There is a light

13/05/2013 at 19:40 (Reviews) (, , , , )


I have always viewed tribute acts as precarious things. Too often, the enthusiasm that drives them – an adoration born of determination, like any fan, to recapture a semblance of what was – cancels out what talent there is. How many times have you turned up at a local venue, in anticipation of reliving that original gig or mind-blowing concert, to feel saturated in talent and shared fandom again – only to find a threadbare lookalike bellowing into a crackly mic, his own band attempting to drown him out? I’m haunted by memories of such events.

So it was with a heavy heart that I saw the posters last year, splashed over the exterior of the Horn pub in St Albans, detailing one of their many weekend tribute acts. Normally, I will smile and walk on by, able to parcel the thought away that ah well, it doesn’t detract from the original. In the same sense, I don’t take photos when on holiday. How can a glossy piece of paper hope to recapture the freedom I once felt, outside of normal life? Best to indulge in memories alone.

To my own reasoning, how could a tribute act like The Smyths, hope to recreate an insurmountable legacy?

I was born in the year Meat is Murder was released. Fortunate enough to have a father in the RAF – who just happened to DJ on his time off, in the NAAFI – I was exposed early-on to the sort of music that might rewrite a child’s life. Leonard Cohen, Simon and Garfunkel, Joni Mitchell, Pink Floyd – and of course, the Smiths. The kind of artists who told stories, sometimes without using words. The type of music my peers would often scorn later in college, when speaking of their parents’ taste. Already feeling misplaced in time (one of my Dad’s friends called me an “old soul”), I left them all to Shanks & Bigfoot.

I’ll never forget the look on Dad’s face when, aged four, I heard my first Smiths song, “How Soon is Now?” and – correlating it with a sound I heard everyday – asked him how they’d got a wokka-wokka (my baby term for the Chinook helicopter) on it?
I’m listening to that oscillating guitar now. It still makes me smile to remember those twin-rotor blades in the sky.

The Smiths were there for me through school and college; when I refused to wear the tights ‘n tiny skirt combi my female peers favoured; when the inevitable teasing came, for my cropped hair (an easier route, because of eczema), I could listen to a man who – so my Dad told me – regularly wore cast-off cardigans and quiffed his hair in a way no one outside the Billy Fury years would understand. A man who prowled with a feline elegance and disdain I found appealing, who eschewed meat – as I most surely did, despite my parents’ protests. A man I couldn’t hope to find in my home town full of shaven eyebrows and sports labels. I could, while listening to Dad’s crackling vinyl, at least dream of that better world.

So with these precious memories in mind, to say I was being generous when buying a ticket to see the Smyths, is putting it mildly. With the rise of the internet and Youtube, I’d already begun to fit that jangling guitar, that cat-strut figure with its sloping vocals, the heartbeat bass and prickling drums, to what I had experienced on abstract vinyl for years. Why bother to tarnish the originals?

Curiousity has always bitten this cat.

We arrived early, as the guys at the Cross Keys pub had put me in a foul mood for having the temerity to run out of Morgans’ Spiced rum. The Horn has a neat little bar area that bean-shapes itself around to meet the low-ceiling venue room; good for parceled-acoustics, not so great for a dance. Still, we mingled among the eclectic jumble of middle-aged and young-twenties who had gathered, each with their own stories to tell of Smiths-adoration. The older folk, in their original-print T-shirts and sporting gladioli out of back pockets, had clearly seen the original band live. I soaked up their anecdotes gleefully. The younger ones, closer to my age, wore fantastic home-brand merchandise; the lad in the T-shirt emblazoned with floral print I dreamt about you last night, and I fell out of bed twice won hands down.

We supped our drinks as the pub filled up with yet more fans. I was forced to reassess not only my count of Smiths fans in St Albans, but the impact of the tribute to come, particularly when I spotted a few T-shirts emblazoned with their spelling. No Smiths fan would dare make the mistake.

The Cure, Joy Division, Depeche Mode – the music sifted into our background on a continuous reel, as we made our way into the venue room. A welcome nod of contemporaries; and needless to say, as the booze flowed, the mood buzzed with a keener note.

We’d worked ourselves into a decent state of excitement by the time the lights dimmed, to rousing cheers and the standard Smiths’ intro of Prokofiev’s March of the Knights. As the band strode gracefully on stage, plucking up old-friend instruments, I felt a strange shock down my spine, as the tall figure followed them through the backstage door.

