More than a fascinating piece of Smithsology, the '80s radio takeover is a story of redemption

Categories: Music History

Besides being a long, seemingly unfounded piece of local-music folklore, as well as a now well-documented and utterly fascinating part of the Smiths mythology, the story of James Kiss is a redemptive one. It's a case study of desperation, certainly, but it's also a cautionary tale of a troubled young man who crafts a dastardly plan in isolation, but then, rather than seeing it through, he inexplicably abandons his intent, puts the gun down and turns himself in.

See also:
- The Smiths '80s radio-station takeover: What really happened per the police report
- Morrissey's quiet desparation and romantic worldview continues to connect and inspire
- The story of Smiths fan who held a station here hostage in the '80s? It's true...sort of

And then rather than being defined by this ill-conceived moment, which was clearly fueled by adolescent discord and depression, the young man was set on a completely different path. Rather than ending in tragedy, the harrowing incident ultimately served as a paradigm shifter, allowing him to become who he is today, a seemingly well-adjusted man in his early forties, nearly two and a half decades removed from that fateful afternoon in 1988.

The first and probably most obvious question for Kiss some 25 years later is why he had hatched a plan to take over the radio station in the first place, and perhaps equally as plaguing, why the Smiths? "My intention was to throw my life away," Kiss recalls. "If you're going to throw your life away, you might as well do it in a way that makes the most sense to you, I guess.

"I guess you would have to understand the Smiths and know the Smiths, which I'm sure you do," he adds, "to understand that there's something poetic about a Top 40 radio station playing all Smiths songs." It certainly would have made for a startling contrast to listeners, as the station's playlist at the time consisted of songs like "Don't Need Nothing but a Good Time," by Poison, and a host of other tunes with similarly superficial sentiments, such as "Don't Worry, Be Happy," by Bobby McFerrin. "Oh, my God," says Kiss. "To somebody who's depressed, when that song comes on...oh, God."

Okay, so while that explains the why, the next pressing question is why not? After seeming so determined, reportedly even staking the station out for months, why all of a sudden didn't he go through with it? What exactly made him change his mind?

"In all the times I ran through it in my mind, the people -- since I didn't know anyone that worked there or anything -- the people were just faceless people to me," he explains. "But when I got there, and there was one lady in particular -- I had no idea who she was, but she was coming out of the radio station, and I just imagined how scared she would be, and I didn't want to hurt anybody, let alone scare anybody, and that just brought it all home to me that I couldn't do it. I could not do that to other people. I couldn't scare them, frighten their families or anything like that.

All the same, it was a rather frightening experience for everybody else, especially Greg Fadick, the station staffer to whom Kiss turned his rifle over.

"I remember that vividly," says Fadick, now in his fifties, via phone from his home in South Florida. "It was the end of the day. I was actually leaving for the day, walking out into the parking lot on Hampden Avenue. As I was going to get in my truck, there was a guy sitting there in a car. I believe it was like a station wagon or something, an older car with its windows down. He said, 'Can I talk to you for a moment?' And like an idiot, I walked over to the passenger window, leaned down on the window, kind of stuck my head halfway in the car and said, 'Yeah, what can I help you with?'

"He stuck a rifle in my face -- seriously, barrel a couple of inches away from my nose -- and didn't say anything, just pointed the rifle in my face," Fadick goes on. "And literally, we stood there like that for -- for me, what seemed like an eternity, as you can imagine - what may have been a minute or two. And finally, all of a sudden, with no reason or anything, he just turned the rifle around, handed it to me butt first and said, 'Would you go inside and call someone and tell them that I need help?' I said, 'Absolutely.'"

The curious part is why, after coming to his senses, Kiss didn't simply turn his stepfather's car around and point it back toward home before that exchange with Fadick? After all, nobody knew why he was there or the fact that he was armed. He could have merely gone about his business, and nobody would have been the wiser. "It was a tipping point," Kiss acknowledges. "I had painted myself into a corner. When I realized I couldn't do it. I had nowhere to go.

"At the time," he adds, "I just wanted somebody else to make the decisions."

Like most kids at that age, Kiss was having difficulty seeing the light at the end of the tunnel -- or any light, for that matter. Kiss clearly must've recognized the irony of his disposition when he signed off one of his letters to his parents by including the line "There is a light that never goes out," from the Smiths song of the same name.

He says he was struggling with a bout of depression at the time, spurred by the fact that he had just graduated from high school and had no real plans, and all this was compounded by the fact that he was dealing with an injury that was preventing him from working. "I was not really liking what life was like," he recalls, which made the music of the Smiths resonate even deeper. "Anybody who's listened to the Smiths knows that if you're depressed, they're great to listen to," he acknowledges.

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Outstanding work, Dave! Two points stand out: one, as we are about to go into sequester hell, it's important to note the role social services played in this story, turning a potential tragedy into a positive development with a ripple effect, since Kiss now helps others; and two, his story illustrates the reality of depression, which is often mocked as a passing phase-- "Get over it, man!"-- but is, in fact, a type of illness that can be dealt with, if not exacly cured.

Less importantly, writing as a fan of the group in question: it will perhaps be inferred by some readers that The Smiths caused or exacerbated his depression, pushing him to the brink of a desperate act, but instead I would say that The Smiths brought him squarely into a confrontation with his illness in a way that "healthy-minded" music like Bobby McFerrin's, or today's equivalent, never, ever can. Critics of The Smiths have always been far too dismissive of the "depressing" element in the records, as if it was all just a shallow teenage affectation, but this story shows there's a lot to be said for art that gives us a more accurate picture of ourselves. I don't think you can say The Smiths led him to the radio station parking lot that day, since the reasons behind such events are always complex, but I'm pretty sure The Smiths were a strong factor in leading him into everything that followed. You can't undergo a change of consciousness like the one Kiss described unless someone has already helped you discover the words for it. From "Meat Is Murder" to "Still Ill", Morrissey has done that in a way few other pop stars have.

dave.herrera moderator editor


Thanks for the feedback. I totally agree with all of your points, and especially with social services offering a positive alternative.

Depression, as you pointed out, is a very real thing, and it often gets either belittled, underplayed or overlooked entirely, and it's not something that you can just "get over."

As far as the music being responsible for what happened, totally agree: It's more of a reflection than a catalyst. Didn't mean to paint with too broad of a brush. My apologies that wasn't clearer.

Anyhow, very astute observations all the way around. Thanks for taking the time to read the piece, and even more for weighing in. 


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