The First Time I Heard is a new series of e-books about the power of first hearing your favorite music. For the series, editor Scott Heim (author of the novels Mysterious Skin and We Disappear and a self-professed "music junkie"), asked notable musicians and writers to discuss the impact that certain formative bands had on their lives. The first five books focus on 1) Joy Division / New Order, 2) David Bowie, 3) Cocteau Twins, 4) The Smiths and 5) Kate Bush and feature contributions from the likes of Harold Budd, Annette Peacock and members of Throwing Muses, The Wedding Present, Pylon, Shudder to Think, Lush and many others. Heim plans future installments of The First Time I Heard series on Abba, Kraftwerk, My Bloody Valentine, R.E.M., Pixies, Roxy Music and more.
I'm in the living room of a student house in Whitstable, Kent, in 1984. The house is made of wooden slats, and you can see the light shining through at the corners between the walls. In winter it's so cold that we're forced to wear coats and gloves indoors and woolly hats in bed. There's no central heating, and although we have a selection of electric heaters, the juice is rationed via a coin meter that eats 50-pence pieces quicker than any of us can find them. Having a hot bath is a rare luxury, and you can guarantee that, having fed the meter with around six coins and waited shivering in the cold for it to run, you'll get into a bath that's already lost its heat to the surrounding dank, and the lights will go out just as you settle your sorry form into its maddening tepidity.
We moved here in my second year at Kent University. Though the campus is in Canterbury, we took the cheaper and less-conventional option of taking a house in this sleepy little neighboring seaside town with its fisherman cottages and their now ill-fitting, slatted walls. There are five of us living here: I and my anorexic, alcoholic boyfriend Jim; another couple, Naveed and Julie; and the fiercely individual Mark Doig.
At this moment, the latter is dancing in what seems a very unusual manner, snaking his hips in tight black drainpipe jeans, lifting one skinny knee at a time to balance on a solitary Doc-Martened foot while flailing his arms in a foppish fashion. He's singing along, too, a manic smile on his face, something about wanting to go out but having nothing to wear. Raised on my mother's transatlantic '70s folk collection, I'd never heard lyrics so unashamedly flippant; a 1980s Oscar Wilde, Morrissey seemed to convey the vacuous concerns of youthful beauty in a wonderfully ironic and self-deprecating fashion. Although for us it was usually lack of cash, not clothes, that prevented us from leaving our miserable domicile, those words, and that deadpan tone, seem to sum up those days for me, and the music, with Johnny Marr's unmistakable guitar, had me hungering for more. When, a few months later, we saw the band live, I was awestruck by this unlikely Adonis with his unfeasible quiff and gladioli hanging from the back pocket of his jeans. Suddenly Mark's dancing in our front room made sense, and I, along with a hall of budding pretenders to the man's distinctive and hugely charismatic style, was hooked.
Looking back, I know the early songs of The Smiths still stand the test of time, and when I hear the opening guitar riff of "This Charming Man," I can't help feeling a shiver of reminiscence for those days. I guess I haven't listened to them for decades, so ingrained they seemed in that time and place. A few weeks ago, though, I heard Morrissey in conversation on the radio. His inimitable dryness had somehow assumed a bitter edge I could only attribute to the passing of time, and I couldn't help but wonder if he wished that, like Wilde's Dorian Gray, his image was decaying in an attic somewhere whilst he remained unravaged by the years.