Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
Of all the loves you can have, the strangest is probably the love of an obsessive fan for his favorite band. No other love slides so easily into arcane geekery (debating Ian Curtis’ favorite breakfast cereal) or pretension. It’s also a weirdly comforting way to classify people, which is probably why so many describe their musical tastes as “eclectic.”
But we’re not talking about like here. We’re talking about love; the kind that sanctifies your teenage neuroses; that pushes the day you’ll turn into mom or dad away a bit further. The kind of love that makes you an insufferable prick to almost everyone else. This is the love behind Continuum publishing’s 33 1/3 series—named for the number of revolutions a record makes in a minute. The series examines artists from Nas to Dusty Springfield, mostly in nonfiction form (it’s not quite What This Band Means To Me And How They Saved My Life, don’t worry). The books are pocket-sized and quick reads, and written by people who may or may not have band tattoos. If you’ve ever thought that Smiths fans are more insufferable than most, Joe Pernice’s Meat is Murder won’t contribute to your sneaking suspicions. This is mostly because the Smiths are background music to cutting class in a Catholic high school in ’85.
Though the novella is lukewarm, the setting is disastrously correct. Of course it was set in high school. Being aurally assaulted on the topics of girlfriends in comas and cross dressing vicars isn’t something you tend to take seriously in college on up. You need the insults of curfews and bathroom passes in order to appreciate Morrissey’s silky-smooth sulkiness. So high school it is, where anything slightly tinged with sex is awkward, and the music you hear now is a longing and lack that take you right back to how things used to be.
And God, things are awkward. The narrator is drawn back to high school when he hears two pre-teen boys sitting next to him on the train joking about “A-NULL-SEX.” They are twelve, maybe thirteen. For the next six years or so, he thinks, they’re doomed. The narrator, liking “faggot British music,” didn’t fare much better. Reagan, AIDS, and Duran Duran—and the people who like them— are hanging in the air. He’s in love with a girl who (barely) knows he exists, but she likes the Smiths. You’ve seen this type of story before on TV, and while it doesn’t lend itself to literary infatuation, its comforting. It’s a teen love story. There’s angst. We all know where its going, but the soundtrack isn’t bad.
But back to the insufferable part that Pernice missed. It is perhaps attributable to the effects of listening to a man proselytizing vegetarianism while constantly back-combing a pompadour that Morrissey fans can be a bit prickly. Meat is Murder should have been written by Salinger, with Holden Caulfield playing “Hand in Glove,” scowling over high school insults. Though the thought of Holden starting a Smiths cover band is jarring, in a way a Salinger-Smith connection would make sense. Artists are decidedly adolescent in their outlook, the Smiths more so than most, and a middle aged Holden is unthinkable. He is stuck in high school. Artists demand that others listen to how they view things, rarely adjusting to the world’s flaws and instead throwing those flaws back in the world’s face. Holden would never have to get over phonies, he could sing about them instead. Pernice doesn’t exploit the Smiths’ miserablist attitude towards life to make it tongue-in-cheek funny. And looking at the song titles (“Last Night I Dreamt That Somebody Loved Me,” “Never Had No One Ever,” “I Want The One I Can’t Have”) there’s quite a lot to exploit indeed.