Outside of the “squares” that somehow live among us, everybody has a favorite band, album, or song. I have too many to mention, but I’m certain they are all better than your favorite artist, band or album. I also have something that is beyond all that: I have a favorite cassette tape.
This tape contains a recording that set my entire world in motion. It sparked my love of post-punk music, melancholy jangle-pop, indie, punk, glam rock, shoegaze, Brit-pop, and much more. This tape symbolizes the end of listening to whatever my older brother and sister had in their record collections, as well as the beginning of my social, artistic, and political evolution.
The tape in question is the one you see here. Well, at least one of them.
I found it in the basement a week ago as I looked for something completely not this tape. As you can see, it clearly says, “a. THE SMITHS, Live BBC Radio Concert.”
The performance was recorded by the BBC at the Apollo Theatre, Oxford, on March 18, 1985. However, MY recording of it didn’t enter my world until roughly a year later when a now long-deceased Pittsburgh “alternative” radio station called WXXP aired a rebroadcast of the show.
I had heard just enough of The Smiths from the radio and from my friend Michael (via his college-aged brother’s tapes) on the school bus to know I wanted more, but when you’re 15 years old in 1986 and live in a town of 4,500 people, the chances of finding a Smiths album were about as good as me losing my virginity before entering my 20s. So, when I heard that WXXP was rebroadcasting a live Smiths show, I was geeked up and ready to record over whatever tape I happened to have lying around (probably one with Ozzy on one side and The Beach Boys on the other).
I can remember that night like it was yesterday. If yesterday was 34+ years ago.
I anxiously sat at the kitchen table with my about to be Ozzy-less tape ready and waiting in the boom box that my mother kept in the kitchen to listen to the radio while she worked at her sewing machine, making some sort of crafty project to sell.
There was all the normal radio DJ bullshit before some audience applause cued me to hit RECORD. Then the blissful jangle of William, It Was Really Nothing started, and I had what I can only describe as a religious experience. If religious experiences involved me silently screaming, “HOLY FUCK!! ARE YOU HEARING THIS?!?” inside.
“The rain falls hard on a humdrum town
this town has dragged you down
oh, the rain falls hard on a humdrum town
this town has dragged you down
and everybody’s got to live their life
and God knows I’ve got to live mine
God knows I’ve got to live mine”
— William, It Was Really Nothing, The Smiths
As you can imagine, at that age I was unfamiliar with the bulk of The Smiths catalogue, I was also unaware of the speed at which the band would plow through a live setlist. It was one semi-remembered from the high-school bus hit after another filled with emotion, wit, and musicianship far beyond what I was used to hearing come from that boom box. Since I was “working” the broadcast, hitting pause whenever an ad interrupted my transformation into a music nerd, I didn’t really didn’t grasp how much I loved this recording until I had the chance to slip the tape into my Walkman® later, but I was still in awe of what I was hearing!
I can remember my mother was in the kitchen. She was standing at an ironing board doing something that involved hot glue and ironing. This memory is strong because my mother had been diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis some years earlier and was now in the phase of needing assistance to walk but could still stand at times. Since MS is a bastard fuck of an illness, most of my memories of her involve wheelchairs, electric scooters, yelling (dad), crying (her), more crying (me, in private), uncontrollable bladders, bedsores, hospitals, surgeries, or lying motionless in bed, unable to use the TV remote, talk on the phone, or even scratch her own nose due to the disease. It takes work for me to remember her not in bed or a wheelchair, but this is one memory that I easily recall and cherish, thanks to this tape and The Smiths. I also remember it because she cried. She could be very emotional at times.
Through most of the evening, my mom said very little. I have no doubt that she tuned out most songs and rolled her eyes at Morrissey singing about the sun shining out of behinds during Hand in Glove, but me singing along to Still Ill was too much for her.
“…for there are brighter sides to life
And I should know because I’ve seen them
But not very often.“
— Still Ill, The Smiths
While I can’t remember her exact words, I know that there were some tears and an apology from her for the mess of MS, unemployment, flared tempers, and financial stress our family found ourselves in during the mid-80s and a wish for me to be happy. Yes, the woman battling a crippling disease that would take her life 13 years later and making crafts to help pay the fucking bills apologized to me, and wanted me to be happy. The very me blaring sad bastard music from a boom box in her kitchen while she was trying to work at keeping our shit going. I thought she was joking at first, but one look around the corner from the kitchen table proved otherwise.
I can’t remember if I hugged her or not—I like to think that I did—but I do vaguely remember 15 year old me apologizing to her for the tears and assuring her that I was indeed happy (I was soooo not happy) and that it was just a song (It was soooo not JUST a song; it was Still Ill by The fucking Smiths, mom!!! Gosh!!!).
With mutual apologies from the two of us out of the way, I was soon back at the table, transfixed on the yelps and funky bass groove of Barbarism Begins At Home.
This tape would follow me throughout the next 30 years or more. The original tape was dubbed to another, and another, and another. It would blast from my Walkman® and from the car stereo of my dad’s new ’89 Cavalier—the one he bought after finding a job in a nearby factory in the years that followed this blessed musical event. And eventually it would blast from speakers located in various apartments and homes we lived in.
This tape spawned a near lifelong obsession with The Smiths and Morrissey that would still be going strong today if Morrissey hadn’t morphed into a caricature of himself laced with xenophobia, racism, and bitterness. Thanks, asshole. Jonny Marr is still a legend, though, and should be referred to as Jonny “Fucking” Marr whenever possible.
My current views on Morrissey aside, this tape started a journey for me that I still cherish. It helped open my ears and my mind far beyond what was outside the confines of my boyhood home. For better or worse, I would never be the same again.
It’s been years since I had a tape deck, but through the wonders of the internet, I eventually tracked down the complete show on MP3. So even now I continue to listen, talk, and sing along it like it’s 1986 all over again.
The tape seen here is probably the 4th or 5th dubbing of that broadcast so many years ago. From the laser-printed label on the cassette, I can tell that this version must be from the early 90s, no doubt slapped together while working in my nights at a local sales publication or my early days at the newspaper. The B-side label fell off, but I THINK it was an audio recording (made by hooking my tape deck up to a VCR) of Morrissey’s OK-ish Live in Dallas performance. Or it’s a recording of a live Morrissey bootleg CD called Higher Education I bought at Eide’s Entertainment many, MANY years ago.
This tape started my journey as a music
lover nerd; the trips into the city to visit record shops, hours alone in my bedroom singing along to bands that I never thought I’d ever see live before seeing almost all of those bands live in the years to come, writing letters to music magazines, arguing with my best friend Jimmy about who turned who on to Pavement first (an argument we still have to this day, it was me), and being what can only be described as “prickish” a fucking dick when catching a glimpse of other people’s record collections (why are they all so bad??).
Listening to music was, and still is, to an extent, my escape from the realities of life. Without it, I can’t imagine what my life would have been like.
Much has changed in my life since that fateful night in 1986, sitting in my parent’s kitchen with that boom box. Including my mother passing away on December 27th, 1999, at the age of 55, due to complications from MS. I hope wherever her spirit is, she knows that I still love and miss her and that I did indeed find some happiness. It just took some time and is WAY harder to find than I thought! Also, it is still just a song. Ah, who am I kidding?? It’s Still Ill by The fucking Smiths!!!!
“But I know my luck too well
yes, I know my luck too well
and I’ll probably never see you again
I’ll probably never see you again
I’ll probably never see you again.”
— Hand in Glove, The Smiths
NOTE: Apparently, WXXP made some sort of web-based comeback, but I’m too lazy to investigate. Also, the intro where I act like a music snob was in jest. Mostly.