By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘This Charming Man’ is one of the best-known songs by the Manchester indie band The Smiths. The song has an interesting genesis: the Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr later said that he came up with the jangly guitar riff to ‘This Charming Man’ after hearing the Aztec Camera song ‘Walk out to Winter’, which was receiving considerable airplay at the time.
Motivated by jealousy, as he himself admitted, Marr wrote the music to ‘This Charming Man’ on the same night he composed the music for two other Smiths tracks, ‘Still Ill’ and ‘Pretty Girls Make Graves’ (both of which would appear on the band’s self-titled debut album). The idea was to have a more catchy and upbeat tune which would capture public interest and lead to chart success. Not a bad night’s work, I’m sure we’d all agree.
The other thing which helped to make ‘This Charming Man’ the breakthrough success for the band was Morrissey’s witty and memorable lyrics.
‘This Charming Man’: summary
The lyrics of ‘This Charming Man’ document an encounter between a younger man and an older one. The narrator of the song recalls how he got a bicycle puncture on a lonely hillside, and wondered if he will become ‘a man’ by having to endure the hardship of walking home. While asking himself this, a man passing by in his car stops to offer him a lift.
This man in the car is the ‘charming man’ of the song’s title. It’s implied that the narrator is reluctant to accept a lift from him, until the charming man wins him over by pointing out how smooth the leather passenger seat is.
There’s a suggestion (though this is only inferred) that the ‘charming man’ propositions the narrator, asking him out that very evening. The narrator replies that he would love to, but he hasn’t got anything decent to wear. The charming man responds by paying him a compliment: why should such a handsome man even care about needing clothes? He should just parade his beauty out and about on the town.
The chorus is more complex, and worthy of closer analysis. The line about the jumped-up pantry boy is an allusion to a little-known 1972 film, Sleuth, in which Laurence Olivier plays an author who is cuckolded when Michael Caine’s character – a young ‘bit of rough’ – sleeps with Olivier’s wife. Olivier’s character exacts revenge on Caine’s character by coming up with an elaborate plot involving the theft of his wife’s jewellery, used as a pretext to shoot his love-rival.
There’s a homoerotic spark between these two men, in other words: one older, one younger, one refined and one rough around the edges. This dynamic plays into the scenario Morrissey outlines in his lyrics to ‘This Charming Man’, too – although in the song, the line about returning the ring suggests something different, namely the older man advising the narrator not to marry the girl he is engaged to, in order to free himself to explore his sexuality. Such an analysis of the chorus would, after all, be in keeping with other Smiths lyrics, most notably ‘William, It Was Really Nothing’, in which the speaker advises William not to marry a ‘fat girl’ who will make him buy her a ring.
And we’re not sure, either, whether the Michael Caine character is meant to be the ‘charming man’ in the car offering Morrissey’s narrator a lift. Presumably he is the jumped-up working-class upstart or ‘pantry boy’, but look at the success he’s made of his life, with his expensive car with fine leather upholstery!
‘This Charming Man’: meaning
Viewed in light of the summary offered above, ‘This Charming Man’ is a song about homoerotic desires and relationships: the narrator on the remote hillside who is rescued by the charming man in the luxury car is initially coy (first about accepting a lift, and then about going out on the town with his new acquaintance), but there’s a suggestion that he’s drawn to this man of the world: after all, as the chorus insists, he knows so much about things like relationships.
However, if this leads us to interpret the song as charting a passionate sexual encounter, we should remember Morrissey’s own dislike of people talking to him about sex ‘in a trivial way’ when they discuss the meaning of ‘This Charming Man’ with him.
With this comment in mind, as well as the well-crafted ambiguity of the song’s lyrics – which are elliptical in that they hint at things rather than stating the full story – we might view the song as about homosocial bonding over women rather than simply an out-and-out (in more ways than one) song about an ephemeral gay tryst.
So many details in ‘This Charming Man’ could be interpreted as markers either of homosexual or heterosexual identity: nature ‘making a man of’ the narrator could refer to becoming a ‘proper’ man (in the outdated, traditional understanding of that term) by braving the elements and confronting his fear of being alone in a desolate place; alternatively, it could refer to him becoming a man by losing his virginity with the man in the car.
Similarly, the allusion to Sleuth points two ways. Is it expanding the homoerotic energies of the film (and Anthony Shaffer’s original play) into full-blown gay sex encounter, or exploring the complex relations between men and their attitudes to women? Is the narrator of ‘William, It Was Really Nothing’ trying to seduce William for himself, or simply cautioning him against marrying someone he doesn’t really love?
Whilst it’s tempting to reply that there must be more to it than mere friendly advice, the brilliance of ‘This Charming Man’ is that the song’s lyrics don’t actually tell us there is more. Not in so many words, at least. The point is surely that the narrator is confused about his feelings and attitudes towards his hillside saviour: although it’s made clear that the charming motorist finds the narrator attractive (calling him handsome), we are left to wonder how the narrator responds to this.
Indeed, when we analyse the lyrics more closely, we realise that for much of the song, once he’s shown up in it anyway, the charming man is the one whose words are being relayed to us. The narrator’s own voice is either reporting what happened (the bicycle puncture) or what was said (especially what the charming man in the car said to him), or else asking an ambiguous question about whether he will be ‘made a man of’ yet. Has the time come? Is it now? How soon is ‘now’?