Jamming, December 1984
Russell Young, Jamming, December 1984
Then, he was just an insecure Mancunian Celibate. Now, his every move thrills thousands.
My second date with Morrissey this year. And what a year. In January, there I was, carried away, The Smiths were worth the fuss. I had this dream... The Smiths are not far from life, not just concerned with singing about beauty, sorrow and love but ultimately intent on capturing the first nervous bursts of them all in every three minutes.
Our second date, wondering just where we are. Within the opulent walls of Liverpool's Adelphi Hotel, Morrissey and I munch cucumber sandwiches, sip tea and sigh softly. One year of The Smiths - what a serious world.
Our second date spent looking back - Morrissey eyeing me somewhat suspiciously, debating whether I've come to bury the ghost of The Smiths - in twelve months which has seen them tread the tightrope separating nervous bursts from burlesque.
1984 watched The Smiths edge dramatically away from that pure pop aestheticism (see This Charming Man) and nearer to a damaging self-parody. If anything, Morrissey was the living proof that intelligence does not breath easily in the pop whirlpool. Even excluding the unqualified embarrassment of the Sandie Shaw saga, The Smiths failed to burst. Their debut LP offered little of the glorious, shimmering brilliance of their previous singles (too self-conscious and clean-cut for its own good). Furthermore, their subsequent releases tottered along a little uncertainly.
Most importantly, Morrissey (now a household pop name) seemed bored with being Morrissey - the effete, ascetic aesthetic, the little charmer, life's burdens resting squarely upon his lonely shoulders. All his obsessions seemed exhausted, all his lifelong misery carefully chronicled. He sat next to Alvin Stardust on Pop Quiz and wriggled uncomfortably, wondering quite what he was doing there. Maybe Morrissey was beginning to long for his solitary room again...
Time for the next cucumber sandwich, time for the first word.
Maybe you've overexposed yourself this year?
"All the interviews were becoming completely predictable, because everybody was asking me the same questions. When it appeared in print, it seemed as though I was very boring and that I could only talk about a limited number of things. That wasn't true; it was just that I was answering the same questions. I needed to step back, so I've only done one in the last four months, which for me shows great restraint."
Was it the probing, personal nature of the interview that unsettled you?
"Well, I initially gave the impression that I would answer questions on any given subject, regardless of how personal they might be. So, people began to probe into the depths of the old soul, as a matter of complete course. Having to go through it several times a day... it's like staring at your own reflection in the mirror for twenty-four hours in a day - it's quite daunting. It was like constantly being on the psychiatrists couch, people coming in asking, 'Well, how ill are you today, how miserable are you now,' like I was making a miraculous recovery from some great illness."
Has all that introspective probing given you a better understanding of yourself, in a vague and general sense?
"In a very vague and general sense... it's difficult to say. The other night, I went out for the first time in ages and somebody came up to me and said, 'Do that funny dance that you do!' I felt completely repellent - as if I was some character off a situation comedy; some stand-up comic with a woolly hat and a tickling-stick. It seems, at times like that, as though everything has got completely out of hand. Certainly, in interviews, nobody asks me about music - only as the spokesman for a generation, which is quite appealing, but quite strangulating also. I'm absolutely responsible, I wouldn't deny that. I admit that it has become difficult to confront these overbearing issues twenty-four hours a day. Obviously, though, I'd never go back."
Last time we met, we were talking of the perfection of This Charming Man. How do you see The Smiths since then?
"I see it in terms of incredible change. We've done a lot of work this year and achieved a great deal, much more than we've been given credit for. It's been a most thrilling year and as four individuals, we are closer than ever. Although everything written in the press has been strong, it has become quite difficult to live with. I've been quite aware for a few months that many journalists were trying to prise Johnny and I apart in some way. We've weathered that and we've weathered the most difficult backlash, which occurred in the beginning of the summer. I feel we're quite impenetrable. For me, almost all the records have been absolutely perfect, but I can't deny that there are some that haven't aged so gracefully - What Difference Does It Make ? ... I regret the production on that now. But that's the only regret, although I might seem like the kind of person that has many regrets."
