The Observer Magazine, December 1995
THE KING OF BEDSIT ANGST GROWS UP
Life (The Observer Magazine), Will Self, December 1995
Heaven knows he was miserable then. Morrissey was the archetypal mixed-up young man: anti-fun, seemingly tortured by his sexuality, with a detached and ironic worldview. His peculiarly English brand of Ortonesque camp has made him a national treasure. Life (The name of the Observer magazine) finds Morrissey in mature mode. Has the boy outsider become an adult and joined the rest of the human race?
It's a well known fact about Morrissey that his record contracts stipulate various wacky, star-like things. One of them is the presence of certain, very particular kinds of snack food during any interview. So it is that the first thing that meets my eye when I enter the penthouse boardroom of RCA records is a table; laid out on it are plates of crisps (plain, or so I've read) and some KitKats; to one side are bottles of pop.
At the outset, Morrissey is drinking a cup of coffee, and during our discussion he occasionally elides his way out of anything remotely resembling an impasse by alluding to these eatables: 'This is such great coffee,' he pronounces at one point, and when I ask him what's on his mind he replies: 'This KitKat.'
These are just the sort of tropes Morrissey comes up with from minute to minute, turning phrases as he does, like rotating signs outside petrol stations. Morrissey is for many people irredeemably associated with the 1980s - and even to say this brings that decade into sharper focus. In the 1980s a particular kind of male adolescent angst and self pity infused the zeitgeist, and Morrissey was its avatar. He was the first male pop star to address a whole generation of boys who were growing up with feminism, a heavy underscoring to a period of natural inadequacy and uselessness.
His miserablism came from that archetypally grim, ravaged provincial city, Manchester. Cut off from a supporting popular culture with any remotely intellectual element, or political undercurrent, Morrissey forged The Smiths, the pop band who were to be spokesmen for the Miserablists, and penned their national anthem Heaven Knows I'm Miserable Now.
Morrissey's hipness and artistry was always wedded to an exquisite taste for the most subtle kitsch of the recent English past, and slathered in Yank worship. But mixed in with all this came his ambiguous campery.
Among the train-spotters of the music press, his break with Johnny Marr, his songwriting partner in The Smiths, has been insistently viewed as a creative death for him. Yet some of the solo material he has recorded is just as strong as anything they ever did together - and by the same token, who outside the music press has heard much about Johnny Marr in the past five years?
Suited darkly, booted sturdily and wearing one of those jerseyesque shirts that almost define the retro-committed, Morrissey is very attractive in the flesh. The deeply-set blue eyes coruscate from beneath a high, intelligent brow, and given his self-professed celibacy one of the first things any conscientious interviewer does is to try to assess the quality of his physical presence, his essential heft.
Is this a man tortured by his own sexuality and that of others? Is this a man about whom lingers a faint scent of fleshy revulsion? No, on both counts. His handshake is firm, warm even. His body language is far from craven. Indeed, there is something quite affectingly embodied about him. At one point in our conversation he commented on my face: 'You've actually got the face of a criminal that I've met...a very strong face. A very determined face.' Setting aside the content of this remark, it stuck me that this was not the sort of thing that someone intent on denying corporeality would be likely to say.
And of course, while his well-publicised encouragement of the excessive and physical devotion of his fans has a double-edged quality about it (you can touch, but only in this contrived, aberrant way), In person he lampoons his own self-created shibboleths, again and again and again. When I suggest to him that stage invasions puncture the surface of stardom and confront him with fans who are 98 per cent water, he replies: 'Let it be punctured, let it be punctured, that's my motto.'
The following week at Wembley Arena, the star goes so far towards puncturing that he almost bodily hauls a would-be stage invader through the arms of bouncers, past the rank of monitors and into his arms. He receives kisses on both cheeks as no more than his due. He also bends down into the thicket of arms waving towards him and as much takes as gives out the benediction.
