Arjun Basu is the author, most recently, of the much-loved novel “Waiting for the Man.” In 2008, he published “Squishy,” a collection of short stories that was shortlisted for the ReLit Prize. His stories have been published in many literary journals, including Matrixand Joyland. He also writes 140-character short stories he calls Twisters on Twitter (@ArjunBasu), which have won him a Shorty Award, lots of press, and a worldwide following. Arjun lives in Montreal with his wife, son, and dog.
We’d watched the Habs defeat the Flames for the Stanley Cup at a Husky station just outside of Swift Current, Saskatchewan. Looking back at that time, I don’t know quite what made us leave Montreal during the finals, but we did, four of us, packed into an overpacked Toyota Tercel, making the summer pilgrimage to Banff, driving cross-country, our version of “On The Road.”
In 1986, we’d just graduated from CEGEP, one of those uniquely Quebec things, kind of like junior college, but really senior high, except that you were treated like an adult without being expected to be one. It’s a pity the system hasn’t taken in the rest of Canada, but like beer in corner stores and swearing in (at least) two languages, some things are just better in La Belle Province. The plan was to summer in Banff, because that’s what you did then (it was either that or plant trees in some hellish black fly infested nowhere and Banff sounded more comfortable). My mother, unsure that I’d ever return (and she wasn’t half wrong) cried upon my departure as I walked toward my friends waiting in the bright yellow Tercel.
Something about the time change between Manitoba and Saskatchewan screwed us up, or perhaps we were just stoned, which was likely, so when we realized the time it was almost too late to watch game 5 of the finals. We pulled into that Husky station outside of Swift Current only to watch the dying minutes of the third period, alongside three rather beefy men in overalls, all wearing Flames baseball caps, and so our cheering was muted and I remember leaving the station quickly. Our joy erupted properly in the safety of the car.
Less than a month later, we’d settled in Banff, four guys living in two bedrooms, an apartment stuffed with junk yard salvage furniture, all of us working service jobs, mostly revolving around food (I was delivering bread to the town’s restaurants). And then I heard that The Smiths had just released a new album. And to me, this was a big deal.
An aside: I can trace my trajectory from high school prog rock fan – I was a very big Yes fan – to Roxy Music (and even touches of the new romantics like ABC) to bands like the New York Dolls and then to The Smiths. Roxy Music was the pivot. Noisy Roxy Music, the Brian Eno influenced noise, took me toward The Pixies. Romantic Roxy, post Eno, when Bryan Ferry decided he looked really swell in velvet, toward The Smiths.
And so we rolled into Calgary to find the kind of record store that might carry anything by The Smiths. We took another friend’s car, also from Montreal, a car still slathered with the dirt collected across Canada, still etched with our paeans to the Habs and to their glory, attracting dubious stares – and more than one middle finger – from the locals.
We found the store. A store. I wish I could remember the name or even what part of town it might have been in. Or how, exactly, we had found it. I bought a cassette. It was the only way we were going to hear the album immediately. And then we headed back toward Banff. And once we hit the highway, which in those days was just outside of the Olympic Park, we turned on the car stereo. And then we just listened to the thing. An ancient singer (Cicely Courtneige) belting out “Take Me Back to Dear Old Blighty.” And then an astonishingly furious assault on the drums by Mike Joyce. And then Johnny Marr’s magical almost extravagant feedback. And then a furious intro built up to the first verse.
And that first verse ended with:
Charles don’t you ever crave
To appear on the front of the Daily Mail
Dressed in Your mother’s bridal veil
And though I didn’t yet know of the Daily Mail’s politics, I understood the song’s. And then later on:
But when you’re tied to your mother’s apron
No one talks about castration.
I found it hard to breathe. The assault of the entire final instrumental section – the thing starts to sound like an epic jam session – made the song feel like it was recorded live. You could feel the vitality emanating from the car stereo. The rest of the album felt like a power saw cutting through your flesh but that opener… It became my song that summer. More than “Bigmouth Strikes Again” (which may have been a better song). More than “There is a Light That Never Goes Out” (which may have been one of the best songs The Smiths ever recorded). The irreverence and humor mixed with serious social commentary, with genuine – but witty – anger, of The Queen Is Dead hit me almost everywhere I was willing to be hit.
I didn’t return to school that autumn. I had decided to do something with my writing. I’d just heard of Creative Writing as something you could get a degree in. This seemed silly and funny and convenient and remarkably lucky all at once. And I left Banff later, when the snows had just started to fall (and stay), with the mountains turning from grey to white. The mountains still echoing with the wah wah feedback wall of noise from Johnny Marr’s magical guitar, Morrissey fading out with his sad and perfect refrain:
Life is very long, when you’re lonely.