Colin Meloy is the singer and songwriter for the band the Decemberists. He is the author of The Wildwood Chronicles, a series of illustrated novels for children. He lives in Portland, Oregon. He, despite what you may think, continues to slavishly adore Morrissey.
(photo credit: Autumn De Wilde)
The Smiths’ The Queen is Dead came out on June 16, 1986. I was thirteen. I don’t think I got it until maybe the following summer, but I have a recollection of listening to it for the first time on my yellow Sony boombox while sticking little plastic glow-in-the-dark stars to the ceiling of my room. I can’t count how many times I’ve listened to it since.
Maybe my clearest memory of the record is from much later, though — during my freshman year at the University of Oregon. I was living in Spiller Hall, one of the dorms. This would’ve been the fall of 1993. In those days — and I’m sure many can attest to this — you mostly heard Steve Miller Band and Pearl Jam blaring from dorm windows. Pink Floyd and Smashing Pumpkins. I felt very out of place, living on my own for the first time— and I was having a hard time finding kindred spirits.
One day, I was loitering in my room (something I did quite a bit, I seem to remember) and there was a brief respite from the sound of Led Zeppelin and Stone Temple Pilots records jockeying for airtime. In that pause, I heard a familiar melody. Someone was playing The Queen is Dead in their dorm room across the quad. So I put on my copy and turned my speakers to the window and blasted the title track: “Farewell to this land’s cheerless marshes/hemmed in like a boar between arches…”
The Smiths will always be the music of outsiders. Discovering another Smiths fan was often like finding safe harbor in a storm.
After a moment, I imagine during the song break, someone stuck their head out of their window and started searching for where this twin record was being played. He saw my window, identified the sound coming from it. He smiled and waved. I waved. He held his CD case out his window. I held out mine.
And that was it, really. Just a sudden, unexpected discovery of a compatriot amidst some kind of fathomless ocean.
I ran into him a bit later; I can’t remember his name. We hung out a little bit. We bonded over the Smiths and Red House Painters and Cocteau Twins but, for whatever reason, friendship was elusive. Months later, the dorm emptied out for Christmas break. When the new semester began and we all returned to our cramped little dorm rooms, he didn’t come back to school. I didn’t know why, and I don’t think I wondered about it much — I think, by that time, I’d found a different circle of friends and was discovering a way to belong elsewhere. It wasn’t until a few months later that an acquaintance, someone who’d lived on the same floor as him, told me that he’d killed himself at his parents’ house in Chicago over the winter break.
The Smiths will always be the music of outsiders. Discovering another Smiths fan was often like finding safe harbor in a storm. Clearly, that safe harbor is never enough, but I think of that moment often: the two of us waving our jewel cases of The Queen is Dead over that enormous gulf between our dormitory halls, a gulf that was so much more massive than it appeared. But, for a moment — just a brief moment, really — the gulf was bridged, fingers touched, music conjoined and then, just as quickly, split apart.
(Photo credit: Colin Meloy. Taken in 2004, when the author was thirty)