“Be yourself, everyone else is already taken.”
I don’t know why I’m writing this.
I’m not sure that this will make any sense…or have any value (what on this site does I hear you cry).
I’ve moved on…or at least away.
And yet…and yet…a piece of me, maybe an important piece of me, wants to understand him, to understand why he means/meant so much to me.
Maybe this is just a full stop.
I’ve written pieces here about how I found him and what he meant to me, how he shaped me, reviewed albums and concerts, defended and condemned him.
This isn’t going to add anything new.
I’m cleaning house.
Until I let him back in…which is, I think, inevitable.
When Johnny Marr knocked on the door of the Morrissey family home in order that he could introduce himself to their son Steven, it is probably fair to suggest that he didn’t really know what he was letting himself in for. Steven Morrissey was, what we Brits like to call, “a character” around the humdrum streets of Manchester. He had been present at the Sex Pistols gig at the Free Trade Hall, he had flirted with the notion of being a singer in a band already, he was friends with Linder Sterling, he was the man behind the New York Dolls UK fan club and he had already had a book published on the life of James Dean. But despite that suitably artistic and creative C.V there really wasn’t anything to suggest that he would change, forever, the face of British guitar music.
What followed from that fateful first meeting was the birth of The Smiths…a band who really did change the face and sound and language of British guitar music. There had never been a band like them and there had never been someone like Morrissey before…he was, to quote the singer of a certain dreary Irish band, an “original of the species”. Along with Johnny Marr he produced four genuinely flawless studio albums (“The Smiths”, “Meat is Murder”, “The Queen is Dead” and “Strangeways Here We Come”) and a string of singles that elevated the format from disposable fluff to works of art, with everything from the sleeves to the b-sides to the enigmatic run out groove etchings making them things of beauty and wonder before you even played them.
When it all ended though there was a sense that they hadn’t really achieved their full potential…America remained resolutely uncracked and despite chart success and sales at home and in Europe they remained a cult band. A few short years after their demise fellow “college rock” act R.E.M would become the biggest band in the world thanks to “Green”, “Out of Time” and “Automatic for the People”. People who loved The Smiths couldn’t help but feel…it could have been them. Maybe even that it should have been them.
There were obvious explanations for The Smiths failure to make a meaningful dent in the U.S…chief among them was Morrissey himself who, at this point in time, was an example of the sort of arch, camp and flowery chap that American audiences of the nineteen-eighties just couldn’t stomach. While Morrissey has never made any declaration of being gay, to an American audience he “looked” gay and “sounded” gay too. In the eighties the idea of being an openly out pop star in the States was still a dangerous one. To make it big in the States you had to be able to sell records in places other than the liberal coastal States like New York and California, where these things mattered less. Interestingly, after a few short years as a solo artist Morrissey would become a major star in America…a more muscular, macho sound on the glam rock album “Your Arsenal” and a band of handsome devils clad in full rockabilly uniform helped to present an image of Morrissey as a rock star and not the bookish fop of The Smiths.
The big question for fans of the group was; “What will Morrissey do?”
It quickly became clear that Morrissey intended to go it alone and that solo career has seen stunning highs and devastating lows both in terms of the quality of his output and his capacity for saying things that would be better left unsaid…maybe even un-thought.
His first solo album, “Viva Hate”, was a delicate and delightful thing.
With guitar work from one of the greatest, and least well known, guitarists that Britain has produced, Vini Reilly of the Durutti Column, and musical direction from producer Stephen Street providing the backdrop to some of his finest lyrics (just read “Late Night Maudlin Street”) the album was a triumph. It featured two of his best loved, and arguably best, singles in “Everyday is Like Sunday” and “Suedehead” and allayed any fears that without Johnny Marr he might struggle.
Then, in a move that mimicked the actions of The Smiths, he released a compilation album; “Bona Drag”. Much like “Hatful of Hollow”, which had been released in the aftermath of The Smiths eponymous debut, it gathered together some curiosities and rarities but, unlike “Hatful…”, it featured some new material too.
Things took a peculiar turn with the second album proper, 1991’s “Kill Uncle”, which was produced by Langer and Winstanley…two big noises in the music business. While the album has a lightness of touch and contains one or two lovely moments such as the single “Sing Your Life” and the wonderful “(I’m) The End of the Family Line” the overall feeling was that it was patchy at best and a disappointment at worst. Listening back to it today it certainly has a little charm but it never convinces. Truthfully it sounded like an artist whose powers were waning.
Shows what I know.
1992 brought an album that took the image of Morrissey as the gladioli wielding, Oscar Wilde reading, Shelagh Delaney obsessive and ripped it up, set it on fire and then cast the ashes to the wind.
