Half a Person

“Sixteen clumsy and shy.” Though I have always loved The Smiths’ great song of queer teenaged heartache “Half a Person,” it has never spoken to me as intensely as when I was going through an early-middle-age divorce with young children: the whole brutal yet banal package. The ambiguity and duality of the song deeply appeals to my conviction that I am also living the life of “half a person” as a single mother of two young boys. Of course, my boys, as children of divorce, also live the dichotomy of split selves on a daily basis, torn – even if only subconsciously – between loyalties to mother and father, through no fault of their own. The messiness of adult sexuality falls squarely on the shoulders of the adults in the room. Still, I perpetually feel as if I exist on two planes: the disciplined kid-caretaker who is always there for my boys when they are with me, with a running tab of the week’s playdates, doctor’s appointments, soccer games, homework and hurt feelings; and what one of my fellow badass single moms calls the “feral bachelorette,” juggling previously inaccessible events such as impromptu invitations to Dead Kennedys concerts, day drinking with child-free friends, the anthropological experiment that is online dating, and swimming in freezing lakes in the High Sierras. And yeah, far more than she participates in any of these activities, the feral bachelorette works like a maniac.

This inherently split personality post-divorce has its roots both in my ethnic/cultural heritage and in my relationship to The Smiths as a band. As a Chicana growing up in 1980s Los Angeles, I have loved The Smiths since long before I knew it was an especially Los Angeles-inflected Chicanx thing to do. The Smiths, mind you, not just Morrissey, despite the sustained focus on his Mexicanness-by-association, the christening of LA by his Chicanx/Latinx fans as “Moz Angeles,” and the existence of Morrissey and Smiths cover-version bands such as the Chicanx LA-based group Sweet and Tender Hooligans and the Mexican band Mexrrissey. Like any good Smiths fan, I knew that the band lived and died by the union of Morrissey’s morosely humorous lyrics and Johnny Marr’s jangly, joyful guitar riffs.  But despite how large Morrissey has always loomed, Johnny Marr was always the focal point for me. Sure, I was always a little bit in love with the mop-haired guitar hero. While I memorized Morrissey’s witty, literary lyrics, I obsessed just as hard over Marr’s versatile “jingle-jangle” guitar prowess, which few of my peers seemed to care that much about. And because I have always been nothing if not contrarian, at fourteen I proudly proclaimed myself #teamjohnnymarr and never looked back.

In my predilection for Marr I was swimming not only against popular consensus but also against my own Chicanx culture. Virtually every consideration of the Smiths and Chicanismo in the media and critical texts hinges on Morrissey, even as they generally privilege Chicanx and Latinx fans’ creative expressions of fandom, as in the book Mozlandia: Morrissey Fans in the Borderlands, by Melissa Mora Hidalgo. Likewise, Kerri Koch’s 2010 documentary Passions Just Like Mine, foregrounds the question of why there are so many “Latino, Hispanic, Mexican Morrissey fans, especially in Los Angeles.” Yet Koch’s documentary only mentions Johnny Marr once, and only in relation to Morrissey’s past. Public Radio International’s Susie Blair further highlights the solidarity in angst and alienation that Chicanx fans feel with Morrissey, and the way that his music “evokes the classic ranchera genre that relies on romance, morose metaphors, and slow-moving ballads;” but never mentions Marr at all, even though he was the co-songwriter for all of the Smiths’ music.

My own experience of tension between cohesion and division along the Morrissey/Marr axis makes perfect sense in the context of The Smiths’ history. Many bands’ demises are more akin to divorce than to death; many even incorporate the requisite love triangle myth of the woman who intrudes upon the barely-concealed eroticism of the inseparable genius male pair, a la Yoko Ono. But The Smiths’ “divorce” was uniquely prolonged and acrimonious. With characteristic solipsism, in his autobiography Morrissey alludes to The Smiths’ end as something that happened to him twice: “If the Smiths split was designed to kill me off, then it failed. If the Smiths court case was a second attempt to kill me off, it too must fail.” The Smiths’ breakup is generally attributed to Johnny Marr’s desire to play different musical styles with other musicians. Recently, however, he has described his unhappiness with the pressure placed on him to manage the band; a service-oriented labor reminiscent of wifely caretaking. Marr held out for a sign that one of The Smiths “might do something to salvage the situation,” but the press preemptively announced that he had in fact left the band. In Marr’s own words, he “faced up to the inevitable and announced that he was leaving The Smiths.”