I wonder to myself whether, for Morrissey, the pop dream is sweeter than its taste. Besides finding himself horrified at the realities of pop stardom, he's also had to deal with the very personal blows of his two heroes (Terence Stamp and Albert Finney) objecting to being Smiths' cover stars. Besides, the Sandie Shaw collaboration provided enough upsets of its own - the lady finding little good to say about it all. As I suggest this to him, his brow crumples up:
"It depends how heavily you want to probe into things. On the face of it, the Sandie project was a tremendous success. I felt, at that time, that what we were doing was the absolute envy of the entire industry. It was The Smiths, these relative newcomers, and Sandie Shaw at the other extreme. Just the way we came together, the combination was almost perfect; it had virtually never been done before in the history of music. I know that, if it had failed, the failure of the idea would have been given massive publicity, but it didn't fail. For that reason, I'm pleased. I just thought that the press treated it all like some Punch and Judy curious double-act. Everything, but the record, is immaterial, because you have to live with the record forever, it will always be there. The whole Terence Stamp-Albert Finney attitude was so petty, even though I really like these people..."
Is that the danger in treating 'heroes' as something more than human?
"I don't really believe that - I can't believe that even personal insult can corrode that adoration. I love those people, regardless of what they say, regardless of how disinterested they can get. I'll try to understand it and I'll still love them. It is quite tragic really."
Have you realised that there's a limit to how far you can push the public face of Morrissey?
[smiles] "There are no limits and I intend to make full use of that fact. Lots of detractors have suggested that The Smiths have become too 'industry', too poppy. It always seems that, once you are accepted in artistic terms, then your records have no value. That's utter bosh to me. I know journalists who, one year ago, were madly dedicated - now, they make the most absurd, sweeping criticisms.
When you get close to this industry, you see how it is orchestrated by utter apes. When you're a member of the audience, sitting in the stalls, the whole idea of making records is inexhaustibly wonderful. When you get into the thick of it, you realise that the whole thing is swamped by oafs."
You told me, last time, that you never wanted The Smiths to milk a formula dry. Weren't Heaven and William just ridiculously familiar?
"I don't think the format of the songs became too familiar. Thankfully, The Smiths became familiar through success, but I don't agree that we were exhausting any set formula. Even if we wanted to be that way, I don't think we could, because that's the type of people we are. This goes for every single member of the group, we are not pop stars and we're not in any traditional mould. I find it impossible to be flattered by pop success but I don't know why. Maybe, I just have very high standards and I don't think we've even begun to reach them, so it doesn't mean a thing to me when people come up and shout, 'Phenomenal! Number 43!!!'. It doesn't mean anything, although it is important to me that we've reached this scale of success. I'd think it was a waste of time if we were still in the position around the time of Hand In Glove. Then again, for the type of group that we are, I don't believe that our popularity reflects how big we are as a group."
He enters into this lengthy moan about the misinterpretations of the press, worrying about the public face of Morrissey - frowning on how it has all become so familiar, blaming his own brutally honest self-suggestive manner.
"I thought I couldn't be anything but completely honest. When we began, I thought there was a need to find somebody who was honest to a fault. Nobody had been like that before, because all the popular figures had become like early-70's rock stars. There was nobody out there putting their heart on the line. There was no-one singing as though they would die if they didn't. I had to be boringly personal. I'm beyond embarrassment now. When your 'private' life is magnified in such a way, you know that nothing will happen to make you shirk and shrink. It's a massive trap, because I announced that I was celibate... so now, journalists telephone me day after day, to see if anything has changed. I can laugh about it now, but the laughter probably conceals a mass delirium. It's strange because eighteen months ago, nobody on the planet heard that I was alive. Now, to have your cuff-links the subject of massive national concern is quite curious."
So, do you long for that solitary room again - alone with your James Dean poster and your Albert Finney videos?
"Never... only when I'm in the supermarket, buying socks, and suddenly, there's a photographer behind you with a lens zooming in on your acrylics. Otherwise, no, who wants to be anonymous for Heaven's sake? I didn't do anything from that time in my life, so how could I miss it? There are times when I'm walking along and I'm stopped by some hairy oaf who wants to sit down and tell me the story of his life... that's quite difficult. In the most neurotic sense, you're in this position where you are Morrissey twenty-four hours a day, listening to your records, reading your interviews, doing interviews. It's like constantly probing your own mind. The schedule makes it impossible to run off into the sea to paddle about, or drown, or whatever. Or to romp off and play football."
Could you answer a question about anything? Would you draw the line at anything totally personal?
"No, there isn't. What saddens me is that, regardless of what you say, people come to the wrong conclusions anyway. Certainly on the subject of [lowers voice, realising an audience of two old ladies nearby] sex, virtually all the American coverage we've had has been totally erroneous."
Morrissey's sexuality has always been a favourite matter of public debate (eg. this issue's Bronski Beat Feature). Declaring himself celibate and genderless, nobody has really believed him. (C'mon, he can't really have gone without for seven years etc.) At the moment when he voiced his disinterest, suddenly everyone wanted to know what he really thought/did.
