Details, April 1994
HOMME ALONE 2
William Shaw, Details, April 1994
With the release of Vauxhall And I, Morrissey intends to take over America. If only he can get over himself. William Shaw gets down with everyone's favorite poet-miserablist.
Steven Patrick Morrissey knocks on my door at the exact appointed minute and strides into my hotel suite. He's wearing a neat, well-pressed checked cowboy shirt, two imitation pearl buttons on each pocket. Under it on a silver chain dangles a small square pendant which reads 1 OZ.
"What's that stand for?" I ask nosily.
"That's my secret," he laughs. "I do a lot of baking."
Without asking, he starts switching the lights on. A little taken aback at the way he has so instantly commandeered my room, I say, "You like the lights on?" It is 3 P.M. The California sun is shining brightly.
"Yes," he smiles. "You," a pause, "like them off, I notice."
"Yes," I answer. Morrissey ignores me and switches the other lamp in the room on, like a cat marking his territory. I offer him something from room service. He declines cordially. I leave the sofa empty for him to relax on. He chooses the armchair directly opposite me and sits bolt upright.
For over ten years Morrissey has been the autobiographical songwriter of his age. He has always written movingly and tenderly about the man he knows, loves, and loathes best. But despite the fact that he writes so articulately about himself, he hates discussing it. He defuses questions that probe too deeply with a Wildean quip or a laugh. He doesn't trust interviews: "I'm treated like some escaped convict, constantly having to explain oneself fully, the basis of one's mere existence." He uses the regal "one."
We are in Los Angeles, his press attaché says he's there on holiday. Morrissey denies it. "I'm not running around with a bucket and spade. I do seem to be here, but I'm not doing anything in particular. I'm just existing." It's the start of a new year and Morrissey has a new LP, Vauxhall And I, recorded in the summer of 1993, after one of the worst periods of his life. Last spring, three of his closest associates died within weeks of each other. When his manager Nigel Thomas had a sudden heart attack, Morrissey was thrown into shock. Shortly afterward Tim Broad, who had directed eleven of his videos, died. The following month Mick Ronson, whom he had idolized from his work with David Bowie and who had produced Morrissey's latest album, Your Arsenal, died of cancer days after speaking to Morrissey about future collaborations. Having been to two funerals in as many months, he couldn't bear the idea of attending Ronson's.
Last year, during on particularly long dark phase, he locked himself in his Victorian house in Primrose Hill, London, and refused to leave. His sense of dejection was utterly debilitating. "It doesn't really matter how people try to uplift you; within me it's an immovable, strange genetic/medical condition that I have never escaped from," he explains with matter-of-fact sadness.
Morrissey is depressed. It's a cliché how depressed he is. But his depression is clinical and he's spent a lot of time on the psychiatrist's couch and on medication. Valium made him happier, but he was wary of side effects. These days he eschews medication and therapy. Instead, he accepts his depression as a part of his artistry. When filling in a questionnaire for a British newspaper recently, he paused over the question When were you happiest? before answering May 21, 1959. Fans can correctly identify that date as the day before he was born. And when I ask him where he was happiest, he answers earnestly, "I've got no idea. That place is somewhere on the horizon, I assume. I hope."
Actually things aren't so bad. Sometimes even Morrissey has to admit this, though he doesn't like to push the boat out. He is widely loved. In 1993, David Bowie covered Morrissey's song I Know It's Gonna to Happen Some Day. Bowie played him his version of the song at ear-splitting volume and, to Morrissey's discomfort, watched him to see his reaction. Morrissey thought Bowie's rendition was beautiful. He felt like crying, but succeeded in conquering the emotion. Chrissie Hynde has recorded a version of Everyday Is Like Sunday that has yet to be released, but Morrissey says is "astonishingly good". A collaboration with Siouxsie of the Banshees has resulted in a song called Interlude (though Morrissey fears that due to legal tangles between their respective record companies that will never see the light of day).
And he has a new album filled with the usual cleverly phrased doubts and anxieties. But there are also new songs with a hint of happiness. On The More You Ignore Me, the Closer I Get he casts himself as a potentially victorious lover, something that has never occurred in the rainy-day history of Morrissey.
"But as the song ends, I don't necessarily succeed," he protests. "Though I am quite determined ... which -- yes, you're absolutely right -- is the new me. I feel a lot more comfortable the older I get. Which is a song title in itself," he giggles.
