Select, May 1994
Andrew Harrison, Select, May 1994
In the red, white and blue corner, unbeaten in ten years as World Feather-Dusterweight Champion, the man they're calling the Vauxhall Villain... Steven 'Bonecrusher' Morrissey! He's back on form and tonight's opponents will be praying for the bell. Step forward Suede, Primal Scream and all Brit-pop contenders... Seconds away!
"Ladies and gentlemen... Hello? Ladies and gentlemen, on behalf of the staff and members of the York Hall Gymnasium I would like to thank each and every one of you for coming here tonight for what promises to be a fine evening's boxing entertainment. Later on we have British flyweight champion Francis Ampofo, middleweight challenger Derek Edge and reigning British super-middleweight champion John 'Cornelius' Carr for you, but first..." And the spotlight swings from the ring to a seat two rows back where a figure in a dark brown jacket and check shirt squints and hides his eyes.
"... I'd like you to welcome a very special guest this evening. Not just a great patron of the fight game, not just a friend to the East End community and to this gymnasium in particular..."
The crowd turns and the figure rises, wreathed in cigarette smoke. They see that he is of medium height and good-looking, with thick eyebrows, sharp razored sideburns and a boxer's jaw. His hair has a distinguished fleck of grey at the sides and he is wearing a two-inch button that reads 'FAMOUS WHEN DEAD'.
"... But perhaps the greatest popular singing artist that this country has produced since the days of Lennon & McCartney. Always original, relentlessly controversial and defiantly out of step with the critics, he's nevertheless conquered America without once bending his knee. We're honoured to have him here with us on the eve of the release of his fourth and best solo album, Vauxhall And I. Ladies and gentlemen, please be upstanding for our very special guest Mr. Steven Patrick Morrissey..."
He would, of course, have run a mile if that had happened, and you really wouldn't blame him. There aren't many private pleasures to be had when you occupy the rare position in the British mental landscape that Morrissey does, but a boxing match on a Friday night ought to be one of them. Even so, a couple of the doormen at the York Hall near Bethnal Green were intrigued when he arrived for the Select pictures, wondering, "Didn't he used to be in The Smiths or something?"
And what is it all about anyway, this well-known sensitive soul taking an active interest in young lads smacking seven colours of blood, snot and cranial fluid out of one another? What would the pacifist Moz of old have thought?
"It is actually something I have been set on for quite a long time," he'd said later. "I'm by no means a boxing expert, but I've followed it long enough to hold a decent conversation about it.
"For me it's the sense of glamour that's attractive, the romance - which of course is enormous, as anyone who's attended bouts would know - but mainly it's the aggression that interest me. It has me instantly leaving my seat and heading for the ropes to join in.
"And it does give me a heightened sense of satisfaction, because in my life obviously there is absolutely no aggression at all. There is very little physical expression at all apart from standing on a stage and singing. Otherwise the body is firmly under control. It's a vessel, but it's docked with a very heavy anchor..."
The following Sunday, the day before Vauxhall And I comes out, I'm due to meet Morrissey at the Hook End Manor residential studio outside Reading, where he and the band are recording two B-sides for the next single to come off the album, Hold On To Your Friends. A huge complex of converted farmhouse buildings and stables hidden in a labyrinth of badly-signposted country lanes, Hook End is something of a retreat for Morrissey, albeit one with a mixed history - he recorded both the doomed Kill Uncle as well as the triumphant Your Arsenal here.
It's a bad day at Hook End. The reason, as ever: the press. Morrissey's personal assistant-cum-chief of staff Jake - a stocky ex-boxer at the 20s-30s crossroads, with a skinhead crop, a white Fred Perry-style shirt and hard blue eyes - is furious about a "stitch-up" of Morrissey by Julie Burchill in that morning's Sunday Times. He had had to go on a ten-mile run that morning "to work off the aggression", he says, and he makes it clear that Burchill should count herself lucky she's not a man, otherwise...
