Can we get some "Shakespeare's Sister" up in this bitch?
All photos courtesy of author
"Can we get some "Shakespeare's Sister" up in this bitch?" Unlovable bartender Goldie calls at quarter after 2 A.M., as stragglers nurse their last beers and twist their final drunken dances. I’m not being rude—this Dundas West bar is named Unlovable, after the Smiths song. And this isn’t just last call for drinks: the night is winding down on “Smiths Is Dead Is Dead,” the 28th and last incarnation of Michael K. Newton and Scott Wade’s monthly, and the only Smiths night in the world (that theY know of) to play only The Smiths and Morrissey. All night long. “I would do a night like this for free to no one,” Michael admits. I’ve known the guy as one of Toronto’s more Eeyore-ish radio hosts and DJs for a while, and I’ve never seen him happier than he is tonight behind the decks, playing some of the most miserable music ever committed to tape. “I’m usually just sitting around listening to the Smiths anyways — I might as well try to share that feeling with the 30, 40, 60 people that show up.”
For a Wednesday night, the bar’s been packed, mostly with drinkers and huggers (it’s a noticeably affectionate crowd, especially for Toronto), sometimes with spontaneous outbursts of the kind of dancing best described as bedroom dancing: uninhibited, dramatic, charmingly awkward. “There’s sort of an escape that comes with listening to the Smiths and Morrissey. ” Scott tells me when I ask the obvious question: why do this? “Nostalgia,” Scott continues, “just everything that comes along with listening to the Smiths and Morrissey. There’s a certain feeling that’s indescribable.” “Teenagerism?” Michael adds rather self-deprecatingly. The DJs hold up a football scarf with Moz’s face on it and the word “MORRISSEY” written in place of a team.
Smiths Is Dead began in August, 2013 to mark the 25th anniversary of The Smiths splitting up. Scott approached then co-worker Michael with an idea for a one-off party playing mostly Smiths. “Basically this is a night that Michael and I wanted to go to.” Scott remembers. “We’d both been to something similar [Kevin Hegge’s former Miserable Morrissey Mondays] without knowing each other.” “[Unlovable] was fitting because it’s named after the Smiths track, and the owner of the bar is a big Smiths fan,” Michael tells me. “Then we were like, let’s take this a step further, because there are lots of Smiths and Morrissey nights all over the world but people usually do a focus — maybe they’ll do every third song a Smiths song but they still play Joy Division, the Jam, David Bowie, T. Rex. I was like ‘let’s do a night where we just play the Smiths and Morrissey.’ We mulled it over, “will everyone just leave? Will people be upset?”
With enthusiasm from the venue, the concept went ahead, and was so successful the DJs were invited to make it a monthly on the first Wednesday of each month. The ability of the world’s loneliest music to bring people together is something Michael explains pretty simply. “I think [Moz] speaks to people who might feel a little broken, and not in an obvious way a band like Papa Roach stick themselves out there to speak to people who feel like they are worthless, or angry—I think he speaks very honestly to people who might be a little flawed, but they can be flawed together, they can find someone else just as flawed, and be perfectly flawed and in love with their flaws in an honest way.” While both DJs clearly appear fanatical in their love for Moz, and have ample Morrissey tattoos—Michael has at least six (“I’m literally the boy with a thorn in his side”)—running the world’s only the Smiths-only night, in a country that Morrissey won’t even tour to, seems to be the height of their obsession, and one they’re modest about.
“On a scale of Smith-dom from 1-10, there are people who are a 12,” Michael explains, “and I don’t think I’m there.” Moz’s self-imposed ban on Canada doesn’t seem to shake Michael up either. “I get it,” he says. “I’d love to see him play Canada, obviously, but it’s a tough one... I don’t consume animals myself, but I’m not the kind of person who’s going to shit on someone else for consuming or wearing animals. He has every right to tour or not tour wherever he wants. I get that it’s a protest against our government to allow the seal culling to continue, but these are people’s histories and culture, and it’s not for me to say you can’t do that: it would be very brash for me to say ‘you’re in the wrong for doing this,’ but I understand why he’s saying it.” Still, there’s something to be said for two and a half years of dedication. Except for a Cure-centric April Fool’s joke earlier this year, which apparently lasted two songs before Smiths fans couldn’t take it anymore, the DJs really have stayed true to the program, sometimes to the point putting themselves in danger.
“We had one girl ask for Paul Simon and we were like “I don’t think you understand, I’m sorry, we can’t do it,” Michael remembers. “She got very upset about it… [eventually] her friends dragged her out of the bar. I think she was in a bad spot and she just really wanted to hear “Kodachrome.” But we weren’t gonna do it.” While less volatile patrons requesting New Order and Depeche Mode are common, apparently nobody cries at Smiths Is Dead — it’s a time for dancing and laughing. “I don’t think I’ve seen anyone cry, and if they were crying it might not be for that reason,” Michael tells me. “People dance, they get really into it, as people who love Morrissey do when they listen to him: it’s like catnip for losers. And I’m one of them, of course. People definitely get emotional, but I think it’s more like this happy release to the music.”
“I feel like the most memorable nights were nights I probably don’t remember,” Scott tells me when I ask about favourite moments, “when we were enjoying ourselves a little too much, honestly.” While this appears true, and the vibe in the bar and in my ever malleable, teenage-Smiths-fan heart, stays light all night, I do see Michael tearing up after last call. “I feel a little torn,” Scott continues when I asked him about the impending death of the concept. “Personally I just don’t have the time, but I feel I’ve given up a little bit, like it’s got to continue forever.”
Just before two as Michael queued up “Ask Me,” he let me in on the soon-to-be-retired Smiths is Dead strategy. “We play the more uppity stuff right before last call,” he confessed, which will mean his favourite part of the night is approaching: the time when those last drinks are emptying, and the DJs can pull out Morrissey’s most despondent tracks. “We’ll hit them with “Well I Wonder,” “Unlovable,” “Sea Sick Yet Still Docked,” “Asleep,” or I like to play his cover of “Moon River,” because there’s a nine-minute version that almost always brings me to tears. Then people know the bar is closed, we’re winding it down.” It’s now well after 2AM and a girl holds up a lighter during “The More You Ignore Me, The Closer I Get” and laughs while she fake sobs.
The DJs converse and decide to end the final Smiths is Dead with “Asleep.” When the track lands, every teenager’s penultimate self-pity-party, crying-with-abandon, discman-on-repeat-all-night jam (or at least I know it wasn’t just me), begins to drift over the emptying bar. Michael has a shit eating grin on his face, but over the next four minutes he grows more somber and eventually begins rambling about wishing this night could be every night, forever, and how he’s not really a DJ and he comes from nowhere, from nothing. I push myself into the arm of the wooden bench and soak in one of those moments when life gets clumsy and real.
"It's so pretty, listen," the DJ smiles, wet-eyed, as a music box gently twinkles the tune of "Auld Lang Syne” at the end of the track. The room has emptied and Goldie locks the door. "Is it cool if I play Morrissey?" Goldie asks us as she begins clearing up, "it’s a weird thing to do, but they're one band I could listen to the whole night."
Smiths Is Dead can’t die.
*Smiths is Dead will be hosting an after party if Moz ever does tour Canada again. Follow them on Facebook.
Kristel Jax is a writer based in Toronto. Follow her on Twitter.