Les Inrockuptibles, September 1995
TO END LIKE ORSON WELLES
Les Inrockuptibles, 1995
His previous album, Vauxhall And I carried on like an end-of-road album with a flourish. Yet Morrissey hadn't settled his demons, the impossible friendships or the forbidden loves. Back in the all-muscles rock on his new Southpaw Grammar , nasty and fighting but always groggy from a shifting past, he lets here the concrete origins of his ill-being come to light and, thus, reveals his extraordinary inspirations. And Morrissey eventually confesses: fat, bearded and lonely, he will disappear like the director of the mysterious "Mr. Aladdin".
Q: During our last meeting, in 1993, before recording Vauxhall And I, you said you would put an end to your career after a final album.
M: Since then, my enthusiasm for music got over it - even if I'm convinced that my career won't last forever. For a few months, I've been therefore rather happy. I don't know if the world's well, but as for me, life's quite sweet. Professionally, I think I've made the right changes at the right moment; about this, at least, my future presents itself favourably. I've just signed a deal with RCA and I'm certain things will develop in a very positive way. This change of label was a decision of capital importance. For the first time, I could choose to work with a record company on my own initiative. Until then, I'd only known Rough Trade with the Smiths, then the move to EMI - a transfer that I didn't want. In changing the professional environment I found an expectation, a hope again. To (?) is a danger for an artist, not a fatality. The first fruit from this energy, from this enthusiasm is Southpaw Grammar: an unplanned album, which has appeared as if by magic. Everything's happened so quickly and so easily; I'm very surprised at having been able to give birth so quickly to an album.
Q: You seem to meet with great difficulties with managers - a year ago you were once more in conflict with an American management agency. Can't you manage to trust them ?
M: Nobody can look after me, it's too difficult. Managers always end up by passing me; they don't know how to represent me faithfully. They speak for me but don't know what they say. In the United States my manager had organised a set of gigs in New York. All went wonderfully - tickets sold in a few hours - apart from the fact that my manager had forgotten to ask me if I was ready to play in NY. I felt betrayed, so I refused everything outright and I stopped working with him. Sadly I'm used to this kind of faux pas. The same thing frequently happened with The Smiths. As soon as people get to work with a group they have the impression they possess full powers. Guided by money and covetousness, they start doing anything. It's one of my biggest regrets in life : I've never found any person clever enough to represent me. This person doesn't exist.
Q: Who was in charge of your transfer to RCA ?
M: I myself was in charge of it with the aid of James O'Brien - a friend who directed the video for Boxers and with whom I've just finished a short film. Together, we had the idea of RCA - we went to meet the label officials and then everything went on very quickly, very easily, without lawyers or managers. From now on, I record quietly, alone; and when the tapes are ready, I send them to my record company. I've never been in such a position of strength.
Q: Today, are you concerned about your sales figures, your singles being on the radio ?
M: I follow this very closely. And I've never got a welcome as good as with Dagenham Dave that we hear very much of on the radio these days. Times seem quite favourable. Nevertheless my life is happily being ignored by the media. It's been a long time since I got used to this idea : the records of The Smiths were never on the big national radio stations, neither were my solo singles. Today the situation seems more promising, and I'm proud of it : before entering this room I heard my single Dagenham Dave on the radio again. Last year I was quite hurt by the commercial failure of Hold Onto Your Friends, probably one of my best singles. The song charted only 47th on sales, which has been a terrible shock for me.
Q: Have the friends to whom this song was addressed understood the meaning of it?
M: No, since the track reached a ceiling of 47th (laughter). So they certainly never understood it.
Q: In several aspects, Vauxhall & I acted as a legacy. We almost became used to the idea of not seeing you anymore after this record.
M: To me, as well, it was a kind of legacy. Whilst recording it I had the feeling of lowering the curtain at the end, of leaving the public domain. That Southpaw Grammar exists today is therefore a deep upheaval for me (smile). Vauxhall & I bore this odour of retreat, of departure. I was aware of this end-of-reign atmosphere while recording the album, though it was no problem for me. I even was quite happy about it. The album wasn't as fiery or as passionate as its predecessors but it seemed a bit resigned which quite pleased me. To be sat here, today, before you, is therefore a great surprise for me. And for you (laughter).
Q: Artistically, what future exists after adulthood ?
M: Maybe a second birth, a return to childhood (smile)... Southpaw Grammar marks, to an extent, the return of chaos in my life, like a new start. Unless it's the final strait before death (smile)... who knows ? My new album may well be a bitter failure.
Q: A year and a half after its release, what do you think of the lyrics of Vauxhall And I ?