Jake's loyalty to Morrissey couldn't be fiercer. As he leads me to the studio's sitting-room, he tells me how frustrated he is that nothing he's ever read about Morrissey ever communicates what a great bloke as well as a talent Moz is, that he doesn't deserve the things that are written about him. And that if this piece is a similar stitch-up to the Burchill story, I'd better watch my back.
It's a big lounge and on one of three couches there's a turntable with a handwritten notice reading "DO NOT PLAY THIS WHILE MOZ IS ASLEEP AS HE IS OLD AND NEEDS HIS KIP" - "I wrote that, but don't read it," Jake grins as he leaves.
Alain Whyte, guitarist, backing vocalist and writer of the music on Vauxhall's more reflective songs, brings a tray with tea and two chocolate fingers and puts it on the coffee-table next to an audio-book, Alfie Lends A Hand read by Thora Hird. He's tall and seemingly shy, his quiff is more precarious than Morrissey's and he wears the denim uniform - he looks like Mark Lamarr's little brother. When I comment that Vauxhall is a wholly fantastic record, he's almost embarrassed, and replies to the effect that absolutely everything Morrissey has ever done has been fantastic, like it's the first time anyone's complimented him at all. A bizarre notion considering that he wrote almost all of the blistering Your Arsenal too.
Then he's gone, and Morrissey's here.
It's been said before that Morrissey has charisma, but never quite how much he has. It's like a forcefield coming into the room, a personal magnetism of quite epic proportions, and if one thing's for sure it's that - despite all the I'm-unloveable protestations - he knows it. Whatever the charm that seeps off the vinyl or the rapacious allure he gives off onstage, face-to-face Moz is something totally different. In a moment I understand why Jake and Alain are so utterly committed to him. Never mind MacPhisto, we should have dressed Simon from Brookside up in a denim jacket, a quiff, a 1 oz pendant and a Union Jack.
He looks well, very well, and furthermore he's doing what pop stars aren't supposed to do: looking better as he gets older. The rumours that he's been working out and now looks like one of the Gladiators are not true, but it's hard to see how the wan skinnymalink in those early Smiths pictures has metamorphosed into this Gregory Peck character here. (Tea, Morrissey? Don't mind if I do.)
In fact, what with the boxing and the chunky pendants and the tattoos on the record sleeves (it's Jake on the back of The More You Ignore Me, although the 'MOZ' is fake), people might suspect that Morrissey is developing a laddish side.
"No, it's not true! I don't by any means want to turn into a 52-year-old lad," he says, spitting the word out as he settles back on the couch. "And I can't imagine that that is a very attractive thing to be, but equally I am no longer strapped to the Women's Studies section of Waterstones on Kensington High Street night and day, as many people still seem to believe. The world that I live in is quite broad. For instance, I go to the football whenever I can and whenever seems decent. And whenever I can get in for free."
Do you follow any side in particular?
"Not avidly. There's no side that's close to perfection, there's no side that deserves unanimous blind adoration from my point of view." Not even the fantastic...
"Tranmere? No, not even Manchester United. But whenever our dear old friend Morrissey [John Morrissey, Tranmere Rover super-sub and provider of many comedy headlines in the Liverpool Echo] comes on to the pitch and I hear the chant of 'Morrissey!' I leap from the settee and hit my head on the ceiling. I'm sure he hopes we're not related, otherwise he'll remain Number 12 forever."
Ah, here we go... Morrissey in self-deprecation mode. No one else in pop has quite the same absolute no-contest self-belief coupled with a desire to knock himself at every turn. It's more complex than false modesty - nobody believes in Morrissey as much as Morrissey does - but at the same time it's perplexing.
Morrissey, do you hide behind all these quips and witty badinage?
"I don't consider it wit, to be honest," he replies. "I think I'm quite dull, really. I see myself rather like an old discarded dishrag. I don't deny that, you know, stand me next to Primal Scream and I'll eat the lot of them alive - and I know you worship the very hair that they stand on - but next to someone like that there is no competition. Intellectually there is no competition at all in pop music any longer! Everybody is so boring! Relentlessly boring! Even those who are considered not to be, bore me stiff. And I can forgive people of anything except dullness."
