To Die By A Record’s Side: I was ruined by ‘The Queen Is Dead’ by the Smiths
Editor’s Note: On Thursday, June 16, the Smiths’ landmark album The Queen Is Dead turns 30 years old. Here at Vanyaland, we’ve written extensively on the adventures, exploits, and influence of the legendary British rock band, and, in particular, the always-newsworthy Steven Patrick Morrissey. So on the eve of the LP’s anniversary, we’ve turned to local filmmaker and obsessive Smiths fan Mark Phinney for a bit of personalized guest commentary. Phinney is an actor and writer from Boston, and director of 2013 independent film Fat.
I can’t believe I am this old. It’s June 2016 and we are celebrating the 30th anniversary of The Queen Is Dead, the iconic Smiths masterpiece. How did this happen? I was just discovering it yesterday — if yesterday was June 1986 and if I were still 15. A lot of different feelings surface at the thought of this. Sadness. Anxiety. Joy. Excitement. Incidentally, these are all emotions found in the album itself, so I like to think this is the way the band would have wanted it.
There will be a lot written about the record this week, mostly pieces reminiscing on how great it is. There will be praise and legendary placement. I agree with all of it, but I also know in my heart of hearts that, in a way, this album hurt me. As much love as I have for it, on the other hand, I recognize that these perfect 10 songs held me back.
The Queen Is Dead ruined me.
It ruined me for most other music that I would discover after that fateful day when my brother and his friend slipped the cassette into my boombox. That Quiet Riot tape never found its way back into rotation after that.
Yeah, yeah, everyone I know is well aware that The Queen Is Dead is my favorite record, by my favorite band, with my favorite song. I can say all this without question. Usually people need time to think or make a small list, but this is mine. Across the board. No questions asked. 1000%!
So why did it ruin me?
The following is my opinion. Only how I feel. Feel free to agree or disagree. Maybe this has happened to you with another record or band, or even a film or a book for that matter.
Since first hearing The Queen Is Dead on that summer afternoon in ’86, I have been in absolute love with it. I feel a connection and adoration that I don’t feel with most humans. The songs hold something true for me that I have seldom found in any other aspect of life. I don’t just mean music. It’s not just art of any type. It’s relationships, friendships and everything else. The record is my constant. My touchstone. I seek it out in times of good and bad — or just in times, period. Nothing else comes close to what it does to me. It holds and cradles me like a child. Sure, I like and even love other music, other bands, other songs. There are other things that move me, make my heart and head explode, but none like The Queen Is Dead. None like the Smiths.
I am sure I am missing out on something that might be so amazing, but I am okay with that. OK Computer, the Strokes’ first album, that Postal Service record — yes, I am into all of those, but I do know people consider them albums of the times. Great masterworks of decades.
While I recognize that and fully appreciate it, I can’t see it in total because I am blinded by one particular record. It has set limits on my likes. If I get to a certain point with loving a band or album, The Queen Is Dead and/or the Smiths come crashing in and remind me that nothing or nobody can come close to touching my heart and soul the way those songs do.
Besides being the beautiful, perfect masterpiece that it is, it is also my companion. It relates to almost every up and down I have. When you’re 15, listening to hair metal and feeling completely alone, the Smiths can swoop in and save your life, as they did for me. I was that kid.
The kid, alone in his room, trying desperately to belong or figure out who he was or what to do with this thing called life. Sure, Guns N’ Roses rocked. The Crue excited me, but not the way this new sound of the Smiths did. Those other bands and their records didn’t rescue me or show me new books or films, or new ways to live life. They didn’t lead me down new paths of self-discovery the way On the Road does. I knew nothing about true love and loss. I did not know how to express myself or accept expression from others. The Queen Is Dead allowed me to crack the code of who I was and behave the way I really wanted.
I know this is a revered record. I know lots of other people like it. That is why I am taking this personal approach. I do not want to talk about how it is the album of its decade or the best of that year or in the Top 100 alternative records on NME’s latest all-time list. We know all that. What rises above all of that is my personal connection to it, and maybe you can feel that for it, too. I am talking about how nothing can top this album for me. I am talking about sitting in my room, discovering each song, lyric and note and how they all combined to tell me the story of myself.
SIDE 1. The opening chords of the album showed me that even a band like the poetic Smiths can craft a kick ass rock song with the title track, and even make it political.
“Frankly Mr. Shankly” was a jaunty tale the likes of which I never heard. It was strange but had so many lessons I would later relate to.
“I Know It’s Over” is the soul-crushing anthem that I continue to go back to whenever anything in my life falls apart.
“Never Had No One” bleakly mirrored the loneliness I lived in my teenage years.
“Cemetery Gates” introduced me to Oscar Wilde, who would become one of my literary heroes, like my own musical hero, Morrissey.
SIDE 2. “Bigmouth Strikes Again” made me laugh at the snarkiness the album held just under the tragic and poetic surface.
“The Boy With The Thorn In His Side” was shared with my other Smiths friends, as we wallowed together about our own thorns.
“Vicar In A Tutu”… at 15, and maybe even now, I still had no idea what it meant, but it’s a killer pop song that makes my foot tap. And it’s the lead in for…
“THERE IS A LIGHT THAT NEVER GOES OUT.” Yes, this one is all caps. All the time. This is the centerpiece of the record, of the band, of my life. Nothing comes close to lighting my flame like this song. Every chord, every lyric is is pure, cinematic, romantic poetry. Not to mention it contains the funniest, most touching chorus: And if a double-decker bus crashes into us, to die by your side, is such a heavenly way to die. I dare you to find something more perfectly constructed than that. That line, against the music Johnny Marr is playing. It lives forever.
“Some Girls Are Bigger Than Others” is the quiet, pretty warning song that leaves us hoping there is another tune. The song also contains a lyric that I have seen scrawled on letters, cards, walls and pillow cases: Send Me The Pillow. The One That You Dream On. A hope that I have had myself.
After all these years, this package of poems has left me frozen in a place in time. It is a world unto itself. It is a 10-song place that I can always go back to. This is the way I prefer it. I hope it never drops its spell on me. I don’t want to know if anything else is better. I don’t want anything else to take hold of me the way this album does. I am in love in this world. It contains all the music, romance, sadness, excitement, humor, rock and roll, poetry, tragedy, heart and soul that I will ever need.
To die listening to this album, the pleasure, the privilege will be mine.
For more on Fat, click here.