Friday, 9 March 2012

Songs that saved my life part 4: This Charming Man-The Smiths

As my school life came to a close, my life was consumed by the twin pursuits of music and girls. From a girl with ginger corkscrew hair and a Levellers long sleeve t-shirt; I received my first proper snog, on the metal flaps the opened up the cellar outside the Three fishes. I felt my mouth full of tongue and my right ear deafened by the shouts of 'Go on Tonka!'. It lasted about three minutes and tasted of cider and black. I returned to my pint of Top Hat feeling like man.

Eventually I bumped into Catherine from the Fridge again. In her posh clip of an accent she told me about her love of Suede and how she liked to dance to Sisters of Mercy even though she didn’t like them. Later on she used the unlikeliest of chat up lines ('"would you like to help me find my coat?"'), but it was a line that worked, and we had a jolly good fumble in a grave yard just between the Three Fishes and the Loggerheads. As my fingers clumsily found the under wire of her bra, I though there was a huge possibility I would faint. Without a single thought about passers by, she unclipped the said brassier. The heart stopping fear that my mum was going to walk past quickly faded like smoke into the air as I held those perfect white orbs in my hands. It’s a truism that the thought of the first pair of breasts held will bring a nostalgic smile to the face of any man.

After our passion had all but destroyed a piece of shrubbery (sorry Shrewsbury and Atcham council) she suddenly re-bra'd, kissed me and told me it was time to go to the Fridge. After that, I would have followed her to Hades, so blindly I agreed. I think I pulled myself together quite well, considering. I even danced to The Sister of Mercy with her, something which was unthinkable just a week earlier. A few months later we would meet again, as she was my induction guide as I first started 6th form, my tender years and lies of being experience being horribly exposed. I'm not sure which one of us, the darling of the refectory or the fresh faced schoolboy, was the most embarrassed by the reunion. But in my heart of hearts I would plumb for the (sixth)former.

Musically, we had quite fully fallen in love with a band called The Wonder Stuff, a west midlands poppy/folky indie band that we're a hair breath away from being big enough to play stadiums, but held back by the caustic front man Miles Hunt's reluctance to play 'the game' with the record label and the media. We caught them at exactly the wrong time. The band we loved would not release another record or tour for another two long years. We blu-tacked 'Hup' posters to our walls and waited with the patience of a tree.

The records we were left with were poppy and witty with just the right amount of snotty snarl, but inside I knew I wanted more. A band that made me feel the same way that Quadrophenia had and would be sympathetic to my new found love of fiction. It had started with my English teacher, Miss. Herbert, (a wonderful woman and an excellent teacher) reading the Catcher in the Rye in class. Despite the way she read the text in a stage schooly Noo Yoik accent at the start of each lesson, I was still bored by the sluggish hours where pupils read a page each (the reading was so slow it could have been a form of torture. If they made detention an hour of listening to half wits stumbling of words in slow motion, I would have never failed to hand in my home work), I took my copy home and devoured it in a few hours and fell in love with the novel just as quick.

Back at school on Monday Miss. Herbert noticed that I was not paying as much attention to the book as I had in previous lessons. Thinking I was bored with the book she pulled me aside after class, where I confessed to her that I had finished the book independently, and asked if there were any other books by Salinger I could read? I thought she may be pissed off that I had gone off on my own accord, but she glowed with pride at what I presume to be pleasure at one of her lessons finally hitting home and actually inspiring someone rather than it plodding along and with the pupil waiting for the school bell to ring to commence the race home to fish fingers and chips and the latest episode of Neighbours.

It happened quite soon after all this occured. I was spending a saturday afternoon fishing the bargain bin in Woolworths. In those days, Woolies stocked the top twenty singles, and as soon as a release fell out of the bracket it was removed form the racking, replaced with that weeks entries and thrown in a big basket with a seriously reduced price. I was quite happy with my choice, a 12" ' copy of Caravan by Inspiral Carpets, and was on my way to the till to pay when I spotted another record for just ten pence. It looked just weird enough to tickle my interest. A yellowish sleeve with a man in a cardigan asleep by a puddle. It had the bands name in a brown script which looked downright dull next to the psychedelic sleeve the Inspirals record. But for 10p, I was prepared to take a risk.

At home I spun 'Caravan', a bassey groover that seemed to be about going to a rave and had the lyrical hook of the singer shout/crooning ‘A CARAVAN!’ to a Farfista swirl. Not bad. I took it off, put the weird ten pence single on the turntable, put the needle on the groove and waited...

There are, I think, some things in life that are impossible to explain. Trying to tell a female what a kick in the testicles feels like. The colour red to a blind person. What sex feels like to an eager eared virgin. Even now it’s almost impossible to put into words how playing This Charming Man by the Smiths felt.

