Vox, April 1993
WHAT NOW, MOZZER ?
Tony Parsons, Vox, April 1993
Morrissey is a prophet without honour in his own land, accused of being racist, bigoted and jingoistic by his critics. But just as he is reviled in this country so he is hailed as a god in America - will he now look to Los Angeles for a permanent home ? By Tony Parsons.
For Morrissey these are the best of times and the worst of times. In England, he is accused of racism. In America, he is invited into the homes of black superstars. Confused ? Who wouldn't be ?
His records get better. His press gets worse. Sometimes it seems that this most English of artists is only truly appreciated in America. Sometimes the baying of the mob is so loud that it seems that, like his friend Oscar Wilde, he will eventually be hounded into exile. Artistically, 1992 could not have been better for him. Your Arsenal was the solo album that his career needed, a record that proved he could produce material that is, at least, the equal of anything he did with Johnny Marr. There have been flashes of brilliance throughout his solo career - Disappointed, Everyday Is Like Sunday and Suedehead are great songs by any standards - but Your Arsenal was much more than that. It seemed finally to exorcise the ghost of the Smiths - though that group will only really be laid to rest when the singer is comfortable performing their material. Unsurprisingly, Morrissey's dazzling new live album, Beethoven Was Deaf, released in April, contains nothing but solo Morrissey songs.
This year could not have got off to a worse start for Morrissey when his manager, Nigel Thomas, died of a heart attack in January. Morrissey has always needed a good manager, someone to promote his interests while protecting him from the vulgaraties and vagaries of the record industry. A year ago, he finally found Nigel Thomas, a gracious heavyweight who had previously overseen the careers of Alexis Korner, Joe Cocker and Ray Davies. Certainly, Thomas deserves all the credit for steering Morrissey to his recent successes in America. At Thomas's funeral in Gloucestershire, Morrissey paid tribute to everything they had achieved over the last year.
"It has been the most exciting year of my life and the most fruitful," he said. "I would not have had that year if it had not been for Nigel. It is not a very dignified business, but Nigel managed to make it so. All the things I remember about him are good and happy. I am a reasonably pessimistic person and he was very optimistic. Everything he said could happen happened, most notably selling out the Hollywood Bowl. It was an achievement in which he was completely instrumental. I was enormously proud of that."
The effect of Thomas' death on Morrissey is hard to predict. Certainly, he will miss his manager's sagacity and will find him difficult to replace. Perhaps he will not try.
In the short time that Thomas and Morrissey had together, they consolidated the singer's position as an international act. This country finds it difficult to comprehend that Morrissey - formerly the darling of the underground, Indie's special little secret - is a big shot now.
A few years ago, it mattered that Radio One didn't play his records - now, quality Sunday papers fall over themselves to put his face on the cover of their magazines. Despite a Grammy nomination for Your Arsenal as Best Alternative Album, he's a mainstream star now: a major act on major label, selling out the Hollywood Bowl, feted by the biggest names in the business.
David Bowie recorded a cover of I Know It's Going To Happen Someday for his new album, "Black Tie, White Noise." Prince wants to record with him, Suede talk about him as though he is Elvis, and, to an entire generation of young musicians who started shaving in the '80s, he is the one.
Where he will probably miss Thomas the most is in his dealings with the media. Nobody since the Sex Pistols has attracted quite as much controversy as Morrissey. In the tabloids, he has been attacked for minor indiscretions, like wanting to execute Mrs Thatcher, for advocating arming animal liberationists, and numerous other offences. The music press have made him the Pik Botha of pop, an inveterate racist whose songs - The National Front Disco , Bengali In Platforms, Asian Rut - and imagery - the Union Jack he brandished while supporting Madness, the skinhead backdrop on the same stage - allegedly reveal a deep and abiding loathing for the immigrant community.
And it won't go away. Morrissey continues to be hauled over the coals by the inkies. Small bands like Cornershop and Family Foundation grab big headlines in the weeklies by joining the debate. Morrissey stays silent. Perhaps Thomas could have helped to defuse the situation; Morrissey doesn't try. 'England for the English,' he sang on Your Arsenal. Yet, increasingly, there seems to be no place for Morrissey here.
One of his great themes is what it means to be English. Nobody else cares as much as he does about the shyness, the smug xenophobia, the humour, the pride and the capacity for embarrassment that are your birthright when you are English. And nobody else - nobody else - has written and sung about it as brilliantly as Morrissey. And yet sometimes, it seems that he could - that he surely will - relocate to the States, where he is loved by the fans, respected by the industry and admired by other stars. He is loved unconditionally in the USA; here, the attacks never stop. There hasn't been a witchhunt like the one being currently conducted against Morrissey since Bowie suffered the same fate in the '70s. Of course, Bowie has chosen to live in LA, Berlin, Switzerland - anywhere but Merry Olde England.
