“Smalltown Boy” is my favourite 1984 song. The year before that it was “Relax” by Frankie Goes To Hollywood but they (and that song) deserve a post all of their own…so, Smalltown Boy: the haunting voice and lyrics spoke directly to me.
My English teacher who was very fond of me because of my ability for the language and my love of all things British told me the song was about the pain and struggle for acceptance of a Scottish gay boy. I may have been a precocious child in many ways due to my love of books, but I knew very little about the gay community or even about what being gay actually meant. There were no “gays” in my village or if there were, they were in hiding. Gay rights would have been an alien concept in this rural area. My teacher and I looked up Glasgow together which is where the singer Jimmy Sommerville came (and had escaped) from. It looked desolate to my eyes and very different from my sleepy Burgundian village. And yet…
I guess it was the first time I properly understood the fact pain was a universal concept whatever the reasons behind it. When I heard the words “the love that you need will never be found at home“, I identified completely and felt that the gay boy from Glasgow and I were the same, united in this yearning for something and somewhere else. He suffered in a big city and I among the fields of wheat. We “never cried to them but to our soul.” By the time the song was released, he had already left with “everything he owned in a little black case” and so would I years later, but in 1984 it gave me hope to know he had escaped, to realise you didn’t have to put up with misery, that it would get better, that there was a place somewhere where acceptance was possible. Funny that it turned out London was Jimmy Sommerville’s destination when he ran away, because that’s where I ended up too.
Years after I had left, there was a big scandal in my village because my English teacher who had been so pleased to teach me about Britain was caught in a compromising position with a male student. It turned out he was gay, no wonder he had known so much about the gay community. Of course, I had not suspected anything at all, as I said I was precocious in some ways but still very naive in others. To this day, I cannot listen to Smalltown Boy without being transported right back to that time, it’s a song that I still love and it still means so much to me – it made me feel understood and infused me with hope.
*This is an extract from a personal essay I wrote last year. I am going to an 80’s night on Saturday and the shameless selfie is the outfit I selected this afternoon for the occasion. Sadly, I do not own a smalltown boy t-shirt so I decided to go with ‘Frankie says’ out of my 80’s t-shirt collection – yes, I have one, I still love 80’s music. And always will.*