Hold on, are we into a rant now...?
"It is easy pickings in pop now," Morrissey declares. "The job is anybody's in 1994 - hence the ascendancy of Suede despite the obvious fact that they did not do their apprenticeships. If you have the stamina and the gumption and the mettle, pop music is there for anyone right now. And I hope someone comes forward very soon."
You've been banging the gong for Echobelly.
"Echobelly's new single ('Insomniac') is, in a truly sane world, an indisputable Top Five record. It is astonishing and in my eyes they are an astonishing band. They are naturally, simply, very good, they play very well and their songs are very attractive, which is sadly very rare..."
Hang on, Suede have some quite good songs...
"Yes, Suede have got some quite good songs but Echobelly have some great songs. We have very low standards these days. If you study the music press over the past six years you see acres and acres of critical errors made by absurd journalists. Hosts of horses that were heavily backed but broke their legs before the starting gun. The new Smiths! They all faltered and failed and fell before the summer ended."
"All the rock writers who make those outlandish, superlative whatnots - they never have to stand up and say, Yes, we were actually wrong about The Wheelchair Muggers From North Manchester or whomever. They never have to apologise."
Oh dear - the press again.
It's been hard work being a Morrissey fan for most of the 1990s - if not for the creative doldrums of Kill Uncle then for the, ah, 'controversies' surrounding Your Arsenal, of which more later. Whatever, Vauxhall And I ("It's a reference to a certain person I know who was born and braised in Vauxhall," he says) is a five-star payoff, featuring some of the best songs he's written together with that rarest thing in a Morrissey record, a tiny sense of optimism.
Though songs like Now My Heart Is Full are sprinkled with characters from Brighton Rock, the record is far from the ritualistic excavation of his past that was serving Morrissey less and less well as inspiration. It's also an acutely beautiful record.
"Well I am an extremely beautiful person," he shrugs. "And I'm not just searching for a joke there. Yes, it is a beautiful record and I set out that it should be so. I thought it was time to put lots of things away in their boxes and their cupboards, and allow age to take its natural toll, for better or worse."
It has been described as the beginning of Morrissey's Mature Period.
"Which is of course a grave insult. To mature at the tender age of 34 is like Doris Day being the world's oldest living virgin. It's nothing to boast about in the steam baths at York Hall. But I think I was certainly really tired of the past. Now My Heart Is Full has a sense of jubilant exhaustion with looking over one's shoulder all the time and draining one's reference points. I mean, even I - even I - went a little bit too far with A Taste Of Honey.
"I have perhaps overtapped my sources and now all that is over, basically. I have a vast record and video and tape collection, but I look at it now in a different light. It's no longer something I feel I need to be embroiled in night and day. I have realised that the past is actually over, and it is a great relief to me. It's like being told that you've been cured of chronic tuberculosis or housewife's knee or something."
Yet you've never been seen as a person who looks forward to the future with a sense of anticipation.
"Well, I always tried to form the future - which I know sounds far too intellectual for a pop magazine - but I don't any more. I feel free to do absolutely nothing at all, and it is exhilarating. In the past I always felt an enormous sense of self-responsibility and of permanent self... actualising. Which has gone. I have realised that it really doesn't matter any more."
With the result that the old scathing Morrissey is developing a sense of mercy. There's a song on Vauxhall, the pop at empty-headed beach culture called The Lazy Sunbathers, that fits right into the Moz canon of hate-songs with Ordinary Boys and Rusholme Ruffians, yet for the first time it sounds like there's a little affection in your voice.
"Mnnnn... Not really, it just sounds that way. As you know, I have a very soft voice..."
But are you developing a soft spot for the people you used to lampoon and mock?
"No, no, quite the opposite. I'll always be in the blue corner."
Vauxhall also does one thing which you've never really done before in your solo career, which is point a little at The Smiths - particularly Hold On To Your Friends. Why is that? Are you more comfortable with The Smiths' legacy now?
