Weirdly I don’t remember where I got my first Smiths album. I don’t even really know how I discovered them. They certainly weren’t in rotation on any of the radio stations in my provincial hometown. And I don’t remember listening to them with my friends. But somehow I found them at precisely the time I needed them most. The summer after their eponymous album dropped, my parents notified my 16-year-old self (picture asymmetrical ’80s hairdo and checkerboard Vans here) that we would be moving from Richland, Washington, where I’d lived since third grade, to Moraga, California. The move was scheduled for the following January, halfway through my junior year of high school.
I was devastated, naturally, and morose, and peevish, and The Smiths were the perfect soundtrack for that angst. Morrisey had a way of encompassing both sides of my emotional coin in each song. His melancholy lyrics juxtaposed against Johnny Marr’s jangly guitars and upbeat tempos covered all the bases. Nearly every time I got in my car — a 1972 turquoise Dodge four-door that my father assured me would build character, whatever that meant — I pushed The Smiths cassette in the tape player and drove, windows down, sound as loud as my lousy speakers allowed. That tape got me through that summer, and the move, and saying goodbye to the people I’d known my whole life.
I was playing it the first time I parked my ’72 Dodge in my new school’s parking lot (right between an Alfa Romeo and a Mercedes) and wondered what strange new world I was in. I listened to it on my walkman, lying on my bedroom floor when I was lonely. And I sang every lyric along with Morrisey while driving back to Washington to visit my old friends. I played that Smiths cassette so much that I had to buy a new copy at Rasputin Records in Berkley within six months of my move. By that time The Smiths had put out another album, Meat is Murder (they would be kind enough to provide a new album, and sometimes two, every year from my sophomore year of high school until my junior year of college), but that first album is the one that hit just the right note of loss and anger and grief and hope I ping-ponged through during that move.
Now thirty years later, Morrisey has cancer, I just lost two pets within a month of each other, and my friend Leah, who loves Metallica but also The Smiths, is moving to Portland in a few weeks. I am once again ping-ponging, feeling those feelings of loss for me and hope for Leah. I know one of the last things we’ll do together before she moves is lay on my living room floor listening to The Smiths, this time on vinyl, and talking about the past and the future. Thirty years later, that album will once again be the perfect soundtrack for saying goodbye.