Only Morrissey could get away with that on-stage sashay to something so dramatic as Prokofiev, with tongue jammed squarely in his cheek. And believe me, Graham – the Smyths vocalist – let it slip in true Moz style, more than a few times that night.

Though in his early 40’s, Graham has the feral dignity of the original, which I had believed inimitable. As Paul Morley put it in his interview with the tribute act, he pulls off a decent Morrissey circa-1985, in the looks department – but only decent. The true magic happens when he opens his mouth.

I couldn’t stop giggling, all delight, as the lean figure stalked back and forth across the stage in his red cardigan and jeans that Simon Cowell would beg for. Offering us his folded arms, leer and occasional banter, he had the personality down pat, all right. We were helpless in the face of it, really. Graham is an intoxicating presence, not merely a tribute, but a conduit.

There were perhaps seven of us younger ones, rammed right up against the row of speakers out front, due to the press of people behind and in anticipation of a much-loved phenomenon, witnessed on Youtube of past fans. And when it came, one lass in particular led the way, stretching up with a devotee’s arm to grab at Graham’s jeans. After that ice-breaker, only into the third song, there was no going back. We were all after a bit of him, this medium of our disenchantment with the world. Things aren’t so very different from 1983, though the Iron Pants have been exchanged for itchy wooliness.

We have known the taunts, the pointing fingers; the braces and awkwardness, the ineptitude and the loneliness; and when crying just wouldn’t do it justice, there was the Smiths. For those of us out in the front row, it was as much a cauterizing event as an affirmation – that the words we had listened to for years on charity-shop vinyl, hadn’t been a money-grabbing hoax by a Northern band. Morrissey continues to outdo all lyricists in in his ability to turn the darkest hours of our life, to light; to wholly agree with us that Yes, the world’s a bitch but that it’s still worth giving a playful slap on the arse to. Believe me, there was plenty of that, with an asexual lust that the original blue-eyed bastard of erotica and ego as tall as his hair, might’ve been proud of.

The albums were sifted through with an orderless finger, and I experienced the joy of hearing “Jeane” live for the first time – to be honest, I was rather glad for this virgin exposure. Though my only grievance lay in the omission of the frantic drumroll and staccato lyrics of The Queen is Dead (my favourite method of breaking in new earphones), its domineering presence was filled neatly with the likes of B-sides Rubber Ring, Please, Please, Please and Oscillate Wildly, live performances of which are like rocking-horse droppings to find. And speaking of oscillation – yes, my eyes did mist up, as the guitarists effortlessly spun out the chords of How Soon is Now? Layered on thick, they reverberated around that packed room until I was there, back in 80’s Gutersloh, head up and watching the sky outside the RAF base where I grew up.

For that is another precious gift of tribute bands, learned that night by your most humbled narrator – that whatever is brought to the act, can only help to season the flavour.

“You’ll never see The Smiths again, but The Smyths are the next best thing,” says Music-News.com.

With a tribute like the Smyths – who promote themselves on their site as “The Smiths band of Smiths fans for Smiths fans” – the light won’t be going out anytime soon.

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4 Comments

  1. Wordifull Melanie said,

    – I too love Simon and Garfunkel, Joni Mitchell, Pink Floyd and the Smiths. AND I’ve also been called an “old soul”. I envy you this experience 🙂

    • celenagaia33 said,

      Aw heck, I wish you weren’t on the other side of the world 😛 We’d have one heck of a time, listening to vinyl and going out to gigs. The Smyths really were something else. Couldn’t believe how close the vocalist, Graham, was to Morrissey – even down to the proud attitude. Ace night out.

      • Wordifull Melanie said,

        Sounds like we would have a blast. While have always loved Simon and Garfunkel’s poetry set to music I have to admit I only had heard a couple of the Smiths songs until about 5 years ago when my now fiance introduced me to the true magic of Morrissey 🙂 I made him a shadowbox for this last Christmas with the quote
        ” And if a double-decker bus
        Crashes in to us
        To die by your side
        Is such a heavenly way to die
        And if a ten ton truck
        Kills the both of us
        To die by your side
        Well the pleasure, the privilege is mine” i put a matchbox truck and a little red double decker bus I found on ebay in it as well. Came out very cute 🙂

      • celenagaia33 said,

        That is the single most gorgeous thing I’ve ever heard, as a present. Well thought out, home made, touching reference between the two of you, to something you share. Just ace.

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