With Steven Patrick Morrissey as frontman, Johnny Marr as lead guitarist, Andy Rourke on bass, and Mike Joyce on drums, a rock legend—the Smiths—was born. Marr, Rourke, and Joyce played their instruments aggressively, energizing the dreamy malcontent Morrissey with his sensitive but poisonous lyricism. So what do you get with a self-absorbed crooner, one of the most innovative and imaginative guitarists in rock history, a society at war with itself, a ruthless social machine behind the scenes, and Shakespeare’s imaginary sister? An indie rock group unparalleled in the ’80s with a belated suicide note for all of us. It all plays out to the death, or should I say, to the sounds of suicide in their single, “Shakespeare’s Sister.” As it turns out, the Smiths don’t need suicide to call the truth as they see it.
The suicide reference is to Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own and her imaginary character, Judith, Shakespeare’s sister, equal in talent butwithout opportunity in the Renaissance patriarchal society. Following in her brother’s footsteps, Judith is thwarted at every turn, denied access to the theatre, and excluded at the stage door. Then seduced and with child, she kills herself.
But the Smith’s suicidal options and memory traps in “Shakespeare’s Sister” don’t end here. They’re further entangled in two more literary references: the first, Elizabeth Smart’s 1945 “By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept,” blends identities and genders in ludicrous purple prose, escaping the horrors of WWII by chronicling a romantic tale of adultery, which declares war on conventional morality, society, and religion.
The second, Tennessee Williams’s 1944 The Glass Menagerie, supplies a domineering mother trapped in paranoia, a daughter isolated in her imaginary glass world, and a poet-son trapped in the reality of his warehouse job. Distinctions between reality and illusion in all these characters’ lives are mixed in the studio by the Smiths and left to be unmixed by us.
At the heart of this “belated suicide note” is plain old irony: from The Decay of Lying, there’s Oscar Wilde’s “Life imitates Art” and the “Artist as Liar.” Irony contributes to the meltdown of acceptable boundaries so that Morrissey and Marr can mock sacred cows and redefine normalcy. They chain normalcy to abnormality, pathological allusions, deviant behavior, and outrageous alliances, thereby continuing to twist a knife into the hypocritical and tyrannical social body with its hegemonic norms and conformity.
Suicide, the ultimate option, is the ultimate self-possession, the ultimate reclaiming of oneself from the system. But herein lies the difference and the Smiths’ ultimate “NO.” Out of life’s absurdities, out of the song’s “Terrible,” when things get entirely too dark, there’s always the irony; Morrissey’s dark humor, his laughter at himself and everyone else, saves.
Morrissey’s a Romantic, but a Wildean Romantic with a brutal sense of the ironic; and this makes all the difference. The ultimate irony is in the difference between the suicide of Virginia Woolf’s “Shakespeare’s sister” and the belated suicide note (as a musical form) in “Shakespeare’s Sister” ala the Smiths.
Here, Morrissey, with all his many protean literal and literary selves, becomes Shakespeare’s sister, Judith—and everyone else—as well as one of us. In the single, life conflicts with that which is not life, values collide with their valueless-ness, and the Smiths’ lyrics hyperbolically drive home, via the collision of Romantic and real, both what’s “Terrible” in the system and why suicide is not an option.
Isn’t it ironic. What is—is not to be; what is not is on its way. Morrissey dons his masks to abuse the system with his irony and shocks audiences into reevaluating their values. In the song, he has two Manchester choices, suicide or flight; his affair is with Manchester and mums—Manchester suffocates her sons but also gives life to their music. It’s crucial to understand that Manchester is also the Northern Woman, Margaret Thatcher and her conservative politics, and all that must be protested at home—the childhood horrors and confinements and the northern landscape, with its industrial poisons and working-class poverty. For the Smiths, it’s “NO” to the Northern Woman, personal angst (suicide escaped); it’s “NO” to the London music scene, to public prostitution (suicide to follow). This dual perspective, this love/hate affair with Manchester, which is also the Northern Woman, is necessary for any understanding of the lyrics of “Shakespeare’s Sister.” Morrissey is the sister, Judith; he’s also the working-class lads, the “hands,” the “hand in glove” “handsomes,” and he’s the son with a voice that’s literary, lyrical, and melodic. His self is endlessly dissolving, and often the “I am” is the “you are.”
Add the instruments to this dual perspective in “Shakespeare’s Sister,” with its refrains, nursery rhymes, and effusive word repetition; and Morrissey, in a feminine, Romantic, fluid flight hits the reality of Johnny Marr’s guitar. Marr, though he describes himself as being a songwriting partner as desperate and driven as Morrissey, (when compared with Morrissey) is down to earth and practical. “NO” is felt in their dialectical opposition, voice rising over the steady tempo driven by Marr’s steel, Rourke’s bass line, and Joyce’s drum roll, roaring beneath, driving like Manchester’s rain and industrial machines. The dramatic tension in Morrissey’s voice at times compliments and contrasts with Marr’s guitar, in sync then at odds in both tempo and pitch, at times clear, at others, haunted and blurred.
Then there’s Morrissey’s falsetto, an ephemeral sound jarring with Marr’s sawing and whining. At times Morrissey hits notes a half-tone flat, creating dissonance, moving in and out of harmony with Marr’s melody line, the unswerving reality of the system. Ideal smashing against real, imagination toppling into reality, nightmare finding its way into today. Beautifully balanced. Exquisitely ironic. The opening two notes of “Shakespeare’s Sister”—falling from—drop the audience over the cliff with a slurring metal descent by Marr. Joyce on drums strikes as if hitting the rocks below and inducts the listener into the suicide fall. The guitar slide drop repeats again and again, while Morrissey’s notes, slightly off pitch, clash with Marr’s perfectly pitched guitar line, falling short of their destination. The pace sweeps everything away—out of control—into chaos and discord.
And with the lyrical genius of Morrissey’s voice married to Marr’s, Rourke’s, and Joyce’s instrumental sound, the protest singer enters the war at home: “I thought that if you had / An acoustic guitar / Then it meant that you were / A Protest Singer.” Their suicide note is a refusal to become the system, which “sucks,” and their message is: you can perform it—but don’t succumb to it. Spectators witness their lives played out on stage. Life imitates art. The artist lies to tell truths. The personal is the political. The Smiths’ “NO” is to the false choice between suicide or death-in-life imprisonment in the status quo. Their suicide note is a response to the hegemonic system’s suicidal options.