My four-year-old daughter Matilda’s major trauma is the existence of her three-year-old brother Venice. If she were to stage an exhibition of her genuinely moving and impressive visual art, I would argue for its being called Venice or Brother — or, perhaps most appropriately, Crashing Bore.
This is because Matilda has recently become enamored of the music of Stephen Patrick Morrissey. I don’t recall the first time I played Morrissey for Matilda — for her it was likely an in utero experience — but recently she has taken to Moz with a vengeance, which is the best way to take to him.
Matilda and Venice love Buddy Holly, Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison, James Brown, and the Beatles. Generations of parents understand the bizarre miracle of playing early rock ’n’ roll for toddlers. Observing the electric shock therapy response of my children to this music has thrilled but never surprised me — I’ve long understood that this music’s glory and beauty is bound up with its juvenility. It embarrasses me when people take this music seriously. It embarrasses me to refer to it as “music.”
So my wife Lauren and I rarely play anything officially designated as “children’s music” for our children. For us, that act is redundant to an insulting extreme, encountering Steve Bannon in a graveyard. All pop music is kid’s music. Why would we play the dumb kind?
But this Morrissey development has surprised us. Matilda belts out, “How can anybody possibly say they know how I feel?” with the intensity of troubled decades. She sings, “This world I am afraid is full of crashing bores!” so sincerely that it’s hard not to take it personally. Is it the words that she enjoys? The melodrama of it all? Crooning exoticness?
Surely she perceives in Morrissey’s music a conservative fidelity to the aesthetic principles of early rock ’n’ roll. I will defend Moz to the bowels of hell but I will also admit that he — like almost every successful commercial pop act — has hardly experimented sonically at all. If anything, his solo music is “harder” than the Smiths, which is as safe a commercial move as possible. I’m convinced that the only reason the similarly gifted and morosely inclined Magnetic Fields have never really broken through is that they stopped using drums in live performances. (Matilda loves them, too, by the way. “Three Way!” is a particular favorite.)
Matilda’s pre-school teachers tell us she deals almost exclusively in “big emotions.” Her facial expressions are essentially the iconic drama masks for Tragedy and Comedy. She has no time for small stakes. Just now, she screamed down the stairs, “The whole world needs to give me space!” I’m relatively certain no one is standing anywhere near her.
At the end of the above paragraph, Matilda entered my office and sweetly said, “Daddy, would you please come upstairs and play with me?” I did. This emotional whiplash is emblematic, also, of Morrissey’s music. In “The World is Full of Crashing Bores” — Matilda’s current favorite — Morrissey turns from castigating the human race to pondering “why no one ever turns to me to say, ‘Take me in your arms and love me.’”
You’re all bores because you’re not embracing and saying that you love and need each other, seems to be the central message of Moz’s masterpiece “Crashing Bores.” It’s paradoxical in that the song also berates celebrities who are “scared to show intelligence” because “it might smear their lovely careers.” Openly acknowledging the need for love doesn’t require intelligence, does it? Why does this witty wordsmith, who still claims (as far as I can tell) to be “asexual,” suggest in song after song that physical gestures of love are what make life worth living?
To put it another way, does Matilda hate Venice? He enjoys Morrissey, in a far less vexed manner. Truth be told, he tends to like whatever his sister fancies. Whether or not he consciously perceives that his sister howls many of these wrought lyrics with him in mind — them sitting side by side in car seats to and from ballet, soccer, and the grocery store — he watches her wail admiringly. He thinks about what he sees and hears. He gets it.
Of course Matilda hates Venice. Of course she loves him. Of course I love my ex-stepfather, whose tenure as my principle caregiver I survived because the Smiths existed. Racist, homophobic, philistine Dave existed, but so did The Queen is Dead. There really is no more nuanced way to understand human interaction — people exist and we hate them and we love them. I know I’m equating a record with people, but you try growing up a Southern Baptist in 1980s Arkansas and tell me what fixed ideas of personhood stay with you on the other side.
Morrissey was perfect for a rebellious kid in a sexually repressed, homophobic environment, because he generates a safe space where straight men can release their homosexual energy. Key to remember: he rocks. Under Moz’s nightly headphones-in-the-dark influence, I dressed ever more flamboyantly, wore my hair ever stranger. When Dave made me hunt turkey more often and asked me in those miserable rifle-clutching dawns, “Are you a fag?” I knew my red plaid Generra pants were working. (Upon reflection I now know so was his bourbon.)
Am I Dave to Matilda’s me? In a sense, how can I not be? I tell her what to do and when to do it. More importantly, I tell her what not to do. She has no way of knowing if my rules are reasonable or red-necked. She only knows her feelings. As much as I try to know hers, I fear I only know mine.
Then again, I found the Smiths and chose the Smiths and knew without a doubt that Dave loathed the Smiths. Matilda was given the Smiths as an option while driving to the beach one afternoon. She’d heard Morrissey a million times. Then, one day, she was ready. The world became full of crashing bores.
Nuance doesn’t work in rock ’n’ roll any more than it works in the current political climate. If you want nuance, read a book, the avoidance of which is the raison d’être of rock ’n’ roll, anyway. No one can love rock ’n’ roll and do homework at the same time. 1950s authorities had a point when they said rock ’n’ roll rots your brain.
But Morrissey will not rot your heart. Taking on stepchildren might, if Dave is any proof, though his heart was likely rotted already. If all authorities must be crashing bores in the eyes and hearts of sensitive children who never asked to be here and to suffer the existence of others, I’m honored to be numbered among both groups, forever.