This charming man

No manager. No record label. Royalties disputes. Allegations of racism. Morrissey hasn't had it easy. But that's all forgotten when he plays live...
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The Independent Culture

"Fame, fame fatal fame / It can play hideous tricks on the brain" goes The Smiths' "Frankly Mr Shankly". True enough, but even the writer of these words cannot have anticipated the extent to which his celebrity would turn sour.

"Fame, fame fatal fame / It can play hideous tricks on the brain" goes The Smiths' "Frankly Mr Shankly". True enough, but even the writer of these words cannot have anticipated the extent to which his celebrity would turn sour.

As both a spokesperson for the alienated and a shameless narcissist, pop stars just didn't get any better than Morrissey, The Smiths' charismatic frontman. But the unadulterated idolatry displayed towards him in the late Eighties has since metamorphosed into hostility as rumours of racism, prompted by lyrics such as "England for the English" (from "National Front Disco") and the Finsbury Park show when he appeared wrapped in a union flag, took hold. His reputation was further damaged by the notorious royalties court case, which saw him damned by the judge as "devious, truculent and unreliable". Fame indeed.

Now this morose Mancunian - who for years found inspiration in the idiosyncrasies of little England - has departed for sunnier climes in Los Angeles where, put simply, he is better loved.

Whether in a bid for suicide or a last-ditch attempt to win back his former fans, Morrissey is now risking being thrown to the lions with another British tour, this time without so much as a manager or a record label for support. The news that he is still accompanied by a band of ageing rockabillies and that he has a new "Mexican direction" inspired by the Mexican Elvis impersonator El Vez, does little to inspire confidence in this seemingly umpteenth resurrection.

But we needn't have worried. Morrissey is a magnificent presence - positively jovial by his standards - with the dirt that has clung to him over the past few years falling away with a mere flick of the quiff. When someone throws a union flag on to the stage, he flicks it back into the crowd without seeming to blink.

OK, so his band look like a bunch of brickies in fancy-dress and their hamstrung attempt at The Smiths' "Is It Really So Strange?" sounds like a karaoke backing track gone wrong. But Morrissey's voice is as rich and impassioned as ever, avoiding the old falsetto, but still steeped in sepulchral gloom.

As for his stage antics, age seems to have mellowed Morrissey. His daffodil days seem light years away, but he does toss a banana into the audience during "Boy Racer' with an archly raised eyebrow. And though he still tugs at his clothes and wears his shirt half-tucked like a recalcitrant schoolboy, he is a tamer presence, preferring to keep one foot on the monitor and leaning teasingly into the crowd.

But he still inspires burning adoration. A succession of fans climb over the bouncers' heads to embrace their idol, flinging their fists victoriously in the air as they are dragged off.

Judging by the amount of Smiths' memorabilia in the audience, it is partly nostalgia that brings them. With the present state of affairs - a couple of new songs, though nothing discernibly Mexican - Morrissey isn't in a position to be gathering new fans. As if in reward, we are treated to the achingly tragic Smiths' swansong, "Last Night I Dreamt That Somebody Loved Me", and a rare performance of "Meat Is Murder".

For Morrissey, the horrors of the intervening years since The Smiths have, if anything, provided him with the inspiration to carry on. The boy with the thorn in his side has always thrived on his sense of victimisation - it is what gives him that indomitable self-belief. And after all, what else is there to write about if you are not misunderstood?

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