The immediate years after I graduated high school were mercurial times for me. My parents had separated toward the end of 1985 (a marriage that lasted years too long, though they imprudently got back together briefly months later, before finally imploding for good) and our family was scattered all over Brooklyn. I was in love with a boy who wasn’t yet ready to love me, or any man, back, so instead, he loved a woman – also a friend – for as long as his truth could be veiled. Feeling tossed away, and not belonging anywhere within my family’s ashes, I sought solace wherever I could find it; whether that be within my circle of friends, getting lost in gothic novels, sitting under the Verrazzano Bridge in Bay Ridge (a sanctuary since 1983, when a gay, closeted, confused friend leapt into the river below, ending his life), traipsing through the city haunting record shops, or meeting strangers cruising the men’s rooms of the MTA or Washington Square Park, which led to the bedrooms of aliens I met while being lost in the heat of summer.
I discovered The Smiths by accident, when I heard the song “Reel Around the Fountain” from their eponymous debut album a few years prior, while rehearsing for our High School’s talent show. A College Radio station was playing on a transistor radio in the corner, next to the cafeteria, where the school’s artists were creating our backdrops, and Morrissey’s atonally gorgeous voice and Johnny Marr’s oddly lovely, jangly guitars engrossed me. I was taken aback at the eccentric soundscape. The following year, their stunning follow-up Meat Is Murder was released and, of course, “How Soon Is Now” (not on the original UK release of “Meat”) became ubiquitous on “Modern Rock” radio (and many years before the song made its mark on the mainstream), making them into punk heroes, whatever that entailed. And the classic The Queen Is Dead – released in 1986 – created a legend.
It was a steamy August Saturday evening when I decided to make the solo trip to Tower Records, in the Village (almost a decade – eight years – before I would start working there myself), and while spelunking some new releases, unbeknownst to me I was being cruised by this handsome young man. He was around my age, early 20s, shorn head, dressed in jeans, ripped at the knees, and laced up boots. (“It’s 85 degrees and he’s wearing a flannel shirt tied around his waist,” I laughed to myself.) He had deep brown eyes and a swarthy gaze that I instantly glazed into. I didn’t notice him at first, but as he slowly nudged toward me, I couldn’t help but feel his eyes waiting to connect with mine. And then they did.
His name was Caesar, and he lived right there in the East Village, in a loft with a few other roommates. He worked nearby, though I can’t recall where, or what his occupation was, and he was out record buying too, to stave off the saturating humidity. After chatting for a bit with wordplay and small talk, we went back to his place. Happily, his roommates weren’t home.
A few hours later, and liking each other’s company enough to want to extend my sojourn until the next morning, we were discussing our varied musical tastes. We both listened to a myriad of musical genres. At that point, I was jazz-retardant, but he loved Coltrane (and eventually, so would I; however, it wasn’t until I started working at Tower and became supervisor of the Jazz department that the brilliant aficionados who worked with me educated me). We discussed The Clash and R.E.M, how gorgeous the new Paul Simon album was (Graceland), welcoming the overdue mainstreaming of Rap music (Beastie Boys and Run DMC were the genres biggest names), and my obsession with Kate Bush and, of course, Stevie Nicks. Then our conversation turned to The Smiths. The Queen Is Dead was released only two months prior, and we both concluded, early, that it was our favorite album of that year.
I was flabbergasted when he, then, said to me, “Hey – I have an extra ticket to see them at Pier 84 next Wednesday. Wanna come? My friend bailed for work.” so flippantly. (They were touring in support of Queen.)
Silence. Then a bellowing, “WHAAAAAT?!?!?!” erupted from my mouth, as I proceeded to jump on him, my elbow inadvertently smacking his testicles, which he grasped onto, bent over in pain, and we laughed like two naked idiots.
That Wednesday came and I met Caesar at 42nd Street on the F line. He was waiting outside on 6th avenue, and smiled that scruffy grin when he saw me. We trekked toward the piers, on 12th avenue and 44th. The area was still mostly a squalid wasteland, but we didn’t really notice that while laughing and walking toward Pier 84. I remember entering the venue during the opening act’s (the lesbian folk singer Phranc) performance, and we wormed our way as close to the front as possible, but could only muster near the middle. When her set was done, and after a short break, the Smith’s took the stage to the refrains of “How Soon Is Now,” and the crowd freaked out. Casar and I immediately started dancing in place to the sinewy guitar riffs, without realizing that the thousands of others in the room surrounding us were doing the same. Throughout this revival, Caesar and I grasped hands and screamed as each new song began, and we embraced, and we danced, and sang along, all in the spirit of the night, in a darkened room filled with a thousand dreams and perils. We were all the weirdos. We were the fags and the freaks. We were the preppies and the punks. We were the black and the white, the rebels and the feared, the incipient and the gurus. Unified by the splendor and tortured tragicomedy of St. Mope himself, Morrissey. The night was magic and must.
The show ended after the band’s fourth encore, and Caesar and I walked out into the evening, reflecting and reveling in the natural high of the evening. On the way back to the village to his place, we picked up some food from some all-night diner whose name escapes me (but I assume no longer exists), we ate, had sex, and listened to some music. Later that night, we didn’t let the palpable heat stop us from drifting off into dreamland in each other’s arms, with only the whirs of his small, table-top fan cascading the light breeze.
That searing summer, within the litany of frustration and confusion that surrounded me that left me often feeling directionless, Caesar helped conquer the nemesis that was my every day; his friendship, his sensuality, his humor and, of course, his passion, were part of the lifeboat that rescued me from the uncertainty. I wasn’t in love with him (as I loved that lost boy), but I did, indeed love him.
As the summer became the fall, Caesar and I started to drift, not for any insouciance or, for sure, lack of lust, but rather for the arcane happenstance that materializes in all of us when we’re young, and seeking something other than ourselves. It was a dalliance, albeit a cherished and beautiful one. (He had a boyfriend, too, which didn’t bother me, but it was something that would have eventually become an obstacle neither one of us could probably hurdle over.)
I saw him again a few times over the next few years, and a few times at Tower once I was employed there, and he was always in good spirits (we even hooked up with again one night when I was closing the store, and his boyfriend – whom he was living with by then – was out of town). Whenever I did see him, I would look into his eyes and think of the “I wonder what if…” of it all. But hindsight is a fool’s tool.
That summer, music bonded us. The Smiths brought us closer. Sex and friendship secured us. And then it was over. I haven’t seen Caesar since those ancient Tower days, over twenty-five years ago. Wherever he is in this world, if he still, is, indeed, in this world…whoever he is now, decades later, I hope he’s happy. I hope he thrives. And whenever he listens to The Queen Is Dead I hope he looks back on the summer of 1986 with the same poignant joy that I do. And I hope he remembers me.
Because there is still a light that never goes out.
These performances of “How Soon Is Now” and “Still Ill” are both from that same concert. Somewhere in the midst of the darkening are me, and Caesar, shoulder to shoulder, arm in arm, rejoicing.
Post Script: These days, Morrissey is a human garbage can stuffed to the lids with nationalism, nativism, and good ol’ European right-wing racism. But, once upon a time, there was The Smiths. This post was written before I knew anything of Morrissey’s politics. It’s hard to separate the art from the artist, I understand, but he’s basically a subhuman these days.