M: I'm extremely proud of them. So proud that I find it more and more frustrating to hear people only talking about Johnny Marr and The Smiths as if I am incapable of developing, now I'm working without them. I'd like so much to be judged at my true worth, and that people recognise my current qualities, that people cease at last evoking my past. When you meet David Bowie, do you spend your time talking with him about the seventies ? ... Well, yes, I would! (Bursts out laughing). The lyrics of Vauxhall And I were terribly introspective, which is certainly not new for me - this record was nothing more than another inner trip. But before this record, I'd never known this feeling of fulfillment. An album on which not a track goes out of tune, on which every title is a perfect success. It was a new and terribly exciting emotion. Even on Your Arsenal - which I loved - there were one or two weak tracks. Vauxhall And I fits my idea of perfection. I couldn't make better.
Q: On Your Arsenal, you evolved in the world of rock. On Vauxhall And I we found you more in line with your own world.
M: Before Your Arsenal I felt very lonely. I didn't have a regular band and the last album I had recorded, Kill Uncle, frustrated me. So I needed to rebuild a gang spirit, to be back permanently with the same persons - which I've managed to do since Your Arsenal. Why is there this need to live in a band ? Maybe because I'm a very boring person. I love being surrounded - even if I dread human relations which become too rigid, totally devoid of risks.
Q: One of the symbolic tracks from Vauxhall And I, Now My Heart Is Full, claimed that your heart was full, that you felt fulfilled. Could you have written this song some years earlier ?
M: I don't think so. This song was the definitive expression of my change to adulthood, of my maturity. And, to be honest, I was very happy to be able to sing this text, to have reached this state. After this song I could perfectly retire: I've come full circle.
Q: Could you write this song today ?
M: No, not now. It wouldn't fit, time doesn't lend itself to it. Though my heart is full (smile). Thank whom ? Nobody. If I'm happy it's an inner, intimate happiness. I'm at peace with myself.
Q: Friendship is one of the main themes on Vauxhall And I. It's a feeling you seem at pains to manage.
M: Friendship is for me a permanent preoccupation. I spend my life chasing it, trying to build something solid. I'd love so much to have a lot of friends, people to visit permanently, people I can rely on. But it's very difficult. Modern life doesn't favour friendship. People live separate, cut from each other. As for me, I want to give to others, to open my heart - but I'm not given the chance to. It has become almost impossible to meet someone who is deeply generous, who is able to declare his feelings, his emotions. The major part of the people we meet always know exactly what they're going to tell you. If all your relations are pre-established, regulated, then it's become so difficult to build something unique, a relationship built on personal relations, one to one.
Q: Yourself, have you got the ability to give everything, to be a loyal friend ?
M: I like opening myself up easily, giving much of me away. So I'm honest and sincere as possible. But, above all, I always try and build something personal - without lapsing into parody, which would be very embarrassing. I can't bear things remaining at that basic stage: "How are you ?" And then, you feel obliged to answer: "Fine, fine, thank you." In truth, most people don't care how you feel.
Q: Do you have friends whom you reproach for not giving enough away ?
M: Of course, but they're incapable of giving more. Maybe because I'm very sensitive and that they're afraid to hurt me. Maybe because I'm not devoid of a certain poetic sense and that the majority of people aren't poets. Too often, they content themselves with being there, sat in the same room as me. They don't make the effort to shine, to give. They stay there, that's all.
Q: In friendships, is celebrity a handicap ?
M: It can become tremendously embarrassing.
Q: Who's your best male or female friend ?
M: Linder, this friend from Manchester whom I've known for nearly twenty years. It's both the oldest and most solid friendship. Apart from Linder, I've met all my friends in recent years. It's almost impossible for me to build lasting things.
Q: We have the impression that, for you, human relations are always aggressive, based on a relation of force.
M: I spend my time squabbling with others, even if I deeply dislike it. I can't make serenity prevail very long. I don't know why. I'd love to create something restful, stable ... but I always feel that I'm going to be taken in, that I have to protect myself. So I fight. Others can't understand it: I spend my life being on the alert, waiting. I need to be open and generous to be able to write, as curiosity and reflection feed my records. But around me, I only see uncommunicative people who only think of themselves and don't understand. People lack so much poetry. They don't know how to read their souls, how to look at the beauty in them. They only think about moving forward, overtaking others. They're lousy, worried. I've always been different: the one who kept to himself, quietly.
Q: Do you need this tenseness, this violence of human relations to fill out your songs ?
