Details, March 1991
I'LL ASTONISH YOU
Len Brown, Details, March 1991
Morrissey, the miserable minstrel of British pop, unveils a new LP, Kill Uncle, and a game plan for conquering America. "If George Michael had to live my life for five minutes, he'd strangle himself with the nearest piece of cord," says Morrissey as he walks through the woods surrounding Hook End Manor. A Tudor monastery now converted into a recording studio, Hook End is where he's been working on his new album, Kill Uncle, with Madness stalwarts Suggs and Bedders, and writer-producers Clive Langer and Alan Winstanley.
This third solo effort will no double reinforce the substantial differences between the former lead singer of The Smiths and George Michael, whom he despises. Though both have been plagued by the adolescent self-doubt that nurtures pop celebrity, Morrissey, unlike Michael, has neither welcomed the trappings of stardom nor dismissed them. The anti-pop star who scored, he has mad a formidable career out of being a crank.
Since the Smiths first emerged in late 1982 with the jangling, Celtic-Velvet Underground Hand In Glove, Morrissey has been traditionally depicted as an Oscar Wilde-like vegetarian aesthete snob, famous for sticking gladioli down the back of his pants and wearing oversize ladies' blouses, government-issue glasses, and hearing aids. Even without these props, he would occupy a unique position in British pop, for in almost every way Morrissey is a departure. He openly loathes a lot of things, many of which are the sacred cows of rock 'n' roll songwriting. He's austere, antisocial, and he claims to be celibate -- not exactly your average MTV personality.
And yet, perhaps for those very reasons, he has captured the hearts and minds of the suburban Americans who have embraced The Cure and Depeche Mode. In Morrissey's lyrics they cherish a fashionable bleakness that adds a meaningful texture to their otherwise comfortable, middle-class lives. For them, "Morrissey" is a synonym for "British eccentric."
While Morrissey's English supporters are declining -- probably because he believes "it's more interesting to give an audience something it might not want" -- his popularity in America is on the rise. "I sell more records in America than in any other country. I think if I could get on the right platform, or in the right platforms, I could be suffocatingly popular over there"
Perhaps he should leave England.
"I've been asked to," he says, laughing.
Of course, he won't. He remains, at thirty-one, a "seriously lapsed Catholic" and defiantly, impeccably English in his outlook. Not the England of the '80s or '90s, but that of the late '50s, early '60s, "when England was unshakably English." Morrissey's England is one of power cuts and broken bicycles, of ordinary boys and unrequited love, of seaside towns they forgot to close down. It's the working-class England of Shelagh Delaney's A Taste of Honey and the camp-as-chandeliers Carry On films.
Depressed by "the Americanization of England and the English language," Morrissey fairly wallows in the literary and the arcane. His collection of unreleased singles, Bona Drag, which recently graced Billboard's Top 100, takes its name from an obscure London gay lingo called Piccadilly Palare (also the title of one of the LP's fourteen tracks). Likewise, the title of his recent seven-song home video, Hulmerist, seems to be paying homage to a turn-of-the-century English philosopher-poet who founded the Imagist movement with Ezra Pound.
Although he is recognized for such intelligence, Morrissey is more often criticized for what is perceived as professional woefulness. He is well aware of this. "People have gotten tired of reading about my private life," he claims, perhaps wishing it were true. "If they read the word 'celibacy' again, I'll be physically attacked. Even people who quite like me feel slightly weighted down by all the solitary monkishness, they feel enough is enough, when is that charade going to end? Unfortunately, a lot of people think I did sit in a room with papier-mache and straw and string and created this persona. But nothing has changed. It's still the feeling of being the solitary introvert on the hill and not being part of the McDonald's queue. I still haven't found love or religion."
Morrissey insists he has always been a chronic misfit. Recently, when asked "When and where were you happiest?" he replied, "May 21, 1959."
Steven Patrick Morrissey was born on May 22, 1959.
From his early years in the rough suburbs of Manchester, he grew increasingly brooding and bookish. "I despised practically everything as a child," he recalls, "which does limit one's weekend activities." When he was seven, several children from his home area were tortured, killed, and buried on the Lancashire moors by Myra Hindley and Ian Brady in a case known as the Moors Murders. This gruesome event had a great impact on Morrissey (he later wrote Suffer Little Children about it); as a formative experience, it ranked alongside the separation of his parents.
