Waxing Nostalgic Connecting the Dots: The Smiths, “That Joke Isn’t Funny Anymore”

Published on November 27th, 2013 in: Music, Waxing Nostalgic |

By Jeffery X Martin


The Eighties came down like a back alley pummeling. When you’re young and impressionable, looking desperately for things to believe in, you can get caught in a strange whirlpool. Music, movies, and books all swoop down in a tsunami of ideas and perspectives, some totally new, some reinforcing things you already thought. Sometimes, these things simply served to enhance emotions you didn’t know how to express properly, and you find yourself identifying with people and situations you’ve never actually encountered or experienced. There’s a strange ability you have as a teenager to cut through the pretense and the art and find the base emotion, and you inhale it, and it’s like a medicine. It plugs in and builds a bridge between synapses, neuron pathways, and it burns down like acid blood, to a sub-atomic level and you absorb it. It becomes you. You become it.

“Park the car by the side of the road. You should know time’s tide will smother you. And I will, too.”

Christ, what a goddamned suckhole that time was, and I suppose it had to be. You don’t get great art when things are peachy keen. You get paintings of bears and sad clowns. When you go through things like Thatcher and Reagan and Saved by the Bell and a kids’ cartoon based on Rambo, there’s going to be a backlash. The Universe demands it. There was a tremendous wave of existentialism in the Eighties. The angst was exquisite. The despair was gorgeous.

“When you talk about people who feel so very lonely, their only desire is to die. But I’m afraid it doesn’t make me smile.”

Everything is so bloody serious when you’re a teenager. Your world is predicated on the words of your peers, the actions of your enemies. You’re always on edge. You haven’t learned how to let things roll off your back. Worry and fear are your constant companions and even your coolest moves are awkward. Coffee. Cigarettes. Dark circles under your eyes. The weight of the world on your shoulders.

“I wish I could laugh.”

Were you a happy teenager? Tell me something. What was that like?

“That joke isn’t funny anymore. It’s too close to home and it’s too near the bone. More than you’ll ever know.”

My sense of humor grew darker and more cynical. You get that way when you’re suicidal. The strangest things become absolutely hilarious, the fast high cackling from the front carriage of a rollercoaster on a corkscrew to oblivion. Your friends stare at you, as if you’ve lost your mind, and you know there is no help for you. You’re okay with that. You are endarkened.

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Say what you want about Morrissey now. When I first discovered The Smiths, his was the voice of empathy and reason. We American kids knew from television and pretentious literature that England was the universal home of rain, grey skies, low mist, and sadness. Morrissey seemed like the magical emissary from that land of crumbling architecture and Anglican repression; one hand holding a calla lily, one hand stretched across the sea, a pale light at the end of a dark adolescent tunnel.

I needed The Smiths. I needed that soothing affirmation of my feelings, especially the ones I couldn’t name. I needed those jangly Johnny Marr guitar riffs, as bright as my fake smile. Those Andy Rourke bass riffs, bopping up and down like Paul McCartney on crank. Their music was a carnival of fear.

The Smiths didn’t have answers. Morrissey never pretended he had it all figured out. Good. I didn’t either. Just being able to share that with someone, even someone I knew I would never meet, never be able to say “thank you” to . . . it helped. It was like having a pen pal I didn’t have to write back to.

It’s not a stretch to say that The Smiths were one of the things that helped me survive my childhood. You’ve got a band like that. Everyone does. I have two more. We’ll deal with them soon enough.

“I’ve seen this happen in other peoples’ lives. Now it’s happening in mine.”

Me too, Morrissey. Me too.

Listen to “That Joke Isn’t Funny Anymore” and other songs from the Waxing Nostalgic series on the Spotify Waxing Nostalgic Playlist, which is updated every Tuesday and ready for you to subscribe to.

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