Highgate, London, 1985
Sandcastles crumble, cars rust, weeds choke the garden. People you worshipped (and possibly made a shrine to), start saying such contemptible rubbish you have to stop and wonder if it’s OK to admit to being a Smiths fan any more. According to the second law of thermodynamics, entropy increases over time and the truth is Morrissey isn’t getting any younger. When he opens his mouth these days I flinch – but does all that wrongheadedness seep through and taint his legacy? Probably, for some, but I don’t feel the need to bump a Smiths track when it comes up on shuffle, for no-one can tear asunder what Morrissey and Marr put together all those years ago.
In the early days, sitting knee to knee in Morrissey’s back bedroom, they were a chemistry set; co-mingling souls and trading words for chords that would change musical history. According to his memoir Marr knew, even in this rudimentary phase, they were making something important that didn’t sound or feel like anything else around at the time. And given that most attempts to alter the course of popular music end up falling to dust, it’s worth pausing to acknowledge what a rare and beautiful thing their partnership was.
Morrissey made a point of ruffling people’s feathers, only back then he was doing cool stuff like taking Thatcher down and sticking pins in the Royal family. And we cheered at the barricades, shunned meat and sculpted our quiffs of righteous whimsy. Being a Smiths fan had never been less complicated and I devoted myself to the task.
On (or near) release date I bought every Smiths single, EP and album and travelled the length and breadth of Britain to see them play.
I wore NHS specs, cuffed 501s and big shirts, but drew the line at hearing aids. I concerned Morrissey’s neighbours by sitting on his doorstep, sometimes for hours, with bunches of lupins. I peeled a gigantic Smiths tour poster off a hoarding in Notting Hill and carried it home, cheered on by the 2am drunks and dregs on that moving ghetto otherwise known as the night bus. I kept a piece of shrubbery Moz threw from the stage of the Edinburgh Playhouse in 1985 (and possibly made a shrine with it).
My most hardcore fangirl moment involved a dreaded sunny day, a cardboard journey and a gay, bespectacled friend who was Morrissey-like, though quite unimpressed by The Smiths. I was living in Highgate with a bunch of ex-art students and a French model called Valentine when my friend dropped in with a couple of microdots in his pocket. We hastily organised an adventure, I changed into my favourite Smiths T-shirt and off we went. It was Julian’s first trip – he was skittish and kept looking around expectantly. Running up Swains Lane, we started laughing and couldn’t stop because this was the uncontrollable laughing bit that happens at the beginning. As the more experienced participant, I was trip adviser and our first stop was Highgate cemetery. It was less crowded and more beautiful than any park I could think of.
After passing through the tall iron gates, we found ourselves alone in this solemn leafy place. I felt suspended, a floating picture of myself and everywhere I looked a soft, milky light spilled from everything. Picking our way through the undergrowth, we paused to read fading inscriptions or gaze at the same marble angel – head tilted, arms outstretched, begging the heavens for the return of a loved one. A lofty Cedar of Lebanon tree shaded a circular corridor of family vaults sunk below ground level. Everything was muted under the heavy boughs as we walked the corridor and my skin prickled. It was a sunken city – each stone door sealing off a life. Just as I had that thought, Julian turned to me and whispered, city of the dead.
On Highgate High Street we turned out our pockets for change, hopped on and off red buses and ended up on a No. 11 which took us to Sloane Square. This was our next stop, though I didn’t say why when we jumped off the bus as it idled in traffic. He followed me across the busy square, past chichi cafes and upmarket small traders. The pavements were wider and cleaner here; no homeless people, no dog shit, no rubbish flapping at your feet. There were shiny black railings and plane trees at even intervals – poised and stately, the way London would be in an ad for itself.
Beside the bronze fountain of Venus kneeling was a flower stall and we stood there staring into the closely-packed bunches. Tiny violets which smelt of lollies, crimson-white stargazer lilies and papery poppies. I couldn’t decide. I asked Julian which flowers were best and he didn’t know either. How do you choose between a beautiful thing and the beautiful thing next to it? The florist wondered if we needed help and I pointed out a random selection, which she arranged in crisp black paper. I walked along Cadogan Square, cradling the bouquet as though it was made of glass and when Julian asked who it was for I said, you’ll see.
We stopped outside a square-pillared white portico with four steps leading to an oak door. I climbed the stairs and ran my finger down the smooth metal buttons of the intercom. None of them were labelled. Julian stared at my T-shirt and sighed, oh god it’s Morrissey’s house isn’t it? A voice in my head said: Don’t. What if he’s in? What would you say? And why did you wear a Smiths T-shirt? Julian watched me – you might as well, he said, we’re here now. When I hesitated, he reached out and buzzed the middle button and I panicked – what if he answers? Julian shrugged, say we’ve got flowers. Nothing happened, so I tried the other buttons. Now that I’d psyched myself up, I was disappointed. Years later Morrissey recalled in his memoir how he loved to ignore the tiresome rabble on the doorstep ringing his bell. It gave me a strange feeling to know he was probably there the whole time and I was one of the tiresome rabble disturbing his peace.
I thought of leaving the flowers with a note, but neither of us had paper or pen, so we sat on the stairs till I had a brilliant idea. Opening the bouquet on the top step like a parcel of fish and chips, I started dismantling the arrangement flower by flower, threading each one through some fixture or fitting. Julian joined in and we worked side by side in the cramped space, shedding petals like confetti. I made a small wreath from the greenery which I draped over the intercom like a crown and when we were done, the entrance to 66 Cadogan Square looked like an Indian wedding.
It was now late afternoon and we discussed the idea of leaving, then sat on the steps for a while without talking. This was the not talking bit which happens right before the gut-spilling bit at the end. I was still hoping Moz might show up and be so impressed with our arrangement, he’d invite us in for tea. It clouded over, I shivered in my thin T-shirt and stared at the petal strewn stairs. I asked Julian why he didn’t like The Smiths and I could see him trying to organise his thoughts. When he was done, I fished out my Walkman, handed him the headphones and invited him to reconsider.
The song I played him, Well I Wonder, was the first track on Meat Is Murder to be written. Johnny had moved back to Manchester to evoke the right atmosphere for his instrumental parts and this rain-spattered beauty came out of that. Riven with low expectations and high drama; pent-up with sensational sadness and longing, it shapes a simultaneous understanding of the whole Smiths oeuvre. Julian closed his eyes and listened and I knew he was feeling it. Later he told me he’d gone to HMV the next day and bought Meat is Murder. Against the odds, I had awoken him to the perverse pleasures of The Smiths. Or maybe it was just the drugs.
Stereo Story #498