During his teenage years he lived with his librarian mother, left school without academic qualifications, and spent six years, by his own account, "sealed in a vat of introspection". In these unemployed years, he poured his energies into various obsessions: first as a student of Oscar Wilde's work, then as a letter writer to the music papers under his nom de plume, Sheridan Whitehead, then as the author of James Dean Is Not Dead, and later still, as president of the New York Dolls fan club.
His idols were either dead or controversial, usually both. The first record he ever bought, when he was six, was Marianne Faithfull's "Come Stay With Me" ("She was a right goer"), and he recalls, "The whole idea of David Bowie being this despised person I found very encouraging."
Meeting Johnny Marr and forming The Smiths in 1982 finally dragged him screaming from his bedroom. During their six years together they became one of the most influential and innovative English guitar bands since The Beatles and achieved a massive following. And while Morrissey's lyrics were steeped in Englishness, they also challenged conventional maleness. "I've always felt closer to transsexuality than anything else," he explains. "A lot of male followers are, as far as the eye can see, natural specimens who have very anguished and devilishly rabid desires in my direction. And I find that quite historic."
Evidence of this can be found in Hulmerist, a ground-breaking venture in itself, since Morrissey has always shunned videos. Embracing rock 'n' roll idolatry in an ironic bear hug, the clips are linked by footage of handsome young concertgoers sporting Morrissey hairstyles, chanting their hero's name to the tune of a soccer cheer, and punching the air to an aria from Carmen. Hulmerist's live rendition of Sister I'm A Poet is punctuated by a steady stream of male stage crashers who briefly but tenderly throw their arms around Morrissey.
His sexuality is as obscure and open to interpretation as everything else about him. Though he's aware of his popularity among gay men, he surely understands that declaring a sexual, rather than asexual, preference would make him more accessible, less enigmatic. Morrissey has made it clear that what makes him heavy is not his sexuality but the music he's made since he first became a Smith.
Given the importance of The Smiths to Morrissey, it's remarkable that he's managed to survive as a solo artist at all. He once said, "The Smiths are like a life-support machine to me." That may sound melodramatic, but the fact is that the band's enduring legacy in the UK has left Morrissey-as-solo-artist continually being compared with and often overshadowed by Morrissey-as-Smith. Though Viva Hate, his first solo album, was a lyrical triumph and commercial success, many critics claimed the tunes penned by his then writing partner, Stephen Street, were mediocre compared with Marr's compositions. Bona Drag has been viewed as artistic water-treading while he struggled to complete Kill Uncle.
Even so, Morrissey seems to enjoy the negative reactions he is capable of eliciting. "If you don't have 100 percent passion for every move I make, then I'm the most irritating person you could hope to hear of. I know this, because people write and tell me. It's usually parents who write, 'Every time I walk past my daughter's bedroom I hear this person having their legs sawn off, which ultimately leads me to the stereo and it turns out to be you singing'. They say, 'I don't like it. I don't want it in my daughter's life.' I still have this unsettling edge, and I think it's a strength.
Morrissey gets a lot of mileage -- and column inches -- from this strength. He is completely unfazed by the prospect of making enemies. To Morrissey, "reggae is vile", rap is "thuggish", and the current Manchester dance scene that includes Happy Mondays and The Charlatans UK is "the revenge of the daft. I'm not impressed. That's why I'm seen as the person outside the gates with arms folded." Other bon mots have included his description of the British royal family as "so magnificently, unaccountably, unpardonably boring" and his opinion that "Madonna is closer to organized prostitution than anything else."
Morrissey believes that art, like beauty, is "that which the bourgeois call ugly". To that end, Morrissey claims he is most proud of November Spawned a Monster, a wretchedly beautiful song written from the point of an ugly, deformed, unlovable child confined to a wheelchair. That song, says Morrissey, is a more accurate self-expression than anything else he's done. In the video Morrissey, true to his contradictory nature, dances and slithers around the rocks of Death Valley in a chiffon chemise, acting rather more like Madonna that he may care to admit.
This year could also have its share of surprises for Morrissey. He'll be taking the stage for the first time since 1988 and will likely tour America. Perhaps he's already thinking about how best to handle his peculiar position in pop while still expressing his hatred for all that that entails.
"I know I've reached the stage where other artists would bleach their hair or buy a fancy costume, but, inexcusably, I can only be me, which is a full-time occupation and causes terrible backaches. But there's a famous quote in Hardy's Far From the Madding Crowd where Bethsheba Everdene says, 'I shall be breakfasted before you are afield. In short, I shall astonish you all.' It has no relevance, of course, but I honestly believe that once they've raked away all the nonsense, I'll still be here."