Benjamin Kunkel: “Breasts Feel Like Ankles”

06/19/2009 11:13 AM |

a690/1245359101-41tm8rvdlkl.jpgYou know what I did when I heard that a new book called Heavy Rotation: Twenty Writers on the Albums That Changed Their Lives (out June 23rd) would contain an essay, by Indecision writer Benjamin Kunkel, about The Queen is Dead by the Smiths? Well, I rolled my eyes, obviously, exactly the way you just did. But here’s the thing: he may now be responsible for the definitive piece of writing about the Smiths—his understanding of the technical aspects of their music and the complicated relationships between Morrissey’s voice and the rest of the instruments, is impressive to say the least, and more than a little bit surprising.

What’s less surprising, of course, is the extent to which he understands the band’s overall vibe and what it can mean to a teenager if it hits at exactly the right moment. A few of my favorite passages after the jump.

Discussing what it felt like finally to have found music that his parents, who were unbothered by things like Husker Du and R.E.M., couldn’t stand.

“I felt credentialed as a teenager. And in this way I duplicated the Smiths’ own discovery, namely that if there is one adolescent attitude more insufferable than the punk rock sneer, it’s that combination of superiority and self-pity best expressed by Morrissey. While beneath the abject vocals runs—most perverse of all!—a current of delight.”

On wanting to seem dangerous without actually wanting to do anything dangerous.

“The appeal of the Smiths’ name came from the strangely arrogant declaration of commonness, and I liked the punkish implication of regicide in the title The Queen is Dead. That went “God Save the Queen” one better, without implying, as listening to the Sex Pistols would have done, that I harbored any intention of ever having sex.”

And, finally, on breasts. (This is not, it should be noted, the definitive text on breasts, because as far as I know, anyway, they have very little in common with ankles.)

“After having been a boy ignored by girls, suddenly I was fending off requests to “go” with them; and when away games and tournaments took us to other schools (I was a starting linebacker on the football team, a benchwarmer at basketball, and a very erratic wrestler), more girls petitioned me with folded notes containing phone numbers. The change was a boon, since being attractive, if you’re feckless and morose, can substitute for actual activity, and permits you, above all, to feel that your isolation from the human race owes as much to your rejecting it as to its rejecting you. In practical terms, however, I had no idea what to do with my looks besides trade them for the opportunity to get my hands on some mammary glands. And yet when I succeeded for the first time in effecting this momentous transaction I learned that tits, to the touch, were no different from regular skin, like you’d find on someone’s ankle or belly.”

The book, published by Harper Perennial, is out on Tuesday, June 23.

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