Q, December 1989
THE SOFT TOUCH
Mat Snow, Q, December 1989
Your fans are fiercely loyal but always "with an aura of love and gentleness". You're being sued by two former band members but accept it as "par for the course". You're a staunch supporter of the slighted, the lonely, the misunderstood - people, in fact, much like yourself. You are Morrissey and you're talking to Mat Snow.
For a man who, in his time, has sprouted a bush from his back pocket, sheathed his torso in capacious ladies' blousewear from Evans Outsize, strung great ropes of bright plastic beads round his neck and, indeed, sported a conspicuously large, outmoded and quite unnecessary hearing-aid, the icon they call Morrissey seems ever so slightly rattled when asked about his latest contribution to the world of fashion and personal grooming.
"Aah, the question is so basic it's hard to answer : why did you shave your armpits ? I find it very fascinating. I did it for a long time, all through The Smiths' career and I still do it occasionally. I can't remember how it began. I don't think there's any great mystical reason. It's very natural," laughs the eccentric Mancunian hitmaker uneasily. "Surely you do the same ?"
Can't say I do.
"Then you don't know what you're missing, haha !"
And what is your motive ?
"Just extreme physical beauty, obviously. Surely you realise that ?" he squirms, fiddling with his shoelace. "This is the first time anybody's asked and I'm very embarrassed. It's not to make a point, or even taking oneself too seriously and trying to project a fascinating pop image. It's just a curious whim. I'm surprised it should be of any faint interest ... It has a strangely serene quality, a smoothness to it."
Then is it the sensation of shaving you like ?
"No, hate it. But I never go a day without shaving. I had to shave when I was 13. That's reasonably young, isn't it ? And I do not have a five o'clock but a two o'clock shadow."
"But no, I've never shaved my legs ..."
In February 1988, Morrissey's single Suedehead became the first release on EMI's HMV label since Joyce Grenfell's I Wouldn't Go Back To The World I Never Knew, 20 years before. It was followed that March by his first solo LP, Viva Hate, and a cameo role in the Brookside spin-off South.
Since then, sightings of the man called Mozzer have been few and far between. The one live excursion was a free show held just before Christmas last year in the Wolverhampton Civic Hall where the only condition of entry was that you wore a T-shirt emblazoned with the Morrissey mug : 1,700 got in, but 2,000 were turned away amid scenes of mild pandemonium. As for records, the non-LP singles Interesting Drug and The Last Of The Famous International Playboys have been seized on by fans as bulletins of where Morrissey's head is currently at. While he has maintained, these past 18 months, an uncharacteristic near-silence, rumours have flourished.
What is known is that after an acrimonious split with his musical collaborator Stephen Street, Morrissey is now recording with Clive Langer and Alan Winstanley, best known for their productions of Madness and Elvis Costello's Punch The Clock LP. The first fruits of this new partnership are the new single, Ouija Board, Ouija Board, and the flip, a cover of East West, originally by those '60s pop sensations from Manchester, Herman's Hermits. Having oscillated between London and Manchester since The Smiths' first flush of national success in late '83, Morrissey is back in his hometown, for the time being at least, back among his roots.
Q: Does Ouija Board, Ouija Board denote an interest in the occult ?
I've always had an interest in the occult, but not an inexhaustible interest, just a passing interest. I had an experience in 1984. I lived in a rented flat for a while and there was definitely a presence, and a friend of mine who is a medium came to the flat, and I didn't tell her that I'd had vibrations. When she came in she immediately went into a semi-trance, walked around every corner of the flat and stood outside the bathroom door and said, It's here. It's coincidental that each time I'd stepped outside the bathroom, even though I'd always keep the heating on really high, I'd felt a great chill.
I found out that somebody had died in the flat - the usual story - but I didn't feel any hostility. It was calming, really, in the simple sense that I didn't feel any danger or horror. It was the kind of feeling you get when a real human being walks into the room.
I've tried it on occasion, with friends, to make contact, as it were, but nothing has really ever happened; the pressure on the glass has always come from the same index finger. I try to instill a degree of humour in the record. I know it isn't terribly apparent, but I find it amusing.
The song is primarily me, once again for the 8,000th time, losing faith in the human race and almost turning to the other side of life for communion and friendship.
Q: Have you ever turned to religion ?
At no time. I am a seriously lapsed Catholic. It was at the usual time, 10, 11, 12, after being forced to go to church and never understanding why and never enjoying it, seeing so many negative things, and realising it somehow wasn't for me. I can only have faith in things I see. I could never be converted to Buddhism.
Q: The new single is your first collaboration with Langer and Winstanley. Why them ?
I was a serious Madness fan years ago, and that's how I knew of them. It was largely their sense of perverse fun I quite liked. I never considered the records to be standard pop fare. I quite liked the peculiarity. People say music hall, which I suppose is quite true.
