Melody Maker, September 1986
HOME THOUGHTS FROM ABROAD
Frank Owen, Melody Maker, 27 Sep 1986
It's a long way from Whalley Range, is Cleveland. A long way indeed from the Collyhurst cut-throats, city hobgoblins, and the Stretford beer monsters so central to Morrissey's waking nightmares. What of Central Library, Whitworth Street gent's toilets, the Arndale Centre, Piccadilly all night bus station? What of the fluttering hearts and flashing Stanley Knives? We'll come to that later. But first, ladies and gentlemen, I present Cleveland.
The Smiths are encamped in the middle of a civic pride that burns about them like a beacon aspiring to light up the rest of America. No longer is this city content to be known as "the armpit of the USA," to be the butt of a thousand Johnny Carson jokes, to be lampooned for it's dullness by "Saturday Night Live" with their "Cleveland Vice" skit. No longer the Stoke-On-Trent of the Midwest, the "mistake on the lake" (Cleveland is on the shores of Lake Erie) now proclaims itself as the "best location in the nation". Paper hats, mugs, tee-shirts that read, "If you don't believe in your city, no one else will" are piled high in the shops.
The mayor refers to his domain as the "ALL AMERICAN CITY". The propaganda surges out of the City Hall printing presses with all the fervour of a micropatriotism hot on the campaign trail. No longer will naughty old Randy Newman sing "Burn On" - a paean to Cleveland's Cuyahoga River which, a decade ago, was so full of chemicals that a spark from a broken Zippo lighter would have sent the whole thing up. The city is resurging - and how.
Part of Cleveland's renewed civic pride is its rock 'n' roll past. "The rock 'n' roll capital of the world" runs the legend. The local radio station, WMMS, has won the Rolling Stone readers' poll for the best radio station seven years on the trot. Clevelanders frequently boast of the superstars that launched their Stateside careers in Cleveland: David Bowie, Fleetwood Mac and the Boss himself. With fervour, if not funk, on their side, the Cleveland self-improvement campaign has paid off.
Soon to be set in the city crown is what they regard as their most glittering gem to date: The Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame. This august edifice will house both museum and auditorium, and will provide lectures and academic programmes on rock's rich tapestry. Cleveland, Ohio (population 558,000), collected 650,000 signatures on petitions demanding this honor and, at the same time, lodged 110,000 phone calls to America's national daily, USA Today. In pursuit of its objective, Cleveland presented the following persuasive arguments: DJ Alan Freed first coined the phrase "rock 'n' roll" in Cleveland in 1951 and, a year later, Cleveland hosted the nation's first rock 'n' roll concert, The Moondog Coronation Ball. Perhaps when the place is built they'll invite Professor Steven Morrissey to give a lecture on how he made rock 'n' roll celibacy sexy and, in the process, made a fortune.
The other dominating manifestation of this civic pride is the accommodation of the yuppie that can be seen everywhere in the city. The Flats is the equivalent of London's Dockland: warehouse apartments, expensive antique shops, nautical stores, sculpture galleries and posh restaurants arising out of the city's industrial poor image past. This gentrification has produced places like the Burgess Grand Cafe, a favoured location for the pasta and Perrier set. Amid the fin de siecle decor - somewhere between Victoriana and Art Nouveau, but precisely where I'm not sure - Cleveland's yupward mobiles power breakfast. But even the tall canvas panels of willow nymphs, the corner mural after Gustav Klimt or the smell of nouvelle-Ohio cuisine can't re-write history. Now and again the corner of the new city peels off, the blue collar past showing through to the present.
To the rear of The Smiths' Music Hall venue, the National Rib Cook-Off is in full grill. "More like National Slaughter Day," mutters Meat-Is-Murder drummer, Mike Joyce. Some kind of national showcase for those in the barbeque trade, big men with big appetities eat big meat and the aroma of roasting ribs and other meaty hunks drifts over to irritate the noses of The Smiths fans waiting to be ushered into the Queen's presence.
