Book Review
Songs That Saved Your Life and Meat Is Murder
Publisher: Reynolds & Hearn Ltd. and Continuum International Publishing Group Inc.
Get Them Both

the song’s lengthy recording process began during the autumn RAK sessions. A raw rehearsal was first taped on 2 September in an ill-fitting higher key (F# Minor) before a more comfortable monitor mix (lowered to C# minor) was completed four days later.”

“Hey, look man, after I hang up, I’m going to trespass on a private beach, listen to the greatest album ever made one more time, have a smoke and then drown myself in the ocean.”

Which quote sounds more like your brand of band worship? The divide between the two kinds—the trivial and the passionate—is made clear in the two recently released literary tributes to “the other Fab Four,” The Smiths. Simon Goddard’s Songs That Saved Your Life is a track by track guide to the entire recording career of the Smiths, a clear product of years of research, analysis and organization. But Joe Pernice’s (yes, of The Pernice Brothers, but don’t expect that to influence the writing or your reading of the book in any way) Meat is Murder--one of the latest contributions to the 33 1/3 series of famous music authors taking on their favorite albums—is all about the love. Which of the two you prefer may very well depend on your taste in music writing, but both are excellent, entirely worthy monuments to one of the best bands of the 80s.

The first of the two above quotes, while a bit extreme in its triviality, is typical of the content found in Songs That Saved Your Life. The ultra-comprehensive guide, as a matter of fact, boasts just about everything you’d ever want to know about any single one of The Smiths’ songs. Admittedly based on the format of the similarly ultra-comprehensive Revolution in the Head (about the original Fab Four), Songs That Saved Your Life details not only the musical origins of each song, but also the song’s life in concert, television, radio, and in case of the singles, the chart performance. In addition, author Simon Goddard even attempts to play the tricky game of Spot-The-Reference in Morrissey’s lyrics, revealing, among other things, the Mozzer’s unhealthy obsession with Shelagh Delaney and Elizabeth Smart.

In other words, this is pretty much everything a hardcore Smiths fan could want out of a Smiths book. Interesting factoids are abound, from the details behind Rough Trade’s botching of the potentially massive “How Soon is Now?” single to the unearthing of brand new Smiths tracks—some just nameless instrumentals, others slightly more filled out, and one (“A Matter of Opinion”) the apparent “lost Smiths track.” Goddard was given not only Joyce’s personal thumbs-up, but also unprecedented access to The Smiths’ archives, and as to be expected, the guy really knows his stuff. Equally rife are vignettes correlated with each song, like a pizza waitress asking Joyce whether there were real strings used in “There is a Light That Never Goes Out” or if an emulator was used (instead of the more conventional “may I take your order?”) or—my personal favorite—a guerrilla fan beaning Moz with a string of sausages, hitting his mouth so accurately that the militantly vegetarian Morrissey actually bit down on one of the sausages (while singing the chorus to “Meat is Murder,” no less).

Though like Goddard says in the intro, Songs That Saved Your Life is “not the story of the Smiths, but the story of their music,” he is not too dogmatic about it, thankfully. He includes a brief prologue and epilogue sketching the days leading up to and following the Smith’s all-too brief recording career, and occasionally squeezes in necessary biographical information between songs, or when possible, in the context of one of the songs. In doing so, Goddard avoids the sterility and lack of involvement that a strict collector’s guide often entails, and allows the book to function as a makeshift biography of the group as well.

Although Goddard manages to take a relatively objective view of the group for most of the book (preface excluded), occasional lapses of opinion slide through. While I personally feel that some of his thoughts are a bit weird—his championing of “great lost Smiths single” “Shakespeare’s Sister,” while almost outright dismissing fan (and personal) favorite “Ask” in particular rubs me the wrong way—his slightly opinionated view keeps the book from being too strictly factual, while not being so outgoing in his opinions as to alienate those who think otherwise.

In the end, though, this is a book for the obsessives, and casual fans (or worse, newcomers) might be a bit put off by its huge wealth of petty details. However, if you’re the kind of fan that already owns all the albums, and keeps buying the newest in an all-too long line of compilations just to feel the cheap thrill of buying a new Smiths product again, this should really be on your wish list. We can only hope that one day, the trilogy is completed with a similarly formatted (and appropriately titled) End of a Century tribute to Blur.

Songs That Saved Your Life, on the other hand, would be a more appropriate title for Joe Pernice’s 33 1/3 novella, Meat is Murder. Don’t worry—there’s nothing so mawkish in here as “I was about to end it all when I first heard the strains of “Well I Wonder” from my radio, and I realized I wasn’t alone!,” although suicide is a prevalent theme in the book. However, as the back cover of Meat is Murder suggests, Joe Pernice uses the album to “cling to like a lifeboat in a storm,” clutching it tight when nothing else in the world—school, girls, the usual—seems to make sense to him.