There's a submerged incongruity here, but one that works in his favour. Perhaps one of the central ironies about this most ironic of performers is that he clearly seeks adulation from those most indisposed to give it - the Dagenham Daves and Rusholme Ruffians who people his landscapes - and eschews the advances of those who regard his talent as essentially poetic. When I ask him if he's ever been attracted to the world of the intelligentsia, he is emphatic: 'Absolutely not. In fact, scorn is perhaps all I really feel. I feel quite sad for such people. I think that everything there is to be lived is hanging round the gutter somewhere. I've always believed that and still do.'
Which rather begs the question, exactly how much hanging around the gutter is involved in researching his marvellously deadpan little word pictures? He mentions 'Certain pubs around north and east London. But I'm not the sort of person you're likely to spot because I don't go about wanting to be noticed...I'm just slipping in and slipping out, and if you were looking for me you'd never find me.'
He tells me that performance for him represents 'exuberance', and when I tax him that this goes somewhat against his self-styled anti-fun posture, he grins and admits it. That being said, Morrissey's idea of post-gig kicks is not exactly what we expect from a pop star: 'Just pure silence.' I found this attitude refreshing, but it did act as a springboard for Morrissey to trot out some of his more passe attitudinising: 'Life's incredibly boring. I don't say that in an effort to seem vaguely amusing but the secret of life is that there's no secret, it's just exceedingly boring.'
I got the feeling that these kinds of sallies are a form of bluff for Morrissey, and that he throws them out in much the way that aircraft in World War II dropped strips of metal to fool radar. If his interlocutors rise to such chaff, then they're not really worthy of consideration. But he's also an adept at sidestepping the conventional psychoanalytic thrusts of the interviewer.
When I mention the 'vexed question' of his sexuality, he replies: 'It doesn't vex me. I don't exactly think it vexes other people at all. People have their opinions and I don't mind what they are. I mean, there's a limit to what people can actually assume about sexuality, and at least I'm relieved by that. I don't think people assume anything anymore about me. I'm sort of classified in a non-sexual, asexual way, which is an air of dismissiveness which I quite like.'
The interesting thing about this speech is, of course, that the exact opposite is the truth: it does vex people, he does mind, there are no limits to what people can assume about sexuality (which is far from being a relief), and it his he himself who has struck the asexual attitude. It's worth remembering at this point that it was one of Morrissey's heroes, Oscar Wilde, who defined celibacy as 'the only known sexual perversion'.
Perhaps it would be too trite to suggest that the plaintive refrain of The Teachers Are Afraid Of The Pupils, the lead track on his latest album Southpaw Grammar, is in some way an echo of this posture: 'To be finished would be a relief,' the singer proclaims, again and again and again.
The sting really comes when I say: 'Do you think you've pulled that one off?' And with another smile he replies: 'Yeah. Quite well. I think the skill has paid off quite well. I've managed to slip through the net - whatever the net is.' Then there's a neat little bit of wordplay, analogous in the Morrissey idiolect to a boxer's centre-ring shuffle. I interject: 'But-' and he overrides me: 'I know you're about to say 'but', but so am I. It's not really an issue, there's nothing to say, and there's nothing to ask, more to the point.'
He's right. Unless I choose to be a boor and attempt to crash into his private existence, there really is nothing to ask. This is the 'skill' that Morrissey has perfected and it's a skill that in anyone else would be described as maturity.
Yes, that's the only revelation I have to give you about Steven Patrick Morrissey: he is, against all odds, a grown-up. How exactly he has managed this growing up it's hard to tell. The lineaments of the biography give the impression of a direct transferral from air guitar in front of a suburban Manchester mirror, to air guitar in front of hysterical crowds at the Hacienda, followed by 13 years of - albeit anomalous - stardom. Where exactly did he find those normal interactions, normal relationships, necessary to affect maturation?
Of course, it's no secret in the business that his 'no-touch' persona bears little relation to a man who closely guards his close friendships; and quite clearly something is going on here. It was once said of Edward Heath that if he did have sex at all, it was only in a locked vault in the Bank Of England. I don't wish to speculate about whether or not Morrissey has sex, but if he does I think it's fairly safe to assume that the 'locked vault' is a function of two things: an unswerving dedication to maintaining a genuine private life, and a capability for generating immense personal loyalty - a loyalty vault, if you will.