M: My songs are only the reflection of life - and life is violent. Without talking about the end of life, which is almost always violent. People seem in need of this violence to live, so that it feeds them. They're all keyed up, ready to attack, ready to counter-attack. I find this resorting to violence extremely shocking but it is part of human nature.
Q: You say you don't like this violence but it fascinates you. How do you cope with this contradiction in everyday life ?
M: It's a macabre and very depressing fascination. Violence isn't a hobby to me. I'd rather it disappeared entirely from my life, even if I need it for my music. To me, violence is an everyday reality in relations. People treat me as if I were abnormal, as if I weren't like them - and this is already a beginning of violence.
Q: You're not always free from any reproach: in Lifeguard Sleeping, Girl Drowning, we find a cruelty in your voice, in your words. A nastiness which seems not to be autobiographical.
M: It's a song inspired by real facts but what's the use of talking about it since the girl in question in this song sank a long time ago ? (smile) Yes, I can be cruel. Yes, I can be as cruel with women as with men.
Q: Could you write inspired by a lasting, solid relation ?
M: No, I couldn't. If that kind of relation was a reality for me, it wouldn't fascinate me any longer. I'm attracted by what I can't reach. Attainable things are without interest. If I found peace, serenity, then you'd certainly never see me again. It'd be the end of my career.
Q: Your last press shots show you seriously messed up, as if you'd been beaten up. Who had the idea of this masquerade ?
M: It wasn't a joke but real photos. In truth, it's a journalist who beat me up. (Bursts out laughing.) No, it was make-up. I was very satisfied with those photos at the time. I found them very nice. Now I don't know what to think of them.
Q: In the song Speedway, you say you believe in loyalty, which can sound a bit paradoxical to someone who spends his time fighting with everybody.
M: I believe in my loyalty which is as developed as possible. What must be looked at is the others' loyalty towards me.
Q: Though when we listen to you, the loyalty you offer to others is quite particularly "strange".
M: My loyalty is strange because I'm strange (smile) ...
Q: In the next line, you bluntly sing "In my own sick way..."
M: Because I'm sick! I'm deeply ill! I should introduce you to my doctor ... I'm sick, I'm sick, I'm sick! I'm thirty-sick!
Q: Is it a curable illness ?
M: It's an illness I cultivate because it allows me to write songs. It has become a part of my life, something permanent, continuous without great development. I got used to living with it.
Q: In concrete terms, what is it ? Depression ?
M: (Long hesitation) It's certainly more complex than that. Let's say that I feel attracted by something impalpable. Not identifiable. I've always felt unique - I've always had a strange life, not the golden existence of pop music singers. I've always felt this presence, this thing which grabbed me, which told me where to go. It's maybe that, my illness.
Q: That's exactly the kind of speech you held forth at the beginning of The Smiths. You said you found an energy, something which guided you.
M: Despite all those years I've never been able to identify the origin of this energy. Only, today, I think that everything's organized. I have the feeling of going with the current, being only a piece of this destiny. But in England if you start talking of this kind of thing, they laugh at you, you're taken for some ridiculous dandy. So I keep all this for me.
Q: Do you trust this destiny ?
M: Yes, in the same way that I've always been confident in the early beginnings of The Smiths. I know I'm going somewhere and that I can't do anything about it. How will the future be ? I don't know. Maybe I'll go to the moon (smile) ... or become a greengrocer. It doesn't depend on me; but I'm not scared. Actually I've never felt so much at peace with my future. People always have this feeling that those who release records want fame at any price. That they'd die to see themselves on the covers of newspapers, but it's a fundamental mistake. You can be an artist and be satisfied with a rather limited level of fame.
Q: Is this trust what made Southpaw Grammar a more basic, more direct and less intimate album than Vauxhall And I ?
M: I didn't want to give birth to a sort of Vauxhall And I : Part Two. I was delighted by the original version. What's the use of trying to invent a sequel to it ? So I asked Steve Lillywhite, the producer, to work with me, explaining to him that I wanted to record a hard and solid album without any slow songs. I wanted to create for myself a new universe, more twisted, rougher.
Q: On this album you sound more distant, less lyrically involved.
M: It's certainly a good thing, isn't it ? I gave a lot with Vauxhall And I. If I had written, once again, very introspective lyrics it probably would have bored everybody.
Q: Though there's a line which speaks volumes right from the start of the LP - "To be finished would be a relief."
M: There are, of course, two levels of interpretation: the line in the song context - these teachers who are afraid of their pupils and dream of escaping - and a second more intimate, more personal thought on my life and career. To leave would effectively be a relief. Not to feel all this pressure anymore, to be able to let up a bit.