As Pernice himself puts it, his entry in the 33 1/3 series is the “black sheep” of the family, because while the others are shrines to the authors’ favorite albums, Pernice takes Meat is Murder and places it in a fictional context, going back to Catholic High School in Boston in 1985 along with the album. Here, he struggles with first love, being surrounded by a bunch of Kansas-listening fuckfaces, being misunderstood and mistreated by his Catholic schoolteachers, and discovering ”the album of [his] unfulfilled, eroding teenage years.” Re-contextualizing the album like this strips Meat is Murder of all boring trivia and unnecessary analysis and cuts straight to the visceral, immediate, and meaningful appeal of the band and album.

Speaking of which, Pernice must first be applauded for his unusual, but wise choice of Smiths album. Every band has an album that is a fan favorite—the one that doesn’t necessarily top all the polls, or have the greatest commercial success, or have the most importance, but in spite of this (or, because of this), is the band’s most fascinating, rewarding work. For The Smiths, this is Meat is Murder—The Smiths was the first one, the exciting one, The Queen is Dead is the consensus favorite, and Strangeways, Here We Come was the grand finale, but Meat is Murder’s inconsistency, unfortunate placing in the band’s catalogue and lack of hit singles has had it retroactively dubbed “the other Smiths album.” However, this slight obscurity gives it a unique appeal, and makes it the perfect focus for this novella.

Equally insightful was Pernice’s choice to place the story in the narrator’s High School experience. High School is, after all, the one and only time to fully discover The Smiths—in middle school you’re too immature, by college you’re too cynical. It takes the necessary combination of alienation, sexual confusion, and blossoming personality to which only High School could truly provide the backdrop to best expose yourself to the world of The Smiths, a band whose cult-like status will probably go unchallenged for decades to come. And Pernice writes about the album the only way a true teenager would—clumsily, overflowing with enthusiasm and praise, and beautifully.

However, although the album is certainly a key part of the story, the true charm of Pernice’s novella is that the album is only one focus to a much larger story. The other main focus of the story is Allison, a chain-smoking Echo and the Bunnymen fan with whom the narrator is totally in love. Allison is written as the girl of Pernice’s, and our, collective indie teenage dreams, even with the perfect name to match—what girl name (with the possible exception of Kim) will ever carry as much weight for music lovers? Naturally, as this is still a Smiths-focused book, the narrator is getting nowhere fast with her—he worships from afar, keeping interaction with her relatively minimal. It sounds clichéd, yes, but if you’re male and reading this, chances are you’ve been there too, and every detail of his obsession over her will ring true, and you’ll desperately hope for them to get together at the end, just like you and your dream girl never did.

And yes, suicide is a big deal in this book. In fact, the general outline of the story bears a great deal of similarity to The Virgin Suicides—oppression and obsessive love in a suicide-struck Catholic High School. But luckily, like Suicides, Meat is Murder is able to keep the matter from getting too heavy—the narrator and his buddies make cracks like “I want you to have my car, I won’t need it where I’m going,” making fun of his school’s attempt to deal with the issue by describing warning signs. And the suicides themselves are only alluded to, never shown, keeping the book at a modest level of drama. Like Pernice says, the book isn’t about being dead, the book is about being alive.

Another thing the book shares in common with Suicides is its perfection of details. Pernice describes his encounters with Allison with just the perfect level of sincerity, awkwardness and honesty, and perfectly explains the naïve joy in being a kid with “superior taste” in a school full of dumb rock listeners with the novella’s best line—“did the small group of us who liked ��faggot’ British music feel like we were any better than them? Of course we did. Amen to that, brother.” Indeed, one of the main differences between this and most books about The Smiths (including Songs That Saved Your Life) is that while those books view The Smiths as a solely British phenomenon, Meat is Murder is strictly from an American perspective. In doing so, the book wonderfully captures how exotic music like The Smiths can sound to an American O.D.-ing on Huey Lewis and Wang Chung, how it feels like it could be the key to a whole new world of intelligent, heartfelt music.

Running a short (literally short—the 33 1/3 series are about 2/3 the size of normal books) 102 pages—in stark contrast with Songs That Saved Your Life’s tall 272—the novella is a wonderfully brief, swift read that nevertheless is as powerful as the greatest of EPs. Although it is naturally a Smiths fan who will appreciate this story best, you needn’t be among the hardcore to really appreciate this. Actually, you don’t really even need to be a fan of The Smiths--it’s a story about teenage love, you jerk! Who can’t relate to that?

So, which is your cup of tea? Overly factual, detailed account of every thing The Smiths ever did ever? Or passionate, youthful account of the band’s sheer power to move, motivate? Ah fuck it. Get ��em both.

By: Andrew Unterberger
Published on: 2004-01-13
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