Smith fandom, USA style, is nothing like its British counterpart. Dressed in punky fancy dress, with orthodontic braces appearing to be the main fashion accessory, this lot had none of the grubby self-righteousness of their British equivalents. The ones I talked to I liked. I especially liked their obsessive dedication - "The Smiths" scrawled in felt tip on their arms, the way they had professed to have given up meat as soon as they heard Meat Is Murder. It reminded me of the Osmonds fans I used to know who had renounced the C of E in order to become Mormons.
A brief taped intro (Prokafiev's "Romeo and Juliet", culture vultures) and The Smiths hit the stage with There Is A Light That Never Goes Out - all thrills and spills and chills down the spine.
With his off-the-bum jeans and off-the-shoulder shirts, Morrissey is as gorgeously camp as ever, assaulting the male myths of rock idolatry with his ususal little-bit-of-delicate-sleaze-and-a-lot-of-tease routine - the missing link between Norman Wisdom and Joe Dallesandro. Morrissey doesn't need to have sex in private because he does it all on stage. Don't be fooled by the coy boy, Miss Goody Two Shoes pronouncements: Morrissey owes more to Little Richard than he would care to admit.
In the past, The Smiths have erred on the side of private gloom. Not tonight. With their best ever album behind them, The Smiths have now achieved something approaching the perfect pitch with a collective musical voice that is funny, fluent and profound. Morrissey's switches of register - one moment coming on all wry and ironic, with a keen eye for the comic detail, the next, deadly serious, delicately recording certain feelings and stripping them down to the bare bones - are now beguiling rather than gauche. What strikes you most about The Smiths, these days, is Morrissey's longing for passionate speech - the desire to say something that matters, to say something that above all else, will move the listener.
In an ironic age, this is a difficult task and, in the past, it has left The Smiths wide open to charges of a wayward, wimpy mooniness. But Morrissey the lovelorn dickhead is no more. Welcome, Morrissey, the possessor of a generously comic higher intuition. As somebody who hated the majority of Meat Is Murder that is something that I thought I would never admit to.
The band climax the set with The Queen Is Dead against a giant image of the most beautiful man in the world, Alain Delon. A swift dash back to the hotel and Morrissey spends most of the night politely answering calls from swooning fans.
"Sex is hard work just like everything else. I'd rather laugh in bed than do it." - Andy Warhol
The Sexual Hangover, No Sex, Defunkt Sex, Post-Sexual Sex, call it what you will, but sex just isn't sexy anymore. In America, No Sex has reached epidemic proportions and it's not just the fear of AIDS and herpes. For 30 years we've had sex saturation in the guise of a sexual revolution and candid sex has now become candied sex - sex as the boundless sweetshop of sexual identity and consumption. It was inevitable that, after the Grand Bouffe, abstinence would set in. Some people like to try a new thing just for the heck of it and No Sex is the new thing.
As Sylvia Lotringer has written: "Revolutions are never good news for queens. When everything is permitted, nothing is extraordinary. Sex has ceased to be extraordinary." And if there is one thing that Little Mo wants to be, then it's extraordinary. Along with the likes of Germaine Greer and Andy Warhol, Morrissey has been a key propagandist for the Celibate Tendency. Giving up sex has become such a declaration of independence. Sex is such a hassle, such a bore, such a waste - think of all the time and energy spent in the search and consummation. But can anyone really overcome sex? While you can live without sex (afer all, monks do it), can you live without desire? But we'll come to that later.
Meanwhile I'm sitting in my hotel room at Stoufers Inn On The Square, waiting to be summoned to the 11th floor to interview the Great One. On the telly Doctor Ruth, America's renowned down-home sex therapist, is counseling Bert from Ohio about the lumps on his penis. Doctor Ruth offers firm but frank advice: "Go to the Doctor, Bert."
The phone rings. It's Morrissey awaiting my presence. So I collect my tape recorder, my notebook, my best knowing smile and a new packet of Kleenex and set off to meet him.