He admits it. Something has changed. He's not exactly happy, but he's happier. The biggest difference, he confesses, is that he no longer needs to be famous. In the last eighteen months he's watched his undeniable desire for it evaporate: "Fame was the spur, but it isn't now. I actually find it slightly embarrassing and a slight infringement." He puts it down to growing old.
The first time I met Morrissey was on November 17, 1983. The Smiths' second single, This Charming Man, was becoming their first chart hit. Backstage at a small London college I was ushered to the dressing room to interview Morrissey. "I was raised in dire poverty," he boasted. "You never had any money or socks or anything, and I think that had a great influence on me." He came out with large, disdainful, arrogant phrases, and poured out a giant love of pop music that none of his would-be-cool contemporaries seemed able to match. "So many people," he gushed, "don't talk to the press or appear on TV. You can only presume that it's due to their absolute lack of imagination." He declared himself naked before the world. "We just rip our hearts open and this is how we are. The whole thing is so completely heavenly." And then he puts on his beads, grasped a bunch of red gladioli, and before a few hundred people, The Smiths took the stage and launched into Handsome Devil with perilous abandon, Morrissey thrashing himself with the flowers.
Just eighteen months before, Morrissey had thought himself washed up at twenty-three and so he retreated into a sullen introversion, writing words for songs that would probably never exist. He believed he had missed his chances for pop stardom. All he had to show for himself were two concerts in 1978 singing for local punk group The Nosebleeds (with Billy Duffy, later of the Cult). The Smiths allowed Morrissey to change from the intense homebound geek, crippled with depression, into someone who discovered how to open his heart for the world to see. Morrissey remembers those early days fondly. They were frenetically exciting. He felt constantly sick with the tension of it all.
In Britain The Smiths became a fundamental part of male adolescence, alongside acne and soccer. They were the revenge of the boys. The 1980s had started with pinup bands like Spandeau Ballet and Duran Duran, who sang hi-gloss songs for girls to test their blossoming emotions against. Morrissey became the boys' pinup: a man boys could love, not with lust, but as a personification of their own loneliness. Those too sensitive to explore maleness through Def Leppard records happily put on plastic beads and visited the florist whenever The Smiths came to town.
There is a cardboard box in the offices of EMI London filled with correspondence to Morrissey from fans around the world. Nearly all the letters are addressed in the same stylized, childlike scrawl that Morrissey himself uses. These are not just simple acts of worship. His fans imagine him as a wiser, poetic best friend, stricken by a tragic weltschmerz that only their love can heal. At his concerts a stream of fans of both sexes ritually charge the stage to hug him for a second. It has become a set piece of his shows. In '92, at the Orpheum Theater, Minneapolis, he collapsed under a human pyramid of huggers, and announced Englishly the next night: "It's very nice of you to come up here, but it would also be very nice if I could sing."
Once, in 1987, a young man in Denver held the local radio station at gunpoint, demanding that they play only Smiths songs. For four hours the complied and the Colorado airwaves were filled with the then-unfamiliar sound of Morrissey, until the police persuaded the gunman to back down. When Morrissey heard what had happened he felt, of course, extreme pleasure. "But how did you know about it?" he demands. "I've never come across anybody who knew about it." The fact that the siege has never been properly reported anywhere outrages Morrissey. "If it was any other artist, it would have been world news. But because it was poor old tatty Smiths it was of no consequence whatsoever."
Morrissey was born almost thirty-five years ago in Davyhulme, Manchester, the son of two Irish immigrants who brought up Steven and his older sister Jackie with a strong sense of Catholic propriety. "There was," explains Moz fondly, "no such thing as strong language or nudity". He laughs. "Unfortunately. I was raised with the notion that excitement and exuberance were something other people did and were not for me, and I must always have a very firm grip on every situation I was in. Which was also slightly damaging to me ..."
The first nightmare Morrissey remembers was when he was six, after watching an episode of Mystery and Imagination about lepers. It haunted him for a very long time. He found any programs about changelings fascinating; those tacky, badly filmed transformations from man to animal in werewolf films especially scared him. Frankenstein, however, didn't worry him a bit.
He grew up to be a shy boy. Athletic, like his father, but troubled with a sense of strangeness. His salvation was pop music. At six he was already drawing his own pop magazine. As early as twelve this strange shy boy became a devoted Nico fan, lapping up her albums Desert Shore and Chelsea Girl. He was, he says, "enormously comforted by her isolation and depression." From then on a forever-changing succession of idols were pasted up on his bedroom walls, including Marc Bolan, David Bowie, and the New York Dolls -- a reflection of whatever was on his turntable at the time. "Which, as now I think back," he adds, "was uncommonly tasteful."