However, Morrissey is not only an Englishman - he is an Englishman from the North. Mick Ronson, the producer of Your Arsenal, told me that he thought Morrissey's Northern-ness was his most, distinguishing feature. "We got on very well in the studio," said Ronson. "Mostly because we are both Northern. That matters to him. It matters to anyone. It affects the way you deal with people. It affects everything."
Morrissey has never been the seven stone weakling he was cracked up to be. I saw him at a Rough Trade party at the Fridge in Brixton when The Smiths were in their prime. He was leaning against the bar, drinking a pint and he looked a lot less fragile than you would expect. In fact, he didn't look fragile at all. He was tall, even beefy, definitely more young Albert Finney than old Kenneth Williams.
It made you remember that, despite all those hymns to isolation, he was never actually the skinny wimp shivering by the touchline. Like his father, he was a natural athlete, a great runner, the toast of the track.
But he didn't choose to compete. He didn't want to be part of the team. He didn't want to play the game. Despite his natural ability, he was a reluctant jock, far happier reading "The Female Eunuch" or listening to Twinkle. And now he leaned on the bar at the Fridge and sipped his pint. He was watched by everyone. And ignored by them too.
"The moment is in the performance," he once said, "and when it's over the communication is over as well, because all that you ever want to say to people is in that one hour and 15 minutes."
He refuses to defend himself. "Never complain, never explain" was once the motto of the Royal Family. Now they issue writs and only Morrissey is left above it all.
His songs speak for themselves. But what do they say ? There are those who insist that a line like "We are the last truly British people you will ever know" could only be the product of a politically unsound mind. There are other who believe that someone capable of writing a song with the aching humanity of Suffer Little Children, or a line such as "It's so easy to hate - it takes guts to be gentle and kind" can only be on the side of the angels. Morrissey could invade Poland and I still wouldn't believe he is a Nazi.
Why doesn't he answer his critics ? Almost certainly, he doesn't respond to the music press simply because he hates them. And who can blame him ? If the music press were ever responsible for a group breaking up, then that group was The Smiths.
He is treated differently from other musicians. His performances - on stage and on record, with The Smiths and alone - have been of sufficient power that it is impossible to treat Morrissey as just another pop star. Morrissey touched parts of the British psyche that other musicians can't reach.
The NME put him on their cover for their 40th birthday issue and it was an appropriate choice - in many ways, he is the archetypal NME act, a performer who combines artistic integrity and feral excitement, an artist who makes great records while seeming to be somehow apart from the rest of the record industry. And yet he will not talk to them. It is likely they find this even harder to forgive than his passion for the Union Jack.
But he is loved here. His fans send him underwear, urging him to wear it for a month and send it back. He doesn't. "For hygenic reasons," he says.
America waits for him. Morrissey, as English as fishfingers and the football pools, is the toast of the USA now. A recent concert at the Atlantic Civic Center in Atlanta, Georgia, recieved a rave review from the Koran of Adult Orientated Rock, "Rolling Stone". He has conquered America on his terms. No fake American accents, no sucking up to MTV, no hard sell. That will not change. He has done it all on his own terms.
Morrissey sings of England and something black, absurd and hateful at its heart. His England as a place where random violence is more common than love, where your hometown seems to have had all glamour surgically removed, a grey world where romance is always unrequited and passion is a few minutes of furtive squirting behind disused railway lines. Mozzland has such cultural resonance because it is where we all came from. Every English rock group has emerged from this landscape. But nobody else ever sang about it.
"In him, today's youth discovers itself," said Francois Truffaut. "Less for the reasons advanced - violence, sadism, hysteria, pessimism, cruelty, and filth - than for others infinitely more simple and commonplace. Modesty of feeling, continual fantasy life, moral purity without relation to everyday morality but all the more rigorous, eternal adolescent love of tests and trials, intoxication, pride and regret at feeling oneself 'outside' society, refusal and desire to become integrated and, finally, acceptance - or refusal - of the world as it is."