Morrissey's propensity to speak about No Sex has become such an explicit, expected and expedient feature of The Smiths' interview experience that it takes a certain amount of courage on behalf of the interviewer not to touch the subject. Me, I'm a born coward so I ask him has liberation from sex replaced sexual liberation as a radical demand? First off I get the coyboy routine.
"That's difficult for me to answer, because, personally, I have nothing to do with sex, nothing whatsoever. I'm not a tremendous authority on sexuality in general, so I can't really say."
Oh come on, Morrissey. You harp on about sex all the time. Is it just a pose or is it born out of a reaction against the way rock 'n' roll masculinity is traditionally presented?
"Mmm, well, yes. There's all those very tangled bits of seaweed but, in essence, I don't think, without wanting to sound self-congratulatory, that anyone with views such as mine has been successful in the rock 'n' roll sense. And that makes me, if you like, vaguely unique but really I'm not plotting anything. I'm just dramatically, supernaturally, non-sexual."
"In The Smiths' song, Stretch Out And Wait, there is a line 'God, how sex implores you'. To make choices, to change and to be different, to do something and make a stand, and I always found that very, very encroaching on any feelings that I felt that I just wanted to be me, which was somewhere between this world and the next world, somewhere between this sex and the next sex, but nothing really political, but nothing really threatening to anybody on earth and nothing really dramatic. Just being me as an individual and not wishing to make any elaborate, strangulating statements."
Do you like strong women?
"Yes, I do... Germaine Greer for instance. I would like to eventually turn into Germaine Greer."
At the moment, she's been harping on about how, in the post-pill age, women are treated like donuts and that sex is a waste of time.
"It is! It's a waste of batteries. If we all had to face each other as individuals, as human beings, we'd all be petrified. People thrive on barriers and descriptions and loopholes."
Isn't this asexual chic merely a refusal of maturity - a fey, adolescent form of sexuality that speaks of sweaty socks and masturbation in locked bedrooms?
Morrissey is indignant. "Not at all because you make it sound slightly retarded and it certainly isn't. I think that's a wrong image, I think that's a deliberate slur. I certainly never had smelly socks... but don't ask me about masturbation." He laughs.
Free at last. Free at last. Free from sex. But can we ever really be free? Morrissey's genital continence might be strategy to rise above the debased form of rock 'n' roll sexuality we know today with its obsessive phallic focus. Asexuality might restore sexuality to its fullness as a non-goal-orientated experience. Asexuality might be a form of sex strike, a consumer boycott, something radical and special. But, more likely, it's just another swing of the pendulum - after sex comes No Sex. It wouldn't surprise me to find, in a couple of years time, Morrissey eulogising the joys of fist-fucking and water sports.
BLACK POP CONSPIRACY
"Pop has never been this divided," wrote Simon Reynolds in his much-lauded, recent piece on the indie scene, referring to the chasm that now exists between indie-pop and black pop. The detestation that your average indie fan feels for black music can be gauged by the countless letters they write to the music press whenever a black act is featured on the front page.
It's a bit like the late Sixties all over again with a burgeoning Head culture insisting that theirs' is the "real" radical music, an intelligent and subversive music that provides an alternative to the crude showbiz values of black pop.
Morrissey has further widened this divide with the recent single, Panic - where "Metal Guru" meets the most explicit denunciation yet of black pop. "Hang the DJ" urges Morrissey. So is the music of The Smiths and their ilk racist, as Green claims?
"Reggae, for example, is to me the most racist music in the entire world. It's an absolute total glorification of black supremacy... There is a line when defence of one's race becomes an attack on another race and, because of black history and oppression, we realise quite clearly that there has to be a very strong defence. But I think it becomes very extreme sometimes."
"But, ultimately, I don't have very cast iron opinions on black music other than black modern music which I detest. I detest Stevie Wonder. I think Diana Ross is awful. I hate all those records in the Top 40 - Janet Jackson, Whitney Houston. I think they're vile in the extreme. In essence this music doesn't say anything whatsoever."
