Morrissey: Bigmouth strikes again

Almost 20 years ago, Steven Patrick Morrissey filled in a "likes" and "dislikes" questionnaire for inclusion in a forthcoming tour programme. The answers served notice of his righteous disdain for the high life: his favourite things included "films, books, moderation, civility", while he expressed his disapproval for "meat, cigarettes, breakdancing, fads, videos, modern pop stars, cowards, and sexism". His favourite food, for some reason, was yoghurt.

If rock music had traditionally bound up its non-musical side with such totems as cocaine, bourbon and casual sex, such answers heralded the arrival of new kind of star: bookish, ascetic, and both sexually ambiguous and celibate. Perhaps surprisingly, his lifestyle caught the imagination of a loyal tribe of young cultural refuseniks - and one of rock history's most passionate cults was born. "The overriding theme seemed to be that all those things that had failed or frightened me - love, life, people, sex, school, work - were OK to despise," wrote one of his disciples. "He inverted the old chestnut about how it's better to have loved and lost - for love was a thing so awful that you were better off without it."

Back then, Morrissey (and, save for the early days in his native Manchester when his contemporaries referred to him as "Weird Steve", he has always been known simply by his surname) was the singer, lyricist and chief public spokesman for The Smiths, a quartet built around his songwriting partnership with the gifted guitarist Johnny Marr. Between them, they wrote songs that fused Marr's love of classic rock - The Rolling Stones, Byrds, Beatles and Velvet Underground - with Morrissey's fondness for an affectingly bleak, eternally monochrome Englishness.

The inspired result was a repertoire in which Keith Richards and Lou Reed rubbed shoulders with the Moors Murderers, the social-realist playwright Shelagh Delaney and Billy Fisher, the anti-hero of Keith Waterhouse's Billy Liar. By way of underlining the singularity of their creative vision, The Smiths' record sleeves featured the likes of Pat Phoenix (aka Coronation Street's Elsie Tanner), Yootha Joyce from George and Mildred, and Billie Whitelaw.

Entirely deservedly, the group attracted both slavering critical acclaim and the frenzied affections of the aforementioned fans. Throughout their four-year recording career - which resulted in the albums The Smiths, Meat Is Murder, The Queen Is Dead and Strangeways Here We Come, as well as an array of classic singles - their standards rarely slipped, and by the time of their break-up in 1987, they were being nudged towards very rarefied company indeed. "In 10 years' time," said the rock critic Nick Kent, "The Smiths will be viewed in the same terms as The Beatles."

Seventeen years on, though retrospective admiration hasn't quite reached those heights, The Smiths have been posthumously inducted into the rock aristocracy. Last year saw the publication of the music writer Simon Goddard's book Songs That Saved Your Life, an ambitious textual and musicological account of their oeuvre, while the reliably hyperbolic New Musical Express proclaimed that they were The Most Influential Band Of All Time. This month, Q magazine publishes a one-off Smiths special, an honour which has hitherto been reserved for the likes of The Beatles, Bob Dylan and The Who.

With an admirable sense of timing, this month also sees the return of Morrissey, now 44, after a long period of retreat. His last album, the underwhelming Maladjusted, was released in 1997, whereupon he shifted his base of operations to Los Angeles, and - save for the odd concert appearance - largely fell silent. Now, however, he is about to release a new record entitled "You Are the Quarry", perform a homecoming show in front of 20,000 people at Manchester's Evening News Arena, and deliver two outdoor performances at the annual August bank holiday event known as the Carling Weekend.

Perhaps even more significantly, he is this year's curator of the Royal Festival Hall's Meltdown season - a task which involves marshalling his chosen star turns into a fortnight-long programme of events. Suggesting that the worldview minted by The Smiths remains close to Morrissey's heart, the bill includes both a reunion of Morrissey's beloved 1970s American sleaze-rockers The New York Dolls, and an audience with Alan Bennett.

If all this activity points to a triumphant comeback, it should be contrasted with Morrissey's fitful progress through the 1990s. In the wake of The Smiths' acrimonious split - traceable, in retrospect, to Johnny Marr's frustration with the singer's tightly defined aesthetic - Morrissey released an accomplished first solo album called Viva Hate, and then followed it with records of wildly varying quality. Kill Uncle in 1991 was a half-baked flop. The following year's Your Arsenal and 1994's brilliant Vauxhall and I marked a return to his hitherto lofty standards, but the albums that followed in its wake - Southpaw Grammar and Maladjusted - were, by his own standards, really rather dismal.