Truffaut was talking about James Dean, but he could just as easily been describing the appeal of Steven Patrick Morrissey. Humour, arrogance, self-pity, pride and pitiful yearnings - in Morrissey's music, the adolescent soul sees its own reflection. The comfort of books, the farce of teenage sex, the same loathings of teachers and bosses - "Same old jokes since 1962" - all adolescent life is there. He sings of getting beaten up at bus stops, of trysts by cemetery gates, of the impossibility of true love and the agony of intimacy. In those who care for him he inspires a fanatical love, because, once you fall under his laconic spell, it is impossible not to believe that Morrissey understands. He sings of what life is like in England in the second half of the 20th century, but it is brilliant, shining, made mythic - it never has the mundane fabric of ordinary lives had such an eloquent spokesman.
His big mouth and his love of the theatrical gesture have always got him into deep shit and no doubt will continue to do so. He makes an unlikely Heinrich Himmler, though that is the role that the high priests of indie integrity have assigned to him. But the reason he is attracted to shaven-headed machismo has nothing to do with right-wing tendencies and everything to do with the grudging admiration he feels for lives that can be lived without angst. The attraction is not political but psychological. Why does Morrissey like macho, working class youth ? Because he knows he will never be that free.
"Above all, I envy their sense of freedom," he once said of 'ordinary boys'. "They don't need to use their imagination all that much, they act upon impulse - and that's very enviable. Theirs is a naturalness which I think is a great art form, which I can't even aspire to. I don't feel natural even when I am fast asleep. The only impulse I have ever served is making records and doing sleeves. That was the opening of it all. Before that, it was all twisted."
At his London shows just before Christmas, the queues started forming early in the morning. Needless to say, there were no boot boys waiting to pay homage. There were sweet looking long-haired girls and a flock of lookalike boys with the lantern, comic hero jaw, the Billy Fury quiff shaven above the ears and the Jimmy Dean glasses. They looked like the 'high IQ misfits and fervent introverts' that "Rolling Stone" described as his constituency.
He can seem without conscience - what about the Asian Morrissey fans who heard The National Front Disco ? But though Morrissey has all the thoughtlessness of the very young, he also has their integrity. He makes a stand on issues more contentious than famine in the Third World.
That he is the grand master of the theatrical gesture should not disguise the fact that beyond his more extravagant statements - and his desire to wind the bastards up - there are some genuine and deeply held beliefs. He sees McDonald's as the definition of evil. "It is the death industry," he said. "I just feel rage that they will promote themselves from every possible angle, but they will not show the process by which the hamburger is made, they will not show the cow's throats being slit, the bull trying to commit suicide by banging his head against the stone floor."
Though he is the champion of the underdog - and the lab rat - there is no doubting that Morrissey is a true star. Though there is much bitching every time he makes a politically incorrect move, it is always worth remembering that he is not some little Indie hero - the man is a global artist. Simply Red would give their left testicles for the reaction that Morrissey gets in America. He seems destined to be without honour in his own land.
He eschews most of the benefits of stardom - the blow jobs from models, the famous friends, the celebrity love affairs - and gets by with just a white Porsche and a friendship with Michael Stipe that works, he says, because they never discuss music. The rings that most stars of his wattage jump through - inviting Hello! into their beautiful home, chatting with Terry Wogan - he can live without (he famously dropped out of the "Wogan" show at the last minute). Above all, he despises the intrusions that stardom brings. The wish that Johnny Rogan, his unauthorized biographer, meets an untimely death in a motorway accident came because a control freak like Morrissey will never accept that his life is public property. But he is no Garbo. He will talk about almost anything - if you can get to him - and he can be more touchingly honest about himself than any artist since Lennon.
"What happens if you never saw your parents kiss or you never saw your parents hug each other once ?" he once asked. "If, as a small child in an enviroment where your parents don't actually get on, you believe that this is a microcosm of the rest of the world - that this is how life is - it's quite crippling. Even if you can overcome it, it's very debilitating."
He can seem as spiteful as a child tearing the wings off a butterfly but it is always in retaliation. Morrissey never casts the first stone. But he is never afraid to hit back. His statements that Tony Wilson is "a man trapped in a pig's body" and that "the day somebody shoves Wilson in the boot of a car and drives his body to Saddleworth Moor is the day that Manchester music will be revived" was a response to Wilson calling him "the Jeanette Winterton of pop, a woman trapped in a man's body".
And his views that The Smiths' rhythm section, Andy Rourke and Mike Joyce, would never have got any further than the Salford shopping centre without him was - apart from being absolutely true, of course - only aired in response to their constant whining about how little money they got out of the band. But Morrissey is never given the benefit of the doubt.
"There seems to be a specific quality of judgement applied to me which is not applied to anyone else," he has said, and it is hard not to agree with him. It wasn't long ago that Eric Clapton, now a national institution on a par with the Queen Mother, announced that he planned to vote for Enoch Powell. Morrissey would be hung, drawn and quarted for a milder remark than that.
