My lifelong yearning for London and England has been grandly satisfied; always, always, it has been the pull of music that has made me want to visit the island. Before I left, I planned a music tour in Manchester; each Saturday, a company does a tour for one band – New Order/Joy Division, Oasis, Stone Roses, and the Smiths. I could only do one trip up to Manchester from London, so I had to choose one band. Of those bands, I would have though my first choice would be New Order/Joy Division, as I’ve listened to them more than the others.
But, as is the case with my refusal to listen to the Smiths for so many years, I was wrong. I chose to go on the Smiths tour. Once I decided to delve into the world of the Smiths, I’ve been just gone, absorbed, listening carefully to lyrics and to the composition of the music and, of course, reading about the band, as is my habit. I was pleased to buy an original US pressing of The Queen Is Dead, even while reading about Morrissey’s current, er, controversial opinions in the press, wondering if I could continue to separate the music from the artist. Or one of the artists, albeit the one who wrote the worthiest of words.
I naively brought only one book to London and finished it pretty quickly. A look through suggested books on Amazon led me to Johnny Marr’s autobiography, Set the Boy Free and Morrissey’s Autobiography. I ordered and read both. Marr’s book reads quite simply, with amusing bits included, but it seems obvious to me that he glossed over some things and explained away others too neatly. Such is the prerogative of the autobiographer. Morrissey’s book is beautifully written – lyrical, with dizzyingly phrased sentences full of concrete imagery, word play, and sound devices that left me, a literary scholar, breathless. I hadn’t expected to be stunned by his prose, even if his lyrics are generally clever, poignant, devastatingly insulting, and heartfelt, sometimes all in one song.
Reading the books made me eager to go on the planned tour, and as it was scheduled for the last full weekend of my trip, I had plenty of time to absorb the autobiographies, read around on the internet to find other views of those tumultuous years they were together, 1982-1987. I found original UK pressings of their final album, Strangeways Here We Come, and the “Ask” 12” single as well. My colleague, while on a quick jaunt up to Edinburgh, found a second UK pressing of Meat Is Murderand an original UK pressing of The Queen Is Dead. Great record shopping accomplished, particularly with that last item. I still can’t believe I own it. (Many more records have been purchased – it’s my indulgence on this trip).
Nothing could prepare me for how I would feel when I was actually on the tour in Manchester. I was feeling less than enthusiastic that day because I found no records I really wanted in any of the records shops and, as seems to be the case everywhere, endured dismissive and rude treatment by a record store owner. Record store dudebros are everywhere; I’m still debating about leaving a bad review on Google maps. The van for the tour was full; fifteen or so of us lined up and filed into the van, which was parked across the street from a painting of Tony Wilson (of Factory Records, the Haçienda nightclub, and Granada TV fame) on the side of a building. Now, here’s what I though was so hilariously apropos – we were a vanload of introverts. People talked here and there, and I chatted a bit with two women who sat near me in the van, but overall, the group was very quiet. Even the two women who I figured would be the most rabid fans, as they were wearing Smiths t-shirts, didn’t talk much to each other, in fact.
Salford prison (now called Manchester Prison)
Inside the Smiths room
None of that dampened my spirits, and with the first stop at Strangeways prison, I felt myself pulled into the Smith’s world and feeling like I was treading on historical ground. The next stop was Salford Lads Club, that YMCA-like place for boys (and now girls) made famous to Smiths fans by the photograph of the four members standing in front of the doorway. We went inside for a tour and to go to the Smiths room to see the posters, photos of people standing at that door, and post-it notes that fans have left to mark their visit and their love of the band. One of my friends has been a devoted fan of the Smiths since the 80s, and she is watching my dog, and as one thank you gift, I left a post-it note for her, with her name on it, in the Smiths room. I took a photo and send it to her on the spot, which got quite the reaction.
The representative of the club told us that when the Smiths planned to use the photo, the person who ran the club filed a lawsuit to prevent its use, as neither the band nor the photographer, Stephen Wright, asked permission. The club lost the court case as well as money in legal fees. But one of those magical twists developed that show us that we can’t really predict how things will turn out. The club no longer gets government funding, and it’s only because of the tourists making the pilgrimage to this site of Smiths history that has allowed the club, dating back to 1903, to remain open.
Morrissey’s house (on the right)
Next, the van parked across the street from the house that Morrissey grew up in, on Kings Road in Stretford. I texted that same friend that we were at his house, and she could only respond “omgomgomgomg.” I just wished she could have been there with me because it would have been so profoundly meaningful for her. All I could do is send her photos as we went along on the tour so that it was sort of like she was there with me.
The tour director also took us to the iron bridge (mentioned in “Still Ill”); the “Cemetry Gates” of Southern Cemetery (and the grave of Tony Wilson); the Holy Name Church (“Vicar in a Tutu”); the timeline on the back of the building that now stands in the spot where the Haçienda once stood that shows that the Smiths played there in 1983; and the Ritz where the band played their first show. I marveled at the graffiti scrawled and painted by fans on the iron bridge – fragments of lyrics and their own names marking their devotion and calling out to other visitors to make that magical music fandom connection feel concrete.
The Iron Bridge
Graffiti on the Iron Bridge
The Cemetry Gates
The Cemetry Gates
The Holy Name Church
During my stay in London, I have seen many important historical sites – from Westminster Abbey to the Tate Modern, as well as Hampton Court Palace, Stonehenge, and the Roman baths in Bath outside London. I’ve marveled at seeing ancient, medieval, and renaissance-era architecture, art, and monuments, trying to imagine all of the people who created them, wondering how radically different they were from us, as well as what it is in the human condition that links us to those whose realities scarcely resemble ours. As much as I can tell, it’s longing that makes us human – longing to love and be loved, longing to connect with others, longing to make one’s mark on history and the world, longing to express secret wishes and desires. That’s what I feel as I look upon famous paintings and such. And that’s what I love about music and what I feel so poignantly in the Smith’s songs. I had been purposely not listening to them since the 80s – the time when I was an adolescent and teenager – and they were expressing ideas and emotions that I could have identified with then. Ironically, I do even now, and I’m glad. I was truly moved to see places that are part of the fabric of the band and to stand in those spots where Morrissey once stood, not because of who he has become, but because of who he was. My experience on this tour was exponentially more meaningful to me than the grand historical sites I also visited. These spots aren’t more important historically, I suppose, but it’s emotion that breathes life into our experiences, so being part of this slice of music history captivated me fully.
Tony Wilson painting in the Northern Quarter
Tony Wilson’s grave in Southern Cemetery
The Smiths on the Haçienda timeline
Random graffiti in the Northern Quarter