When we discuss the issue of camp, which informs so much of his artistic sensibility, right down to the title of one of his solo albums: Bona Drag ('bona' meaning attractive or sexy in gay argot), he veers off into the Kenneth Williams diaries: 'It was quite gruesome, quite gruesome. I've read it a couple of times and each time it's been like a hammer on the head. An astonishingly depressing book. It's incredibly witty and well done, but the hollow ring it has throughout is murderous, absolutely murderous. I think he was always depressed, because the diaries spread over a 40-year period and even at the beginning of them he was saying 'why am I alive, what's the point?' 'And this was 1952. It's astonishing that he lasted so long.'
I tax him that some people might view his life as being a bit like that, and he replies 'it's not. It definitely isn't,' with a deeply felt emphasis. So deep that I'm moved to put to him the most extreme contrast to Williams's life of emotional and sexual barrenness: 'Have you ever considered having children?' 'Yeah,' he says flatly, in his burring Mancunian voice. When we tease out this issue it becomes apparent that what bothers him about having kids is to do with this quite legitimate fear of over-identification with them: 'I wonder what they'd do. I mean, what do they do when they're 11? What would they do when they were 17? What happens when your child turns round and says: 'Look, I don't like this world. Why did you bring me into it? I don't want to be part of it. I'm not leaving home. I'm staying here, I refuse to grow up ?'
But if there are shades of his own (allegedly) willed infantility here, there are also discernible the lineaments of grown-up Morrissey, Morrissey whose 'skill' has served him well. He seems to understand only too well the impact of the ambiguous image he has created.
Morrissey, it became apparent to me, is someone who finds his love for other people painful and overpowering. in this he is, of course, like all of us, but perhaps more so. He has given up on his favourite soap, Coronation Street, but when discussing its replacement in his affections, EastEnders, he lets slip a yearning for a very populated, very unmiserable arcadia: 'I think people wish that life really was like that, that we couldn't avoid seeing 40 people every day that we spoke to, that knew everything about us, and that we couldn't avoid being caught up in these relationships all the time, and that there was somebody standing on the doorstep throughout the day. I think that's how we'd all secretly like to live. Within EastEnders, within Coronation Street, there are no age barriers. Senior citizens, young children, they all blend, and they all like one another and they all have a great deal to say, which isn't how life is.'
Perhaps here the complex mask of ritual, signs, signals and cultural references Morrissey has devised to obliterate the very non-contrived human character beneath, slips a little. But I'd be wary of pushing it. To me he said: 'I wish somebody would get it right. I don't mind if they hate me as long as they get it right.' And yet 'getting it right' would be wholly destructive for the image, if liberating for the man.
Throughout the solo career there has been a strenuous conflation of the notion of 'Englishness' with that of a camp, Ortonesque liking for 'rough lads'. Was Morrissey, like William Burroughs, I wondered, possessed of an eternal faith in the 'goodness' of these rough lads? Was this atmosphere, so vividly captured in Southpaw Grammar, one he saw as an arcadia or merely one of nostalgia?'
'It's pure nostalgia, really, and there's very little truth in it. I'm well aware of that. I know that it's all pure fantasy really, and 50 per cent drivel. Everybody has their problems and their is no way of being that is absolutely free and fun loving and without horrific responsibilities. It just isn't true. And I think I've had the best of it personally. I don't think I'm missing anything because I'm not a roofer from Ilford.'
Did we really expect anything else? Every alleged 'arcadian' image Morrissey produces is in reality shot through with irony. The eponymous hero of Boy Racer is described thus: 'Stood at the urinal / He thinks he's got the whole world in his hands.' And as for poor Dagenham Dave, 'Head in a blouse / Everybody loves him / I see why.' Yes indeed! But then, by the same token: 'He'd love to touch, he's afraid he might self-combust / I could say more, but you get the general idea.'
