“There, as it seemed to me from listening,
Were lamentations none, but only sighs,
That tremble made the everlasting air.”
Inferno: Canto IV, Stanza 9
The First Ring of Hell: Limbo
So, as Dante walked through the Gates of Hell, he eventually emerged within its first section – a drab, grey place known as Limbo. Limbo, as you’ll recall, isn’t Heaven which is reserved for those who have accepted a belief and an acceptance of Jesus as the only path to salvation. Neither can it be said that Limbo is properly Hell, for to exist there is not precisely a torment nor a punishment. Limbo is merely a timeless place, devoid of light, save for luminaries of the ancient world who had a profound influence on the Middle Ages: Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Homer, Ovid, Euclid, Hippocrates, and other so-called virtuous pagans. Even Dante’s own guide Virgil resided in this place. This cast of characters lived and died prior to the birth of Jesus Christ and thus didn’t have a chance at being saved (i.e. by baptism or otherwise). Still, this didn’t stop them from publishing and generally being fabulous.
The Smiths – The Queen is Dead (1986)
In so many ways, Limbo epitomizes The Smiths: charmingly extant in a haunted divide, singing songs for a likeminded throng who are only at peace when they’re surrounded by smart, dead people; people who once lived with unparalleled éclat. If you ever find yourself in this drab, though darkly inspiring place, I suggest you pull out your copy of The Smith’s The Queen is Dead, an album whose lyrics seem stuck between life and death, with a heartfelt disdain for both. What better record could effectively represent Limbo?
A dreaded sunny day
So let’s go where we’re wanted
And I meet you at the cemetery gates
Keats and Yeats are on your side
But you lose because Wilde is on mine
– “Cemetery Gates”
So what can I say? The Smith’s third and penultimate album. On numerous lists already, garnering many an accolade, including the perhaps hyperbolic Greatest Album of All Time from British-based NME magazine; a publication that also lauded The Smiths proper as the “most influential artist ever.” This means they’re bigger than The Beatles. A vehicle for such timeless classics as “Some Girls Are Bigger Than Others,” “Frankly, Mr. Shankly,” and, of course, “There Is a Light That Never Goes Out.” An album that officially introduced us to the irreverent, highly literate world of one Steven Patrick Morrissey and the songwriting skills and jangly musicianship of guitarist Johnny Marr.
But more than that, The Queen is Dead helped usher in that pernicious genre of Eighties music known lovingly as ‘mope rock.’ You know, the music that Bauhaus, Joy Division, Siouxsie & the Banshees, and The Cure also had a hand in crafting? This colorful albeit morose gaggle of Brits weren’t exactly angry (a la The Sex Pistols or The Buzzcoks), nor were they overly happy (Duran Duran or Wham!). They were just too brainy for their own good, caring not for things earthly or illusory…sigh.
“still I’d rather be famous than righteous or holy any day…”
– “Frankly, Mr. Shankly”
And most brainy amongst them – as well as the most revered – was Morrissey, a man as famous for his good looks, arrogant lisp, and purported celibacy as he was for his flippant take on social ills. Pitchfork Media, indie cred watchdog that it is, said of Moz that he is “one of the most singular figures in Western popular culture from the last 20 years.” High praise. To these and other cultural arbiters of taste, Morrissey is like some mythical unicorn who chose to sullenly remove his spiraling horn and clip-clop onto the stage of life, as comfortable singing show tunes as he is own gloomy and narcissistic repertoire. I seldom paraphrase, but this self-serious vegetarian and possibly homosexual heartthrob was once quoted as saying something along the lines of “listening to today’s pop music is like watching a kitten die…” That was in 1986, the year The Queen is Dead was released.
Bespeckled with cerebral references, bookish repartee, and poking fun at sexual misadventures, The Queen is Dead‘s varied songs helped me through freshman year in college, the ennui of my early twenties, and numerous break ups. It is an absolute essential album for the afterlife. And if there is any further doubt that we are now truly within Hell’s domain, check out this interesting “cover” of There Is a Light That Never Goes Out:
FYI, Miley’s snapping a selfie halfway through. I’ve certainly abandoned all hope…have you?