In June 1986, I turned 16 and traded my learner’s permit for a driver’s license. That summer, filled with new freedoms and responsibilities, I went on my first unsupervised drives and began buying my music on cheap, car-playable cassettes instead of LPs. I drove my friends around hot Houston with the car windows down, blasting recent releases by Depeche Mode (Black Celebration), Prince (Parade) and R.E.M. (Lifes Rich Pageant), and, when the mood struck, Top 40 radio like Madonna, Wham! and Belinda Carlisle.
But my favorite album released in the summer of 1986—the one that captured both the promise and the pain of being on the strange border between child and adult—was The Smiths’ masterpiece The Queen is Dead. Today, on the 30th anniversary of its release, the memories come flooding back.
Old for my grade, I was among the first in my high school class to sit behind the wheel of a car and, reputedly a “good kid,” I was trusted with the lives of my still-15-year-old classmates. So on September 5, 1986, when the Smiths played their only-ever Houston date, I borrowed my mother’s dark blue, boatlike Suburban and drove a group of friends to the Cullen Performance Hall on the University of Houston campus. We crammed eight or nine into the vehicle, some in the seatbelt-less trunk (which is where my mom found the wine cork the next morning). No parents, just us: the best way to close out the summer.
The Smiths’ first song that night was an explosive version of “The Queen Is Dead.” As Morrissey sang, he held aloft a white paperboard sign with the title written on it in bold black letters. His specific protest against the corrupt British Crown was lost on our young Texas minds, but not the song’s basic punk anti-authoritarianism—and the loneliness that naturally accompanies it.
Pass the pub that wrecks your body
And the church, all they want is your money
The Queen is dead, boys
And it’s so lonely on a limb
Life is very long, when you’re lonely
Great rock music has always traded on the conflict between its outsiderness and ideas of community. As Morrissey’s lyrics say, there’s no point in being free of a culture’s bullshit (Church, drink, Crown) if there’s no one left to share your opposition with. The Smiths’ concerns were, of course, so very British, their tradition-bound culture a great foil for the band’s expressions of protest. Yet it spoke to my friends and me at age 16. Morrissey was at once god and cipher: talking in code about problems in his own life—with his record label (“Frankly, Mr. Shankly,” “The Boy With the Thorn in His Side”), with the Catholic church (“Vicar in a Tutu”) and with himself (all his other songs)—while being so beautifully confident as a performer.
Midway through the show, the band played the now-classic “There Is a Light That Never Goes Out.” In the song, Morrissey’s words perfectly capture the transition of adolescence: the longing for freedom, for life, and the feeling of no longer fitting in where you once had.
Take me out tonight
Where there’s music and there’s people
And they’re young and alive
Driving in your car
I never, never want to go home
Because I haven’t got one
Yet the “light” in the song’s title endures forever—it “never goes out”—despite existential homelessness, crashing into a double-decker bus or being killed by a ten-ton truck: “To die by your side / Is such a heavenly way to die.” Is the “light” love, or is it longing? Morrissey’s narrator is frustrated by his hesitation to take what he really wants.
And in the darkened underpass
I thought, oh God
My chance has come at last
But then a strange fear gripped me
And I just couldn’t ask
I looked at my best friend in the seat to my right as I sang out the closing chorus with the audience. I was shocked to discover him not standing like everyone else, but in his seat, making out with the girl next to him. At the time I thought, What a shame! He’s missing the best concert ever! But maybe he took Morrissey’s lament to heart, followed the “light” and killed his own sexual frustration, no matter what anyone else thought he should be doing.
The Smiths ended their first set with an intense version of their massive downer “I Know It’s Over.” It’s a story of failed love in which Morrissey moans that even being funny, clever, entertaining and “so very good-looking” is not enough. With the bar so high, who could possibly succeed? That night in Houston, I watched in awe as Morrissey slowly peeled off his shirt while singing:
Cause tonight is just like any other night
That’s why you’re on your own tonight
With your triumphs and your charms
While they’re in each other’s arms.
By the song’s cathartic outro Morrissey was bare-chested, crooning, wailing, beautiful, raw and vulnerable, testifying over and over: “Oh Mother, I can feel the soil falling over my head.” Buried despite—or maybe because of—his goodness. Wow.
A friend who was with me that night at the concert has since informed me that Morrissey takes off his shirt at every show. This doesn’t detract anything for me; all it means is that Morrissey has never stopped performing like he believes it. Perhaps unable to contain Morrissey’s ego, The Smiths played their last show in December 1986 and released their final, disappointing album, Strangeways, Here We Come, in 1987.
The Queen Is Dead still sounds fresh, 30 years later. It was the album that merged the band’s pop sensibility, rockabilly rhythms and sonic experimentation with Morrissey’s deep lyrics to form a perfect synthesis. Where Strangeways feels slick, overconfident and therefore boring, Queen is exploratory and full of true-to-life tension. For a Smiths’ newbie, The Queen Is Dead is the place to start.
I don’t recall much about driving home that night. I’m sure the import of what we had witnessed was not yet clear to us. The conflicts of adolescence are, naturally, not apparent to the adolescent. As for my lip-locking friend, he just smiled as I tried to explain to him what he had missed. He was happy. He didn’t care.
Feature photo: Everett Collection