In Hear This, A.V. Club writers sing the praises of songs they know well. This week: some great songs with prominent literary references.
The Smiths, “Shakespeare’s Sister” (1985)
Few bands could hold a candle to the incessant literary and historical name-drops offered by The Smiths, specifically their lyrical frontman, Morrissey. Caligula, Middlemarch, Oscar Wilde: Enraptured Smiths fans barely needed to scratch any song’s surface to enjoy the pop-culture potpourri spilling out of the tortured yet engaging lyrics. As guitarist Johnny Marr described the band’s songwriting process, he would come up with a typically hooky lick or riff, and give Morrissey a tape of it. Then the lyricist would take the music and just fill it with words, which could consist of anything at all.
So a song like “Shakespeare’s Sister,” which you would think would be about, you know, Shakespeare, turns out to be anything but. The title (which in turn inspired its own band name) is actually taken from one of Morrissey’s formative growing-up volumes, A Room Of One’s Own, where Virginia Woolf opined that if Shakespeare had had a sister of equal talent, she would have been ignored. Others have also pointed to the song’s inspiration in the work of Elizabeth Smart, and traced its plot to Tennessee Williams, as Morrissey whines, “I’m off to meet the one I love / Oh Momma, let me go,” referencing The Glass Menagerie.
Morrissey masterfully wove all of his reading material and drama history into pop-music confections like no other, only bolstered by the other amazing members of The Smiths. The unmistakable guitarist Marr, in particular, offers a frantic, razor-like edge to this song (mirrored by a fierce keyboard line), slyly slowing down the tempo mid-stream, before kicking into the thrash again. But Morrissey may have gone to the homage well too often: Only he could have offered us lyrics as entertaining as “I thought that if you had an acoustic guitar / Then it meant you were a protest singer/ Oh I can smile about it now but at the time it was terrible.” Even the song’s opening lines were more poetic and despondent than anything else pop was offering at the time: “Young bones groan / And the rocks below say/ ‘Throw your skinny body down, son.’” Virginia Woolf, who wound up putting those rocks in her pockets, would have understood completely.
Though not a big single for the band, Morrissey nonetheless called it the “song of my life.” Marr also remembered it fondly, telling Mojo in 2011, “For me, ‘Shakespeare’s Sister’ was pulling an odd star out of the sky. I had imagined this strange song and strange sound. Morrissey encouraged me and then we captured it.” The resulting Smiths hodge-podge in “Shakespeare’s Sister” created the perfect encapsulation of this legendary band.