The Salford ‘Lad’ Turns Fifty: The full unedited version of my piece for The Guardian, May 22 2009:
“Oh I know that you say, how age has no meaning, but here is your audience now, and they’re screaming…Get off the stage!”
Recorded 20 years ago, Morrissey’s throwaway B-side ‘Get Off The Stage’ was a comedic but biting attack on dinosaur rock stars of the early 1990s. “It’s really about the Rolling Stones,” he told me at the time, “people of that ilk who just refuse to die in the physical sense; all these boring old faces…I don’t understand why they’re still omnipresent, why they have this ubiquitousness!”
Yes, the passing of time, and all of its sickening crimes. Today, May 22 2009, this very British icon – this Mancunian poet, ex-Smith, and controversial solo artist – turns fifty and, against all grave expectations and protestations, joins the craggy croaking ranks of rock and roll veterans.
Some argue that the word ‘icon’ should be reserved for religious works or art, chiefly paintings or relics. But let’s not forget that, back in 2006, Morrissey was voted second in the BBC’s British Living Icon poll behind Sir David Attenborough and ahead of Sir Paul McCartney. He’s held in high regard by artists as diverse as Bono, J. K. Rowling, Michael Stipe, David Walliams, Noel Gallagher and Rufus Wainwright. (David Cameron even selected The Smiths for his Desert Island Discs.)
And it’s easy to detect his impact on wider popular culture. Following Douglas Coupland’s novel Girlfriend In A Coma, Jo Brand’s latest book is titled The More You Ignore Me The Closer I Get. Then there’s the celebrated Swedish vampire movie Let The Right One In, not forgetting Keri Koch’s new feature about Morrissey’s extraordinary Latino fan-base Passions Just Like Mine.
All titles stolen from the bigmouthed bards own songs; fitting tributes to a man who’s spent the last three decades plagiarising ideas from Warhol and Virginia Woolf, from Patti Smith and Sandie Shaw, from Alan Bennet and George Eliot, from the New York Dolls and Anthony Newley, from Coronation Street and the Carry On films.
As a recent two-day Irish symposium on his lyricism illustrated, many international academics are now joining passionate fans from across this unhappy planet to celebrate Morrissey as a living work of art.
How the hell did this happen? As a teenager in Manchester he defined himself as a “sad, obsessive loner”. Punk contemporaries branded him “Steve The Nutter” as if he was some sort of weirdo village idiot. And, in the opinion of the late Factory boss Tony Wilson, “anyone less likely to be a pop star from this scene was unimaginable”.
Decades on from The Smiths’ brief but brilliantly prolific career (1983-87), earlier this year Morrissey released ‘Years Of Refusal’, his ninth solo studio album (it’s his twentieth if you include all the live albums and compilations). Along the way he’s created some of the most distinctive hit singles in the history of pop culture, from ‘Suedehead’ and ‘November Spawned A Monster’ through to ‘You Have Killed Me’ and ‘All You Need Is Me’ (“there’s so much destruction all over this world, and all you can do is complain about me”). Let’s face it, apart from Morrissey and Simon bloody Cowell, who else in popular music is really worth complaining about?
I first encountered Steven Patrick Morrissey at London’s Venue back in September 1983. The Smiths performed ‘This Charming Man’ live for the first time and it was one of the finest three minutes of pop music I’d ever heard. Against the post-Falklands backdrop of New Romanticism, unemployment and rampant Thatcherism, Morrissey’s disillusioned but desperately funny lyrics struck a chord with me. In the summer of 1984, back in my hometown of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, living with my parents (following my younger brother’s suicide), The Smiths’ ‘Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now’ seemed to capture the battered spirit of Northern England during the Miners’ strike.
On joining the New Musical Express, I followed The Smiths passionately, reporting on their brief involvement with Red Wedge, struggling to capture in words the power and chaos of their 1986 ‘Queen Is Dead’ tour, and gradually becoming aware of the internal frictions that would too soon destroy this great British band. Frankly I was shattered when The Smiths split – perhaps in the same daft way that teenage girls react when boy bands break up – and, clutching an advance cassette of their last studio album ‘Strangeways, Here We Come’, I fled from England to India in the winter of 1987.