But the animosity behind The Smiths’ breakup has nothing on the all-out war of their court case. In 1996, Mike Joyce, the band’s drummer, sued Morrissey and Marr for an equal share of performing and recording royalties from The Smiths. Joyce won the case and was awarded damages of around one million pounds from Morrissey and Marr. Both parties discuss the case in their respective autobiographies. Marr is direct and concise, declaring “The Smiths as a band were not equal…Morrissey and I formed it, and…we managed it, and usually managers take 20 percent of a band’s income before the band members take their share.” For his part, Morrissey sharpens his most florid knives for his takedown of Joyce, calling him “a flea in search of a dog” and announcing, “Having been rescued by the Smiths in 1983, [Joyce] was again rescued in 1996 by the ensuing fame of the court case, beginning once more to be known, and beginning once more to profit by latching onto Morrissey and Marr.” In spite of their intensifying iconicity, The Smiths’ legacy has also devolved into political farce. Morrissey’s famously eccentric (if generally defensible) political stances of animal rights protection and anti-Crown rhetoric have bled into outright xenophobia, racism and misogyny as when he described Chinese people as a “subspecies” because of their treatment of animals, or in his recent, ill-advised defense of Kevin Spacey and Harvey Weinstein against allegations of rape and sexual harassment.

The Smiths’ prolonged divorce has even inspired parody through false rumors of a band reunion. Lead guitarist Joselo Rangel of the Mexican rock band Café Tacvba published “The Smiths Reunion” in a Mexico City newspaper, chronicling his orchestration of a secret rehearsal with all four Smiths in a house in Tepoztlán, Morelos (“La reunión de los Smiths”). That Joselo published his column on December 28, “Día de los Santos Inocentes,” an April Fools’ Day-style holiday in Mexico, does not make the letdown of the inevitable joke sting any less. The fans’ desperate hope that The Smiths might reunite one day echoes the fondest desires of children of divorce that their parents will one day get back together, even in the face of screaming matches, subsequent relationships, and tenuous mutual détente. But unlike the many other bands who have heeded the siren call of dollar signs promised by the ubiquitous reunion tour, The Smiths, like most divorced couples, are never ever getting back together.

And yet. The collateral damage for children, fans, parents and bands in the wake of both musical and personal divorce means that lots of people are living a split existence as “half a person.” For me, being half a person means worrying about and missing my boys when I am not with them so much that it physically hurts. It feels like I am permanently missing two limbs. It also means, somehow at the same time, a delirious, if fleeting, sense of escape. Dave Eggers’ reflection on being a 20-something single caretaker of his young brother after their parents’ untimely deaths in A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius really resonates: “Then out the door, down the steps and into the car and as I’m backing out of the driveway there is the usual euphoria – Free! –which pretty much  overtakes me… Then, at the moment that I am turning the corner, I become convinced… – it happens every time I leave him anywhere – that Toph [Eggers’ brother] will be killed.” When your freedom is tinged with fear and guilt, maybe you can’t really call it freedom. But if that is what life in the trenches post-divorce, post-kids gives you, you had better take it.

In my irrational moments, I worry that I am damaging my boys by not providing them with a normative household in our rather normative small college town, though I am acutely aware that there has never been any such thing. But even more so, I know that I have never been normative. I have always had something of a split personality: American/Mexican, English/Spanish, introvert/wild card, virgen/puta. I tell myself that these multiple, split selves are inevitable for me, that they exemplify Gloria Anzaldúa’s borderlands condition and new mestiza consciousness with its “tolerance for contradictions,” its “tolerance for ambiguity.” Since I have spent a lifetime living this reality, and over half a lifetime researching and writing about it, I am certainly accustomed to the “plural personality” that such an existence requires, and the simultaneity of multiple selves that transcends a simple tolerance for contradictions. I don’t always own this ambiguous condition, but it is never too late to do so.

So I return to The Smiths’ “Half A Person” to understand that the song, like most of our lives, deliberately presents a scenario where it is impossible to determine a single identity for the speaker. As the titular girl/boy describes running away from a small town to the safety of the London YWCA, scrubbing women’s backs while pining for their forsaken (female) love interest, the heartache inherent to inhabiting multiple genders, sexualities, and even ages is ever-present. The space of the YWCA clearly suggests the queer potential of women’s empowerment. But the speaker’s plea, “I said I like it here, can I stay?,” also hints that they could be a boy drawn to the YWCA not in search of sexual awakening, but rather, of desperately longed-for motherly devotion. In “Half A Person,” identity is halved with all of the heartbreak that that implies, but it is also multiplied, continually shifting into new possibilities that simultaneously conjure present, past and future selves. Ultimately, the song teaches me that being half a person is not a failure, but nor it is the only path available to me. Instead, for me “Half A Person” reflects the logical expression of my intrinsic multiplicity: “That’s the story of my life.”

–Desirée A. Martín is Associate Professor of English at UC Davis, where
she specializes in Chicanx, Latinx, and US-Mexico border studies. She
is currently working on a book on Latinx cultural media and
translation, and she still listens to far more 80s goth/new wave/punk
than is seemly.