Friday, July 31, 2009

The Real Winner

I sat in my kitchen last night while Michael made dinner and watched a Smiths concert. It was Live in England taped in 1983. I was 8 years old then.

“Imagine being a senior in high school in Chugiak, Alaska,” I said to Michael while he boiled basmati and heated up saag paneer, “and the only celebrity crushes you’d ever had were Cary Grant and Morrissey.”
Michael turned around and blinked at me. “Cary Grant?”
“Yeah,” I replied. “When I was in junior high.”
He turned back to his pots and pans. “Weird,” he said, and continued to stir things.

While Morrissey gyrated on stage in front of flower-tossing fans, I wondered out loud how he managed to make his pompadour so successful. “Superglue or egg whites,” Michael speculated. Turns out, there’s a lot I don’t know about successful pompadours.

During “Pretty Girls Make Graves,” I reminisced about how I first discovered the Smiths. I was a junior in high school…or maybe a senior, I can’t really be sure. Anyway, my then-boyfriend and I were driving around in my parents’ gold Honda Accord on a summer night, on our way to pick up my friend Dave. When we arrived at his house, Dave emerged with a cassette tape in his hand. “You have to listen to this,” he said, as he crawled into the back seat. Dave was always giving me cassette tapes. He introduced me to They Might Be Giants. He gave me recordings of bands like Bad Religion and NOFX. Even though I could never really get into those bands, my musical tastes were molded in a deeply profound way by Dave’s cassette tapes, because they forced me away from church music, showtunes and top 40 radio hits from the 80s.

The cassette tape that day was the Smiths’ The Queen is Dead. Expecting more sloppy 4/4 time drumming and I IV V I chord progressions from some punk band with a clever name, I was shocked to my core when the title track played out of the car speakers. That is, after that “Take me back to dear old Blighty” pub chorus at the beginning. We drove around my tiny town, listening to that album. In fact, I wouldn’t take Dave home until the album was over, because once Dave was gone, so were the Smiths.
“I have to hear more,” I said to Dave, once I finally released him from my clutches. “Do you have anything else?”
“I have everything,” he said.
“Including new stuff?” Dave laughed. What can I say, I was oblivious. I had just assumed they were a magical new band that appeared from the ethers without my knowledge, and I was thrilled I was getting in on the ground floor.
“Um, no. They broke up in 1987.”

This news was nothing short of devastating to me. Broken up? In 1987?? How could this be? I had just heard them, and was deeply affected (which was easily done, since I was a 16 year old virgin who grew up in a fundamentalist Baptist home in Alaska), and it turned out that they disintegrated five years earlier. It felt like I had found my soulmate and then held them while they died in my arms, all in one day.

So I became obsessed, as stupid teenagers are wont to do, and I remained obsessed for years, searching through record stores for discarded B side compilations (remember the days when we couldn’t just go to iTunes and download things? ) and trying to quell myself with Morrissey solo albums, some of which were solid while others, well, you know. Fans don’t like to discuss THOSE albums.

I was relating the above story to someone I knew about 10 years ago, gushing magnanimously over what a huge influence the Smiths were in my late-blooming formative musical years. “You mean to tell me,” the person said, “that you hadn’t heard of the Smiths until you were in HIGH SCHOOL?” This person not only looked shocked, but offended, like I committed the biggest personal effrontery aside from punching his mother in the face and stealing her wallet. “I’ve been a fan of the Smiths since waaaaay back,” he said, and then proudly proceeded to inform me that he discovered them right after the release of their first solo album, his chest puffed out as if he had been the one to first sign the Smiths.

And to this day, I wonder, why with the pride at discovering them before me? Do people get prizes for knowing who a band is before they make it big? I cannot tell you how many stories I’ve heard that start with, at the mere mention of a band’s name, “Oh man, I saw them in this tiny club in Portland back in 19-so-n-so, and it was awesome! Their instruments sounded horrible because they didn’t know how to tune them yet and there was constant feedback from the amps because the sound system sucked! It was great!” Well done! Congrats on becoming a fan while a band is still green and working out its kinks and still kind of sucking a little bit! All that says to me is that you have low standards when it comes to music.

Ultimately, who gives a flying fuck WHEN you discover a band is good? Isn’t enough that you’ve discovered a good band is, in fact, good? I mean, for God’s sake. If I was still stuck in the same musical rut I was in circa 1984, I’d be listening to my parents’ old recordings of the Oak Ridge Boys and Barry Manilow, whistling Rogers and Hammerstein tunes, singing “How Great Thou Art” in the shower and spinning my mother’s vinyl version of “We Are the World”. Who’s the real winner here in the game of musical one-upmanship? I think that would be none other than yours truly.

Just one more reason to hate pretty much everyone.

1 comment:

  1. Those same people who tell you they discovered the band back at the beginning are often the same ones who like to say that such-and-such band's best album was their first one and after that.... I guess it goes back to that feeling of being a super fan or something.