Given that Morrissey had emotionally declared “The Smiths were like a life support machine to me”, I was understandably concerned about his future. His close friend, guitarist and song-writing partner Johnny Marr had been burnt out by life in The Smiths and would re-emerge in Electronic with new chums Barney Sumner of New Order and Neil Tennant of the Pet Shop Boys. But what would become of Morrissey?
Like most fans, who’d studied his many lyrics about mortality and suicide (‘Shakespeare’s Sister’, ‘Stretch Out And Wait’, ‘Asleep’, ‘Cemetry Gates’, ‘Death At One’s Elbow’…), I feared the collapse of The Smiths might push him over the edge. He’d talked of his great fascination with artists who’ve lived fast and died young, notably James Dean and Marilyn Monroe, and he’d reflected on death and even suicide. “I’m nearly 29,” he even told me when ‘Viva Hate’ came out in 1988, “I’ll be dead in a couple of years!”
“I have a dramatic, unswayable, unavoidable obsession with death. I can remember being obsessed with it from the age of eight or nine. And I often wondered if it was quite a natural inbuilt emotion for people who are destined to…take their own lives. I think if there was a magical, beautiful pill that one could take that would retire you from the world…I would take it.”
If you don’t die by your own hand, I’d replied, then how would you like to go?
“The problem with death as with birth is that it’s so violent…so probably just propped up on those fluffy pillows in the front room.”
In early 1988, I began to fully appreciate the great influence Oscar Wilde had had on Morrissey’s artistic development. Wilde had famously declared that “the secret of life is art” and “to become a work of art is the object of living”. Clearly the spirit of Wilde has influenced many Smiths and Morrissey solo songs from ‘What Difference Does It Make?’ and ‘Cemetry Gates’ through to ‘To Me You Are A Work Of Art’ and the recent single ‘I’m Throwing My Arms Around Paris’.
Wilde played a crucial part in my own early encounters with Morrissey, notably at the Cadogan Hotel (the very room in which Oscar Wilde had been arrested a century earlier), at Wilde’s tomb in Paris’ Pere Lachaise graveyard and at Hook End near Reading Gaol – scene of the hard labour and the ballad. In correspondence Morrissey quotes Wilde, in interviews he’s seemed moved by Wilde’s tragedy and, in the minefield of popular music, he’s never been afraid to preach Wilde’s gospel. As Oscar declared “any attempt to extend the subject matter of art is extremely distasteful to the public – and yet the vitality and progress of art depend in a large measure on the continual extension of the subject matter”.
Without question Morrissey has extended the subject matter of the popular song more than any artist of the late 20th/early 21st century. Child murder, working class poverty, suicide, football hooliganism, mental illness, police corruption, disability, animal cruelty, violence, paedophilia, racism, death, the loss of faith and so on. Typically and topically, the recent track ‘Children In Pieces’ deals with the abuse of children in schools run by the Roman Catholic church.
Despite this focus on often taboo subjects, in interviews over the years he’s always been warm and funny, sometimes quiet and shy, but with outbursts of desperate laughter and memorable moments of Carry On comic timing.
When I asked Morrissey about his famously solitary celibate existence he responded, “in order to concentrate absolutely and perfectly on everything I had to…give up sausages”. Once, when he was persistently attacked by a wasp during an interview, I suggested it might be attracted by his aftershave? “No,” came the sharp reply, “by the Northern tone of bitterness.” Later, when I enquired about the best way to keep in contact with him, he answered, “I have a fax machine. It’s more useful than a telephone because you don’t have to speak.”
Yet his opponents – those who seriously argue that pop music should be about nothing but escapism or hedonism or trouble-free upbeat subjects – continue to brand him negative or miserable.
Unlike many of his Eighties contemporaries, Morrissey has retained this provocative, spiky, quality. Although ninety per cent of his worldview could loosely be categorised as radical and to the Left – the vegetarianism and animal rights, the celebration of gay and lesbian artists, the hostility to everyone from Thatcher to Bush – his strong views on immigration and the protection of British culture from outside influences continue to cause controversy. I don’t always agree with him but, as my long-gone mum once told me, you learn nothing from only listening to people who agree with you.