I actually remember feeling scared by it. The twisty, silvery chimes of the intro sucked me in instantly. Then THAT opening line "Punctured bicycle/on a hillside desolate/will nature make a man of me yet?" I had to look up what 'desolate' meant in a dictionary. If a pop single makes you do that it is, I think, a good thing. Later on I would grow to appreciate the way the bass-line kind of wonders off in its only little journey, its own little dance. And the way the drummer would silence the cymbal with a grab, and then fill the void by giving it hefty smash. But back then its power really did scare me. The way it made me feel, like I wanted to dance, like I wanted to write, like I wanted to get on a train and meet the prettiest girl in the world and take her picture and write her sonnets as she lay in an antique bath with bubble up to her neck. I knew music was good of course, even great, but until the very moment I had no idea just how beautiful, powerful and moving it could actually be.

The single was of course not a Rough Trade original, but a WEA re-issue. I know the Smiths got a lot of flak for 'selling out' to such a big label after being on an Indie for so long, but I didn't (and don't) care. It's easy being precious about sticking to roots and all that, and I understand the agony when a band you love, a band that has been your little secret has adverts on the telly with Jo Wiley (or worse Edith bloody bowman) doing the voice over and suddenly everyone knows about them. Some people where lucky enough to be around when the Smiths singles first came out, getting the cut-price 'Hatful of Hallow' and saving their pennies for the L.P.'s. But without the reissue the would have been a fifteen year old who didn't know shit from clay that would have missed this joyful band for at least another couple of years. But they got me exactly the right time, and for that I will always be thankful for WEA and for dear old Woolies.

Next up a bought a second hand copy of Rank. It had Panic on it, a song I had loved since hearing it on the duke box in the Old Bell. I didn't even know it was live album at that point, and is an odd place to start your descent into Smithdom. But I devoured that album. Wandering around the local park in the sunshine, the headphones making my ears sweat. I knew every song by heart. I even memorised the little riffs and pop's that occured when Marr tuned his guitar. Then I bought all the albums. Then all the singles.

Then I fell for the Smiths the way snow falls on to cold empty streets. For Morrissey, Marr, Rourke and Joyce. For Wilde, The Salford Lads club, Shelagh Delaney. For that voice and those chords. Sat in my room, I would play the records over and over, exploring them, devouring them with relish. I even (rather worringly)memorised not only all the b-sides but all the catalouge numbers too (RT136, This Charming Man, RT 146 What Difference Does it Make? Etc.) Smiths’ records have that rare gift of sounding as if they are actually playing for you. TO you. Singing my life, my worries and my wants.

I was a sitting duck for them. The quiet outsider of the family, with a desire for reading and enlightenment that, at the time, I didn’t feel was understood. What a precious little sod I was. What I was missing, I think, was someone to share these desires with. This worry about when true love would come, was the world really like it was in books, and what the hell I was going to do with the rest of my life. But I was not self confident to talk about these without thinking I sounded like a weirdo. Of course, these thoughts were the most natural thing the world, and it only strikes me now as I write this, that all my friends felt the same thing too. I was still in an egg & chips world of football and illicit drinking but in the grooves of the Smiths vinyl, I found a world to run away to and live inside. It was easy to hide inside and behind Morrissey's voice and words. He made feel OK to shun the outside world, one where works was a curse to young bright minds and love was, if attainable, doomed. And for while that’s pretty much what I did. How could real life compare the romance, humour, sex and faded tatty glamour of this wonderful music? How could work, petty relationships compete with this music that not only understood me where no-one else did, but could actually save me? It was conundrum tackled by countless black sheep over the years. Someone, somewhere is going through exactly the same thing as you read this.

Luckily, I was saved by a birthday present that I received a few years later on my 18th birthday. In tasteful wrapping paper quite innocently lay a book about the Smiths called 'All Men Have Secrets'. It started out as a simple fanzine project, asking people to write in stating what their favourite Smiths song was and the reasons behind that choice. The response was so overwhelming that it turned into a book. A gorgeous book filled with tales (some funny, some achingly sad, all poignant) about the music of the Smiths had wound its way into the rich tapestry of peoples lives. It was something of a revelation, that while I was sat sadly in my room, an outsider closing his door to the world, there were people all over the world doing exactly the same thing. At first, it made me feel sad that I had wasted so much time making this music my life rather than the soundtrack to it (which of course, underneath all the hyperbole, it was anyway) but then I became fascinated that so many people had such unique experiences listening to the same songs I did. That fascination still hasn’t left me, and I suppose that’s where the desire to write this book has come from. These are my songs and my story. Well, I wonder, are they your songs too? And if so, what’s your story?

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