To make things yet more problematic, his image as an unspeakably right-on champion of the world's shrinking violets had been dramatically called into question. In the summer of 1992, he appeared at a Finsbury Park concert with Madness, and chose to dress up his performance in controversial imagery indeed: the backdrop featured an image of two skinheads, and Morrissey made a point of dancing, matador-like, with a Union Jack. These were the days when, in rock circles, such props were indelibly associated with the far right, and the weekly music press piously assumed the role of policing such matters. So it was that the NME ran a cover story headlined "Flying the flag or flirting with disaster?", and sought to call Morrissey to account.

He has since alleged that politics was merely a handy pretext for a long-planned attempt to topple him from his perch, but the brouhaha did not seem quite as misplaced as that suggests. His dalliance with the flag was alleged to be emblematic of the nudging of his accent on Englishness into worryingly ambiguous places: among the songs on Viva Hate was "The National Front Disco", which rose to a refrain of "England for the English", and "We'll Let You Know", a treatise on football hooliganism that featured the line "We are the last truly British people you'll ever know". Elsewhere in his catalogue lurked a piece entitled "Bengali in Platforms", a song about the awkward cultural collisions thrown forth by Commonwealth immigration. Its words include the following: "Bengali, Bengali/Oh, shelve your Western plans/And understand/That life is hard enough when you belong here."

In the wake of all the fuss, he occasionally seemed to delight in irritating his accusers even further. "If the BNP were afforded television time or unbiased space in newspapers," he said in 1994, "it would seem less of a threat and it would ease the situation. They are gagged so much that they take revenge in the most frightening way by hurting and killing people. But part of that is simply their anger at being ignored in what is supposed to be a democratic society."

The following year, the decisive arrival of Britpop and its cross-cultural sibling Cool Britannia saw the kind of iconography with which Morrissey had flirted suddenly rendered camp and uncontroversial. In 1996, Noel Gallagher took to playing a guitar emblazoned with the British flag; a year later, The Spice Girls' Geri Halliwell made a celebrated appearance at the Brit Awards in a Union Jack mini-dress. The hand-wringing that had accompanied the Finsbury Park episode was nowhere to be seen; evidently, Britain had moved into an altogether less ideologically charged age.

If that transition might have realigned the zeitgeist in Morrissey's favour, the chances of some righteous return were rather scuppered, both by the declining quality of his art and further holes in his public image. Late 1996 saw a court case brought by the former Smiths drummer Mike Joyce, seeking redress for the fact that he received only 10 per cent of the band's earnings. One Judge John Weeks found in Joyce's favour, dispensing a summing-up which included a soundbite that has dogged Morrissey ever since: in Weeks's estimation, he was "devious, truculent and unreliable".

Soon after, Morrissey took flight. This doughtiest of Britons decided to relocate to Hollywood, moving into the one-time home of Clark Gable and Carole Lombard. Though there have long been whispers about spells when his avowed rejection of physical relationships has rather weakened, he continues to live alone, reportedly spurning any form of communication apart from the fax machine. Close friends seem thin on the ground: bizarrely, among the few people he occasionally entertains to tea is Nancy Sinatra.

Back in the UK, one can divine a palpable new affection for him; in the words of Mojo magazine, there has perhaps been "a slow, sheepish realisation that one of our National Treasures has been treated shabbily". In a wider context, given that the lasting legacy of his fellow Mancunians Oasis was to render British rock music prosaic and wilfully blank, his kind of bookishness, onstage flamboyance and proud articulacy have long been in woefully short supply - but it perhaps took his absence to prove that he was, in the words of this paper, "the last great pop eccentric".

So, the roar of a newly energised home crowd awaits. Come his return to the live stage in Manchester on 22 May, his backstage demands will presumably include a smoke-free environment, a vegetarian buffet - and several pots of yoghurt.

A LIFE IN BRIEF

Born: Steven Patrick Morrissey, 22 May 1959, Davyhulme, Manchester. His mother was a librarian, and his father a hospital porter.

Family: Single. Lives in Los Angeles.

Career: After stints as a civil service clerk, a hospital porter and a music journalist, Morrissey formed The Smiths in 1982 with guitarist Johnny Marr. They disbanded in 1988 and Morrissey pursued a solo career. Albums: Viva Hate (1988), Kill Uncle (1991), Your Arsenal (1992), Beethoven Was Deaf (1993), Vauxhall and I (1994), Southpaw Grammar (1995), Maladjusted (1997).

He says...: "I am not interested in the idea of being a pop star and telling everyone that I am the most wonderful person on earth. I'd like to think that in some way, I'm helping move pop music away from those notions."

They say...: "If Morrissey says don't eat meat, then I'm going to eat meat, because I hate Morrissey." - Robert Smith of The Cure

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