“Your Arsenal” saw Morrissey reborn as a lean, lithe, muscular and, gasp, sexy rock star. Produced by Mick Ronson and showcasing the talents of new lead guitarist and songwriter Alain Whyte it was one glam-pop-rock stomper after another. America went madferit and soon Moz was selling out the sort of venues that were normally reserved for the likes of Springsteen, R.E.M and U.2. He was everywhere. On the front of magazines, on MTV, signings in record stores and generally behaving like a proper pop star. He looked fabulous and…happy.
What came next was truly remarkable.
As the U.K prepared to enter the peak of Britpop mania the man who had inspired more of those artists than almost any other was preparing to release his best ever album and, in my humble opinion, one of the finest albums of that decade…possibly of any decade.
“Vauxhall and I” was a radical departure from “Your Arsenal”, gone was the glam, the glitter, the glitz and the pop star shenanigans and in there place came a collection of songs bathed in a peculiar melancholy…even by Morrissey standards. From the epic opening of “Now My Heart is Full” to the soaring finale of “Speedway” each, and every, song was evidence of an artist who had mastered their craft. The problem for “Vauxhall and I” was that it arrived at a time when Oasis, Blur and Suede were preparing to hit the music world with era defining albums and so, very often, it is overlooked when people look back on the nineties.
He did release a Britpop album in the shape of 1995’s “Southpaw Grammar”. Buzzing guitars, references to girls called “Sharon”, Terry Venables on the front of a single, an upbeat riposte to the “I hate myself and I want to die” of the grunge era in the shape of “Do Your Best and Don’t Worry”…don’t let anyone tell you anything different, this was Britpop through the eyes of the Pope of Mope. Was it as good as “Vauxhall and I”? No. Of course not. But it was a steady, if unspectacular, album and one that really did fit with the times…a very un-Mozzerish thing for him to have done.
By the time 1997 arrived the Britpop party was winding down and it was into this landscape that Morrissey released his weakest album to date, “Maladjusted”. Everything about it was wrong; the cover picture of a squatting Mozzer, songs like “Papa Jack” and “He Cried”, the production. It all felt…weak, half-hearted. Sure there moments of classic Moz like “Trouble Loves Me” and a lovely single in the shape of “Alma Matters” but overall it felt like something that was done…because. I think if you could release “Maladjusted” and “Southpaw Grammar” in 1994 and 1995 and then release “Vauxhall and I” in 1997/8 that this period would look very different for Morrissey as an artist…but that’s not how these things work so goodness knows why I’ve even bothered to suggest it.
Up until this point the Morrissey story was one of musical creativity, changing styles, sell out tours and breaking America…the only real fly in the ointment had been the feud with the N.M.E over his appearance at Madstock which led to accusations of racism. At the time the case against him seemed thin…recent events suggest that we should all have paid more attention.
There now came a period of self-imposed exile with Mozzer holing up in Los Angeles and having toast with Nancy Sinatra. Nearly eight years later he was back with “You Are the Quarry”, an album that spawned more top ten singles for him than any other act managed in the same year. With “Irish Blood, English Heart” and “First of the Gang to Die” he released two of his most popular ever singles and the album itself reached number two in the charts, kept off the top spot by Keane.
He was back.
In a big way.
All he had to do now was take the time he needed to follow up with something just as good, it was clear that the time away had seen him build up a body of really terrific songs and sharpened his hunger to be someone again.
Oh, and if he could avoid saying anything too controversial that would probably help too.
Instead of that he embarked on a seemingly never ending series of live dates…that brought a lot of cancellations…he lost his main songwriter, Alain Whyte, and he replaced everyone in the “Quarry” line-up with what can only be described as jobbing musicians. Only Boz Boorer remained from the band that had catapulted him to global success. Then he gave, another, highly charged interview to the N.M.E that ultimately led to a court case and finally an apology from the magazine but the damage was done…again.
Since that point there have been four other studio albums; “Ringleader of the Tormentors”, “Years of Refusal”, “World Peace is None of Your Business” and “Low in High School”. Each of them containing glimpses of the old Morrissey brilliance with the likes of “Dear God, Please Help Me”, “Black Cloud”, “Staircase at the University” and “Jacky’s Only Happy When She’s up on the Stage” but, crucially, none of them felt…right. They were great in places, good in parts but, as a whole, they just felt less than one had hoped they would be.
Everybody has an opinion on Morrissey and almost all of them are ill informed at best.
My own theory on why he has lurched from the dizzying highs of “Your Arsenal” and “Vauxhall and I” and a place as one of the most influential and adored artists in pop music history to a pariah who cannot shake the accusations of racism and who seems incapable of recovering his “mojo” is this…
In his book “Alma Cogan” the author Gordon Burn describes the encounters that the girl with the laugh in her voice had to endure outside of concert halls, where men would want to put their arm around her for photographs and their bravado was undermined by the trembling in their bodies as they draped an arm around her. The suggestion is that fame not only changes the individual who achieves it but that it changes those who come in contact with them.