Q: Rumour has it your first ever collaborator was Billy Duffy, now guitarist with The Cult.
Yes, it was for two weeks in 1979. I met him and we wrote some songs and joined the rhythm section of what had been The Nosebleeds, of which Vini Reilly had briefly been guitarist. But yes, Billy Duffy was the first person I wrote songs with, and in fact he pushed Johnny Marr in my direction, which was very decent of him. But he made very negative comments about The Smiths some years ago, and I find it hard to forgive him.
Q: Rumour also has it that you drive a white Golf GTi.
I do possess one but it's mostly driven by other people. I can drive but I don't have a licence - I've never taken the test. But rather than hiring cars at every opportunity, it's just become easier for me to hire a person who can drive, which is how I move around.
Q: Do you have a personal staff ?
No, I don't have a manager. I don't have anybody who works for me at all. But occasionally I have a friend who I'll pay for a certain period when I have to do something, and he'll drive.
Q: Is it a full-time job being Morrissey professionally ?
Yes, it is, because if I'm not in the process of making an actual record, there are many other things that have to be done. I have to see lawyers a great deal; there's always ongoing court cases that I have to deal with. Currently in dispute is a case with Mike Joyce, The Smiths' drummer, and a case with Craig Gannon, who worked with The Smiths for a while. Both are claiming, as usual, percentages and so forth. Mike Joyce is demanding 25 per cent of everything The Smiths ever earned. To talk about it now would be slightly unpleasant. But in a small way it's always happened. There's always a tour manager who pops up demanding more, there's always somebody who claims to have been your manager and who is claiming more. I think it's just par for the course. All the Smiths companies are defunct, but I'm being sued as an individual, as a former director. Every day of my life I have letters from lawyers, whether it's mine or somebody else's. It's extremely depressing, but to be seen to be complaining about it is, I think, to the general public, unnecessary. I don't think they want to know about this. Certain people would look at my life now and say, How could you possibly complain compared to what you once were ? In a way that's true, but it still doesn't make it any easier to deal with the constant barrage of offensive letters. But I can't remember a period in my career when there wasn't something ongoing, somebody who had managed to get legal aid and had decided to chase you for every penny you have, and that seems to be happening more and more.
Q: Your time and energy must be severely taxed.
I don't know how I get the fortitude to deal with that kind of thing, and as a consequence, in the public sense, over the last couple of years my activities have slowed down somewhat. I've had to put so much energy into other areas. With The Smiths I had a great need to oversee as much as physically and mentally possible, and that's how my life has continued. I dislike it a great deal and wish I could find a body of people who I could work with, who were my friends but were also very strong and could deal with certain things and be with me all the time. It would make it easier to do more. But I can't find those people, which you might find slightly absurd. You either end up with the manager who wants 99 per cent of what you earn and can only see you in terms of earning and working as much as possible, which I totally despise, or you do as I do, which is deal directly with a lawyer and an accountant.
Q: Was covering a Herman's Hermits tune by way of reaffirming your roots in '60s Manchester ?
Yes, it was, and also a way of saying goodbye to certain things, a certain period in my life. Perhaps not directly a '60s obsession, because I think all that's fading away and the world of the single is fading away, which was obviously the world of Herman's Hermits.
Q: Were the songs Suffer Little Children and The Last Of The Famous International Playboys, concerning respectively the Moors Murders and the Kray Twins, about the working out of childhood memories ?
In a sense, yes. A lot of people are very intolerant of any '60s obsession. It just doesn't seem to wash anymore with people; they're tired of the 1960s, they're exhausted at the whole Beatles myth and so forth. Personally, I find the story of Madness more interesting than the story of The Beatles. But I never for a second intended the Moors Murders to be, if you like, part of my history. And I never wanted the whole '60s thing to be part of my history. But it has become that, and I feel I have to move away from that. And I want to, also. East West was just closing the door and saying goodbye. But that doesn't mean I'm now moving forward to 1974. With the passing of time, I, like most people, can see the '60s and '70s much more clearly. At the time they were meaningless, because the present is always meaningless. Looking back fascinates me, how things change and how, in some ways, things don't change. When I think back to the period of Silver Convention and music like that, I feel very much that is how the chart is now.
Q: Do you listen to chart radio ?
No, I never listen to the radio, but pop music is absolutely the soundtrack to my life. I can hear Pretty Flamingo and it reminds me of a particular time. One way or another I get to hear most things in the Top 40, though to be honest I don't know who most of the people are. But one somehow eventually stumbles across these records; one hears them on television in other programmes, which is strictly a late '80s phenomenon. Obviously, in the '70s you never heard pop music at all.
