Saint Morrissey by Mark Simpson

The boy with the thorn in his side
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The Independent Culture

Morrissey fans are a notoriously fanatical bunch. It goes without saying that there's nothing objective about Mark Simpson's study of the former frontman of The Smiths. That the patron saint of pain is a lyrical genius, a musical legend and the last true pop star, isn't up for discussion. To a fan, these things are givens.

Yet Saint Morrissey is a thoughtful and often illuminating account of a man at odds both with himself and the world. Rather than write a straightforward biography drawn from the testimony of ex-colleagues and nosy neighbours, Simpson has composed a "psycho-bio", a work that sets about interpreting the singer's words, images and music.

One of the many paradoxes surrounding Morrissey is that, despite having remained an enigma to his most his ardent devotees/detractors, much can be gleaned from studying his songs. Listen hard enough and you'll hear exactly how, over his 20-year career, this most private of pop icons has repeatedly bared his soul.

Simpson ploughs an absorbing narrative through Morrissey's many obsessions, from Sandie Shaw, Coronation Street and James Dean to his literary idols Oscar Wilde and Shelagh Delaney (whose play A Taste of Honey he brazenly plagiarised). While his early passions reveal a literary loner with a penchant for Little England and retro hairdos, later lyrical dalliances with young ruffians, rent boys and the Kray twins uncover the darker workings of the Morrissey psyche.

As for the enduring conundrum that is his sexuality (until the early Nineties, Morrissey claimed to be celibate), Simpson refers us back to the lyrics which so artfully toy with notions of masculinity and femininity. Morrissey's celibacy, he says, is "the symbol of his central contradiction. For all his bravura posturing as the loneliest monk, he can't make up his mind whether he is rejected or rejecting."

Simpson's own obsession with Morrissey is detailed in a touchingly fervent description of the day he saw him on television singing "This Charming Man", which will ring true to anyone whose life has been irrevocably changed by pop. "I was alone with this man for less time than it takes to boil an egg," he notes, but "he made sure it was two and a half minutes I would never get over."

Yet Simpson is not above sending up the boy with the thorn in his side. Some of his observations, such as Morrissey's similarities to that other Eighties diva, Margaret Thatcher, may well be viewed as outright sacrilege.

Saint Morrissey has been a long time coming (in keeping with his subject's struggle for acceptance, it took Simpson several years to find a publisher) but the timing couldn't be better. Having been run out of town in the mid-Nineties amid malignant rumours of racism, Morrissey, who now lives in Los Angeles, is enjoying a renaissance. Not long after being voted "most influential artist ever" by the NME, he played two sold-out shows at the Royal Albert Hall last year to rapturous receptions. More recently, he was the subject of a slavering Channel 4 documentary which presented him as pop's greatest survivor, England's prodigal son. With the arrival of Saint Morrissey, his beatification is surely complete.