Bono and Salman Rushdie, 1993.
By Robert Fay
Discovering The Smiths in 1980s suburban Boston was something akin to Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg realizing he could remain a badly-dressed programmer and be a billionaire. The Smiths bridged the gap between my adolescent crush on bands like The Cure and Echo & The Bunnymen and my deeper, nearly maritally commited devotion to the novels of W. Somerset Maugham, D.H. Lawrence and Ernest Hemingway. This may seem like a rather insignificant achievement, but in the Boston of my youth rock n’ roll largely meant shop kids who drove Camaro Z-28s and wore tattered Ozzy Osbourne concert t-shirts. And while I’m not familiar with the complete Ozzy discography, I feel safe in assuming there are relatively few songs referencing, let’s say, the works of fellow Birmingham native W.H. Auden.
In The Smith’s song “Cemetery Gates,” Morrissey sings, “And I meet you at the cemetery gates; Keats and Yeats are on your side; But you lose; ‘Cause weird lover Wilde is on mine.” After a few listens, I realized it was true, there were other odd ducks like myself, stoned on the romance of literature and music and beauty. I must confess, however, I’ve never had much use for John Keats or William Butler Yeats, but Oscar Wilde and De Profundis occupy a hallowed position in my adolescent pantheon alongside Walden and Kurt Vonnegut’s God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater (I was admittedly an eclectic reader).In fact, anyone who claims they don’t love Oscar Wilde should be whisked away and imprisoned in the nearest 19th Century English gaol, or Guantanamo Bay, whichever is closer. Yet the point is not precisely which writer Morrissey was singing about, but simply that a pop singer was stating his communion, not with groupies or the almighty dollar, but with literary culture.