Anyway, I was lying on a blue sleeping bag at my friend’s big house, whispering, trying to rub the ache out of my eyes and stay awake, get more words out. There were three of us, playing Truth Or Dare. When you’re fifteen years old, intense conversation comes cheap. I suppose at that age you’ve begun to know how important it is to articulate yourself, without any real idea how to weight and guard what it is you’re saying. “What would you say was the biggest turning point in your life?” Sam asked me, and I said it was the first time I heard The Smiths. Sam snorted with affront: “Come on, give us a serious answer”, he said. Crushed, I no doubt muttered something about how I really couldn’t think of anything else..

Which was true. I had a happy childhood in the classic English bourgeois fashion: I read voraciously, I explored expansive gardens, I daresay I even forded a stream or two. I listened to the Top 40 every week, and a friend and I would spend blissful afternoons in a haze of pointless pop solipsism, writing out chart after chart of our own, including whichever hits we were into at the time. The remaining spaces were taken up by our invented singles, most of whose titles sounded like bad Dungeons And Dragons modules. At thirteen I went to boarding school on a scholarship: the only records I owned were Ultravox’s Rage In Eden and Eurythmics’ Revenge, and my painful awareness that both of these were terminally limp ensured they were kept out of sight.

English boarding schools are academically brilliant and socially evil. At that school I had a fantastic education despite my best efforts to fuck it up by hitting puberty and hating the place for my first two years. I also learned a lot of other things. My parents have always told me that I wasn’t the rebellious type, and that was true, sort of. I walked a sad tightrope between trying to impress cooler kids through imitation and my mortal terror of wrathful authority figures. In practise this meant listening to a lot of albums and reading a lot of things that other people liked, and then chickening out whenever said other people went for a quick smoke on the roof or shared out cans of Special Brew.

It was a two-bit existence, but it stopped me getting bullied. Like most shy kids, I was secretly rebelling all the time, but only against myself: looking at photos from those days, I literally can’t recognise the gawky, freaky kid with bad specs and bad hair and too-short trousers. But at the same time I get a disjunctive shock, remembering being that person, supercilious and insecure, who read science fiction all the time and tried to persuade himself Roger Waters was saying something profound, who hated looking in mirrors not just because he thought he was hideous but because he had no earthly idea who he was.

Executive summary: I was as ripe for Steven Patrick Morrissey as a boy could possibly be.

Some memories are so vivid you’re suspicious of them, as if you’ve polished them in your mind that bit too much, until they turn into little fragments of your own personal myth. Me hearing The Smiths was one of those moments: my dad’s study, “Panic” on the walkman. “The music that they constantly play / It says nothing to me about my life….hang the DJ, hang the DJ, hang the DJ…” – did he really say that? You couldn’t say stuff like that in pop music – lyrics had to be “I Should Be So Lucky”, or they could be ‘meaningful’ and thick with metaphor and allusion and all of that heavy poetic stuff you could sit around and discuss with your mates. You couldn’t, surely, get away with writing lyrics as straight-talking and bitchy and with such a raging, flamboyant sense of entitlement as those. I missed my supper through pressing rewind and listening again. This was it.

Some weekly music writer had a line on Morrissey which went like this: listening to Moz is a kind of Faustian pact. He can offer you an escape route from the torture of adolescence, but the price of that escape route is that you delay learning a lot of the hard, valuable lessons puberty teaches you, leaving you with a gap in your life where teenage experience should be: Morrissey legitimises, even valorises arrested development. I’d go along with that: when I first heard The Smiths I had never even attempted to chat anyone up, say, and what my limited ‘reading’ of their records gave me was a justification for never trying from then on, too. “When you want to live, how d’you start, where d’you go, who d’you need to know?” – you can hear those lines as a howl from someone desperate to know the answers, or you can hear them as an admission that even attempting ‘living’ is going to be too much hassle, and you can hold that admission to you like a security blanket.

The Smiths on their most immediate level attract the suffering mind like religion does, or extreme politics, by offering a way of being in the world which restores some kind of sense to it. They explain to you exactly why you walk through life every day feeling like everything’s somehow crooked, and why the tiniest encounters with your fellow men seem like breeding grounds for humiliation and despair. Like a religious initiate, you know that you are indeed set apart from other people, not however by holiness but by your sensitivity and intelligence, and must lead a life of celibacy and exquisite anguish. This may seem like a grotesque caricature of the teenaged Smiths-fan mindset circa 1988, but I was there, I wore the T-Shirt and wrote the bloody awful poetry, I had my romantic life permanently crippled by overexposure to indie pop. Had the Internet been big twelve years ago, I shudder to think what might have become of me.