"No, there's no intention there at all. There is this worldwide assumption that since the demise of The Smiths I have done relatively little, yet if you study The Smiths discography and my discography it almost matches now. Sometimes I do get tired of going back to The Smiths, because it is not as if I have sat around in a rocking chair since Strangeways, Here We Come faded away. I have actually kept moving.
"In any case it's very hard for me to say because there has never been another part of my life at all. From Hand In Glove to Hold On To Your Friends, it simply is my life [he spreads his hands]. Which is why I resent The Smiths being put forward as somehow being other people. The Smiths were just as much me as Vauxhall And I is. Johnny has not been there recently, shall we say, but otherwise everything has always been the same."
In last month's Q, you described Andy Rourke and Mike Joyce rather cruelly as Rick and Bruce. How could you say that about your old muckers?
"The original Rick and Bruce I actually loved! The Jam are one of my favourite groups of all time. But why can't I say that? I can say what I like."
But they were such great guys! The bassline on Barbarism Begins At Home, the drum intro to The Queen Is Dead... they were so loyal and, and...
"But they didn't drag you through court, did they? Let's see what you feel about them once they do. I can arrange it!"
Alright. It's now known that the supposed acrimony between you and Johnny Marr is no longer a going concern. When were you last in touch?
"Yes, all that is completely over. I spoke to him yesterday and we'll be meeting in a few nights' time just to chew the fat and complain to one another..."
Last autumn he told us, after much pestering, that if you two ever did anything again it would be as Morrissey and Marr, not The Smiths. Would you write with him again?
"Of course, yes, but immediately I don't see the point and neither does he. So, why? Obviously I would consider it. I would love to hear his music again. And sometimes I do feel sad that he gives it to certain people who can't write lyrics terribly well... ha ha!"
You mean Barney Sumner? Come on, why can't everybody make an Italian disco record or two at some time in their lives?
"I fail to see why they have to..."
You seem to be a lot happier than the Morrissey we've come to expect - the caricature of relentless miserablism - yet Vauxhall And I is quite an introspective, melancholy album even by your own sober standards. It has a tone of resignation.
"Yes, but no surprise, surely. I am not trying to manufacture some dramatic new twist in the proceedings. I would never claim that I am not fraught with immovable depression day in day out - which I am. But once you've made so many records, certain changes do take place in any case. Don't they? Otherwise you just fade away. Which I never have, despite certain enormous military efforts on behalf of certain magazines, I never have. The magazines that want to shoot me at dawn are still on their knees saying, Please would you, we beg you, please please..."
The press, the press, the perfidious press. Like a spinning compass needle that inevitably settles pointing northwards, Morrissey's conversation is always drawn to journalists and the evils they've perpetrated against him. Be it Johnny Rogan's book The Severed Alliance and its attendant fatwa, or the music weeklies' periodic fits of the right-on vapours against him, Morrissey can neither forgive nor forget.
Surely the latter was inevitable considering he'd never said much about his increasing fascination with skinhead culture and imagery, or about the songs in question - Asian Rut, Bengali In Platforms and The National Front Disco ?
"Well, every time I do I get bottled. You can't really talk about those things in this country. For instance, there was a spate of television programmes at the end of last year about the BNP and it was very noticeable to me how the National Front are never ever ever given a clear voice or platform. They never are. Which baffles me."
Some would say, Good thing too.
"But the reason why The National Front Disco was pounced upon was really because - if I may say so - it was actually a very good song. And if the song had been utter crap, no one would have cared. I was stopped by many many journalists who obviously raised the topic in an accusatory way, and I would say to them, Please, now, list the lines in the song which you feel are racist and dangerous and hateful. And they couldn't. Nobody ever ever could, and that irked me. Even though, simply in the voice on all of those songs, on Asian Rut or Bengali In Platforms or The National Front Disco, one can plainly hear that here is no hate at all.
"But you soon realise that they are just out for you, and that it doesn't matter what you say or do. You can dress up as The Pope and they'll still be out for you. A short while later, on the front of Select, there was our friend from Suede and behind him was the Union Jack - and of course there was not a squeak from anywhere that he had become a club-wielding racist. It has really got nothing to do with racism, it is to do with me. It really is - or was, hopefully - a mere witch-hunt."
