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 loitered, thinking how bizarre this encounter was, it occurred to me that it was also, somehow, inevitable. Music had drawn us together in the first place and now it had led us both here to the same spot, on the same night. And even if the connection was as tenuous as a bunch of songs in my head, I felt connected. Smiths songs were as much a part of me as my own skin.
Then he turned and looked at me. For a moment we stared at each other, wondering what might happen next. I suspect he was trying to decide how much of a nutbar I was. As the moment stretched on, I began to calculate the degrees of distress that constant advances by stammering fans must surely generate. Though I felt compelled to make contact, I was also genuinely sorry to be disturbing him when all he probably wanted to do was check out a few bands on the quiet.
Then the sun came out; he smiled, stared at his shoes and said Hello. He looked so pale and young. I said Hi in a voice I didn’t recognise. An unborn chicken sort of voice. There were so many things I wanted to say, they swirled round in my head like water leaving a sink. I stared at his long, gothic fingers. I had watched those very fingers sling fistfuls of flowers around when The Smiths played This Charming Man on Top of the Pops; petals raining down like an Indian wedding. Say what you will about Morrissey, the guy knows how to work a bunch of gladioli.
Some blathering and stammering followed, but he was very kind. Apart from the occasional upward glance, he pretty much examined his shoes throughout our entire conversation. Slowly, people around us began to realise who I was talking to and a throng of young men were soon jostling us and shouting his name like a football chant. Morrissey touched my arm and apologised. He made a dash for the stairs with a gang of boys at his heels and I felt sorry for him all over again. I imagined him being chased along the street like in a Beatles movie, maybe hailing a cab and diving into it to escape.
I felt light-headed as I wandered to the bus stop with my headphones on. Flaubert once said: “Never touch your idols, the gilt comes off on your hands,” though in this particular case, I’m glad to say, he was wrong.