Q: So you're still a pop fan ?
Very much so. I've bought a lot of things recently just to listen to and then throw them away. I'm still a big record fan. I really enjoyed the Black Box single. It's odd for me because it's not my world at all and there's no reason on earth why I should enjoy that record, but when I first saw them on Top Of The Pops I thought it was pretty extreme. She also looked brilliant, and I still love the record after nine weeks.
Q: And the revelation that it is not, in fact, her voice ?
I'm more interested in the rumours that she has been male. I'm hoping that it's true because it makes it more interesting. If you look at her from a certain angle, you could possibly see her playing for Wigan.
Q: Yet when Reel Around The Fountain was released in '83 and the tabloids mistakenly accused it of being a celebration of paedophilia, presumably readers took a similar prurient interest ?
I find transsexuality very interesting but, yes, it's probably the same feeling. At the time I was feeling very browbeaten. It's quite different when you're on the receiving end of what set out to be smears. Sometimes I can read pretty revealing stories about certain people which are supposed to be damaging, but they just increase the admiration I have for them. But I'd rather not name anybody.
Q: Do you feel your fans who queued in Wolverhampton in midwinter and got soaked, cold, manhandled by police and
didn't get in might have felt a little cheesed off with you ?
I didn't meet anybody who was. They didn't have to come if they didn't want to; they must have been aware of a certain element of risk. It isn't my fault if at the final minute someone came from the back with huge muscles and removed them. It's symptomatic, I think, of life in general.
Q: Was the show an effort on your part to recreate the hysteria surrounding your own idols of the '60s and '70s ?
Believe it or not, that always happened with The Smiths anyway. Even abroad it was very expressive and extreme and even violent. But I thought a free concert was a very good gesture. I couldn't think of anyone who'd done it in recent years. I was and still am in a situation where I could sit down with some very heavy money moguls and organise huge tours with highly inflated ticket prices. I don't do that because it's against my nature. So I thought above all people would see a free concert as a very welcome gesture, regardless of who got their sandals stolen or dropped their crisps in a puddle. In the hall that night there was a great aura of love and gentleness, and all the people who came on stage treated me in a very gentle way. I wasn't kicked or punched or dragged, although they were very emotionally charged. I came away with no bruises.
Q: Do you thus feel an affinity between your fans and acid house ravers ?
Yes, but I think that with The Smiths and my audience there was never a drug element at all. Interesting Drug is about any drug, legal or illegal. We have to face the very simple fact that drugs can help people in many ways. Even with acid house parties and constant police invasions, it almost seems to me that whenever people in working class situations try to enjoy themselves or escape from what is forced upon them, they are stopped. It's almost as if this current government want people to be sheepish and depressed and not seen, and whenever they attempt to break out of that bubble, they are hit on the head.
Q: Don't you think the powers-that-be are "cracking down" on acid parties principally because the noise and traffic causes a public nuisance ?
I think that's also true, but I think it's more than that - a slightly disturbing element of keeping people in their place, which is the basic law where drugs are concerned: people can't have drugs because it makes them see or want to do more than they should. But I have no experience of acid parties; I have never been to one.
Q: Has your audience changed over the years ?
I've noticed dramatic additions and I've noticed that a lot of the crusty old faithfuls have strayed somewhat, away from music. Even initially there were older types and younger types. But now I meet so many people who never saw The Smiths because they're fifteen years of age and so to them they're simply a legend. I'm astonished by the variation in types of people who stop me on the street. It can be very fresh-faced young fans, and it can be very serious people who are ... heh, heh ... shall we say middle-aged ? In the prime of their lives, ha ha ! Quite largely they're very normal people which is very entertaining. Quite often if you only read the normal media blurbs on me you'd assume I could only appeal to people who'd either suffered a recent loss or paint themselves black from head to foot, ha ha !
Q: When you were a teenager, were you a fan of Buffy Saint-Marie and the New York Dolls
at the same time ?
Yes ! Which really made me what I am today. If I was simply a hard-edged Stooges, Dolls buff as there were quite a few of in the late '70s, I'd probably be in The Alarm playing bass. I'm not because I can also appreciate people like Buffy Saint-Marie. I'm a little bit of each now, but not totally a great deal of either. But even today I get very excited by Buffy Saint-Marie. I thought she had a great voice and great passion. In 1964 she was singing about drugs in a very exciting way : "My mother, my father, said whiskey's a curse, but the fate of their baby's a million times worse...". This was 1964 : The Beatles were singing "She loves you, yeah yeah". It didn't catch on and I can't imagine why. A very underrated artist; there's millions of them.
Q: Do you like artists because they're underrated ?