What do you say to the argument that it's right that the National Front and the BNP should be denied access to the news media if they pursue their political goals through violence, and that you're being irresponsible?
"Well, I think that if the National Front were to hate anyone, it would be me. I would be top of the list. But I think it opens the debate. If the BNP were afforded television time or unbiased space in newspapers, it would seem less of a threat and it would ease the situation. They are gagged so much that they take revenge in the most frightening way by hurting and killing people. But part of that is simply their anger at being ignored in what is supposed to be a democratic society."
Letters to the usual address, please.
Pop's relentless tedium, former colleagues' treachery, the press... this afternoon has dredged up rather too much for Morrissey. When he came in he seemed, well, as bouncy as he gets. Not now, though.
"I'm sorry," he smiles. "But when you sit for an hour or two saying, Me, I, Me, I, Me, I, you turn into something rather shrivelled and ugly. I mean me, not you."
Have you every been in analysis, Morrissey?
"I have, yes, many a time, and left in extreme disgust. I find the billing unrewarding, certainly. But I have been steeped in personal depression for so long that I feel there is nothing any doctor or psychoanalyst can say to me. I know all about depression and the weakening of the human spirit and struggle, and there is no one who can tell me anything about it, and there is nobody who can help me."
He stands up and crosses to the big stereo system in the corner of the room, picking up an album on the way and placing it on the deck. He's momentarily flummoxed by the controls on the turntable, which, oddly enough, is that dance-culture icon the Technics AL1200 Vari-speed ("Maybe I ought to listen to more techno," he glowers, only half in fun) but finally fathoms it.
"I'll play you a song. This is my youth in one piece of music. Don't talk while it's on."
The song is 'Innocent And Vain' by Nico, from an LP called 'The End' - one vast grampus-wheeze of harmonium with Nico's ice-cold tomb-voice creaking away inside an arrangement that is the very pinnacle of painful listening. Towards the end it collapses into a montage of sourceless shrieking and random echo reminiscent of The Aphex Twin at his most science-fictiony. Every empty-head who's ever dismissed the Morrissey catalogue - with its wit and playfulness and deadpan humour - as depressing, ought to be forced to listen to this torture and reflect that this is what is going on in Morrissey's head.
And throughout Morrissey sits on the corner of the couch, head bowed, eyes closed, arms folded, and fists driven into his armpits. He's just made possibly his greatest LP and he looks like he's in hell.
It works out fine in the end. The following week Morrissey is all but mobbed to death at HMV Shop signings in London and Manchester (and he plays Nico on the in-store sound system at both). Vauxhall goes in at number one, the first Morrissey LP to do so since Viva Hate. The Sunday Times piece proves to be a harmless bit of farce in which Moz visits Castle Burchill and Julie B is horrible to him because he didn't make an appointment. What does he have to worry about anyway?
Before I left Hook End, I asked him about last year's rumours that he'd finally come to the end of his tether, that Vauxhall would be Morrissey's last stand. Had he contemplated giving it all up? Could he, physically?
"Yes, I could, definitely," he'd replied brightly. "That is the great new feeling I have. Vauxhall And I affords me that feeling and no other record has. Never. It has always been a mission 'til death, but now I just no longer feel obliged to anyone.
"I now feel I could live and be Dirk Bogarde. I could live in a mansion flat in Chelsea and see nobody, which would be a perfect life. I could be 76. He sent me a card the other day..."
Who, Dirk Bogarde? Are you sure?
"Yes, and I almost cried with joy when it arrived. I thought, Put it this way, Mozzer, you have a card from Dirk Bogarde here (and he slapped the settee). You have Alan Bennett sitting in your kitchen having tea. You have David Bowie having sung one of your songs quite beautifully. What else are you looking for? What right do I have to be sour-faced and complaining, queuing up at Waitrose in Holloway being annoyed because somebody in front of me has got a leg of lamb? What more could there be?"