Mojo magazine recently celebrated the 25th Anniversary of The Smiths' fabulous album, The Queen is Dead. The issue features a calendar of the Smiths' Meat is Murder tours, during which the songs for Queen were written and recorded. In an insightful essay, Jon Savage explores the album's political / cultural significance. His take is really interesting, and illustrates the continuing relevance of the album: when the cultural mainstream is uptight and dangerously self-interested, how does one become a true individual?
It's a great issue, and it's satisfying for someone like me (I had the huge Queen is Dead poster on the wall in my dorm room, circa 1990) to see music that meant a lot to me continue to be appreciated. But that's not why I'm writing this post. Two moments in the magazine's spread really struck me. One was Smiths fan Bernard Butler's breathless description of Johnny Marr, Smiths guitarist, during a performance of "Bigmouth Strikes Again" on a British variety show.
“He’s got his face adjacent to the front, looking into space down the neck of the guitar, and his right hand is on the strings with his wrist moving and… so many people thrash on the guitar, but his wrist is moving really gently, and the sound is really cool and he looks amazing. He’s got a wine-red Les Paul, and... [the] footage encapsulates everything about being a good guitarist, the riff he’s playing, how he looks, it’s so calculated and I love that it’s so calculated. He knows exactly what he’s doing, and he’s wearing shades indoors, and that is what you do to be a guitar player, and why isn’t everyone doing that now?”
I love that passage. The Smiths were cool. And Johnny Marr never got enough credit for that. Yes, okay, The Smiths were frequently morose, and yes Morrissey was boldly and flamboyantly celibate and gay, and so I always sort of understood why people would laugh at me a little for being a Smiths fan--like, what could this particular British band mean to an American boy from a small town in Minnesota. What was I pretending to be? I didn't know and still don't. The Smiths were just flat-out cool. I loved their sound and their style and I still do. Thanks, Bernard Butler.
One more thing: the Mojo issue features musicians' and journalists' individual takes on each of the ten songs on the album. Eminent Brit-rock fixture Robert Wyatt writes the take on the album's final track, and one of my favorites, "Some Girls Are Bigger Than Others." I've always loved the moody feel of the song, and the sense that there are worlds of implication behind the song's straightforward lyrics. But Wyatt's interpretation of the song is all on the surface. He basically argues that the song is about a young boy who achieves the innocent realization that female humans come in different sizes. That seemed crazy to me. I've always "read" the lyrics as being ripe with sexual subtext--nothing that could be easily symbolically interpreted, but just kind of a deep, swirling pool of possibilities.
So, I kind of chuckled at Wyatt's take, as if he just didn't get it. Then, today--just now--I was looking for the text of Wyatt's take online, so that I could quote it. I didn't find that, but I did find a Morrissey fan site, where one poster claimed to have been talking with Morrissey recently, and that Morrissey said that Wyatt's take on "Some Girls Are Bigger..." was "worth more than all the books that had been written about him, combined." Huh. I'll be buggered.