There is more than one level of drama being tackled in these lyrics. Interpersonal relationships create one level; interior levels of consciousness create another. In the interstices between these two levels, we find a protagonist in a situation that presents no obvious solutions. Of his family he says “its not my home/ its their home/ and I’m welcome no more.” Given Morrissey’s androgynous image, it would be easy to read gayness as a subtext to these lines; that this character is having struggles with his family because his gayness has been both detected and made light of or disapproved. But the lyrics have a universality that chafes against these restraints. Because the character reinforces these concerns, in the lines “driving in your car/ I never never want to go home/ because I haven’t got one anymore,” we know that the contextual drama is extreme enough to lead to a state of heightened nerves, tension, and sensibility. However, as most adolescents go through periods of rebellion, the lyrics are not stark enough to indicate a situation that is irrevocable. The funny tension here (and this song does add levels and layers of humor to its sense of pathos) is not knowing how much this character is dramatizing things for effect. The character’s sympathies (or lack thereof) go in two directions— towards the hated family, and towards the love object that happens to be driving the car in which he (or she) is the passenger. It also needs to be noted that the sex of the two characters in the car is never stated. Thus, there would seem to be no way to determine if homoerotic impulses are on display here, and Morrissey’s androgyny, along with his obvious identification with the characters he writes about, make exact designations impossible to determine. Androgyny is another key feature of adolescence, in which kids becoming adults explore different roles, different patterns of behavior, different proclivities, and different modes of seeing.
Now, to the situation at hand: they are driving in a car, the passenger who narrates and the love object, and he/she intones “and in the darkened underpass/ I thought, O God my chance has come at last/ but then a strange fear gripped me and I just couldn’t ask.” So, this protagonist is doubly thwarted— by a family who has ostracized him (her), and by a love-object who is not making any overt moves in his (her) direction. Part of the tragedy of these lyrics is that even though “there is a light and it never goes out,” this protagonist never gets what he (she) wants. It is, perhaps, no accident that Morrissey also penned a song entitled “Please, Please, Please Let Me Get What I Want.” The funniest bit in this song is also the creepiest, and the most dramatic; that whoever the unnamed driver/ love-object is, he/she doesn’t appear to have many developed skills as a driver. Either that, or the protagonist is dramatically exaggerating his/her fear of death. The lyrics run “and if a ten-ton truck/ crashes into us/ to die by your side, well, the privilege, the pleasure is mine.” If Kurt Cobain had written these lyrics, they would have an edge of sarcasm and malice (one thinks of “Hey, wait, I’ve got a new complaint” from “Heart-Shaped Box”); coming from Moz, they have an edge of ridiculousness, and an ambiguity owing to not being sure how much is being exaggerated for effect. These lyrics also cast doubt on how worthy this particular love-object is; if he/she is down at the heels, and just as ornery as the protagonist’s family, then this truly is a “no exit” situation, especially because the protagonist happens to be trapped in a car being driven by a (possible) lunatic. The boundaries between fantasy and reality are being explored here, and in such a way that this unreliable narrator takes his place as one of the great unreliable narrators in rock music history, right next to the respective protagonists of “Maggie May,” “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” and “Behind Blue Eyes.”
Musically, the song is split into halves— verses in moody minor, chorus in triumphant major. Morrissey’s baritone does little trills that express his protagonist’s discomfort, and the split between major and minor creates uncomfortable tensions and unresolved paradoxes. The song ends with a fade-out on the moody verse section chords, over which Morrissey intones several times “there is a light and it never goes out.” Is he begging the question? One gets the sense that this protagonist is repeating this over and over to himself like a mantra, so that he may believe it’s actually the truth. The use of synths and strings over this final section adds an air of the New Romantic, and though the Smiths had more or less eclipsed the New Romantics, the hints of Spandau Ballet added to the ambience. Johnny Marr is not as much on display here as he is on other Smiths classes; despite the lyrical content, there is musical understatement at work, which actually heightens the intensity of the group performance. The American music press never had much time for the Smiths; when this record was released, rock music was in one of its biggest ever doldrums, as great as the doldrums which have overtaken the music business in 2010. When the rock cognoscenti talk about the 1980s, it is often with the perspective that the Smiths might have been the only great band the 1980s produced, despite commercial behemoths like U2 and R.E.M. One of the reasons that the Smiths achieved greatness is that they did tackle serious themes in serious ways, and even Morrissey’s occasional flippancy seemed a plant to distract listeners away from the deeper resonances of his lyrics. And this, with its ambiguities, exaggerations, and memorable characterizations, is certainly one of the Smiths greatest creations, as the adolescent psyche is laid bare. Those of us in the arts take pains to carry many of these dramatized emotions into our adult lives, cause therein lies the impulse to create that is our raison d’etre.