The implication being one of what? Chronically repressed homosexuality? Or merely the singer's own tedium vitae in the face of the exhausted husk of English working-class culture? The rubric here is one of subversion, subversion and more subversion. This being most graphically shown when Morrissey, 37 and rising, comes on stage at Wembley Arena (where he is supporting David Bowie) with his somewhat younger fellow musicians. Either it's Happy Days with Morrissey as the Fonz and the vaguely bat-eared guitarist as Richie, or else something altogether more sinister.
The backcloth is a giant projection of the cover of Southpaw Grammar, the face of an obscure boxer which Morrissey himself plucked from the anonymity of an old copy of The Ring. There's a wheeze and a creak from the massive bunches of speakers dangling overhead, and Jerusalem starts up, being sung by some long-gone school choir. The effect, in tandem with the suited, cropped figures striding about the dark stage is extremely unsettling. Is this the start of some weird fascist rally?
Then the band crashes into the opening chords of Reader Meets Author and Morrissey begins to flail at the air with the cord of his microphone, pirouetting, hip-swivelling, for all the world like some camp version of Roy Rogers. He'd be run out of the British National Party in seconds if they caught him swishing about like this! Again he has subverted the political in a peculiarly personal way.
Later on in the set, Morrissey and the band perform the dark and extremely depressing song The Operation. Like many of his songs this one is addressed to an unnamed person. Morrissey must be one of the few songwriters who uses the second person more than the first. 'You fight with your right hand,' he yodels, 'and caress with your left', and as he joins up the couplet he wipes the arse of the air with a limp hand. This is presumably what he means by Southpaw Grammar, and the manifest and ongoing preoccupation with 'the other' in his work is so antithetical to his posture of bedsit isolation that I wonder again just how truly protean a person this is? To me he said: 'I don't feel trapped in your tape recorder and on those CD's. I don't at all. I can do whatever I like and I can become whatever I like, and if next week I want to have 13 children and live in Barking, then I can and I will, and nobody will stop me.'
This is all very double-edged, very southpaw. On one reading it smacks of an arrested, adolescent will-to-omnipotentiality, but on another it's an indicator of great sanity, and a refusal to believe wholly in the image he has created. While in his first incarnation, as the taboo-busting frontman for The Smiths, Morrissey was prone to using his platform for issuing diktats on all manner of issues unrelated to popular music, his fame now appears to have been well worn in, like a favourite old overcoat.
He confirmed this when I asked him how he managed to keep such tight control over the empire he has created: 'I only manage it by repeatedly saying "no". And then the obvious reputation gathers around you that you are a problem, because you are awkward, you are difficult, and you don't really want to be famous. But I just don't want to be famous in any way other than that which naturally suits me.'
I wonder what's going to happen to Morrissey. My hunch is that he may well find iconic pop status an increasing drag. He is a very funny man to be with, but he keeps his wit well reined in. Just on example of this came when we dissected the 'vexed question' of my not having a television. 'Is that a political statement?' he asked me, and when I said it was he rejoined: 'Do all your neighbours know that you don't possess a television set?'
I think the wit is reined in because it's so destructive of the ironic edifice he has created. Stardom requires a certain kind of stupidity to sustain it, and Morrissey is far from being a stupid man. He is responsible - among other things - for encapsulating 200 years of philosophical speculation in a single line: 'Does the body rule the mind or does the mind rule the body, I dunno.'
His ambitions as an artist clearly don't require him to feed the Moloch of celebrity with more creative babies. He once memorably sang, castigating yet another of his numinous others for their sexual peccadilloes: 'On the day that your mentality / Catches up with your biology.' But I think the comparable day of reckoning for Morrissey will come when he allows his sense of humour to catch up with his irony.
Even at Wembley Arena it looked as if the band had invited their uncle to come along and do a turn with them. Morrissey has too acute a view of himself - one hopes - to become one of those grandads of pop, preambulating around the stage in support hose, permanently marooned in some hormonal stretch limo. He told me he could 'do anything', I certainly hope he does. England needs him.