#218: The Smiths, "The Queen is Dead" (1986)

The night we meet, one of the first things she tells me is that she shares a birthdate with Morrissey. “We have a special connection.” She follows it up, moments later, with an apologetic comment about one of his more recent political statements: “It’s hard being a fan.”

It’s surprising, in retrospect, that I missed the boat on the Smiths, given that I spent my post-millennial suburban adolescence listening to Siouxsie and the Banshees and the Cure on my Discman, living in my ’80s-of-the-mind. By then, “How Soon Is Now?” had been repurposed by Hollywood into a teen-witch anthem and I dutifully bought a copy of Hatful of Hollow but I didn’t connect with it. I had been put off by the reports of Morrissey courting right-wing nationalism and keeping the company of boxers, and the kids I knew who liked the Smiths were angry, chic, and cryptic. It was something I felt excluded from.

But for Dori—“Dorissey,” as one of her friends nicknamed her—growing up, Morrissey was something of a mirror image: a sarcastic misfit, angular and difficult, appalled by the world, lost in the world. From over on the east coast she turned to British music magazines to make sense of who she was. Beautiful, otherworldly David Bowie, whom she got mistaken for once in her androgynous phase; Mick Jagger in a dress, looking somewhere between Susan Sontag and Eileen Myles: the perfect crush for a closeted teen. And Morrissey with his NHS glasses and references to Maggie Thatcher making a mess of things.

Getting to know someone means getting to know their archetypes. That summer, ensconced in her apartment—which with its heirloom German antiques is as much a ‘law unto itself’ in the middle of LA as she is, and, along with her Anglophilia, is an odd throwback to the world I come from—we watch some of the black-and-white movies she loves on TCM: her cast of tragically glamorous women, solitary drinkers in pearls.

And getting to know someone means revisiting how you conceive of yourself. I’d never quite realized it, but much of my personal canon can be summed up as “shy rebel loving someone twice her age”—Carol, Loving Annabelle, Girls in Uniform—and Dori surprises me by being familiar with almost every single one of them. (Other favorites require some annotation. “What was it you liked about this movie?” she asks carefully, an hour into Lost and Delirious’ unabashed melodrama. “She’s into poetry and hawks,” I explain.)

When, a month into knowing her, I have to go back to my life on the other side of the world, I start sending her poems I like, and she starts sending me Smiths songs, which I save to a Spotify playlist titled “she says (that he says).” That autumn, I have the peculiar experience of Morrissey as a stand-in for Dori, telling me about her. Back amid the familiar contours of my English life, I listen to him and I hear her shyness (but then a strange fear gripped me and I just couldn’t ask), her loneliness (it’s so lonely out on a limb), her hope (I want to live, I want to love, I want to catch something I might be ashamed of). I blush when I walk through posh, bucolic Berkhamsted listening to “Skin Storm” for the first time, shockingly intimate when it’s being sung at me.

And he really does remind me of her: from his dark sense of humor to the way he moves, walking, fierce yet fragile, through the streets of Manchester with his boy posse in music videos. Sometimes, in those first months, I google Morrissey just to feel closer to her.

Post-Brexit Britain is an appropriate time and place to be listening to Morrissey’s anger with the establishment, and that it should be an American woman who whispers his voice in my ears fits my way of always doing things upside-down inside-out, the Union Jack-and-rainbow flag pin she unearthed from a drawer pinned to my lapel.

(On my way home from my writing session at the pub, I take the shortcut through the cemetery. Dori messages me, complaining about a new acquaintance trying to invite her to a basketball game: the introvert’s lament. She’d rather be indoors with her record collection and a new book on Frances Farmer, the tragically-mad Hollywood actress she tried to emulate in her twenties. “Books never let you down. Neither do records.”

I sit down against a pine tree, the autumn drizzle dripping around me off the branches. “I’m taking a moment to sit with the trees and the dead,” I write. “They never disappoint either.” She recommends “Cemetary Gates”. If you must write prose and poems

“I feel like such a caricature of English rebellion,” I say, “sitting here in my stompy boots listening to the Smiths.”

“I know! And thirty years too late!”—an observation which she punctuates with the heart-eyes emoji, which makes me laugh out loud, amid the darkness and the silence of the graves.

“Right? Story of my life.”)


That autumn, I go on a tour of the places that have made me: my hometown, the German city where I went to university. When you walk without ease on these streets where you were raised… But it’s not just about remembering that sense of discomfort, just as QID (as Dori tells me the fans call it) isn’t for me just about his angst, but always about hearing her underneath it, like pebbles shining at the bottom of the river.

I walk around my hometown, and I’m struck by the rainbow zebra crossing (installed by the council as an expression of gay pride and solidarity); by the little shrines everywhere (candles and crucifixes, the theatricality of Catholicism) and the beautifully renovated public library. I sit by my dad’s grave, wearing Dori’s blue button-down, and it somehow feels like honoring an appointment. (I take a picture of my silhouette against his tombstone and send it to her; like all my selfies, shadows and reflections.)

I take stock of the ways in which I’m different now. Me, an angry kid in combat boots, cutting class to read. (Keats and Yeats are on your side, and wild lover Wilde…) Me, a happy kid—still late for everything—kissing Dori goodbye and running down her marble hallway to catch my ride, dogs beginning to howl behind every door I pass.

I suppose love means your own archetypes plus one: her shadow walking beside me. And I don’t know what it says about me, but I’ve always found it easiest to see myself through someone else’s eyes. It’s easier to describe myself when I’m thinking of how she would describe me: someone who sits in trees, a buyer of cut flowers, a witch.

(I’m surprised one night when I learn that “I Know It’s Over” is by the Smiths. I had known the Jeff Buckley version for years and assumed that was the original (“the sea wants to take me” always seemed darkly prescient). She tells me, “I think I cried the first time I heard it.” Moments later, it comes on the radio on her side of the world. “They never play this. You witch!”)

All of Morrissey’s music is threaded through with the yearning to be recognized in that way, the hope that—to quote Breakfast at Tiffany’s, one of Dori’s movies—sometimes “people do belong to each other.” Morrissey, the patron saint of the lonely. My friend Jonathan’s verdict on the increasingly embittered Morrissey of recent years is that he never found the clever, gentle gay boy he deserved. Dori’s comment on that is, “Do you know how rare it is to find the clever, gentle anything?” Dori, who goes to Pride wearing a self-made T-shirt emblazoned with the lyric, “Life’s hard enough when you belong here.”

When I hear the opening bars of Johnny Marr’s frantic guitar riff, I’m taken back to the first time she played the Smiths for me, on a road trip to Joshua Tree, right before the first time I had to leave the States. Driving in your car, I never want to go home… I was intimidated by her—self-contained, uncompromising, sharp chin poised above the steering wheel—and I wasn’t entirely sure she wanted me around yet. I remember the rush of gratitude I felt whenever she’d start a story unprompted.

Morrissey, Dorissey, a hopeful cynic: so acerbic, so gentle. I listen to Morrissey singing send me the pillow that you dream on, and I’ll send you mine, and I’m grateful for that small, resilient pocket of hope in spite of his self-consciousness, in spite of how he’s always half-anticipating crushing disappointment. I’m grateful for that space, because—riding shotgun, her warm hand closing around mine when traffic slows; my reflection against the desert moonscape—that’s where I am at home.

—Emma Rault