THE LONELIEST MONK
Dave DiMartino, Raygun, 1994
The first time I met Morrissey was nine years ago, when the thin, seemingly mild-mannered singer was slightly in need of a shave; when he wore delightfully nerdy horn-rimmed glasses and short pants that revealed pale and hairy legs to all who cared to look; when his band The Smiths were scant hours away from giving the third American performance of their career. I liked him from the start. We were in a small dressing room in a theater in Detroit, and Sire Records had just released Meat is Murder, I was drinking a Diet Coke I'd bought at, appropriately, the McDonald's around the corner. Do you think, I asked him, that people will hear the animal sound effects on the album's title track and be reminded of Pink Floyd?
"Well, I mean, it might be a fair comment," he replied. "I've never heard Pink Floyd's records, to be brutally honest, but it might be true. How do I know?"
The man who, with guitarist Johnny Marr, formed the songwriting team that has more than once been labelled "the Lennon and McCartney of their generation" who had "never heard" Pink Floyd but had once started a fan club devoted to the immensely more popular New York Dolls then told me his three favorite singers of the moment were Gladys Horton of the Marvelettes, Timi Yuro and Rita Pavone, all of whom enjoyed their first hits between 1961-63, when Steven Patrick Morrissey was undergoing that well-known developmental transition from monosyllabic two-year-old to sophisticated four-year-old purchaser of pop singles.
Complaining about a then-recent mention in Rolling Stone which "got me in a lot of trouble," Morrissey said evenly, "There was a statement that 'Morrissey is a man who says that he is gay,' which was news to me. And it had an absolutely adverse effect on our chances in America, and obviously Sire backed away immediately." He looked over at me, then let me in on his little secret. "But the journalist who wrote it is himself very steeped...he's a very strong voice in the gay movement in New York. I think it was just wishful thinking on his part. I don't want to be slotted into any category like that in any way. Because it's pointless. I mean, all these terms and all these categories, they've not really proved to be of any value within music."
As much as I liked the Manchester-born singer, as much as I admired any well-heeled 26 year-old pop musician who could innocently claim to have never heard Dark Side of the Moon during any of the 741 weeks it held a position on the Billboard charts, my affection grew even further when I decided it would be journalistically wise and perhaps financially prudent to investigate his claim about the Rolling Stone writer's sexual orientation. I did so, and of course found it totally erroneous.
Nine years later, Morrissey sits back on a sofa drinking a beer after a midday photo shoot in Las Angeles. "It's not true?" Morrissey asks. "And if it had been printed, I would have been sued?" Who knows? Probably both of us. "Well," he smiles, "that was the information given to me." Umm. And you never heard Pink Floyd, either? He laughs loudly. "It wasn't a lie," he insists. "It wasn't a lie."
Morrissey 1985: "If Sire really pushed the Smiths in America, we'd be massive, we'd be absolutely massive. I know that."
Morrissey 1994: "It's common knowledge, of course, that Sire have never put any money toward me at all. And I don't say that with bitterness; I think they'd actually stand good and admit that themselves."
Consistency: unquestionably, the mark of any great artist.
While some things may not have changed for rock's most profoundly successful miserablist, the Morrissey who has just released Vauxhall And I, his fourth American solo album, is now perceived in an entirely different context. Now, with The Smiths very much fixed in time, his solo career is likely the only career his youngest fans have been old enough to witness. If anybody wants to make Lennon and McCartney comparisons, consider Morrissey well past his McCartney and Ram phase and now entering his Band On The Run period; for that matter, while McCartney might've been expected to sell out the Hollywood Bowl on his last Stateside trek, one wonders whether this one-time meek wearer of Bermuda shorts had envisioned that he, too, would sell out the same venue on his own nearly eight years later. On at least one level, Morrissey is much more popular in the States than The Smiths ever were: All of his solo albums have risen higher on the sales charts than any of the works of his former band with the ironic exception of their weakest, 1987's Strangeways, Here We Come, which peaked at No.55, four positions higher than Morrissey's 1990 singles collection, Bona Drag. Still, his 1992 album Your Arsenal entered the US charts at a career-high No.21 "which still leaves me suspiciously alternative," says he, "I don't know why"; and it's probable Vauxhall And I, the stronger album, will do even better.