I don't think people believe you, Morrissey, I really don't.
"I think the mission of most journalists is to expose me, because they have this notion that I'm totally fake - as though I'm secretly some mad sex monster. People are ready, in wait, for the cloak to drop and to see me photographed in the Playboy Club. They're trying to unravel me."
Have you ever resorted to lying to make something more interesting?
"I believe in that idea but I've never found it necessary. But I'll certainly consider it for the future [laughs] ! I think of myself and marvel at the fact that there is someone in popular music who is not mute. I read other people's interviews and I'm fast asleep before I reach the end of the first paragraph - people making records are so dramatically dull; the people who are considered to be the heart of the music industry and the final saviours of pop are so remarkably dim. I feel it is quite irregular and virtually immoral for someone in my place to be able to get from one sentence to another, regardless of what I'm talking about. Recently, I've been out to see groups - considered to be the pulse of modern popular music - and I've come away laughing hysterically. I feel sad that so many bland creatures could be the centre of such intellectual probing."
I'm surprised that all the wave of 'The Smiths can only do good' acclaim from press and audience alike hasn't affected you. Surely though, you must get put in situations now... and this is getting back to the sexual question... er... certain situations must arise... I mean you must get a few propositions these days...
"Not many! The shock of the whole thing to me is that not many situations do arise. I thought literally queues upon queues would form, but it's not the case. After the end of a sizzling performance, where people are simply eating each other to get close to the stage, I find myself back at the hotel with Scrabble and an orange. It's quite interesting. It's all very curious."
Isn't it tempting, though, to throw yourself into that whole world of wine, women and song?
"It never is. I wonder why. It's not tempting to break my own rules. Once you do that, it's very easy to lose sight of the reasons why you started in the first place. You can slip into the industry so easily. I could turn into an absolute social gadfly tomorrow and be seen everywhere with everybody. I could possibly handle it, but that wouldn't give me enough time to concentrate on the realities of writing. It's easy to get further and further away from the council-estate and you can forget how you felt for twenty-four years before it all happened. You can get quite bedazzled by the lights. Well, we never intend to do that."
What's been your favourite moment this year?
"There's been so many colourful moments and so many disastrous ones - so many nightmares. I'm pushed to tears very often, usually by our own performances. On the last few dates that we did, the crowd were singing so loud, louder than myself, I was drowned out to the extent that there was no point in me singing at all. I was physically moved to tears because of that. When people feel such tremendous, overblown emotion that they want to shout the words, hurl their bodies forward and leap on the stage - to me, that is the height of human emotion."
Have you ever thought about The Smiths and thought, "Oh God, we're turning into a normal pop band"?
"Only once, and that was coming off the set of Pop Quiz, because that was so depressing. It's easy to say that now, but as I sat in that chair next to Alvin Stardust, I thought, 'My God! I've really lost control'. Before the cameras rolled, Alvin Stardust told the audience a joke which was incredibly depressing and everybody laughed. I just thought, 'Oh no! I shouldn't be here'. I had nothing else to do, that's the only reason I did it."
Do you think The Smiths, as a band, push themselves to the limit?
"Totally. I see them as very extreme and in very positive ways. We never listen to everyone else. I think the only thing to do with advice is to ignore it because people will never understand the real you. They' re never there when your group begins - they're never in your room when you're writing lyrics. So, I don't presume that they're going to understand my music and they don't. When people say erroneous things that are positive, I don't mind. When they say erroneous things that are negative, I feel very strong about it.
There was all that fuss about Suffer Little Children in the newspapers, all these comments and opinions from people who knew nothing about the group and nothing about music. I felt very sad and angry about that, so much just being headlines. Nobody had approached me and there were long, inflated comments, 'Morrissey says this...' and 'Morrissey wrote it for this reason...'. All of it was totally untrue and I couldn't understand why nobody had asked me. At one point, someone from The Daily Mail rang up, giving me the chance to give my side of the story. Of course, they weren't interested that I got on famously with the parents of the victims. So, they wouldn't print the story. Well, that really upset me.
We've never deliberately set out to court controversy but I think it is quite natural that we always will. The lyrics are intellectual and that's too rare in modern music. You can't write anything serious. When I wrote an ineffectual line such as 'I was looking for a job/ And then I found a job/And Heaven knows I'm miserable now', that outraged people (which pleased me). All the daily tabloids treat me as a dangerous figure and that pleases me. At least it means that I'm a strong person and I'm not Andrew Ridgely."