Morrissey was always a fan. In 1981 his slim volume The New York Dolls, written as a star-struck nineteen-year-old, was published in Britain. A couple of years later he followed with James Dean Is Not Dead. The five thousand copies that were printed are eagerly sought by the Morrissey following and have been known to change hands for upwards of $100. The very first time The Smiths played in America, Morrissey was ecstatic that they had been booked at the Iroquois Hotel, because James Dean had once stayed there. But it was awful. Morrissey spent the night standing on his bed terrified at all the cockroaches fidgeting on the floor.
On December 23, 1976, when Morrissey was seventeen, his parents separated. He stayed at home with his mother. "Which I actually think is quite natural. I love them both very much, but I didn't raise them, and I can't really alter the past. It's nothing unique. Millions upon millions of people come from 'damaged backgrounds', shall we say ...". He considers this, then adds, "Mine wasn't so much damaged as merely nothing at all."
The brutality of lost childhood is a perennial Morrissey motif. On Vauxhall And I, there is a beautiful song of mourning called Used To Be A Sweet Boy. It's a slow elegy for a little boy who used to hold Daddy's hand and smile, dressed in a blazer and tie. Morrissey has always been obsessed by the death of children. The first song he ever wrote with Johnny Marr, before they'd even thought up the name The Smiths, was called Suffer Little Children, about the deaths of four children who were born around the same time as Morrissey. The killings were known as the Moors Murders because the bodies were all buried on local moorland. When the song was to be released on the B-side of Heaven Knows I'm Miserable Now, Morrissey wrote to the mother of one of the victims, Lesley Ann Downey, explaining that the song was an expression of compassion. He was so intrigued that he arranged a meeting with her and formed a friendship that lasted several years. According to Morrissey, they discussed the murder at length. "I was very surprised that she was so burdened by her daughter's death," recalls Morrissey, "given the lapse of time. It was obvious that the woman was completely destroyed."
"Would you like to have children?" I ask.
"Only in an ideal world."
"The answer will be unsatisfactory, and a bit dramatic, but I'm not sure what it is about life that's supposed to make it worthwhile. It sounds like something somebody would say on the Oprah Winfrey show, but nonetheless, I've never really enjoyed life. I've never known how. I seem to have such overbearingly high standards that I set for myself that there's not really any way in which I can win. I don't say that with moist cheeks and a trembling voice. I say it quite matter-of-factly. I'm not really frightened by death; it's not a particularly horrendous thing for me. I feel sad for other people, but not for me."
"Not even when it's a complete full stop?"
"That's fine for me."
We have been talking now for nearly two hours when there's a knock on the door. It is Jake, a close friend of Morrissey's, who receives "very special thanks" on the new LP. Jake is fair-haired and ordinary-looking, also dressed in urban rockabilly clothes. He is shy and avoids my gaze. He and Morrissey leave together.
The next day Morrissey spends some of the afternoon watching boxing on TV and then wanders down to my room. Jake leaves him at the door and arranges to pick him up later. I have deliberately left the lights off this time to see what he does. Once more, Morrissey strides around, switching them on. Once more he declines drinks and food. All that's different is that we have reversed chairs.
"Do you mind if I smoke?" I ask.
"I don't mind if you do, as long as you don't light that cigarette."
"That's okay. If you rather I didn't ...
"I'd rather you didn't. I don't want to sound like an old prune, but if I get cancer, will you drive me to the hospital?"
We talk about boxing. Those who want to admire Morrissey as the fey, poetry-reading vegetarian often seem to overlook his deep love of the mystery of violence. Yet it's always been there. He was the ten-year-old whose fascination with skinheads stayed with him all his life, and the teenager who used to pore through a copy of The Murderers' Who's Who. His reverence towards thuggery continues on Vauxhall And I. On the aching Now My Heart Is Full Morrissey sings lovingly of the psychotic gang members depicted in Graham Greene's Brighton Rock.
In the absence of other intimacies, Morrissey seems to have embraced the muscular intimacy of boxing. Last fall he went to see the most talked about British fight in years, Eubank versus Benn, and sat in the front row, marveling and horrified at the way you can feel and hear the gruesome fleshiness of the punches in a way you never can on TV. Much to Morrissey's disappointment, his favorite, Eubank, didn't win. "Eubank is an astonishing machine," he says.