Still, Morrissey's snowballing American fame stands at odds with his own critical stature in England where, of course, The Smiths were superstars, and where their former singer now seems to be regarded as past his peak, more a celebrity figure than a vital, probing songwriter. "I'm almost entirely ignored," he says with his peculiar mixture of resignation and chagrin. "The music press persistently write about me, but it's always negative. Otherwise, throughout the country, on television and radio, I don't exist at all. It's only the very simple things and the very simple artists who just breeze straight through and find life very easy. If you're agreeable to anything that's put before you, if you're desperate to do anything in order to be famous which I most certainly am not, then life is relatively easy."
Sitting and looking across a coffee table at Morrissey, I'm struck by how much and how little has changed. He who once wore a hearing aid as a fashion accessory now looks relaxed and indeed fashionable, not unlike a svelte Elvis Presley at odd angles. He retains all of his charm. Not that he'd seemed lacking in self-confidence those years ago, but what were uncertainties then : how would America perceive the Smiths ? ... would it even matter ? ... are now issues wholly resolved. Yet what seemed like plausible complaints on his part then about the promotional abilities of his groups's UK label, Rough Trade, and the indifferent treatment accorded the band in America by Sire seem odd when they're closely echoed in 1994. Morrissey now has the promotional push of EMI in his homeland, and if Sire has done bad by the man in this country, why on earth does he continue to record for the label?
"I'm persistently short-changed in every direction," he nonetheless complains. "And I find in a way it's very respectable because the people who know about me or attend the concerts do so merely because they've heard the record. Nobody has ever, ever discovered me on MTV. Very few people have ever discovered me on radio. It's all as it was with The Smiths : word of mouth. Nobody's ever helped me. Which might sound like Tina Turner in '68, but it's actually quite true."
When we met before, Morrissey had been singing the praises of UK bands such as The Woodentops and James; he tells me in 1994 that the last records he bought were by Echobelly and the Blaggers.
"All I seem to see in new modern American groups is Creedence Clearwater Revival - that's all I see, I can't see anything truly new. Even with the Seattle groups and so forth. I think pop music is basically finished. Everything is regurgitation, nothing at all is new."
What, I ask, is the most recent "new" thing he can recall?
"From here? I can't think of anything. Within England, certainly groups like the Blaggers and Gallon Drunk and Echobelly sound new to me it sounds as if I'm actually hearing something new. Which seems to be an impossible occurrence in America."
Do you think that's the state of pop, or the state of you?
"Of me? No, I think it's got nothing to do with me. I think it's really the basic ground rules within American record companies, it's not possible to break through with anything that's challenging. It just isn't possible. And when something like the Red Hot Chili Peppers becomes successful, the nation is aghast that it just isn't the same old tawdry regurgitation."
What's the most distasteful aspect of current pop?
"Predictably, it's rap, which continues in the same old way which has never, ever, ever, ever, changed. I mean, there is only one rap song in the entire universe which is frightening when you consider how many rap records have been made."
Has your taste in music changed as you've grown older?
"No, not at all. I still listen repeatedly to Nico, to the early Ramones, the Marvelettes who I was playing before I left for the studio today."
If consistency can be had in Morrissey's comments in the span of a decade, more importantly, it can increasingly be found in the music he has made since departing The Smiths. And if there has been one major disappointment since his band's break-up, it's that the varied string of musical collaborators with whom the singer has worked, including Stephen Street, Mark Nevin, Clive Langer, Kevin Armstrong, Alain Whyte, and now Boz Boorer, has not provided the same strong, fixed identity that marked the songs penned by Morrissey and Marr.
"I do openly admit that some of the songs, some of the solo songs have been substandard," Morrissey now grants. "And when it occurred to me, around the period of the Kill Uncle album, it was a great shock to me to actually make a few records which I didn't really think were exceptional for me. But I think I'm through that time now. It was actually a very bad time for me privately, also.
"But if we're talking about Johnny, and maybe we're not, obviously, he is a great talent. But I think when you consider that I as a solo individual, who cannot play an instrument, who is not a musician, came from The Smiths and has continued and has held an audience very, very well, I think I've done extraordinarily well."
He chalks up last year's wave of rumors that he and Marr would be uniting again to wishful thinking on the part of hypemeisters : "I think it's simply that Johnny and I have become very good friends again, and the British music press tended to runaway with the situation," he says. "And if there was a reformation, I'm sure they'd be the first to decry or try to break it apart. It's just an absurd situation wanting what doesn't exist. It's just so typical of the British music press."
