March 2005

James Morrison

Small, but Perfectly Formed

Meat is Murder

Some of the best things (and, to be fair, some of the worst) happen when people don’t do what they are told. A couple of years ago, Continuum, a specialist, mostly academic, publisher, began the 33 1/3 series of books. This ongoing collection consists of small, nicely produced volumes, each dedicated to a particular, seminal album. The writers, mostly well-chosen, talk about the bands, explore the background to the recording of the specific album, examine the record track by track, and summarise the album’s reception. All are very worthy and, if you like reading that sort of book, very interesting. However, as much as I love Radiohead’s OK Computer or Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures (and as much as I love reading), I wouldn’t usually seek out books about them. Joe Pernice’s take on Meat is Murder, however, is a very different thing.

As mentioned above, Pernice has not done what he was supposed to do. Instead of writing an enthusiastic and scholarly essay about what is perhaps one of the finest records from the 1980s, he has chosen to write a novella instead -- one in which The Smiths’ album is significant, but far from the most important element. This is all the more surprising because Joe Pernice is in a band himself, the quietly successful The Pernice Brothers, for which he serves as singer and songwriter. Because of this, you might expect him to have a firm grasp on what goes on behind the scenes in the difficult process of making an album.

Meat is Murder (the album) is a very English record -- the English under the awful Margaret Thatcher, more specifically -- so it’s another surprise to find that Meat is Murder (the book) is set very firmly in America. The narrator is a student at a Catholic high school in Boston:

Saint Longinus High School to be exact. It was the spring of 1985 and the Reagan era was in full, rotten bloom… The misery of marching in the rain along the narrow footpaths from building to building, from Latin to Religion, was compounded by the unavoidable puddles hearty with swollen, beached nightcrawlers. It was best to look straight ahead and just walk and try to ignore the occasional wormy cushion beneath your feet. Sound advice a lot of students took to heart while on the inside as well.

Life is so grey and dull that it makes The Smiths’ home town of Manchester look exotic, and one of the narrator’s close childhood friends has recently committed suicide -- a tragedy that has been turned into just another source of cruel jokes by most of the students at the school. It’s not the only premature death in the story, either, but despite the high body count, this is actually a story about hope. Distant, tentative hopes, perhaps, but hope nonetheless: the sort of hope the flickers into life when you hear a certain piece of music, and which is sustained in the face of disaster by the emerging beauty and complexity of that music.

The music is, of course, the album Meat is Murder, a dubbed-off copy of which the narrator is given by his best friend, Ray.

I got a lot of my music back then from Ray. I never had much money to spend on records… I didn’t even own a record player. I had my parents’ old top-loading single speaker cassette player… So Ray would give me tapes of albums he thought were important. Tapes, but no cases, and rarely any writing on them. A band name and album title at best, and always abbreviated. It was his trademark. “Clash: Rope,” “U2: Oct,” “Costello: Aim.”… it was his way of making me earn it, meaning I’d have to do the legwork to learn more about an album or a band.

Of course, The Smiths were not the safest band to love in jock-strewn mid-’80s Boston, where the level of musical criticism tends to the basic:

“I think The Smiths are a much better band than Kansas.”
“You better not say that up at the park on a Friday night, or you’ll get your fuckin’ ass kicked. What are you, a fag?”

Pernice’s novella touches on all the fundamentals of the coming-of-age tale: first (unrequited) love, religion, conflict with parents (including a mother who maddeningly, and touchingly, can never get her head around the idea that The Smiths are not, in fact, a clutch of siblings born to a Mr. and Mrs. Smith), battling to survive in school, charmless experiments with booze and fags and drugs, and falling short of your own arbitrary ideals (knowing that meat is murder doesn’t help the narrator with the fact that he “liked meat. A lot.”). But it all seems fresh, described with grimly funny clarity and precision.

Books by musicians, like books by comedians, are usually unlovely things. Even Nick Cave’s grotesque and compelling And the Ass Saw the Angel was an example of what George Orwell called "good bad books." However, this short, unassuming novella of 102 small pages captures more of youth, with all its painful, mad obsessions and enthusiasms, and all its longueurs, than any number of much longer books. If you’ve ever been young and in love with a band, you have to read Meat is Murder.

Meat is Murder by Joe Pernice
Continuum
ISBN: 082641494X
102 Pages