The songbook of The Smiths is often cited as “The Songs That Saved Your Life”. Songs that define you. Songs that changed the way you see the world.

Therefore, this week, with the autumn cuddling up at our doorsteps and Morrissey’s debut novel only weeks short of release, we look into the meaning of one of his greatest and most haunting songs.

The song, written in 1986 by Johnny Marr and Morrissey – allegedly on the stairs of Mayfair Studios, London – is one of the lesser known songs by the group. It has remained a fan favourite, although rarely played live by Morrissey.

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

The song is about a character who, arrives in London and checks in at the YWCA. A woman writes the narrator a letter, saying she liked it more when he was hopeless and poor

And she wrote to me, equally dour
She said: “In the days when you were
Hopelessly poor
I just liked you more…

The reflection on a past life’s teenage misery continues…

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
The story of my life…

Half A Person’ is one of The Smiths most brilliant works. Morrissey’s voice of longing and passion, blends perfectly with Marr’s chords progression of sheer melancholy, from a reverb, dripping guitar. It has also been speculated that the song borrows little bits lyrically from Joni Mitchell’s ‘Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter’ and Elvis Presley’s ‘Guitar Man’. This, however has never been confirmed and might as well just be a coincidence.

Speaking to The Face in 1990, Morrissey said that the song was autobiographical. About the woman who writes the letter, he said, “Yes, that is all absolutely true. She does exist.” However, years later, when introducing the songs during a concert in New York, he said, “This is about someone who’s not really a full person.” Then added sarcastically, “Who could that be? I’ve no idea.”

As with so many of Morrissey’s lyrics, there is always a twist and plenty of room for speculations, and we’ll never know. But that’s the beauty of it.

Now, listen to the song and make it your own – and who knows – it might save your life, as it did mine.

Morrissey’s novel, List of the Lost, is out on September 24th.

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Words: Anders Knudsen
Photo: Stephen Wright