Singing Truth to Power
Readers of a certain age will remember what it was like to have the Smiths choreograph your adolescence. Lead man Morrissey intrigued my friends and me with his mysterious blend of asexuality and political engagement. But it was his clever songwriting that ultimately kept us pushing that cassette tape back into the slot above the radio dial, all in an attempt to decide just how absurd life really was.
Who else, after all, was writing songs with titles such as “Vicar in a Tutu,” singing: I was minding my business/lifting some lead off/the roof of the Holy Name church/it was worthwhile living a laughable life/to set my eyes on the blistering sight/of a vicar in a tutu/it’s not strange/he just wants to live his life this way? Who was weaving tales in which Antony said to Cleopatra/As he opened a crate of ale/I have just discovered/that some girls are bigger than others? How we could relate, we subjects of rigid Catholic school discipline, when Morrissey recalled how belligerent ghouls run Manchester schools/spineless swine cemented minds/sir leads the troops/jealous of youth/same old suit since 1962/he does the military two-step down/the nape of my neck. What teenage boy could resist this stuff?
The allure carried into adulthood. Morrissey’s gallows lyricism only intensified when he set out on his own. “We Hate it When Our Friends Become Successful” was about bands competing for fame in Manchester clubs. He sang, We hate it when our friends become successful/we hate it when our friends become successful/oh, look at those clothes/and look at that face it’s sooo old . . .And then there was “Everyday is Like Sunday,” in which he reached new levels of depression-inducing commentary, declaring, Come, armageddon, come. I remember I was reading Sartre when this one came out. Dark days. Or, as Morrissey would put it, strangeways.
Great songwriting, like great writing, sees you not only for who you are, but who you might be. Morrissey knew more than any rock star alive that life was an actual armageddon for farm animals. With the Smiths, he planted a seed in the mind of every young boy and girl listening that there might be something wrong with eating animals. In “Meat is Murder” he delivered a disarmingly simple lesson in basic ethics. When it came to killing animals, he sang, That’s death for no reason/and death for no reason is murder. In case anyone missed the message, the soundtrack came with moaning cows being slaughtered in the background. It took about two decades for my seed to sprout. But it sprouted.
Age hasn’t dampened Morrissey’s advocacy for animals. Earlier this week he made news for insisting that the Los Angeles Staples Center, where he’s scheduled to play on March 1, go vegan for the night of the show. Rumors circulated that, astonishingly, the event center agreed. Turns out it hadn’t. Instead, tepidly and with just a soupcon of condescension, a spokesman said, “We respect Morrissey’s lifestyle and his concern for the wishes of so many of his fans and are happy that we are able to honor his requests in this manner.” Nonetheless, more people will be eating vegan sloppy joe’s than otherwise would have on March 1. Even in trying (please, please, please/let me get what I want) Morrissey continues to plant seeds of hopeful change.
tomorrow: Is keeping hens a fad coming home to roost?