(Original Broadway Cast Recording)
I cannot bring myself to listen to this CD. Or these CDs. It’s a double album. I got it on my birthday when I turned 19, or maybe 20. I had asked for Les Miserables because weeks or months earlier I was riding with my friends on the way to the beach to go surfing, and they were playing it on the stereo. The car was a dumpy, red, Chevy Blazer. The driver always left his wetsuits in the back, and it smelled like mildewed rubber.
So my friend doing the driving, and my other friend riding shotgun, had apparently fallen in love with the soundtrack to Les Miz in the week or so since I’d last seen them. They normally listened to REM’s Document, over and over and over. Now, to my dismay, they were playing at high volume a ballad by a sweet-voiced young woman, singing her heart out for a man who doesn’t love her. A musical? I asked, mockingly. We’re listening to a musical?
And yet, like a scoffer of a cult who, through sweet coercion and with remarkable speed, becomes a willing and earnest convert, I soon succumbed to the charms of the form. Because I was in the backseat, surfboards stacked across the folded seat to my left, my friends felt distant. I was wrapped in a little pocket that was lined with this woman’s heartbroken song. Despite my aversion to anything other than rock and/or roll, I, just like my companions up front, found myself smitten, overwhelmed by the singer’s bathetic crescendo. The softly sung denouement (“I love him, I love him, I love him–but only on my own”) was like a warm bed after a good cry. I left that car with a new thought in my head: I would like to hear this woman sing this song again. Many times again.
I’m not sure I’ve quoted the lyrics correctly. I refuse to look them up, just as I refuse to fish out Les Miz from the stack of CDs in the back of my office. I have a problem with the past. I am unable, or unwilling, to forget what’s embarrassed me, even when it’s been transfigured by hindsight and age into a charming or entertaining story. An example: One time, in 8th grade, before school started, I decided to play a prank on a pair of girls I noticed walking, a few yards away, on the blacktop: I’d run in front of them and pretend to be catching a football coming from behind and above their heads. They would duck and scream in panic, I’d say “ha ha, just kidding!” and then—what? They’d ask me to take them to the 8th-grade dance? (O Lord, what was I thinking?) Off I went, sprinting toward the two, my arms outstretched and waiting for my imaginary spiral, when I tripped and fell not ten feet before them. My elbows were grated like cheese as I slid on the asphalt.
There are, alas, no time machines. I can’t go back and shake me by my terry-cloth collar and say, “Young man, think this through.” But if I did have a time machine, I’d need loads of fuel: There are dozens of moments, from about fourth grade and on into my forties, I’d like another crack at.
What does any of this have to do with Les Miz? Well, because I suspect the soundtrack is terrible from start to finish, I don’t want to be doubly embarrassed: First, by my insane, emotional response to one, particularly sentimental song; and second, by how much I enjoyed the whole shebang at the time. Some of it, even then, I knew was bad: “Lovely ladies come along and join us COME ALONG AND JOIN US.” Chewing the scenery a bit, eh singers? But for the most part, I found Les Miz profound, when maybe I should have been—ironically on the outside but secretly in tears— reveling in its self-important, trashy-tasteful aesthetic.
This is a diagnosis of my weak constitution. I was—heck, still am—susceptible to grand gestures of lonesome woe-is-me-ness. All through high school I was getting my fix for it from Robert Smith, of The Cure (dreamy, resplendent, mopey) and Morrissey, of the Smiths (witty, self-reflexive, ironic). I must have listened 1,000 times on my Walkman, while I mowed the lawn, to that little, imagined dialogue Morrissey has on “I Know It’s Over.” In it I heard my fears voiced (“tonight is like every other night, that’s why you’re on your own tonight”), along with a resolve that might assuage them: “It’s so easy to laugh, it’s so easy to hate, it takes strength to be gentle and kind…”
Other songs continued the theme: From the Pretty in Pink soundtrack I heard “Please, Please, Please Let Me Get I Want,” my first encounter with the Smiths, singing a desire I shared but would never myself utter. “Unloveable” embodied a gambit I seriously considered but somehow (mercifully) never tried: If I declare how unloveable I am, then surely the unnamed object of my affections will come round to tell me, No, it isn’t true! You ARE loveable! I took from these songs the idea that self-pity can be used as a pre-emptive strike on anyone’s apathy in the face of one’s obvious awesomeness: “I know that you would like me if only you would see me,” Morrissey sang, and I sang in my car those words with him, making them my own. This kind of thinking comforted me in my own quiet performances of humility and self-denigration.
If this sounds a little over-the-top, it’s probably because at the time I took Morrissey’s persona at face value, failing to recognized how laced with humor and deliberate exaggeration it was. I listened to “Reel Around the Fountain” and “There is a Light that Never Goes Out” and believed that the weight of love and unspoken desire is as crushing as a ten-ton truck–which, of course, it is. But it’s not what a seventeen-year-old needs, or not what this seventeen-year-old needed, since it merely amplified my already melodramatic, hormonally charged disposition. It was like spiking a Redbull with coffee and speed.
Last year, in Slate, Forrest Wickman wrote a polemic “Against Subtlety,” which calls out the notion that subtlety is the hallmark of good art. He approvingly recounts Pauline Kael’s description of the great, unsubtle Citizen Kane: “‘a shallow masterpiece’ that is ‘overwrought’ with ‘obvious penny-dreadful popular theatrics.’” The same critique could be applied to Morrissey’s lyrics, especially in that first qualifier: They are shallow because they come from a shallow place—a childish, if very real, wanting to be loved as much as possible by the person sitting right there, in the seat next to you, blind to how much you want them, and who cannot, for whatever reason, be alerted to the emotional tsunami gathering strength at their elbow.
While the brilliant mordancy of Morrissey’s lyrics was lost on me, that doesn’t mean I was necessarily misreading them. (Though I confess I didn’t know why claiming someone was a fan of Keats or Yeats was such a diss.) Recently, over dinner, I told a friend who also loved the Smiths back in the day that it was perhaps bad for me to have listened to them as much as I had, especially since I was able to perceive in them the delicious melodrama but not the knowing exaggeration. Because I was unable to tell the difference between Morrissey singing “I Won’t Share You” and Brian Adams singing “Heaven,” it meant that all expressions of unrequited love worked on my unprotected heart, especially, embarrassingly, when performed by—why is this so weird to write?—a woman. Maria McKee singing “Wheels”: Cough-cough. Madonna singing “Crazy for You”: Cough-hack-cough. Eponine, standing beside the river, singing of the one she loves but cannot have (Jean Valjean? Marius? Uh, me?): Wheez, hack, cough.
In short, I can’t revisit this album because it means revisiting a host of other issues that belong in a therapy session, not here in a semi-weekly column. Les Miz fails to admit what all musicals, and all people, should: That while it is necessary, at times, to break into song, it’s also necessarily ridiculous. I didn’t know that then, but I do now.
[Next up: Beulah, When Your Heartstrings Break]
Read the rest of Chris Davidson’s entries here.