But it does, it does. What it says can't necessarily be verbalised easily. It doesn't seek to change the world like rock music by speaking grand truths about politics, sex and the human condition. It works at a much more subtle level - at the level of the body and the shared abandon of the dancefloor. It won't change the world, but it's been said it may well change the way you walk through the world.
"I don't think there's any time anymore to be subtle about anything, you have to get straight to the point. Obviously to get on Top Of The Pops these days, one has to be, by law, black. I think something political has occurred among Michael Hurl and his friends and there has been a hefty pushing of all these black artists and all this discofied nonsense into the Top 40. I think, as a result, that very aware younger groups that speak for now are being gagged."
You seem to be saying that you believe that there is some sort of black pop conspiracy being organised to keep white indie groups down.
"Yes, I really do."
Morrissey goes on: "The charts have been constructed quite clearly as an absolute form of escapism rather than anything anyone can gain any knowledge by. I find that very disheartening because it wasn't always that way. Isn't it curious that practically none of these records reflect life as we live it? Isn't it curious that 93 and a half percent of these records relect life as it isn't lived? That foxes me!"
"If you compare the exposure that records by the likes of Janet Jackson and the stream of other anonymous Jacksons get to the level of daily airplay that The Smiths receive - The Smiths have had at least 10 consecutive chart hits and we still can't get on Radio 1's A list. Is that not a conspiracy? The last LP ended up at number two and we were still told by radio that nobody wanted to listen to The Smiths in the daytime. Is that not a conspiracy? I do get the scent of a conspiracy."
"And, anyway, the entire syndrome has one tune and surely that's enough to condemn the entire thing."
People say that about The Smiths. And it seems to me that you're foregrounding something that isn't necessarily relevant to a lot of black music, especially hip-hop. It's like me saying that I don't like The Smiths because they don't use a beatbox.
"The lack of melody is not the only reason that I find it entirely unlistenable. The lyrical content is merely lists."
Do you dislike the macho masculinity of many of the records?
"No. I don't find it very masculine."
Well, a lot of it is about...
"What? Chicks?" he sniggers.
No. One upmanship. Having the best, the biggest.
"Mmmmm. It's just not the world I live in and, similarly, I'm sure they wouldn't care that much for The Smiths. I don't want to feel in the dock because there are some things I dislike. Having said that, my favourite record of all time is "Third Finger, Left Hand" by Martha and the Vandellas which can lift me from the most doom-laden depression."
Why is it that people like yourself can eulogise Sixties black pop and yet be so antagonistic towards present-day black pop? Nostalgia?
"No. It was made in the Sixties but I don't listen to the record now and say, 'Well, I must remember this is a Sixties record and it's 1986 now so let's put it all into perspective.' It has as much value now as ever. We shouldn't really talk in terms of decades."
It seems to me that nostalgia is something that afflicts the whole indie scene. They can't face up to the fact that pop music is no longer created; it's assembled, quoted and collated. That's why so many indie bands are caught in a timewarp with 'real' musicians playing 'real' music on 'real' instruments. Isn't that the reason for The Smiths' much-vaunted Luddite tendencies? Can't hi-tech have a liberating aspect, enabling non-musicians to construct music? And isn't this well in tune with the punk ethic that the indie scene is supposed to draw its inspiration from?
"I hate the idea of having to learn to play the instruments, too. But it makes it so easy. It means that anyone with no arms, no legs nor a head can suddenly make a superb LP which will obviously go platinum. I can't help it. I love Wigan, I love George Formby, I love bicycles. I love Wigan's Ovation."
"Hi-tech can't be liberating. It'll kill us all. You'll be strangulated by the cords of your compact disc."
Suddenly, Morrissey breaks off and stares at me as I munch my way through the giant bowl of crisps on his hotel room table. "Why are you eating all those stale crisps?" he asks. "You'll regret it in the morning."
Suddenly, there's a knock at the door. "Shall we see who it is?" I suggest. "No. It's probably a cockroach," he replies. Such is the Morrissey interview experience.
