A shyness that is criminally vulgar

A love letter to the lyrics of How Soon Is Now by The Smiths.

How Soon Is Now? by d!zzy. Used under a Creative Commons CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 license.

Flashback to the changing rooms at the Harlington sports ground circa 1986, where the atmosphere is 100% humidity and 100% cocksure bravado. Strapping lads from Fleetwood, Billingham, Whitstaple and Wigan drink warm beer from four-pint jugs and, dicks swinging, launch into song in the showers.

Sixteen clumsy and shy
I went to London and I
Booked myself into the Y…. W.C.A.
I said, “I like it here. Can I stay?
I like it here. Can I stay?
Do you have a vacancy
For a back scrubber?”

The contrast between singers and song could not be greater. The ribald, riotous assembly of the Imperial College 2nd XI, belting out the morbid, pale lyrics of Half A Person. I expect Morrissey would have loved the incongruity. Incongruity was a speciality of The Smiths. And their special brand of incongruity was a mainstay of the soundtrack to my university years.

Morrissey’s lyrics fixate on no one loving him, but back then everyone I knew did.

Nearly everyone had the t-shirt. Every flat had at least one poster. They were ever-present on the Union bar playlist. The Smiths were making music about everything we didn’t want to be — awkward, alien, shunned, lonely — but we loved them for it. Our Uxbridge Road digs were occupied by three reformed New Romantics plus me. We would rev up for Friday nights by washing down Nepalese curry with cans of imported Red Stripe lager (none of that brewed under licence in the UK nonsense), our upbeat mood strangely complemented by the downbeat lyrics.

And if a double-decker bus
Crashes into us
To die by your side
Is such a heavenly way to die

At the time, any strangeness was lost on us. Strangely, there was nothing strange at all about hanging on every word of the gawky guy in the nerdy cardigan with pens in his pocket.

Needless to say we were hanging on every note as well.

The songs of The Smiths are beautifully orchestrated. The music is uncommonly crisp and keen and acute. Listening to The Smiths is like the heightened sense of lucidity after a bout of illness. Your senses, temporarily dulled by infection, compensate by temporarily working overtime. You feel light-headed. Everything is ultra-bright, super-saturated and high-contrast.

Of course the highest contrast of all is that between the music and the lyrics. Lyrical dissonance was not a creative device for The Smiths, it was a strategy.

Unlovable reads like a dirge but sounds like a lullaby.

Girlfriend In A Coma plays like a Noel Coward ditty.

Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now has a melody that is made to sing in the shower.

These are a few examples from a long line of pushmi-pullyu songs. With The Smiths you can like it and lump it. Like-it tune, lump-it lyrics. Maybe that was the source of The Smiths’ student appeal. Morrissey was thinking man’s lump-it.

How Soon Is Now is an exception to the dissonant rule. It is a portentous song and its lyrics and orchestration are perfectly aligned, pushing and pulling in the same ominous direction.

The single chord vibrato (tremolo?) effect that defines the song is so original, so recognisable, so hypnotic and so in tune with the narrative that it would make John Williams jealous. It is the musical equivalent of a Death Star weapon. Listened to loud through headphones it has a similar percussive effect to that of slightly opening a car window above 30mph. Johnny Marr’s genius provides a Tommy gun for Morrissey’s lyrics.

Borrowed from For Reading Addicts.

I like to think that the opening lines of How Soon Is Now are a joke at our expense. We are meant to hear “I am the sun and the air”. I am elemental. I am a force of nature. Morrissey over-compensating for his wallflower tendencies with bombast. He knew he would be pulling most people’s plonkers. I’m not ashamed to say that he had me for a while.

I am the son
And the heir
Of a shyness that is criminally vulgar.
I am the son
And the heir
Of nothing in particular.

Taken at face value the first three lines suggest that Morrissey inherited his shyness. It is in his genes. It is a function of nature rather than nurture.