Morrissey claims that all the sexual encounters of his lifetime could be crammed into a rather dull couple of hours. But though he certainly sings songs for the lonely and the misunderstood, there is sometimes a beautiful, unabashed romanticism about his work. "Send me your pillow - the one that you dream on - and I'll send you mine," he sighed, soft as a prayer. Perhaps you have to distance yourself from the grubby realities of humanity to write a line like that. He says that most nights he goes to bed with a book and - though wild rumours sometimes insist otherwise - that is almost certainly true.
He no doubt thinks that, at 33, it is too late in the day for true love to come along. If he was honest, the fact that he would rather curl up with a hardback than a hard-on probably makes him feel superior. "Most people keep their brains between their legs," he sings on Beethoven Was Deaf.
Though he only became Morrissey when Indie fame landed on his doorstep, he was never Steve. Growing up in the '60s, all the tough guys were called Steve. The biggest brutes, the most vicious bullies, the Neanderthal pinheads. Removing his Christian name has been a gesture as premeditated as anything that Michael Jackson has experienced under the surgeon's knife.
Steve was a hard man's name in a hard man's world. And if you were not knobbing Julie Christie in the King's Road, the England in the '60s was a violent place to be. This was the age when a little Altamont was waiting around every corner. It is said that Morrissey stopped watching Manchester United when somebody stole his red and white bobble hat. Worse, he has recalled standing by a speedway at a fair in Stretford Road and being approached by an older youth who headbutted him in the face and walked away without a word.
But there was always pop music. Morrissey, born in 1959, was the perfect age to become fluent in the language of pop. He was just starting school when The Beatles broke, growing up as Dusty and Marianne and Sandie and Cilla were pining for their perfect boys. He was reaching puberty when Bowie was announcing his bisexuality and The New York Dolls were making that legendary appearance on "The Old Grey Whistle Test". He was leaving school when Patti Smith mixed the poetry of the French Symbolists with riffs of The Velvet Underground. And he was dreaming of glory when the Buzzcocks sang of love being left out for the dustbin men.
His pop education lasted from the birth of The Beatles to the death of The Sex Pistols. Morrissey is steeped in pop history - up to his quiff in it - in a way that nobody will ever be again. And until the Dolls and Patti Smith came into his life, his taste was almost totally British.
"Most pop has that transatlantic tinge, but I prefer the camaraderie of the North," he has said. "Audiences need to feel that this country is important. I like America - in its place - but I was never influenced by rock'n'roll singers like Presley or Little Richard. I prefered the disposable cheap types - Billy Fury, Sandie Shaw, Dusty Springfield. I worship every belch of Cilla Black."
He comes from a time when pop music was the centre of young lives, from an age when it was considerably more than just entertainment. Morrissey's music has such power because he believes - he knows for a fact - that it can change lives. He still believes in the dream.
In songs and in conversation, Morrissey is a virtuoso of the English language. He can make words do exactly what he wants. Though he is notoriously wary of the press, he always brings more to the interview than his interrogators. He fulfills stardom's ultimate criteria - no matter how much is written about him, he remains unknown. Even though Morrissey seems quite prepared to speak frankly, Mr. Shankly, about every aspect of his life, there is still the assumption that he is hiding someting.
"I don't feel like a freak," he said, saying that he had slept with both men and women. "I never lived in a small town with petty morals. Not all our lives are as cut and dried as they should be."
Morrissey has now been a solo artist for longer than he was a Smith. It shows. His latest live album, Beethoven Was Deaf, consolidates his position as the most electric artist these islands have produced since David Bowie. He has much in common with Bowie - a sexuality that transcends gender, a stardom that is somehow untainted by success and a love among his constituency that knows no bounds.
But, unlike Bowie, Morrissey never changes. Though the man is full of surprises, his peculiar worldview stays the same down the years. On Beethoven Was Deaf, his 'Get Your Ya-Yas Out', the author's message remains exactly what it has always been - boot the grime of this world in the crutch, dear.
This year looks like it will be a quiet one for Morrissey. He is writing new songs though there is no album or tour projected in th immediate future. There will be more private meetings with other superstars and more public homage paid by younger bands. The music press will continue to vilify him. Even if he does nothing but lie in the sun, the legend will grow.
He has had a run of bad luck. Just when he showed that he could live without Johnny Marr, he has to learn to live without Nigel Thomas. Wherever Morrissey is now, it must be very lonely. But then, wasn't it always ?