Back when I was in High School, my friend Fred and I had this bizarre rule that we only listened to "American" music. That is, the music of the American Underground scene at the time-- bands like REM, Hüsker Dü, the Replacements, Black Flag, and so on. The only allowable exception, somehow, was the Sex Pistols. Hey-- we were young-- and bands like REM had a distinctly "American" flavor to them that we couldn't quite put our finger on, but wanted to support. (The truth is, I have no real excuses!)
When I went off to college, in the fall of 1986, REM was on tour in support of their Lifes Rich Pageant album. A few days before we left for college, Fred and I saw them at the UIC Pavilion (Fred had tried to pawn his HS class ring to get money for tickets, but no go).
Then, it was announced that REM would play a show in DeKalb of all places, where we went to school, with Camper Van Beethoven opening. This was unbelievable! In my naïveté, I thought "This must be what college is like!"
John Lyons and I slept out for tickets, along with a decent sized crowd, out on the sidewalk in front of the Chick Evans Field House. This guy we had recently met, known only to us as "Terry the Skater," was there too, and had brought a boombox along.
Early in the evening, he put in a tape. "What is this stuff?" I asked. He said, "The Smiths-- The Queen is Dead." I probably rolled my eyes. The Smiths were "mopes" that only the girls liked. Plus: English. The truth is I'd never heard them before.
When the album was done, Terry started it all over again at the beginning. I must have been subjected to that record at least a half a dozen times that night... he just played it over and over and over...
My consternation gradually turned to acceptance, and then-- I actually started listening. Suddenly it started sinking in. I remember it was "Frankly Mr Shankly": "You are a flatulent pain in the ass," and "I didn't know you wrote such bloody awful poetry!" Melodic and wry, with a beautiful, loping acoustic-based rhythm behind it.
Afterwards, I told my friend Anne about this. She was a hardcore Smiths fan, and quickly loaned me her cassette of Louder Than Bombs. I listened to it nonstop for weeks-- I was hooked. The next year Strangeways, Here We Come was released, and I saw the video for "Stop Me If You've Heard This One Before" on 120 Minutes. I was officially a Smiths fan. (It helped that my poor heart was broken at the time.)
Looking back, you really have to wonder if the Smiths were the greatest band of the 1980's. Who else is there? The only ones that come close (to me) are REM and the Buttholes. And as great as they were, the Buttholes were in a different category altogether. REM is a close second, but, in my opinion, they kind of petered out towards the decade's end.
The Smiths were one of those gestalt bands, where the unique combination of players, time, and vibe transcended the individual parts. Johnny Marr is an amazing guitarist, Morrissey is an amazing lyricist and singer, but together they're really something else. Mike Joyce and Andy Rourke tend to be forgotten, or given short shrift critically (and, apparently, financially), but they were the perfect dynamo that set the stage for everything else.
For a musician with no "flash," Marr must be the greatest guitarist in post-punk history. His ability to weave complex but nuanced layers through a song is untouched. And Morrissey-- I can't really think of a more interesting, literate lyricist in all of rock and roll, except maybe Becker and Fagan*, but Morrissey's passion and risk-taking beats out the Dan's ironic cool any day.
I'm not gonna convert anyone with these poorly thunk lines, I know... Is there any other band of the Smiths' ilk that is so divisive? All I'm saying is that this music is absolutely smart, vital, and timeless, with hardly a missed note or blown opportunity to be found. Pretty impressive.
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(As for the REM concert... it was great. During CVB's opening set, all the frat boys in the front row stood and gave them the finger the entire time. Payback from the band came in the form of a 20 minute version of "Interstellar Overdrive." And for REM's encore, Jonathan Segal came out in a witch's hat, and played violin on "Feeling Gravity's Pull." Amazingly, a bunch of footage from this actual show is up on YouTube. It really was a Golden Age.)
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*(We shall leave Maestro Dylan up there on his throne where he belongs...)