Q: There again, it's in contradiction with what you told us at the beginning of this interview.
M: I never said I was deeply happy and totally fulfilled. I said I was relatively happy, which is above all an indication of my state of success some years ago. You must understand that I've started from very low.
Q: Could other artistic means of expression exist for you ?
M: I don't think so. I love singing too much, the physical relationship to the voice ... To become a star dancer on Broadway wouldn't motivate me. My career as singer is enough for me.
Q: You have a passion for the British realist cinema. You don't want to carry on by writing scripts ?
M: Others do it very well. Why, wishing to become the new Mike Leigh ? Mike Leigh already exists ... I've told enough stories in my songs. They're a wonderful medium to say what I could have said in films. To me, nothing will ever be stronger than a song. A film or a documentary can't be as direct. And the writing of a novel doesn't motivate me any more. Singing is the only safe option. Even if I don't want to sing all my life.
Q: What will you do when you leave the record industry ?
M: Nothing. I'll sit back and listen to others from my armchair. I'll stay still for hours analyzing others' work. There'll be records I'll love and records I'll loathe. It will be brilliant. I'll be able to grow old quietly, shielded from glances. And I'll be able to eat whatever I want, to do what I want, to become idle, to drag (?) myself. Here is what my life will look like: I'll be fat and lazy, a miserable bloke to look at (laughter). I can assure you.
Q: Could you accept this decrepitude ?
M: It's already begun. Physically, it isn't getting any better - it's in the nature of things. What can I do against it ?
Q: Do you like what you see in the mirror every morning ?
M: I never look at myself in a mirror. I hurry up and bend my head past mirrors.
Q: Don't you do your hair ?
M: Hairbrushes don't play any role in my life (smile) ... The idea of getting old doesn't scare me. I don't try to fight it. I don't go jogging, don't take any gym lessons. Decrepitude's not frightening... it can even be appealing. I can picture myself ending up like Orson Welles: he's become very fat and shut himself away in his house. It'd quite suit me.
Q: But Orson Welles was a sensualist, an epicurean.
M: I feel capable of becoming this kind of person, able to enjoy life's good things. I have the intention of trying.
Q: Have you ever yielded to temptation ? Have you eaten more than you should ?
M: (Bursts out laughing.) Can you imagine that ? Me with my hand full of chips ? No... (laughter) ... I start crying when I eat too much.
Q: Do you sometimes resort to alcohol to escape from sadness ?
M: Never. I perfectly understand alcohol and measure entirely its power but I'm not interested. Believe me: I can do nothing against this inner sadness. It's there, deeply rooted - and I know it makes me a rather peculiar person.
Q: Have you always tried to understand where it came from, what its origins were ?
M: I think I'm too good-hearted. I spend my time thinking of others, worrying for them. I should probably close up myself a bit, take more care of myself. I've tried: for instance, I've stopped reading for the moment. It's quite a good method to stop being constantly moved, touched. In closing up we cease being affected ... In the last years I tried several times to find help with doctors, psychoanalysts. I first tried antidepressants - which don't work on me - then I attended a few therapies... but there again it wasn't a great success.
Q: Did you easily take the plunge ?
M: There's nothing difficult about going to a psychoanalyst. Especially not for me, who is by nature rather keen on confession. I've given a great number of interviews in my life, which has probably constituted an excellent warm-up. But I can conceive that the act of confession is very painful for the majority of people. Though, these therapies contributed not much new to me. I've descovered a few intimate facts that until then I refused to face, but nothing essential. You can get a certain pleasure out of these sessions - for me, the longest lasted six months at a rather sustained pace - but as soon as you leave the surgery you face the same problems as before you went in. You become yourself again, you find the same house, the same brain, the same past.
Q: Is your incurable sadness the result of your past ?
M: All comes from my past.
Q: Is there a launching factor, a determining event ?
M: Yes... and all the work set about with the psychoanalysts talking about my childhood to reconstruct certain situations. In this, these experiences were successful: they did me much good even if some wounds remain buried deep inside me. I'll certainly need centuries to settle everything.
Q: Can you be more precise about the nature of these events ?
M: There have been several of them.
Q: Things that happened at school ?
M: Yes, at school, but as well and especially at home.
Q: Is the answer to be found in your song Used To Be A Sweet Boy ? One day something went wrong ?
M: That's precisely what the shrinks wanted to find (embarrassed laughter)... Myself, I don't know very well what went wrong. I have difficulty understanding, it's so complex. Even my parents would be unable to explain what went wrong. In the song, these are the parents who speak and deny all responsibility ("I'm not to blame"). To me, though, parents must assume blame: they bring the children up, not the other way around.
