The Smiths, “Half A Person”

Written by December 12th, 2011 at 9:10 am

The Smiths recorded “Half A Person” in January 1987 and released it as the b-side to the single “Shoplifters Of The World Unite” the following month. But the band would not see the year through. When their final album Strangeways, Here We Come was released in September, guitarist Johnny Marr had already left the group. They were a band just four years.

On a new Smiths tribute album coming out on American Laundromat Records this week, the California singer-songwriter Greg Laswell does a piano rendition of “Half A Person.”

“I found it to be a sort of snap-shot,” says Laswell. “Like when you see a photo of yourself and you think, ‘Is that what I look like?’”

The song is about a character who, at the age of 16, arrives in London and checks in at the Y.W.C.A. A woman writes the narrator a letter, saying she liked it more when the narrator was poor. The narrator has been looking for a third person too, for six years, hoping to share a five-second life story.

Smiths fans have often wondered if the narrator is a man or woman. Checking in at the Young Woman’s Christian Association has led some to infer the obvious. But, Morrissey told the British music magazine The Face in 1990 that the song was autobiographical. Of the woman who writes the letter, he said, “Yes, that is all absolutely true. She does exist.”

If we are to take the song as autobiographical, in 1975, at the age of 16, Morrissey was a young music fan in Manchester, who busied himself writing letters to music magazines like Melody Maker and NME.  The Smiths wouldn’t form for another six years, until 1982.

Of course, Morrissey lyrics attract plenty of controversy, and often are blurry along the lines of gender and sexuality. In the same interview with The Face, Morrissey said that he was not interested in relationships because the people he was attracted to were never attracted to him. That sounds a bit like someone who would trail a person for six years.

According to Simon Godard’s Mozipedia, an encyclopedia dedicated to all things Morrissey, the second line in “Half A Person” might well be an homage to one of the singer’s favorite lyricists, Joni Mitchell. In Mitchell’s “Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter,” from her 1977 jazz fusion album of the same name, she sings, “I came out two days on your tail.”

Morrissey has not been any more helpful shedding light on his song’s narrative. Introducing “Half A Person” in New York in 2000, he said simply, “This is about someone who’s not really a full person.” Then added sarcastically, “Who could that be? I’ve no idea.”

Asked if Laswell thinks the song is about “a socially maladjusted freak,” as one critic recently wrote, he disagrees.

“I don’t think it’s about a freak at all,” says Laswell.

“Half A Person”

Call me morbid, call me pale
I’ve spent six years on your trail
Six long years
On your trail

Call me morbid, call me pale
I’ve spent six years on your trail
Six full years of my life on your trail

And if you have five seconds to spare
Then I’ll tell you the story of my life
Sixteen, clumsy and shy
I went to London and died
I booked myself in at the Y.W.C.A.
I said, “I like it here, can I stay?
I like it here, can I stay?
Do you have a vacancy
For a back-scrubber?”

She was left behind, and sour
And she wrote to me, equally dour
She said, “In the days when you were
Hopelessly poor
I just liked you more.”

And if you have five seconds to spare
Then I’ll tell you the story of my life
Sixteen, clumsy and shy
I went to London and died
I booked myself in at the Y.W.C.A.
I said, “I like it here, can I stay?
I like it here, can I stay?
Do you have a vacancy
For a back-scrubber?”

Call me morbid, call me pale
I’ve spent too long on your trail
Far too long
Chasing your tail

And if you have five seconds to spare
Then I’ll tell you the story of my life
Sixteen, clumsy and shy
That’s the story of my life
Sixteen, clumsy and shy
The story of my life…

Written by Steven Morrissey and Johnny Marr

Tags: , , , ,

Related Articles