ead Letter Office is a column of letters written by Todd Hutlock to a friend named Jimmy, who may or may not exist. The column details real-life experiences regarding work, life, and how Hutlock's obsession with music runs them both.
It’s taken me a week or so to get around to writing again, but I have good reason. For me, September 22, 1987, is a day that will live in infamy. I’m sure you don’t remember what happened that day, but it sticks in my mind as much as losing my virginity, my wedding, or even the first day I brought my dog home. That was the day the Smiths released their final studio album Strangeways, Here We Come in the United States.
The Smiths were my own personal Beatles, and their breakup hit me like a ton of bricks. I was in a funk for months when the news broke. I bought the first Smiths album shortly after its release in 1984 at the age of 12, and it changed my life. As a lonely teenager in the rampant throes of puberty, the songs spoke to me like few ever had (or likely will) – I think if I had discovered them at a different time in my life, things would have been quite different, but as it is, the impact was immense.
And I don’t just mean the obvious moody teenage “miserablism” aspect of it all either – I was quite a happy lad most of the time, fairly successful with girls, etc. In fact, I remember laughing out loud at quite a few Smiths lyrics (I still think “Girlfriend In A Coma” is fucking hilarious), and I still maintain that Morrissey’s absurd, black sense of humor and scathing wit are conveniently forgotten by those who would write him off as nothing more than a sobbing effeminate sissy (although I can see that point of view as well). He was the last great British pop star. Period.
Johnny Marr, though, was my hero. First of all, he had a completely different haircut every time I saw him, and I thought that was the most marvelous thing ever. And all of them were great! He loved the Rolling Stones (just like me) and he wore the coolest clothes. And those guitars! I still think he is massively underrated (listen closely to the million little guitar parts on “This Charming Man” for instance, or more obviously “How Soon Is Now?”) and perhaps in 20 years, he will be included on Rolling Stone magazine’s list of 100 Best Guitarists (actually, I hope that in 20 years that piece of shit rag will be six feet under, but you know what I mean). He’ll always be in my personal Top 10 anyway.
News of the group’s split had come in mid-August ’87, and so by the time the LP hit stores, we already knew it would be the last. Say what you will about the Smiths (well, actually, don’t or else I might get upset with you), but they were resoundingly prolific, a throwback to the great singles bands of the 1960s, and when you think about it, pretty much the last one as well. They released a new single (almost always not taken from LPs, another thing I loved about them) about once every three months, like clockwork, and so you always knew there would be new product coming. Then suddenly, POW! No more. Words can scarcely describe how down I was. It was like going on the wagon. What would I do without my quarterly Smiths fix? Thank God for sex-crazed high school girls.
As it turns out, I ended up getting a hold of a promo LP about a week ahead of the release date. When I looked at the cover for the first time, I nearly wept. Smiths covers were always so joyous to me, filled with forgotten stars in various tints and hues, with the finest typesetting ever—they were simply elegant. Not Strangeways. It was a muddy, out-of-focus portrait of a vaguely smiling Richard Davalos in the sickest color I could imagine. It spoke volumes to me, and further enhanced my growing sense of dread.
And guess what? Despite the fact that I had the LP ahead of the rest of the world, I couldn’t bring myself to play it. It wasn’t until the rainy Saturday afternoon after the rest of the world had it that I finally sat down next to my parents’ turntable and put it on for the first time. I can still recall my initial impressions of each and every tune on the album, but I’ll spare you the details. I played both sides (remember when there were sides? Christ I’m old and grouchy today…) of the LP four times that afternoon. And then, in true melodramatic Smiths fashion, I wept like a baby.
Yeah, I’m sure you’re thinking up all of the ways you’re going to make fun of me now, but trust me, I’ve heard all the insults down the years and I’m not about to think anything of them now. In my mind, any music fan who loves their favorite group—be it N*Sync or Alabama or Slipknot—as much as I love the Smiths is OK in my book. It’s all about the passion, my man. You have to respect that. I just hope today’s kids feel that way about something.
Your man in the Midwest,
P.S. I celebrated the anniversary this year by hitting eBay and buying an original Rough Trade UK CD copy of the album. (I already had the UK LP—I gave that promo copy away back in 1987 as soon as I found an import LP to buy. Yes, I was even a pathetic purist back then—and the girl I gave it to was cute as hell.) My heart skipped a beat when I opened the envelope and I saw that the logo on the UK version was a slightly different tint and size than the US version. It’s like I was 15 again.