Q: Do your parents feel responsible for your constant state of sadness ?
M: It pains my mother a lot. Not that she feels responsible but she's perfectly aware of my state of dissatisfaction. She'd love so much to see me happy and totally fulfilled. Yet, nothing is her fault.
Q: What about your father ?
M: ...(He pulls a wry face, keeps silent and makes a wide gesture of the hand as a signal of defence. Then indicates the microphone on the table shaking his head, unable to speak. Follows an endless silence.)
Q: Have you ever met the girl of your dreams, the one to whom one of the songs from Southpaw Grammar is dedicated ?
M: No, I've rather met the girls of my nightmares. To me, most girls are nightmares.
Q: Physically ?
M: Yes, physically (in a deliberately provocative tone) and mentally. There again, I'm not very interested ... even as a child, I found it much easier to fall in love with a person in a photo because we never meet the people who pose in magazines.
Q: You're taken for an aesthete. Are you never attracted by plastic beauty ? Women's physiques ?
M: I've had a quite late development on this level. Now if I see a beautiful woman I can be attracted like any man. But I find it very embarrassing. It's the same whether it's an attraction to a man or a woman. Nothing seems to go well with me. The concept of attraction doesn't work for me. Human relations don't work... If I see someone I find attractive, then I flee in the other direction. I'd be absolutely unable to go and talk to this person. What's the use of going and saying that I find this person attractive ? It could never go well between us. The few times when I tried to build relationships - when I was younger - they never worked out for very long. So I gave up.
Q: How do you react when someone says they are attracted to you ?
M: It absolutely never happens. Though I receive some fans' letters; but nothing more. If the people who think they like me really knew me, they'd quickly cease desiring me. First, where are they, all those people attracted by me ? Give me their names! I've never met them. So I put up with it. I'm resigned to it. That's the way life goes: we can't get everything at the same time. Finally, I'm coping quite well. As we're talking people are dying on their deathbeds.
Q: Do you think you still can find the great love ?
M: Things will certainly get clearer when I'm anonymous again. All will therefore be much simpler.
Q: But you'll never be anonymous. Even in twenty years' time you'll still be the persona: Morrissey.
M: Then I'll grow a beard and wear a hat.
Q: When we listen to you, we almost have the impression that you've made a pact with the devil: you've sacrificed your private life to the advantage of your artist's life.
M: There's a great part of truth in it. In a certain way a choice had to be made: I couldn't find conjugal bliss and artistic bliss at the same time. One of them had to be sacrificed - which doesn't seem to be the case for other singers. But when I retire I hope I can make up for lost time and live differently. I feel there's a new and wonderful life waiting for me, a life without (?) And to reach it I'm ready to renounce what I have today, money and fame included.
Q: At thirty-six you must have sexual urges. How do you channel them ?
M: I don't have many sexual urges. Honestly ... I don't have any sex life, so very few needs. In boys like me the level of testosterone decreases whereas in a sexually active guy it increases. And then, when the hormone shows itself I have a shave (smile). But I've never found sexual satisfaction. Never. The concept of fulfillment is unknown to me.
Q: Could this lack have constituted an extra artistic motivation ?
M: Certainly. But today I want to have a sex life, to find satisfaction. I'm working on it: it's my greatest desire.
Q: When were you in love for the last time ?
M: It's quite recent, but it's not a very realistic story, rather a sort of dream. Someone concrete, real, but an impossible romance.
Q: Months often go by without being able to contact you. Why disappear like that ?
M: I don't disappear. I'm at home in London or at my mother's near Manchester. You have to move, not to be still. In a certain way, I'm always on the run. Besides, I don't really feel at home anywhere. And I can't content myself with neither moments of isolation nor moments of contact with the world outside.
Q: A few months ago you said you hadn't seen Johnny Marr for a year. What about now ?
M: I haven't seen Johnny Marr for an eternity. And I feel no remorse. That's it.
Q: Honestly, don't you feel that it's a waste ? Artistically, you could have once more given birth to great things: many think that Strangeways, Here We Come could have been a new start for The Smiths.
M: It was my opinion as well, at the time. I didn't wish the split-up of The Smiths. I was helpless... People often talk to me about The Smiths thinking that I could reform the group with a snap - but I can't. It wouldn't be in my interest either. My solo years now largely exceed my years within The Smiths. I think I have proven something, I'm not going to go back. With RCA it's a bit like the start of a new career. I'm 36 years old, I'm still there, still standing and ready to fight. Which other Smiths member can say the same ?