Morrissey was immersed in pop culture from a very early stage in his life, one could argue that he was obsessed by fame and the famous…sometimes even by the infamous; James Dean, New York Dolls, Shelagh Delaney, the stars of Coronation Street, Oscar Wilde, Dirk Bogarde, the “Carry On…” cast, the Moors Murderers and a whole army of others. Some were writers, some musicians, some were tragic figures, some were guilty of bringing tragedy to others, some were high art, some were low art but all were bound together by their fame.
Morrissey, it is not unfair to assume, wanted to be famous and get his pictures in the papers. He was fairly sure that there was something special, different, unusual or unique about himself and he spent a large part of his youth fashioning, creating and honing a vision of himself as an artist. A magpie pinching a bit of Wilde, a touch of Delaney, a hint of Jimmy Dean, a dash of Bowie…all flung into the mix to create Morrissey. That is why when The Smiths arrived on the scene Morrissey was already a fully formed vision. No fine tuning required. No awkward interviews. No need to take a break before the next album. He was fighting fit and able. Ready with ready wit.
The problem is that fame can impact on its recipients in very different ways. Some people crumble as soon as it touches them, some develop a Messiah complex, some turn to drink and drugs to cope, some believe the hype and become arrogant, cruel and obnoxious and others simply disappear in order to escape from the worst excesses of it.
Noel Gallagher and Ricky Gervais are two fascinating examples of how to deal with fame without it destroying you. Each has danced with the Devil of public acclaim and critical adoration and yet neither one appears all that different from the person they were when they arrived in the public eye. Gervais is with the same partner he has had since long before “The Office”, Gallagher is the same character who delivered “Supersonic”.
Gervais has spoken of his refusal to live his life like an open wound as so many celebrities do and he is capable of playing with the notion of his own fame in his stand-up…he knows he is talented, he knows the truth of the world he now lives in and he refuses to become a part of that. Instead he has cherry picked the parts of fame that suit him…the chance to show off, to have his voice heard and to be able to do the work he wants to do and for his reasons. He is scathing of people who pursue fame over the work, the craft and the quality of each.
Gallagher too is more than capable of pointing out the ridiculous excesses of the world he now lives in and has, like Gervais, been able to select the parts of it that he finds palatable to him. He uses arrogance, or what appears to be arrogance, as a means of preventing the praise of others from genuinely affecting and changing him. If he tells everyone he is brilliant then he really doesn’t have to listen when other people agree or disagree.
In each of these cases you get the genuine sense that it is the quality of what they do and their love of doing what they do that matters more than anything else. Fame was not the game…doing what you love was the game. Each has done so masterfully and found success as a result.
For Morrissey I cannot help but feel that the praise, the acclaim, the trappings of fame…celebrity friends, awards, chart positions, record sales and the rest are more important than the work. How else do you explain the 12 compilation albums as a solo artist? How else do you explain the years of refusal when he wouldn’t forgive, forget and move on from the Smiths court case? He has allowed fame to corrode his soul and so he has become, at least in public, a darker, more unpleasant and, at times, obstreperous and obnoxious character. Constantly railing against shadowy forces and figures who are conspiring to deny him his rightful place in the world while, for the rest of us, the blame for his ills lies at his own door.
When “Autobiography” was published in October of 2013, as a Penguin classic no less, the world stopped…sort of…as everyone rushed off to their local bookstore to get a copy so that, at last, they could find out the truth. Morrissey had been, at best, ambivalent about previous efforts to tell his story and, occasionally, he had gone beyond ambivalence and descended into full blown aggression and hostility…particularly towards biographer Johnny Rogan upon whom Morrissey wished death, plague, famine and pestilence. Now though we would all be able to hear the real story straight from the horses mouth.
For the first 100 pages “Autobiography” silences the critics who said it didn’t deserve to be published as a classic…it was evocative, poetic, beautiful and erudite. A long and mesmerising stream of consciousness and subconsciousness. The rain soaked streets of the Manchester of his childhood, the characters who littered those streets, his family both functional and dysfunctional were all present and (in)correct.
Then Morrissey began to tell the story of The Smiths…a feat he managed in about three paragraphs. It was as if being a member of one of the most important and influential bands of all time was a mere footnote in his life story. It seemed deliberately, wilfully, dismissive. More time is given to ticket sales and chart positions during his solo career than is turned over to The Smiths.
Evidence of the importance of fame is found when he describes how he feels when former friend Simon Topping of A Certain Ratio appears on the pages of the NME;
“When my old friend Simon Topping appeared on the cover of the NME, I died a thousand deaths of sorrow and lay down in the woods to die.”