Morrissey has been in a few fights himself and relishes the memory. He's never lost one. "You react instantly," he tells me. "Your body really obeys this sense of attack within your mind. It's great. You should really try it on a waiter," he beams.
On October 4, 1982, The Smiths played a short support slot at the Ritz in Manchester. It was their first performance. James Maker, a friend at the time, danced onstage in women's high-heeled shoes and Morrissey sang an obscure cover version of a song by the Cookies, "I Want a Boyfriend for My Birthday."
Morrissey's art often drips with homoeroticism, from the playful lewdness of the early Handsome Devil ("A boy in the bush / Is worth two in the hand / I think I can help you get through your exams") to the use of "palare", the language of London's rent boys, on both the title of the more recent album Bona Drag and the track Picadilly Palare. Yet to the frustration of some of his gay following, he has never declared any orientation at all. Morrissey has always publicly pronounced his celibacy. He insists his songs simply express truncated, go-nowhere desires. No one believes him, but the frequency with which he restates his claim is interesting.
Even before he became desirably famous, as a seventeen-year-old he reportedly boasted in his diary: "I don't have sex much ... I can almost count the number of times." For the public record, however, Morrissey abhors the concept. Much to his fury, his hated biographer, Johnny Rogan, has announced that his next book will include a lengthy investigation into Morrissey's relationships. ("Well, therefore, there's nothing to write about," snaps Morrissey.)
Morrissey's flag of celibacy may have another meaning. It's a wall he's put around himself. Somewhere in his closely guarded psyche there seems to be a soul for whom sex, however much he desires it, will always be somehow wrong, somehow ugly. Somewhere in the quiet, Catholic, moral household he grew up in, where his parents didn't get along, but in a very civilized way, Morrissey grew up thinking intimacy was somehow repulsive. Most of us do, but we get over it. He's getting over it too, perhaps, at thirty-four.
But it's still a slippery subject. I ask him if he might ever make an unambiguous statement about his sexuality.
"Well," he says blithely, "it can't possibly be believed, I know, but sex is actually never in my life. Therefore I have no sexuality."
But it's in your songs.
"The desire for, the search for, yes, but the actual physical act is never in my life."
"You must have had sex at some time in your life," I insist. "So for that moment at least your sexuality becomes fixed."
"Um," says Morrissey awkwardly, "it has never become fixed in my life." A long and rather solid silence fills the room.
The diaries of Kenneth Williams, a British comedian who starred in many of the bawdy, slapstick, working-class Carry On films that Morrissey loves, were published recently. In them, Williams, a gay man ill at ease with his own sexuality who lived in semi-isolation, talked frequently about the desirability of death.
"Have you ever read the diaries?" I ask.
"Of course," he answers.
"I thought in a lot of ways Williams was quite similar to you," I say. "Which is not a great compliment, obviously."
The warning laugh comes again. "Obviously he was powerfully unhappy from birth to death," says Morrissey, "and embedded with hatred for everyone around him."
"But also found intimacy rather repulsive."
"Yes, but I wonder whether that wasn't simply because he finds himself repulsive and couldn't possibly believe that anybody else could ever want him. And," he says, changing gear from third person to second, "if you feel that way, then nobody else does want you." I have lost track of exactly who he's talking about here. Himself or Williams. He says he had to stop reading the diaries because he found them so depressing. "But I suppose," he says, "all these things are embedded within us at a very early age and you simply go through life repeating the same mistakes. There's nothing you can do about it because all those emotions are cast in stone."
"There are lots of people who make a living saying they are not cast in stone."
Morrissey lowers his voice and answers, "That's a blatant lie. Occasionally people like Gloria Steinem come up with interesting comments like 'It's never too late to have a happy childhood.' But it is."
"What did your psychiatrists tell you?"
"For the most part they listened, which is very excruciating to me."
In every respect other than his music, Morrissey is an emotional clam. Only in writing, recording, and most of all performing has he learned to make contact with the world head-on, baring his soul with a wild and scary brilliance. What I saw the first night I watched The Smiths was a passionate, precipitous outpouring of sentiments that Morrissey had silently bottled up for years. The stunning intensity with which he displayed both his darker side and his yearning for love on The Smiths' first two albums, The Smiths and Hatful of Hollow, was a triumph over his demons, even though Morrissey himself found the public self-revelation terrifying.