But that’s only half the story, of course. Morrissey’s influence could be malign, he could encourage you to take a wistful, sepia-tinted imitation of life in favour of the real thing, but at the same time at least he was out there, encouraging you to ask questions about why that ‘real thing’ was meant to be so good in the first place, or so ‘real’ for that matter. The World Won’t Listen was in that oblique way a political record for me, and you could take the spite Morrissey rained down on England and use it, without necessarily wanting the Taste Of Honey fantasia he might have put up in its place.

The word “Morrissey” and the word “political” make uneasy sentence-mates, of course. But the Morrissey I loved, I loved because he was addicted to ambiguity, not because he was dogmatic. I never took his manifestoes seriously because I never really saw him offer any. I never took him seriously as a bigot because the idea of him holding any kind of coherent position, let alone one as inflexible as Powellite racism, seemed bizarre to me. Listening to Morrissey had such a big impact on me because it was the first time I’d come across such blatant contrarianism, and like most contrarians, he said and did some stupid things. When the music press were harrying him so much in 1992, it might have seemed the easiest thing in the world for him to apologise for his songs, or what he’d said, or the imagery he’d used, or for fancying rough skinhead boys, or even to take the “some of my best friends….” line. That he didn’t strikes me as evidence of simple bloody-mindedness and pride rather than anything more sinister.

But I suppose the main reason I couldn’t – or didn’t want to – see Morrissey as a racist was because in a way he stopped me being one. At 13-14, in my first year at boarding school, I had no identity of my own, or wasn’t confident enough to admit it. The boys who were confident enough I followed, the boys who had no choice but to be different I hated, like everyone else did. There were boys who were too weird or too religious, there were boys who were too unhappy and dared to show it, there were boys who were too fat and boys who were too short, and boys who were too camp, which was somewhat rich since I’d estimate seventy percent of the people there had enjoyed a fumbled same-sex snog or handjob at some stage. But anyway, the rules were simple: you’d find the people who were different and you’d work out the weak spot that would break them, and you’d exploit it. I was good at that bit, being handy with words and all. And one of the boys who was different was a British-born Indian. You can pretty much guess the rest.

And of course everyone did it – and I mean everyone, fifteen of the most supposedly intelligent kids in the country and not one of them had the guts to point out that repeating things in a sing-song subcontinental accent was out of order. And of course the differences came first and the Indian thing was just something we latched onto. And of course it wasn’t overt racism, we were still civilised enough for that: nothing we did or said was any more textually racist than Apu on The Simpsons is. And of course none of us were politically racist at all (you don’t have to think about politics if you’re privileged, that’s the pernicious thing about it), we were mostly just desperate children in a horrible hierarchical environment and we did what we had to to avoid getting the same treatment ourselves.

And of course none of that really matters very much: I’m still sitting writing this and feeling physically sick. I knew it was wrong and I did it anyway: every now and then I have a conversation about the Prison Guard experiment, and the people who didn’t go to public school say “How could people do that?” and the people who did go to public school know.

So that’s why when I told Sam that hearing Morrissey was a turning point I was telling him the truth. Morrissey made it easier to be different for the people who listened: it’s as banal or as simple as that. To say the least, that was important for somebody like me, who was so fearful of their own identity that they’d found a cosy niche tearing apart other people’s. The flirtation with racism and the overt bullying had long since stopped by then, thank goodness, but I was still a pretty cheap excuse for a person. The Smiths, with their wit and individualism and endless implied questioning of everything, gave me the pointers I needed to become myself, and look at some of the stuff I’d said or done, and say sorry. Which is admittedly more than Morrissey managed, but he stopped being my guru a long time ago.

Most alternative music fails because it offers precisely that, an alternative position, something solid to buy into, and as everyone from the Woodstock Nation to Generation X found out, solid things have an unfortunate habit of melting into the free market air when the people with the real money buy into them too. As I say, for a lot of people The Smiths were like that too – a niche, a tribe to belong to, a way of being. And it was tempting. But at the same time what Morrissey was singing was so absurd – double-decker busses and some old queen or other and hearing-aids melting, and all with that histrionic dare-you-to-take-me-seriously quiver in his voice – that it made you realise he wasn’t really offering anything of the sort, wasn’t trying to build some Morrissey Nation.

He was singing to fans lying on their bedroom floors about how they might be lying on bedroom floors now but soon they’d get a life and forget all about him, which in a business based on personality cults makes “Rubber Ring” one of the most radical songs ever written. And the best thing about being one of those fans was knowing it was all true, that you could take Morrissey as seriously as you had to and then you could move on. (Even if thousands never did). “Hear my voice in your head and think of me kindly”. All right, Steven, I’ll do my best.