Far from being angered or upset by his many critics, Morrissey genuinely seems to thrive on the hostility: “people find me enormously irritating. If you don’t have 100 per cent passion for every move I make then I’m the most irritating person you could hope to hear. I know this because people write and tell me…it’s a tremendous accolade.”
If fifty is the new thirty and you’re not classified a coffin dodger until you’re at least eighty, then Morrissey’s survival continues to be a triumph over depression and despair. Physically he’s changed, there’s no Dorian Gray style picture in Morrissey’s attic. The working class face is fuller and more Irish looking, and instead of the pipe-cleaner thin physique he used to display beneath those big girls’ blouses, he now struts the stage like Elvis in Vegas or Anthony Newley at The Talk Of The Town. Having once described his genitals as a “cruel practical joke” he still happily parades naked on the sleeve of his recent CD with only a seven-inch single cloaking his manhood.
Despite this great age, his detractors argue that his worldview hasn’t changed much over the past 30 years; complaining that he still seems to be banging on about the same old personal problems he faced as a maladjusted Manchester youth: broken hearts, intimations of mortality, punctured bicycles, unacceptable shoes, the failures of friends…’Stop Me If You Think You’ve Heard This One Before’. Perhaps, behind the aggression and punk production of ‘Years Of Refusal’, there is an ongoing inability to accentuate the positive and eliminate the negative, but Morrissey has always claimed it’s realism rather than pessimism: “I don’t want to break into a Ralph McTell song but I do feel the light has gone out and that things just get progressively worse in every way…But it isn’t pessimism at all. If I was a pessimist I wouldn’t get up, I wouldn’t shave, I wouldn’t watch Batman at 7.30am. Pessimists don’t do that sort of thing”.
Back in the Eighties the music of The Smiths was described as the perfect soundtrack for Thatcher’s children, for a lost generation of teenagers. Maybe this teenage fan-club has simply grown old with him, picking up new waves of social outcasts and discontented outsiders along the way, like the Latinos in Los Angeles, all searching for something, anything to believe in. Certainly no one can accuse him of mellowing. Joe Orton, another of Morrissey’s icons, once declared in What The Butler Saw, that “providing one spends the time drugged or drunk, the world is a fine place”. But if you choose to abstain, like Morrissey, then the path isn’t quite so smooth, particularly within the music industry. (“I’ve gone through managers like people go through Shredded Wheat,” he told Michael Bracewell in 1995. “Nobody looks after you, which is why most groups end up disbanding and most artists end up dead or on heroin.”)
Many of his disciples will tell you that, by addressing the difficult subjects most artists avoid, he’s somehow helped them handle life; through his open struggles to find a soul-mate, to cope with the deaths of friends, to make any sense of this fucked-up world. Famously unmanageable, un-malleable, and (by his own admission) un-loveable, in live performance this week Morrissey continues to attract a huge following and, since the early days of The Smiths there have always been stage invasions, open gestures of almost religious adoration from fans of all sexual persuasions. (When asked if he was giving his fans the hugs they didn’t get anywhere else, Morrissey replied, “I thought they were giving me the hugs that I didn’t get anywhere else”.)
Perhaps today should be declared a day of amnesty for all the Morrissey bashers out there; for those people who never liked the look of him back in 1984, on Top Of The Pops with the gladioli and the beads and “initiate me” tattooed on his skinny body; for those who can’t stand his “lovely singing voice”, who disagree with him politically?
Hold the fluffy pillows! Love him or hate him, there is no middle ground, The Salford Lad’s turned fifty and for once deserves your appreciation, if only for being provocative and original, the agent provocateur of pop, the patron saint of outsiders. Then, at dawn tomorrow, in the spirit of his recent track ‘It’s Not Your Birthday Anymore’, you can loudly crow: “Did you really think we meant, all of those syrupy, sentimental things, that we said yesterday?”
Copyright Len Brown, May 21 2009