I’m old enough to remember a time before Spotify, iPhones or even the Internet. These weren’t such bad times. We all looked a little bit different — a lot of us wore flannel shirts and our jeans were baggier — but we slept, ate, drank and fucked pretty much the same. To discover music, we’d listen to the radio or MTV, or maybe read Rolling Stone or Spin. If we wanted to listen to something other than top 40 pop, classic rock or mainstream rap, we had to search for it. If you lived in some place like New York, Los Angeles or Seattle, this wasn’t too hard. You could go to a cool record store, or maybe check out a show at a local venue.
But I didn’t live in one of those places. I spent my high school years in Charlotte, NC — a city that was aggressively unhip. Charlotte imagined itself as the “new Atlanta,” and was a sprawl of strip malls, megachurches, and fast food restaurants. No major band had emerged from the area; there were more gun shops than there were record stores. Information trickled in, but just barely. In an article about David Bowie, I’d discovered the Velvet Underground; and from a Bob Dylan biography, I’d found Leonard Cohen and Arthur Rimbaud. I took notes and gradually began to piece together a map of a larger, more exciting world beyond the top 40 and creationist textbooks.
For most of those years, this was a solitary journey. Most of my friends wanted to talk about girls or basketball or Saturday Night Live skits. They weren’t interested in Tom Waits, Tom Verlaine or even the Tom Tom Club. There was no message board that I could go to congregate with the like minded.
In the 10th grade, this changed. I met a girl. She was from Atlanta, scrawny, a bit boyish and a pretty mean drunk. She smoked constantly, wore scruffy Doc Martin ripoffs and made exaggerated gestures when she sang aloud, which meant that she rarely used her hands when driving. She worked at a place called the Silk Plant Forest — an artificial flower shop that was in a vast warehouse just south of downtown. When business was slow, we’d get high and explore the warehouse’s outer-edges, the various display rooms curated to resemble distant, exotic locales.
The girl introduced me to Front 242 and Skinny Puppy, Happy Mondays and Siouxsie. But, mainly, we listened to The Smiths. It’s long been a given that Morrissey was the patron saint for misplaced teenagers, but we didn’t know that. My other friends regarded him, at best, as a curiosity — an effeminate R.E.M. knock-off — and my parents burst out laughing when they heard “Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now.”
We assumed that the rest of the world was like this – that The Smiths was ours alone. We’d make tapes of our favorite songs for one another. She had a soft spot for Morrissey’s first two solo releases, which I thought were garbage, and I leaned towards later-period Smiths (Strangeways Here We Come is a fave). Of course, it’s clear now that I was right about that, and that we were both wrong about nearly everything else. But it didn’t matter then; it was just nice riding in her car.