Regardless of what the press thinks, Morrissey considers further collaboration with Marr "unnecessary. Well, we both feel it unnecessary, we don't see the point. It's been done. And it's been done to the best of our abilities and that's it, really. And do reunions ever work? Can you think of one which has worked?"
I didn't expect much from the Velvet Underground reunion, I tell him, but there were one or two things on the live album which I felt were extraordinary.
"Even though I loved the original records, it never occurred to me to go and see them," he says. "Similarly with The Who. And The Who's earlier records I love."
The Who getting back together would inevitably seem a money-making gesture, I respond, whereas I don't think the Velvet Underground reunion was perceived that way. But considering The Smiths' fame in England, I suppose it would be perceived in the same way as a Who reunion.
Morrissey laughs. "Well, as long as I'm not Roger Daltrey, I don't mind."
Vauxhall And I may be Morrissey's finest solo album on several levels. First, it was produced by Steve Lillywhite ("working with him was extraordinary," says the singer. "He's an astonishingly gifted person") and sounds more subtle and less bombastic than one might reasonably expect. Secondly, the songs : Morrissey's collaborations (evenly split between guitarists Alain Whyte and Boz Boorer) are among the most melodic he has sung since The Smiths' demise; they actually seem the work of a band rather than a singer/songwriter-plus-backing-group. Finally, Morrissey's lyrics which have recently alternated between melodrama ripe for parody ("There's a Place In Hell For Me And My Friends" and "(I'm)The End Of The Family Line") and deceptively upbeat frolics ("You're The One For Me, Fatty") seem noticeably more substantial and heartfelt.
Much of the latter may be the result of what has been, by any standard, a very bad year for the singer, beginning with the deaths of his manager Nigel Thomas, his close friend, video director Tim Broad and guitarist and Your Arsenal producer Mick Ronson, with whom Morrissey had initially planned to make Vauxhall And I.
"Mick spoke to me a few days before he died," Morrissey says. "And he was very happy, very enthusiastic about writing songs with me and getting back into the studio. He was very positive about his health, and positive about his future. And it was astonishing, because a few days later, his wife telephoned me and she said, 'My baby's gone.' It was incredibly painful. It was so painful and so sad for me, because I had become so attached to him that I couldn't actually attend the funeral. The three deaths were quite literally on top of each other. And it was an astonishingly depressing time. With Nigel, my manager, he died suddenly but with Mick and Tim, they both knew that they were dying. So it was a very, very stressful year. I would just really like to say that Mick Ronson was one of the most astonishingly human and attractive people that I've ever met, and uplifting. A very, very uplifting person."
Morrissey says that he's always suffered from serious depression("which is something that isn't allowed to be said," he adds); he continues to feel that it plays a key role in all of his work. And at 34, he's more than aware of the "adolescent angst" tag that many of his critics have suggested he tends to lyrically exploit; he still refutes the label and the accusation. "I don't think loneliness or a sense of isolation is restricted to youth. For some people, unfortunately, it lasts for their entire lives. They remain alone, or they remain very reflective, looking inwards. So I don't ever feel that I was initially simply writing for 13-year-olds. I also don't think once you're beyond 21 everything magically falls into place. I don't think that's true."
Likewise, he says he hasn't yet felt what will, inevitably come: The younger audience that will regard him and his music as the favourite of another, older generation, big brother or big sister's music, not their own. "There may be a parallel with Lou Reed's career, really," he suggests. "Because he was never over-utilized, shall we say, he was always there to be discovered. Even though he was, is, very well known, and in some ways legendary. So I think that perhaps I would be compared to that situation."
He is sharp, he is witty, he is always on his toes and he is Morrissey. For the longest time, I tell him, when I was trying to rationalize your fame ... "Is it so unbelievable?" he swiftly interrupts, grinning, his eyes wide open. No, not really.
And 2,500 miles away from the Detroit dressing room where a younger man once told me his first name was "buried a long, long time ago; it was never of any use to me," where I innocently mentioned that hey, the Marvelettes were from Detroit ("Yes, yes," he said, "what a wonderful coincidence!"), Steven Morrissey is pondering the future rewards pop music holds for him.
"I have no interest in a Grammy nomination," he declares. "And I have no interest in any aspects of whoredom. I will always stubbornly remain me, and nothing will change me. All the rewards that I have? The success is in the completion of the record and my personal enjoyment of the record. I'm not really looking for anybody to hand me a small gold statue."