It is the sort of comment that could be interpreted as Morrissey being Morrissey but I think it is undeniable that he has long felt, possibly always felt, that it should have been him hogging the limelight, staring from the covers of magazines and having the world listen…and he achieved it, but at what cost?
The importance of being Morrissey, to Morrissey, is laid bare on the pages of “Autobiography” as he turns his attention to the court case between the members of The Smiths over royalties that, ultimately, was won by Mike Joyce and saw Morrissey branded as “…devious, truculent and unreliable” by the judge in the case. Page after page is dedicated to every look, glance, breath, word, person and shoelace connected with the case. The forensic detail with which he describes these events is enough to put Jessica Fletcher to shame. On and on he writes, his contempt for Joyce, Judge Meeks, Johnny Marr and Andy Rourke barely, rarely concealed.
It paints, it is sad to say, a vulgar picture.
When he wrote “Meat is Murder” it proved to be a wildly influential piece of pop prose, responsible for turning many people to vegetarianism. His love of animals and his desire to expose the cruelty that lies at the heart of the meat and fur industry suggested that Morrissey was a compassionate, caring and kindly soul. What his recent utterances on race and his bitterness over the court case (now almost two decades old) reveal is that he is, in fact, a fundamentalist when it comes to this issue and that he is not motivated by a genuine desire to see things change for the better or to persuade people but by a desire to beat people into acceptance and acquiescence. Like those tragic souls in the Westboro Baptist Church and their inability to see the good in anyone or anything, trapped inside their own certainties regardless of any and every argument presented to them…so too Morrissey and his inability to appear publicly, to speak or to perform without battering his audience into submission with his zealotry. It has become…boring and, for some, off putting.
You could ask why I care, after all Morrissey is just a singer and songwriter.
I’ve written here before about the impact of Morrissey on my life…it is not an unusual tale, it could be written (almost verbatim) by any one of the thousands of people who still flock to his concerts and buy every repackaged, reissued and reevaluated one of his records. In many ways Morrissey is as much cult leader as he is pop star.
Excessive zealotry and unquestioning obedience?
Just take a look at the Twitter responses to any criticism of Morrissey.
Dissent is discouraged?
There is, undoubtedly, a set of acceptable “beliefs” in the inner-circle/hardcore of the Morrissey community.
The leader dictates how people should think?
“Meat is Murder”?
The group is elitist?
Oh…Morrissey fans definitely believe that they are part of something special and that they see things that others do not see.
Us versus them mentality?
A cursory glance through the various forums and message boards dedicated to the Pope of Mope should answer that for you.
All of these elements of the checklist of cult characteristics, and more, can lead you to see the world of Morrissey as something more than just the sort of adoration and worship normally reserved for the likes of One Direction by teenage girls. Of course Morrissey is not a cult leader and being a fan isn’t the same thing as being a member of Aum Shinrikyo but there is something deeper than just fan/singer going on. It is that deeper something that sees people like me returning, time after time, to his music and his pronouncements in an effort to explain why we can’t just discard him with the same gay abandon with which we abandoned Rick Astley (I’m sorry Rick).
Perhaps my gaze is fixed in the wrong direction…outward instead of inward.
It isn’t Morrissey I am trying to understand or explain but me.
There was a time when my stock answer to the question “What sort of music do you like?” was “The Smiths”. It was that simple. It was that complicated. Now I’m not even sure if I would say they were my favourite band…let alone consider them the only band. Looking back on things I think much of my professed love for them and for Morrissey was a pretence, an act, a self-fulfilling prophecy. I needed them and him because I didn’t actually have anything else…at least when I first discovered them…but now it is very clear to me that other songs, other bands, other songwriters are the ones I turn to for uplift, comfort and joy.
I haven’t stopped listening to “The Blue Hour” by Suede since its release over a week ago. I haven’t listened to “Low in High School” since the day it was released. When I saw Echobelly and Ocean Colour Scene at Star Shaped in London last weekend I felt my heart beat faster and my spirit soar. When I saw Morrissey in Glasgow earlier this year I had a good time…but I really don’t know that I felt anything. When Tim Booth writes I can literally feel the love, the passion, the joy, the rage, the sadness, the desire. When Morrissey writes I can feel only the fading pulse of something that was once vital.
Have you noticed that the artwork for the latest Morrissey solo releases features images of a much younger Morrissey or cover stars like the work of The Smiths? It’s as if he knows that the person we all loved exists only in the past…that the man he is now isn’t the same, doesn’t possess the qualities that sold him to us, that kept us loyal.
Did that Morrissey ever really exist?
Did fame corrode his soul?
Was he always like…this?
I suppose none of us really knows…I suspect fewer and fewer of us actually care.