The Big Issue, July 1997
FROM BEDSIT-LAND TO BAYWATCH
Gary Crossing, The Big Issue, 14th July 1997
Los Angeles isn't the sort of place you'd expect to find Morrissey. A superficial, wilfully kitsch city of bronzed, rock-hard torsos, swimming pools, big cars, Hollywood stars and gangsta rappers, it hardly seems suited to the needs of a bashful, bookish, rapier-witted and quintessentially English artiste.
Yet the elusive, rarely-interviewed pop star is here at West Hollywood's Sunset Marquis Hotel, a palm-tree shadow away from Sunset Boulevard, a brisk Harley ride from Beverly Hills. U2 and Courtney Love sometimes room here, Depeche Mode's Dave Gahan overdosed here. A Sunset regular himself, Morrissey has been to LA six times this year already. "I'm extremely familiar with Loose Angela," he chuckles.
Yes, there's a huge contrast between LA's lavishly-oiled hedonism and drizzly Manchester, the inspiration for Morrissey's angst-ridden and witty songs, both solo and with cult Eighties indie outfit, The Smiths. But the Oscar Wilde of rock has made the move from bedsit kitchen sink to the land of the drive-in and the drive-by with elegant ease.
Very much the Englishman abroad, he is untouched by LA life. A handsome devil, he looks the picture of health. Charming, polite, eloquent and funny, with no trace of a Californian twang, he speaks in lyrical Northern whispers.
"If you can stay here comfortably, it's remarkably glamorous," he says. "The blind consumerism is extremely enjoyable if you can afford to ride its coat-tails, although I'm aware that millions can't and that LA can be a frightening quagmire of filth. Initially I had a naive view of America. I hated the fact that it seemed to have so much while I had nothing. I feel differently now. Guess why?" he laughs.
One of the main reasons Morrissey spends a lot of time here is a desire to be where he is liked. And he's very popular across the pond. The singer's last US tour in 1992 ended with two sell-out shows. Record sales are ever on the up Stateside, yet his last few singles barely pierced the UK Top 30. So, while an ungrateful UK gives him the cold shoulder, America runs to him with open arms. When he parted company with RCA, no other British label wanted to know until Mercury US signed him.
Last year Morrissey even tried to move to LA. He lasted two weeks. "The fact that I had left England completely shocked me," he says. "Yes, England drives me insane, but I can't ever imagine leaving it." At the moment he is between homes. He has sold his north-London dwelling and, although he owns a house in Dublin, says he has never lived there. His heart remains in London. "Even when I hate London I love it," he says. "I love the good and the bad, the barren and the plush."
The late-Nineties Morrissey is in limbo between two cultures. His days have no shape either: "It's fascinating to wake up and have no idea what's about to happen," he says. "I can't imagine standing at a bus stop at 10 to eight every morning. Tea, books, a sofa ... that's a great way to live."
Despite devout British fans filling out venues and giving his albums respectable chart positions (‘95's Southpaw Grammar made No 4), Morrissey is under no illusions about his current status. "I'm in exile. I'm box-office poison as far as I can gather," he says. "I'm simply a roadside curiousity. I don't know whether a hit single would change things."
Sparkling new single Alma Matters, and forthcoming album Maladjusted, are easily the strongest, most confident Morrissey material since his 1988 solo debut Viva Hate. But he doesn't hold much hope for them on home shores. "Once the tide turns it turns," he says. "And unless you have the wind in your sails there's very little you can do."
Bad British feeling towards Steven Patrick Morrissey came to a head last year. Former Smiths drummer Mike Joyce took him and ex-sidekick Johnny Marr to court to claim 25 per cent of the millions made by The Smiths through hit albums like The Queen Is Dead.
Morrissey and Marr, who penned the bulk of the songs had awarded themselves 40 per cent each of the royalties, while Joyce and guitarist (sic) Andy Rourke — who settled out of court — each had 10 per cent. A High Court Judge found in favour of Joyce and singles out Morrissey as "devious, truculent and unreliable". The tabloids thought it was Christmas.
"I've never spoken to anybody about the case," says Morrissey. "Anything that's been written has been other people's views so obviously I haven't come out of it well. It was presided over by a judge who has no knowledge of the music industry. He had to have 'Top of the Pops' explained to him. The whole point was get Mozzer in the witness box and grill him. It was horrendous. If I had any faith in the British legal system before, I don't now."
Morrissey is very bitter about the judge's summing up of the trial. "His words could have ruined my life. But he wanted to do that because he knew the press were writing about it, and all judges want to be famous. It makes me feel that if you ever come up against a judge or have to stand in a witness box, the best thing to do is lie. Don't bother with the truth."
But Morrissey's love affair with England had begun to sour years before this. In ‘92, at a Madness concert at Finsbury Park, he was bottled off stage for performing a song draped in the Union Jack. Racist allegations were firmly denied. "I can't imagine why anybody would want to be racist," he says. "It's so beyond me I feel unqualified to talk about it. So many people have used the Union Jack since then, with the eruption of Britpop. Nobody else has been pilloried for it."
Made during a "recurrent mood of, certainly despair, bordering on elation," Maladjusted finds Morrissey once again in the role of misfit. "The writer Michael Bracewell recently described me as the outsider's outsider," he says. "That rang true. Whatever's in vogue isn't me. That's not enforced rebellion, it's quite natural. I can't think of any other pop artist for whom it seems to be natural."
It's out there hovering on the edge that Morrissey has done his best work. And those feelings of insecurity aren't fading with age. Morrissey is 38, "two incredibly long and tedious years to go" till he's 40. "There has been no significant change in my character. I'm slightly more at ease. But the main shortcomings we have stay with us. We either learn to hide them or deal with them."
He's not worried about his age and can't think of anything worse than being 22 again. "That's abhorrent to me. At 22 I felt like something that had died seven years previous, so the prospect of being 40 is a doddle really."
Neither is he bothered about maintaining his creative edge. "There's an enormous gravity in my life, and I don't think that I write songs in a superficial way," he says. "I haven't been swept away by a massive wave of popularity. If I had it would be difficult to maintain. I don't face the dangers of instant evaporation. I can withstand the fact that I don't sell as well as I used to. The people who buy my records do so for the right reasons. That's important because it means you're not a fad."
Having just finished the video for Alma Matters, Morrissey spends his time lounging poolside or driving around LA. It's hard to imagine this gentle soul being aggressive enough to get behind the wheel, but he finds "the demon car a complete necessity."
Morrissey is currently looking for a house in north London with a garage.