Friday, February 21, 2014

DB's Song of the Day (day 52):"THE HAND THAT ROCKS THE CRADLE" (1984) The Smiths

Thirty years ago yesterday, The Smiths released their debut LP. I did not hear the album until 2000. The breakthrough Smiths LP for me was the third one, The Queen is Dead (1986). That and Louder Than Bombs (1987) were essential to my late Eighties listening, but that fact did not send me back for the earlier albums. I’ve never been a debut album kinda guy. I remember explaining this to Kajsa about my collection: most of the time, it’s the third album that brings in the “wider audience.” And since I’m never part of a scene myself, I’m part of the wider audience. The real test is that fourth album. I’ve seen grown men pull their own heads off (or each other’s) rather than make that 4th record.

My reasoning stands to reason, in a way. The Beatles weren’t really The Beatles until A Hard Day’s Night (the 3rd Parlophone LP); The Stones weren’t my Stones, really, until Beggars Banquet, their 7th, in the UK, or maybe Between the Buttons, their 6th. Dylan’s 2nd LP is great but it’s not til he goes electric (5th album) that I’m fully aboard. In the olden days, a musical artist took time to develop, and also released an album a year, sometimes more than one a year. The Smiths jumped out of the box with an album a year, but it was all over after the fourth studio LP. R.E.M. was an exception (in many things) because I got in on them before the real “wider audience” fourth LP (1986). I didn’t like them as much after the fifth, though they had a great 3rd act, 1992-98.

Mike Joyce, Morrissey, Johnny Marr, Andy Rourke
Anyway, The Smiths were always a little off-putting to me. Morrissey is such a character but, when in character, can be a bit much. And the first LP is a bit much. It’s also not as stellar, Johnny Marr-wise (the ax man), as the later LPs. Still, it’s easy to imagine that if you picked up The Smiths when it came out, you would be like “holy fuck!”  Today’s song is only one example of why that might be your reaction.

“The hand that rocks the cradle is the hand that rules the world” is a line from a 19th century poem about how, really, we’re all so susceptible to what our mothers (or nannies) inculcate in us. Daddies, who tend to stay out of the nursery, don’t get to wield the influence that mummies do. I’ll let you work out the Freudian implications of sons dominated by mothers, of girls molded in the image of mom. Regardless of its aptness for that age or ours, Morrissey takes it as his title and, since he sings the song as a man (we assume), might be hinting that a male hand on the cradle would, well, lead to something else. A different kind of man or woman?

When I first heard this song I was dwelling in my empty den (as I’ve described earlier) and it initially struck me as a good song for a father’s involvement with his child. It made it onto a tape I made K with songs like Lou Reed’s “Teach the Gifted Children” and R.E.M.’s “Me In Honey.”  Very wry, all that.  Because the song, while it starts with lyrics that sound very reassuring, eventually creates a very creepy sense of pedophilia.  Not out of place on an LP that ends with an evocation of the Moors Murders (of kids from 11 to 17) in mid-Sixties Manchester.  In other words, The Smith’s debut LP was warped in ways that might not be readily apparent if you weren’t paying attention.

Please don't cry
For the ghost and the storm outside
Will not invade this sacred shrine
Nor infiltrate your mind
My life down I shall lie
If the bogey-man should try
To play tricks on your sacred mind
To tease, torment, and tantalise

How’s that for a trio of acts? Morrissey is the type who will “tease, torment, and tantalise” his fans, his audience, and, well, who knows who all?  Lines like “blood on the cleaver tonight” start making us uneasy. Some might see this as a father saying he’s willing to kill (mummy, possibly) to keep the child by his side. But other lines like “there never need be longing in your eyes” strike us as odd notes, even in the happy simpatico relation of parent and child.  That hand that rocks the cradle is beginning to sound a bit oppressive.  “Climb upon my knees, sonny boy / Although you’re only three, sonny boy / You’re mine / And your mother just never knew.”  Well, there’s lots of things she might not know or never will know, now.  “I did my best for her.”  OK, maybe Dad’s just trying to overcome some negative judgments here.

But it’s the bridge that really adds unease (the three-year-old on the knee, well, that’s fine, y’know, so long as it is, and it’s kinda daring you to hear it otherwise), because, if nothing else, “it plays tricks on [our] sacred mind.”  “I once had a child and it saved my life”—one hears mothers say that all the time and we know exactly what they mean, but then: “And I never even asked his name.” That sounds like the language of the one-night-stand (we might assume that this is the mother speaking about the father, but the switch in person is dicey). Then: “I looked into his wondrous eyes / And said ‘never, never, never again’ / And all too soon I did return / Just like a moth to a flame”—we tend to hear serial killers and pedophiles and other kinds of addicts of unsavory acts say things like that.

The amazing thing about this song and why it deepened my appreciation of Morrissey, already admiring him for getting away with a song like “Girlfriend in a Coma,” is that his delivery makes all this seem unassuming. Yes, he’s singing as someone who “had a child” in the way a man could mean that, and it “saved his life.” But what did it do to the child, we might well ask. That’s not what this is about. The point is how the song takes the “cult of the child,” even the eroticization and deification of childhood—all rampant enough for ages—and makes it a saving grace, with those “untouched, unsoiled, wondrous eyes.” And so it shall be “as long as the hand that rocks the cradle is mine.” Insidious. The only thing I can think of that comes close is Nabokov’s Lolita and how Humbert Humbert “enjoys” Lo while she is, at first, utterly oblivious. “There never need be longing in your eyes.” They remain innocent. Perhaps the song is innocent too, but “see how words as old as sin / fit me like a glove.”

The glove is a detail that recalls the Moors Murders, which haunt this album, getting direct treatment on “Suffer the Children,” much as they may have haunted Morrissey in his childhood (he was six or seven when the trial was going on), but it also echoes the song “Hand in Glove” with its defiant line “the sun shines / out of our behinds.” Much of the early Smiths is about what you dare “And if the people stare / Then the people stare.”

“The Hand That Rocks the Cradle” is an extraordinary song, though perhaps of questionable taste. I'm not bothered by it because it’s done so well (though what if I'd first heard it when it came out, when Kajsa was five), and that voice of melting toffee that Morrissey can use so well sweetens most anything, murmuring “as long . . . as long . . . as long.” The song is a mindfuck.

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