This Night Has Opened My Eyes

There are songs that I become obsessed with.

They can be brand new or something I’ve heard a million times before. Generally it’s something I’ve heard before but the space of years between my first hearing it and now has either broadened my tastes or sharpened my ears. Either way, what happens is that I feel like I’m hearing it for the first time and will play it over and over for weeks digging through every guitar note, every lyric, etc. Instead of getting sick of the song I fall very deeply in love with it.

(This past Christmas I was obsessed with The Left Banke‘s “Walk Away Renee” and Elvis Presley’s “I Can’t Help Falling In Love With You”. About a year ago I was obsessed with the theme from The Banana Splits and the Banana Splits song “I Enjoy Being A Boy”.)

For the past several weeks I’ve been playing The Smiths “Still Ill” over and over. I had thought about writing something about it on here but didn’t want to seem too Greil Marcus-y about the whole thing. (After all, it’s The Smiths…not Bob Dylan. And the song is “Still Ill” not “Like A Rolling Stone”.) Then, tonight as a dear old friend of mine was DJing at Athens’ Go Bar she played “Still Ill”. I had to tell her that it was my favorite Smiths song ever and she looked straight at me and said, “Whoa, me too!”.

Sure, it seems simple enough. Two people like the same song. Big deal. But this is a friend I’ve known well over a decade and have spent several tens of hours talking about music with. For both of us to claim the very same track as our favorite and each be surprised at the other one…well, I started thinking maybe it really does have the gravity I’ve attributed to it via my obsessive playing and analyzing of it. Maybe I’m not imagining it’s ability to speak to me because I’ve got evidence that it speaks to someone very similar to me. (Maybe I’m cranked out on a pot of coffee at 5:51 AM and this is all bullshit. But, maybe not…)

“Still Ill” was never really showcased as single (although there are 12″ versions of it floating around). It was originally released as the second track on side 2 of the bands self-titled debut album in February, 1984. Musically, it’s what we know to be the classic Smiths sound: heavily rhythmic, arpeggio-laden guitar patterns, Morrissey’s heavily emotive, and evocative, vocals…etc. (In actuality, there was no “Smiths” sound just yet. That would only come with time and, even then, not because the band was reinventing rock and roll. It wouldn’t be right to deny them their distinctiveness, however, if anything, this sounds like an early R.E.M. song.)

I’ve always been a really big fan of the way that lyrics can gain additional gravity when placed with a tune that fits them. So many times a half-written lyric on paper can sound like a Godly hymn if the tune is good enough. The Smith would have many songs that fall into this category (notably, “Hand In Glove”, “What She Said” and “Shakespeare’s Sister”). Morrissey’s lyrics for “Still Ill”, however, are perfect. There’s lots of ways to interpret Rock lyrics (especially those from a band like The Smiths) but “Still Ill”, for me, juxtaposes and conflates failed romance with a failing British economy and labor struggle in such a wonderful way that I don’t want to hear any other interpretation of it.

Unlike the majority of the Smiths catalog it contains no humor, sideways glances, deviant pranksterism or overt sadness. It’s melancholic, for sure, but it’s a melancholy born out of disillusionment, not nostalgia. (Dig: “We cannot cling to the old dreams anymore.”)

This is “Still Ill”. This is what my late Summer and Early fall have been about.

I decree today that life
Is simply taking and not giving
England is mine – it owes me a living
But ask me why, and I’ll spit in your eye
Oh, ask me why, and I’ll spit in your eye
But we cannot cling to the old dreams anymore
No, we cannot cling to those dreams

Does the body rule the mind
Or does the mind rule the body ?
I dunno…

Under the iron bridge we kissed
And although I ended up with sore lips
It just wasn’t like the old days anymore
No, it wasn’t like those days
Am I still ill ?

Does the body rule the mind
Or does the mind rule the body ?
I dunno…

Ask me why, and I’ll die
Oh, ask me why, and I’ll die
And if you must, go to work – tomorrow
Well, if I were you I really wouldn’t bother
For there are brighter sides to life
And I should know, because I’ve seen them
But not very often …
Under the iron bridge we kissed
And although I ended up with sore lips
It just wasn’t like the old days anymore
No, it wasn’t like those days
Am I still ill ?

(lyrics taken from the absolutely wonderful
Smiths fan site

MP3: The Smiths-Still Ill

(Live version from the bootleg “Thank Your Lucky Stars” recorded at the Universal Amphitheater August 26, 1986 in Los Angeles, CA.)

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3 Responses to This Night Has Opened My Eyes

  1. chnkltgy says:

    Gordo, remind me to tell you my Johnny Marr story the next time I see you. You won’t believe it.

  2. Rebecca says:

    This is my favorite Smiths song as well.

  3. Big Gray says:

    One of my favorites, too. My all time fave is hard to say, really. “I Know It’s Over”?

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