If I like them and they're slighted, the only instinct I have is to assemble a placard. Certainly, if people die and their deaths are overlooked, I feel I have to do something about it, I have to speak for them. Even with the recent death of Bette Davis, which I thought was typically slighted by the entire media, as if nobody cared. Here was this absolute, total legend, possibly the very last one, and I have the impression that if Joanna Lumley had died it would have gained more space, which foxes me. I'm generally attracted to people who are mildly despised and Bette Davis was. I bought all the newspapers the day after her death, expecting huge, blinding banner headlines. But it was simply The Bitch Is Dead, on page 15, which I found astonishing. I just assume it's a new generation of journalists who don't really know and don't really care. Perhaps it's too long ago. I think that people do forget. Bette Davis was a very formidable spirit who risked going against audience sympathy to get what she wanted, risked narrowing her audience to convey how she really felt. Which is quite largely how I feel about my career. I'd rather walk away than do anything unnatural. I appreciate that spirit because it's very, very rare - and extremely rare in dear old pop music, if it exists at all.
Q: What about Madonna, whom once you dismissed ?
I do have a slightly altered view of Madonna. I can see how her career could be considered very determined, a person who absolutely pleases herself, which is quite good. She doesn't give interviews, which is very impressive, and she works a great deal. I can see she has remained true to herself over the last five years. She will go down in pop history as a legend.
Q: It is often held that the pop star's most common motivation is the desire to leapfrog an adolescent lack of self-esteem. Your story too ?
With me it was being overlooked. Also, an intensified shyness yet a desperation to do it, like someone who really wants to sing but prays that nobody asks. Very confused. Revenge initially was a strong element for me. In a meek way I tried for many years to do something quite useful and visible, and nobody ever wanted to help me or take my calls, whether it be trying to break into music journalism or trying to form a group. I remember once, a long time ago, somebody at the NME slamming the phone down when I called, and that seemed to be the last straw in a bucket of many, many straws. Yet to say now that that might be the basis of one's career seems childish. It obviously isn't; I do enjoy every aspect of what I do.
Q: The fame ?
There are so many mountainous myths surrounding recording, performing, and being on television, and these myths don't seem to collapse. People do assume that if you're engaged in this whirlwind that you're surrounded by friends, enormously rich, the world is at your fingertips, you have enormous ease and the pick of the crowd, which has never ever been true in my case, nor in the performers I personally know. I could phone up certain people who are, if you like,
every Monday night at 8 o'clock and they're sitting at home. And they're quite frustrated and they want to go out and meet people and make friends, and it's very hard. Yet they sell enormous amounts of records.
It becomes impossible because of the public's method of approach. It takes a very long time to make friends with people, and if you're walking down the road and suddenly there's somebody talking to you who you don't know and have never met, yet they know you and they know what they want to say and they want an instant reaction, it's very, very difficult. Personally, I just begin to clam up. I think sometimes people become confused by a lack of response, but it's an alarmingly unnatural situation.
Even though you may go out with the aim of meeting people and having a good time, it isn't that easy when that other person conceivably knows everything intimately or professionally about you, and you know nothing about that person. And that person seems to have very strong views on you and your life. That person is a great deal up on you. The situation is very unbalanced. Sometimes I feel that the only friends performers can have are other performers, but then there's that strange jealousy, that strange air of competition that creeps in. I've never felt it because I've always been happy with my status; it's very respectable and useful. I've never wanted to be part of the global pop aristocracy. I've never wanted to play Wembley.
Q: Does it bother you that the likes of Sting, whose music you don't care for, can use his status to draw attention to a cause you also endorse ?
It's encouraging, but he also draws attention to the fact that he's bored stiff - bored with his career, bored with making music, he's bored with rain forests. Sometimes it can be useful, but now causes within music
are so common that I think the record has to be incredibly good to prove that the political cause is useful. Unfortunately, look at Spirit Of The Forest which had enormous publicity yet sold 12 copies.
Q: Do you worry that a record might flop ?
I don't, because people tell me that there's no way it can, because I seem to have a very loyal audience who are waiting for the day of release. I suppose, like most things, it must end eventually. I think when there is a visible dip I wouldn't continue. We only realise something's of value if people want it, and if they begin not to want it, then why persist ? I don't think longevity is a particularly good thing. Some artists are extremely powerful within a short space. But I don't see the point with certain artists just staying around and applauding themselves for the fact that they're still standing and this is their hundredth single. So what ?
Q: Perhaps they don't realise their work is now substandard. Would you ?
Yes, I think I would because I have a reasonably serious audience, who think very deeply about the things I do. They criticise me a great deal, and most of the time they're wrong. Sometimes they're right. But because they're so staunchly loyal, if they deserted me in a large number, I think it would be more than coincidental. Obviously I must have come out of the wrong lift somewhere on the way.