You would never know from one glance at their plain, pasty faces, one listen to their droney playing, one earful of the singer's plaintive monotone that the Smiths are among the most charismatic, idolized bands in all of English-speaking popdom. You would probably never know at all unless you witnessed a concert like their gig at the Pier last month when the audience leapt to its feet as if for the national anthem and sang along with Morrissey: "You shut your mouth!/How can you say/I go about things the wrong way?/I am human and I need to be loved/Just like everybody else does!" Any remaining impressions of the Smiths as passive-aggressive wimps sniveling about private grievances in bed-sitting rooms would vanish with a few spins of their latest single, "Panic" (Rough Trade), a T.-Rex-meets-Malcolm-X jingle that advocates "Burn down the disco/Hang the blessed DJ/Because the music that they constantly play/Says nothing to me about my life!"

At first I didn't get the Smiths at all, but I'm a believer now. Except for Elvis Costello, Steven Morrissey is the only songwriter since the birth of punk to write songs that matter the way the songs of, say, Joni Mitchell or Paul Simon mattered during the heyday of '70s singer-songwriters. I would go so far as to say that Morrissey mates the Rimbaudian modernity of Lou Reed with the emotional directness of Hank Williams. My conversion was gradual. It began when poet Dennis Cooper intriguingly compared Brad Gooch's book of stories Jailbait to the Smiths. It quickened when a playwright friend of mine, who often entertains me with instances of masochistic romanticism, started tantalizing me with quotes from songs like "Heaven Knows I'm Miserable Now" and "Please Please Please Let Me Get What I Want" ("Lord knows it would be the first time"). A major selling point was Morrissey's response when The Face asked him who was the last person who had seen him naked: "Almost certainly the doctor who brought me into this cold, cruel world."

What really got me was 1984's A Hatful of Hollow (Rough Trade). This 16-track collection, which shamefully has never been released in America, includes a bunch of British hit singles, B-sides, and live radio performances of six songs from The Smiths that are slower, more acoustic, prettier than the studio versions. Though their latest release The Queen Is Dead (Sire) is clearly the best of their American releases, A Hatful of Hollow is my candidate for the Smiths' greatest album. Talk about masochistic: "Slap me on the patio/I'll take it now." Talk about unlucky in love: "I looked at yours/You laughed at mine/ And 'love' is just a miserable lie." Talk about passionate: "Hand in glove/The sun shines out of our behinds/No, it's not like any other love/This one is different because it's ours." Such a nimble mixture of Love Comix and Une Saison en Enfer has not been seen since the disappearance of Patti Smith (who some feel is the real inspiration for the band's name).

While it's true that the Smiths satisfy the literary cravings of bookworm rock fans the way few other acts do, Morrissey's lyrics aren't the whole story. The first album's muddy mix of "This Charming Man" emphasize the neo-Motown bassline behind Morrissey's telescoped tale of a boy rescued from a bicycle accident by an older gentleman and their fantasized affair. In Hatful's version, what's overwhelming is guitarist Johnny Marr's stunning countermelody, which captures without words the ecstatic freedom and lightheartedness of a boyhood bike ride. I guess it's that bicycle that links the Smiths in my mind to Denton Welch, the British novelist. Welch was crippled in a bike crash at 18, yet before his painful death at 31 he created a small body of work astonishing in its ability to see both beauty and pain with equal clarity. He could have been reviewing the Smiths' songs when he called some drawings "grim enough to have been done with a corpse's dirty finger-nail split down the middle and dipped in the excrement of cockroaches." And like Morrissey, he would have laughed out loud after he wrote that line.

No question that Morrissey is one morbid dude. He favors titles like "Pretty Girls Makes Graves," "Suffer Little Children," "Barbarism Begins at Home," and plain ol' "Still Ill." His idea of an apology is "Sweetness, I was only joking when I said by rights you should be bludgeoned in your bed." His idea of a heterosexual pass is "Let me get my hands/On your mammary glands." His idea of an endearment is "If a 10-ton truck kills the both of us/To die by your side/The pleasure and privilege is mine." But this must be seen partly as provocation. The discrepancy between their morbidity and humor is what makes the Smiths a rich and (here's a taboo word) adult pleasure. Likewise the contrast between Morrissey's hyperemotional yelping and Marr's surprising lyricism, between the singer's most wistful sentiments and the band's brash, Ramones-like battery; if Dan Fogelberg sang some of these precious, self-pitying songs, you'd puke.

And the contradictions keep on coming. Normally, the perfect director to make videos of the Smiths' anguished, lovelorn tunes would be Derek Jarman, the biggest homo-vogue aesthete among British film makers. The twist is that, along with two promos for The Queen Is Dead, Jarman was hired as director for the atypical "Panic," the Smiths' most direct attack on the soul-killing irrelevance of mass culture from Dallas to Lionel Richie. The video for this inflammatory anthem fuses extremes of artiness and political engagement -- a pretty boy's scowl cuts against Her Majesty's smug mug, while an outstretched hand leads the camera's scan of the slums and bullet holes that represent panic in the streets of London, Birmingham, Carlisle, Dublin, Dundee, Humberside. It's ironic that even as the Smiths cling most firmly to local references, they have amassed a fervent American audience among the supposedly less-than-zero generation. But the course of band-love never runs smooth. The Smiths canceled several dates recently, including the September 16 sellout at Radio City. The official word was laryngitis, but rumor had it Morrissey was stung by a bee.

Village Voice, 1986