And “criminally vulgar”. Wow. His shyness is tasteless and obnoxious, to the point of being a felony. There is more than a touch of the Oscar Wilde to this conceit. Wilde found vulgarity repellent, and it holds a morbid fascination for Morrissey. Just as Lady Bracknell decries any “contempt for the common decencies”, Morrissey pitches his shyness as an affront to the sensibilities of those around him. This is a common refrain. It has shades of, “I’ve got no right to take my place with the human race,” from Bigmouth Strikes Again.

“I am the son and the heir of nothing in particular,” is an homage to George Eliot’s Middlemarch: “To be born the son of a Middlemarch manufacturer, and inevitable heir to nothing in particular.”

Taken all together, however, I’m not convinced that the opening verse is too concerned with literal meaning. It is happy to be evocative. It is happy to sound good without having to stand up to semantic scrutiny.

As Bob Dylan said is his Nobel Prize acceptance speech:

If a song moves you, that’s all that’s important. I don’t have to know what a song means. I’ve written all kinds of things into my songs and I’m not going to worry about it, what it all means. When Melville put all his old testament biblical references, scientific theories, Protestant doctrines and all that knowledge of the sea and sailing ships and whales into one story, I don’t think he would have worried about it either, what it all means… I don’t know what it means either, but it sounds good and you want your songs to sound good.

Dylan goes on to talk about the importance of form and context in determining the evocative power of words. How Shakespeare’s plays are meant to be performed on a stage rather than studied in class, and how lyrics are meant to be sung not read off a page. It’s all about sounding good rather than reading well. Morrissey is pretty good at this.

You shut your mouth.
How can you say
I go about things the wrong way?
I am human and I need to be loved
Just like everybody else does.

Now that’s what I call a declamation. It sure sounds good. It sounds bloody great frankly.

And this is what I call a lament.

There’s a club if you’d like to go.
You could meet somebody who really loves you.
So you go and you stand on your own
And you leave on your own
And you go home
And you cry and you want to die.

Even in my teens and my twenties, nightclubs were my least favourite places on earth, but I have been lucky enough never to have had an experience so bad as to have wept or to have harboured suicidal tendencies as a result. Music means the world to me and I enjoy dancing. But to this introvert soul a club should be something to which you feel a strong sense of belonging, a place where you feel entirely at ease in your own skin, an organisation populated by kindred spirits. Nightclubs fail miserably on all counts. So these lyrics speak to me, albeit in somewhat melodramatic fashion. At the time they spoke to a whole generation of people. By giving voice to vulnerability Morrissey formed a club that we could all belong to.

Borrowed from (the utterly brilliant) This Charming Charlie.

How Soon Is Now is one of those songs whose title does not feature in the lyrics. In that respect it rubs shoulders with greats like A Day In The Life, Bohemian Rhapsody and Smells Like Teen Spirit.

By several accounts the title comes from a line in one of Morrissey’s favourite books, Popcorn Venus by Marjorie Rosen, which is a feminist analysis of Hollywood’s creation of male-perspective sex symbols. Talking about the attitudes of the 60’s beach party set in a chapter entitled Flower Children, she writes, “How immediately can we be gratified? How soon is ‘now’?”

When you say it’s gonna happen now,
Well when exactly do you mean?
See I’ve already waited too long
And all my hope is gone.

One assumes that the immediate gratification, the “it” which is meant to happen now, is the finding of somebody who really loves you referred to in the previous verse. But the one is separated from the other by over forty seconds of instrumental interlude, so who knows? Bob Dylan would probably add, “Who cares?”

“All my hope is gone,” ends on an upward inflection, but not in such a way as to turn the phrase into a question in that annoying teenage manner. It is a vocal trompe l’oeil that tricks your ear into expecting another line to follow. But Morrissey doesn’t sing one. He leaves his audience hanging on a high rising terminal that is plaintive rather than inquisitive.

Here it is in all its 12" glory. Over thirty years old and as fresh as a daisy. A song that is darker and more exhilarating than an electrical storm. A band so good that no amount of angsty student adulation can stop them from being underrated.

What can I say? They go about things the right way. They are genius and they deserve to be loved more than their lyricist thinks he does.

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