Since then he has produced an astonishingly prolific body of work. Depending on which B-side compilations and live albums you count, Morrissey has recorded somewhere between twelve and fourteen albums. Back to back they show him as the absolute antithesis of rock star as chameleon, ever desperate to embrace the new: Morrissey has been fearsomely sure from the beginning what he was going to sing about, and how. The differences between his records are unusually subtle. Tellingly, his latest album exhibits the biggest mood swing. His ever-present bitterness still seeps through Vauxhall And I, but these songs have a sense of warmth and certainty: Expansive, wistful songs like Now My Heart Is Full are Morrissey's public announcement that he is finally coming to terms with himself.
For that reason he remains ultrasensitive about how his work is received. If he opens his sole channel of communication and is derided for it, Morrissey will be inconsolable. It happened at the last concert I saw him play, in the summer of 1992 at London's Finsbury Park, when he danced across the stage in a dole lame shirt, wrapping himself in the Union Jack. Hardcore skins in the audience pelted him. Deeply stung, Morrissey canceled the next day's show and barricaded himself in his house for days.
But on those occasions when his performance is reciprocated by the same wild emotional abandon, it works. After the Smiths split, it took Morrissey a while before he was ready to perform live again. On December 22, 1988, in Wolverhampton, he played his first concert in two years. Mike Joyce, the ex-Smith who drummed for him that day, felt an "overpowering sense of love" coming from the crowd toward the stage. Morrissey remembers the day as filled with radiance. A succession of Morrissey fans grasped their idol. Morrissey's friend Tim Broad captured the scene on video: Fan after fan throws his arms around the stripped-to-the-waist singer. After each two-second contact, before a security guard frees him, Morrissey turns away from the fan, smiling shyly, and with embarrassed but quite visible pleasure.
Few people ever really get close to Morrissey. Working relationships with him can be torturous. Sometimes he shuts down communication completely. Other times he issues cryptic messages on postcards. When Viva Hate producer Stephen Street complained to the press about their business arrangements, Morrissey reportedly sent Street one of his cards. On it was written "Enough is too much."
"It must drive people into weird states of mind," I say, "because ..."
Morrissey interrupts. "I don't actually care. To be quite honest."
"Not even if they're driven into paranoia?"
"Well they can leave. Is that harsh?"
"I'm incredibly kind to people," insists Morrissey. "But some friendships aren't necessarily meant to last forever. It's not because I suddenly wake up and despise them, it's just for the common good that it's best to move on."
Among others whose services Morrissey has dispensed with over the years is Mike Joyce, The Smiths' drummer. Seven years after The Smiths split, Mike is still in interminable litigation with Morrissey over his share of royalties. But Joyce still talks with shining admiration of Morrissey. In the house in Manchester where he lives with his wife and two kids, he remembers his audition, watching this strange, silent man pacing the floor and delivering songs of astonishing intensity. And he talks about the jeans shop, Crazyface, that they rehearsed in, all totally confident they were going to make it. How Mick Jagger "bopped" at the side of the stage when they played New York, and about how listening to Morrissey was the most moving thing in his life, next to having children.
When Johnny Marr first announced his departure from The Smiths in 1987, Morrissey was shocked and hurt. Since then, the fence has been mended. "The relationship between me and Morrissey is the best of the group," says Marr. "I still see him now. We played a game with the press and they played with us, but it's not true life. We're friends."
Morrissey says that he doesn't have many friends. When asked to list them, he names three: Jake, who hovers outside my door, another friend called Debbie, and this old friend Linder Sterling, who recently published a book of photographs, Morrissey Shot. These, he says, are strong friends. They are in his life more or less daily. But he still envies the easy, close friendship of others.
Given his record, I assume the song Hold On To Your Friends is an act of self-chastisement. Morrissey denies it. "It was written about somebody I know in relation to their treatment toward me." But when I ask if his own lack of trust in others prevents him from becoming close to people, he replies simply: "Yes, it is a lack of trust. I'm simply waiting for people to do something damaging. And they inevitably do."
There is a long pause. Then he adds: "I often wonder, if I was a penniless pauper, would a lot of people that I know want to know me? Maybe they would, but it's more than likely they wouldn't, because when I was a penniless pauper, nobody wanted to know me." And he starts laughing.
Again comes a knock on the door. It's Jake. "Morrissey," he says, ostentatiously looking at his watch, "you have to go."
There is, I think, nothing Morrissey has to go to. It is simply a prearranged escape. Morrissey returns to his hotel room, looks through some papers, moves them from the settee to the desk and back again. He looks at a copy of Bleak House that he has been reading slowly. His eyesight is not what it used to be.