As Morrissey talks, you can't help thinking that he plays a cunning game as pop's public face; you can't help wondering what's left of the real Steven Morrissey - introverted, solitary Manchester boy. He aims at being just the tiniest bit improbable, his talk littered with maxims and ironic wit. If Morrissey is his mask, it's a most fascinating pretence. Meanwhile, I'm left wondering what remains of Steven Morrissey.
"It was really easy to lose my past, because I was so determined. I wanted to move on and forget. To an extent, I'm the same person, though I do tire of being Morrissey from time to time. Joining The Smiths was like a purging for me - it's been like a life-raft. Otherwise, nobody would have cared what I said about anything, which is quite sad. It means that, if you're an anonymous person, and you have very strong views, you're considered insane and you're closer to an asylum than a knighthood. But when you cross over and you become quite famous, everything you say is quite interesting to people, then you're never considered insane. If I had stood in the middle of a Manchester housing estate and announced, 'I'm celibate', I probably would have been shot. I find it very difficult to be complacent. When somebody says something nauseating, I'm ready to attack - I'm not incapable of violence and I'm not incapable of being undiplomatic. I'm not a delicate bloom by any means.
I get angry when The Smiths are talked about in such short-sighted terms, the very fundamental, nonsensical things."
Didn't you bury all that this year - appearing on TOTP with a bush up your backside? Weren't you parodying the image of yourself?
"It was the end of a stage for us and, in a way, it was parody. But also, to me, it was high art. Now, you can snigger, but in a hundred years... people laughed at the Pre-Raphaelites, remember that! I did think it was quite artistic. For one thing, it had never been done before and to me, it's quite serious. I mean, people stop me in the street and say, 'Where's your bush?'. Which is an embarrassing question at any time of the day. I mean, what do you say to people? 'I've left it behind on the mantlepiece'. I don't even mind if people remember me for my bush or my hearing aid - as long as it's for artistic reasons. It was all done to bring some life into TOTP and other programmes. I don't do anything just to surprise people. I'm not thinking, 'Now, what will fox them next ?'. It's not a circus and I'm not some trapeze artist. I think The Smiths are an irregular group, regardless of what we do."
Hatful Of Hollow seems like the perfect way to map the fluctuations of The Smiths so far, contrasting the sweeping grace of the early sessions with the later recorded works. Did Morrissey intend it as some retrospective summing up of The Smiths so far?
"There seems to be a few aspects to it," he replies. "We wanted it released on purely selfish terms because we liked all those tracks and those versions. I wanted to present those songs again in the most flattering form. Those sessions almost caught the very heart of what we did - there was something positively messy about them, which was very positive. People are so nervous and desperate when they do those sessions, so it seems to bring the best out of them."
You've talked before though of losing your excitement for life. I mean... you're still very young. [I watch him smile.]
"It's like what I mentioned before about things seeming so wonderful from a distance, but when you go to Rome, you're bored and you want to come straight back home to Scunthorpe. It's a bit like that. When you're doing television programmes every day, interviews every day, being whisked up and down the country, you begin to get a headache. You just want to sit at home and do nothing, and you're made to feel that when you lose your zest for these 'glamorous' activities, there's something wrong."
Have you exhausted most of your ambitions this year?
"No, because we still want to make lots of records and ultimately, that's the only thing that matters. Other things we can do without, they're not important."
Do you never feel you've given it all away - exhausted all your passions?
"I've given up a lot of my obsessions and some of that comes back to age, I regret to say. With almost everyone I've ever met in the music industry, they have music and success, but they also have their private lives - family or whatever. They can switch off, do something that is totally unrelated to music. But I've never done that, for me it's this way all the time, it's just music all the time. Besides that, I never think of my limitations, I just can't consider them because I can't consider failure.
I don't see that The Smiths have to change, it's just not necessary. People have got so used to modern artists changing so much that they expect it. To me, that just hints at massive insecurity. I have to say this again - I still feel that The Smiths have hardly begun, we've just scratched the surface. We'll last for a very long time. Because we entered the industry with such a furore, people thought it stank of hype and imagine we were a temporary attraction. I think people are beginning to come to terms with the fact that we will be around for a very long time.
Also, I must say that the material on the second official LP, which we're recording right now, is stronger than ever. We're still using the traditional, fundamental instruments and keeping it very basic. We still get such dramatically passionate feedback from Smiths' devotees and that makes me even more secure about the situation. I can't feel passionate about any one thing, besides The Smiths. It's like my most consistent fantasy throughout life - that we're of some value, feeling that we were here and we did something. Now, I'm pleased to say that I have."