The essence of Smiths Art (MozArt) was the will to have every Smiths sleeve as well turned out as possible, and it came from an idea I had to take images that were the opposite of glamor and to pump enough heart and desire into them to show ordinariness as an instrument of power –or, possibly, glamor. Bits of neo-realism, bits of brutality, with the task being to present cheerless and cluttered bed-sitter art in a beautiful and proudly frank way. Rules, in all things, are simply laid down so that someone might break them. I had learned to guard my secrets carefully, and I had stored boxes of clippings over the years that would now alight as Smithsonian sleeves. It would be the ache of love sought, but not found; buttoning your overcoat as you stand before an ash-slag fire as you ponder years of wasted devotion amid the endless complaint of boredom. It is, I suppose, the north of England. Of course it must be monochromatic, since the dreary past always was, and a loved but lost son is lifted into a stately frame.
The realities of each northern day at the turn of the 1980s played out a hardened background in late repentance, because the north is a separate country – one of wild night landscapes of affectionate affliction. There are no known technological links apart from the telephone box on the corner, and this can always be relied upon to be out of order. The north is important because of London’s distance, and also because of the disregard London pays to the north – a north where the tongue is thought to be too free, and where we are said to show more warmth (although I most sincerely doubt it). In the north of the 70s everyone had just gone to bed – or is about to go, that lengthy going-to-bed process being such a great relief and escape, for isn’t sleep the brother of death?
It snows harder up north, and we rarely see or hear of our hare-brained Westminster politicians or their messy private dabblings. In this pre-internet age, we can’t even second-guess the slanted and skewed double dealings of Downing street. We are in the dark at all times. The north, you see, is thought to be ‘away from it all’ (and ‘it’ is ‘every-thing’), and a friendly street greeting is a morose nod of recognition with a personal names chopped in half for familiarity’s sake, Television still emits only the King’s English, which Manchester naturally dismembers by dropping any G that might be at the end of a word. As the British were raised to gaze adoringly towards America, we in the north were taught to cast a hopeful eye to London. Shut-out hopes struggle aboard trains at Piccadilly Station, having wrenched themselves away or explained themselves to death. No mamma, let me go.
Leaving Manchester always meant the train to London –giddy yet sad on a journey all alone. No matter how high-speed the train, the frozen reflection in the window is the collapsed countenance of your own face staring back at you, unchanged with the fast-track passing of miles, questioning, questioning, questioning, like a second you – an inner you, representing the superiority of reason, reminding you that there is nowhere to run. I am a child by a molding wall,. Front-entry bus into town, train to London, alight from Euston, rear-entrance bus to confusing habitation.
The ungovernable life is here in Manchester, all dark and unloving, with scaffolding and building work everywhere. Manchester’s architectural heritage is demolition. Empty mid-century warehouses that are now converted into restaurants or nightclubs, neither of which welcome penniless me. February 1971 had divided locals into two distinct groups, one of which spoke in old currency, the other of which grappled with the new. Unlike the world in which we live now, not many people were interested in music, and very few knew anything about this mysterious life-sucking machine.
The ever-moving world of music would lead me chin-to-chin with the unexpected, people whom I’d be unlikely to bump into at Stretford’s DHSS. There stands Shelly Winters, alone and dowdy at a carwash on La Cienega; there looms Anthony Perkins, walking alone around the Beverly Center; there is Eve Arden, erecting her own makeshift table at a bookshop where she will hopefully sign copies of her autobiography; there is Paul Newman, sitting quietly at the door of his Sunset Marquis villa; there is Patricia Neal, frail but smiling at La Luna restaurant on Larchmont; there is Paul Simon, sitting with Whoopi Goldberg, to whom the unemployable Stretford canal-bank cleaner is introduced. This could all be a dream, yet it is not sad enough to be a dream.
In New York, Mick Jagger arrives backstage and extends the hand of friendship. It is a big moment for Johnny, but I, of course, am a nightmare of judgment, and it takes me years to understand the secret genius of the Rolling Stones. Dismissal can be a secret form of arrogance, and I held this proudly against the Stones until the light shifted and I caught myself being utterly wrong. The built-in censorship can also often be a substitute for not actually knowing any better, and I now agonize over my criticisms of the Stones – with blather that was anything but a true reflection of the facts. In any case, Mick Jagger only stayed for four songs into the Smith’s set, but I felt no hurt at his departure because I could, even then, understand how my general being (which I dare not term a persona) was difficult for a lot of people to take.
As the Smith’s singer I consigned all of my best effort to conviction, and all of my being went into each song. This can be embarrassing for onlookers – an embarrassment that makes us turn away whenever someone bares their soul in public. But for me there could be no other way, because otherwise there would simply be no point and the Smiths would be eminently average. The ideas were rigid and the laws were as unique as one could expect, and I felt burdened only because I took things as hard as I did, so that whenever I’d overhear how people found me to be ‘a bit much’ ( which is a gentle way of saying the word ‘unbearable’), I understood why. To myself I would say: well, yes, of course I’m a bit much – if I weren’t, I would not be lit up by so many lights.
At the hour of the Smiths’ birth I had felt at the physical and emotional end of life. I had lost the ability to communicate and had been claimed by emotional oblivion. I had no doubt that my life was ending, as much as I had no notion at all that it was just beginning. Nothing fortified me, yet I felt swamped by the belief that life must mean something – otherwise why was it there? Why was anything anything? I had become a stretcher-case to my family, yet this made it easier for me to put them aside at those moments when the wretched either die or go mad. The water was now too muddy, and, being nowhere in view, I am not even known enough to be disliked. The wits had diminished, and I am sexually disinterested in either the male or the feel-male – yet I make this claim on knowing almost nothing about either. Horror lurked beneath horror, and I could only tolerate an afternoon if I took a triple amount of the stated dose of valium prescribed by my GP (who would soon take his own life). Life became a strange hallucination, and I would talk myself through each day as one would nurse a dying friend.
The diminishment could go no further, and the face can only be slapped so many times before the slaps cannot be felt. I too became to despondent for anyone to cope with, and only my mother would talk to me in understanding tones. Yet there comes a point where the suicidalist must shut it down if only in order to save face, otherwise you accidentally become a nightclub act minus the actual nightclub. This, then, was my true nature as the Smiths began: the corpse swinging wildly at the microphone was every bit as complicated as the narrow circumstances under which he had lived, devoid of the knack of thigh-slapping laughter. Accustomed to people criticizing me, I am unruffled when the barrage comes. By contrast, the other three Smiths were straight-forward and had found fun, and they were not to blame for inspecting me as if pinned and mounted under glass.