IN EVERY HOME A HEARTACHE
"And someone falls in love,
And someone is beaten up,
and the senses being dulled are mine." - Rusholme Ruffians
Legend has it that sometime in the late Seventies, somewhere in the northwest of England, there existed a mythical city called Manchester. To the north of the city lay the infamous Collyhurst Perrys - a vicious cult of midgets dedicated to Jumbo cords, wedge haircuts, Fred Perry tee-shirts and easy violence. Morrissey remembers them well. So do I, especially the night my skull cracked open under the weight of a specially sharpened heavyweight Perry belt-buckle. (Perrys were always good at CSE metalwork.)
"They're still there. Trouble is, now they're all 33 and they're still doing the same thing. The memories I have of being trapped in Piccadilly Bus Station while waiting for the all-night bus or being chased across Piccadilly Gardens by some 13-year-old Perry from Collyhurst wielding a Stanley Knife. Even when I was on the bus I would be petrified because I would always be accosted. They were the most vicious people. They would smack you in the mouth and ask you what you were looking at after."
They were all so small, as if suffering from some sort of genetic defect...
"Hence 'City Hobgoblins' by The Fall. What's the line? ... 'Half my height, three times my age'."
They always used to hang around the Arndale Shopping Centre.
"I know. On The Queen Is Dead, Never Had No One Ever, there's a line that goes 'When you walk without ease/on these/the very streets where you were raised/I had a really bad dream/it lasted 20 years, seven months and 27 days/Never had no one ever'. It was the frustration that I felt at the age of 20 when I still didn't feel easy walking around the streets on which I'd been born, where all my family had lived - they're originally from Ireland but had been here since the Fifties. It was a constant confusion to me why I never really felt 'This is my patch. This is my home. I know these people. I can do what I like, because this is mine.' It never was. I could never walk easily."
I know what you mean. In one way I despise Manchester and yet I still have a deep affection for the place.
"That's because we're in Cleveland not in Manchester," he laughs.
"If the Perry's didn't get you, then the beer monsters were waiting around the corner. I still remember studying the football results to see if City or United had lost, in order to judge the level of violence to be expected in the city centre that night."
"I can remember the worst night of my life with a friend of mine, James Maker, who is the lead singer in Raymonde now. We were heading for Devilles (a gay club). We began at the Thompson's Arms (a gay pub), we left and walked around the corner where there was a car park, just past Chorlton Street Bus Station. Walking through the car park, I turned around and, suddenly, there was a gang of 30 beer monsters all in their late twenties, all creeping around us. So we ran. We bolted. Unfortunately, they caught James and kicked him to death but somehow he managed to stand up and start running. So James and I met in the middle of Piccadilly Bus Station and tried to get on a bus that would go back to Stretford because they were chasing us and they were really hefty beer monsters."
"We jumped onto the bus and I thought 'Saved!' and turned around and saw it was completely empty, no driver. We thought, 'My God! We're trapped on this bus!' They were standing at the door shouting, 'Get out, get out!' We had all these coins and we just threw them in their faces and flew out of the bus. We ran across the road to a bus going to God-knows-where outside The Milkmaid. We slammed four fares down and ran to the back seat. Suddenly the emergency doors swing open and these tattooed arms fly in - it was like 'Clockwork Orange'. The bus is packed, nobody gives a damn. So we run upstairs and the bus begins to move and we end up in Lower Broughton. For some reason we get out and we're in the middle of nowhere - just hills.
"On top of this hill we could see a light from this manor house. We went up these dark lanes to the manor house and knocked on the door. It was opened by this old senile, decrepid Teddy Boy, no younger than 63, with blue suede shoes on. 'Do you have a telephone?' 'No.'"
"We had to walk back to Manchester. It took us seven days. We came back home to my place, finally, at something like five am and listened to Horses by Patti Smith and wept on the bed. That's my youth for you in a nutshell.
Life for the would-be Bohemian in Manchester was always hard. Pre-punk, those seeking sanctuary from the patrolling behemoths covered in vomit, had little alternative but to take refuge in the gay clubs, like Dickens (a sleaze pit where your feet stuck to the floor when you walked in), or the gay pubs, like the Thompson's Arms, the Rembrandt, or the Union (the hippest spot of degeneracy in town - full of trannies with plastic legs).
