to be found here on a Saturday night watching a bunch of forgettable bands in a student union building, alone.
As I l