Morrissey: Heaven knows if he's miserable now

The singer who made glum glam in the Eighties with legendary Indie band The Smiths is breaking his silence and coming out of his self-enforced exile in LA. Has time made him any happier?

By Mark Simpson
Thursday 14 November 2013 05:58
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Morrissey. The name – like the artist – stands alone and apart. He remains aloof in an age of ghastly accessibility; aristocratic in an epoch of dumb democracy. He may be a household name, he may for some be still a star, but Morrissey could never be accused of being a celebrity.

Morrissey, the former frontman of the Smiths, the 1980s Manchester indie legends, as well as being a long-distance solo artist, is famous for saying "No" in a business in which one is always expected to say "Yes, please". He is known, too, for refusing to appear either in Hello! magazine or on television in Ready Steady Cook. Basically, he turned his back on the world rather than embraced it, the ultimate anti-Pop Idol. Yet this month he plays the Royal Albert Hall, his first British appearance for three years.

It was typical of Morrisey to limit the UK leg of his tour to just two teasing appearances at the London venue. Undoubtedly his ultra-loyal British fan base would have supported a series of national dates, but Steven Patrick Morrissey tends to leave his public wanting more.

What most of his fans probably want above all is a new album: he hasn't released one since Maladjusted in 1997. Aged 43, and effectively exiled, since the early Nineties, from Britain by the UK music press to that sunny mortuary known as Los Angeles, Morrissey has been without a record contract for five years. Like boxing, to which he is drawn, the music world is a young man's game, and it's getting younger all the time. Can Ol' Mozzer make a comeback at his own prizefight, shadow-boxing at the Royal Albert Hall? Indeed, does he even want to?

He has achieved the impossible before. After all, Morrissey should never have been a pop star in the first place – he should, by his own admission, have been a librarian, just like his mum. Most bizarrely of all, this shy working-class Anglo-Irish boy from the Manchester suburb of Stretford managed to become a pop star on his own terms. That's an unheard of perversion in today's music business. But there again, the early Eighties – when Morrissey first assaulted the public with a bunch of battered gladioli and Stanley-knife lyrics ("The sun shines out of our behinds") – was a peculiar time.

Back then, pop music was not necessarily just about training to become a TV presenter. For some young people, pop music was the ultimate answer. They listened – I mean really listened – to pop music in a way that today's download-and-shuffle generation would consider merely sad. This was partly down to boredom, but mostly it was down to punk and David Bowie, who infused pop lyrics with a promise they could never quite deliver.

Until, that is, Morrissey came along. Perhaps because he'd been a fan himself, hiding in his bedroom for so many years, he wrote lyrics that finally justified this kind of hopeless attention. His lyrics were inspired and warm, but they were deadly accurate. And they were very funny: "Now I know how Joan of Arc felt/As the flames rose to her Roman nose and her hearing aid started to melt". The bookish Morrissey's success in giving pop music a literary aspect has led some to point out how much he owed to Oscar Wilde, the "first pop star". Indeed, some fans say that Oscar was merely a failed Morrissey prototype.

Now that we have seen the 20th century itself counted down like a particularly tedious singles chart, and the world is suffering a parade of boy bands, it seems that Morrissey was indeed what he always told us he was: the ultimate culmination of the once-splendid and now well-and-truly spannered tradition of English pop. The man from whom, in other words, pop music never really recovered. The New Musical Express recently declared him – and the Smiths – "the most influential artist of all time", ahead of even the Beatles.

Perhaps this was why the eponymous debut album, The Smiths, with intoxicating tracks such as "Hand in Glove", "Reel Around the Fountain", and "Still Ill", seemed not so much an album as a serious illness. In the grip of its fevers and sweats, it transforms your view of the world and leaves you debilitated: "It's grue-some that some-one so hand-some should care". Morrissey's Smiths period songs, penned with guitarist Johnny Marr, and his post-1987 solo work, have an evangelical brilliance, an urgency and a sweet malice. There's a feyness there, but it's a feyness you underestimate at your peril. Morrissey's work has always been jammed right up against the edge of society, and he is as tough as they come. "Piccadilly Parlare" (1990) extols the seedy glamour of waster working-class boys on the game instead of the labour exchange. "Interesting Drug" deals with the social reality of drug-taking ("On a government scheme designed to kill your dream"). "Last of the International Playboys" (1989), dwells on the overheated hero-worship of hard men ("Ronnie Kray do you know my face? Oh, please say you do"). In fact, Morrissey's Smiths' oeuvre anticipated the new man of the late Eighties, while his early solo material anticipated the new lad and gangster chic of the Nineties, which was rather more interesting than most of what was to follow.

Morrissey stomped – in big, glittery glam platform shoes – on all those who predicted his demise sans Marr's magical melodies. Until, that is, his excruciatingly awful second solo album Kill Uncle (1991) was released. Even though the following albums, Your Arsenal (1992) and Vauxhall & I (1994), were as good as any in his Smiths period – and Vauxhall & I topped the album chart – his card had been marked.

In a sense, Morrissey was "in the way". He had to be assassinated so that the 1990s and Brit Pop, which owed everything to him and Marr, could happen. Of course, it was the NME, the paper which had put him on the cover almost every week for 10 years, that wielded the stiletto in the early Nineties. In its kangaroo court, his always self-conscious interest in skinheads, low-life and the Union Jack – all of which, of course, were to become emblems of Brit Pop – were cited as proof that he was racist. His silence was seen as confirmation.

Morrissey, whose US career was going stratospheric while his British career was imploding, just said "No" again and moved to Hollywood, within idolatrous distance of the grave of his secret heroine, Bette Davis, the difficult diva who defied the studio system and almost won. He has remained there ever since, enjoying saying "No" to the weekly interview requests from the British music press.

Rehabilitation is in the air. The Nineties and Brit Pop are over and firmly in the remaindered bin. Even the NME now throws garlands at his feet. Moreover, Morrissey's American career appears to have well and truly stalled, despite his massive popularity with tattooed Hispanic LA gangs. There's rumoured to be an album's worth of new material recorded. That he remains label-less is probably down to his Bette Davis-like ability to say "No".

Maybe a British record label could persuade his pal Alan Bennett to kidnap him while he's over here and tickle him with Diana Dors memorabilia until he finally, reluctantly, gasps "Yes". His fans need Morrissey. And maybe, Morrissey needs them more than his two nights at the Albert Hall suggest.

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