"The gay scene in Manchester," says Morrissey, "was a little bit heavy for me. I was a delicate bloom. Do you remember the Union? Too heavy for me, as was Dickens. The Rembrandt I could take. It was a bit kind of craggy. There was no place, at that time, in Manchester, in the very early stages, that one could be surrounded by fascinating, healthy people" (pause) "fascinating, healthy bikers for example. It was always like the cross-eyed, club-footed, one-armed, whatever!"
"The gay scene in Manchester was always atrocious. Do you remember Bernard's Bar, now Stuffed Olives?"
I do indeed. I particularly remember the endless stream of ageing music hall acts that Bernard booked (Mr. Memory men, jugglers, etc) in order to create what he thought was an upmarket ambience. Perhaps that's where the inspiration for Frankly, Mr Shankly came from? I also remember that you were kicked out if you dared so much as snigger at the appalling turns.
"If one wanted peace and to sit without being called a parade of names then that was the only hope. Bernard's Bar was fine for a while but what I was really into was the music." That's where punk fitted in.
"Nineteen seventy-five was the worst year in social history. I blame 'Young Americans' entirely. I hated that period - Disco Tex and the Sex-o-lettes, Limmy and Family Cooking. So when punk came along, I breathed a sigh of relief. I met people. I'd never done that before."
Punk changed everything. The Manchester Scene was born. Sweaty nights at the Electric Circus watching The Sex Pistols, The Buzzcocks, Blondie, Television et al and sordid nights at The Ranch, a one-time gay club run by female impersonator Foo Foo Lamar.
"I never liked The Ranch. I have a very early memory of it and it was very, very heavy. I never liked Dale Street. There was something about that area of Manchester that was too dangerous."
You big jessy, you big girl's blouse, Morrissey. But he's right. It was dangerous and, with the increased media visibility of punk, the violence got worse. You see, punks were not only faggots, they were uppity faggots as well. They made music, they wrote poetry, and, of course, they dressed up. It was as if they were protesting against the limits of prole Northern experience: 'There must be something more to life than this," they said. Something more than the endless round of beer-swilling and snogging at Tiffanys followed by a boring day on the factory floor or in the office.
At the heart of the scene was an understanding by the people involved that they were destined for something other than exploitation. The Manchester scene wasn't a product of Manchester but a triumph over it. It was a battle against some of the longest odds possible to be something other than dull prole pond-life. So what happened? Fame, success, a little bit of money - and the cries of "Sellout" - the usual story. So was it that special?
Morrissey thinks it was: "It was a breed of people. It was like the wartime scarcity crowd who have gone now. Compared to what we have now, good heavens, we had something then. We have nothing now. It was a very creative time.
Do you think it was something to do with the water?
"It definitely began with the water. It must also have something to do with Central Library. I was born in Central Library - in the crime section."
If any Manchester bohemian worth his salt spent his nights at The Electric Circus and The Ranch then his days were spent at Central Library. There you could spend hours searching through their extensive collection of fiction from all corners of the globe and, at lunch, you could hang out with the older bohemian set in the basement cafe. And what about the toilets? I remember it well.
"I used to love it at Central Library. The smell and the sound. How, when you dropped a book, the sound would echo around the place. Musical, musical! The toilets were guarded by uniformed gorillas. It was like guerilla warfare going on in there - an awful, frightening place."
What about Whitworth Street toilets (an infamous cottage)?
"Ahh, yes, Whitworth Street toilets. I never knew Bert Tilsley. But let's steer away from public toilets."
Shall we leave Manchester now?
"Da dee dee. Do we have to? We still haven't discussed the hours and days I queued up outside Coronation Street waiting to get Minnie Cauldwell's autograph."
I was never a large Coro fan.
"A severe large gap in your cultural capabilities."
Ah, Manchester - the music, the clothes, the violence, the grace, the sex...
"I don't remember any sex," says Morrissey coyly.
Which is where we came in.