Melody Maker, August 1997
THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING MORRISSEY
Jennifer Nine, Melody Maker, 9th August 1997
Some bloke in a wig may have described Morrissey as 'devious, truculent and unreliable' but what the old bugger forgot to add was that he's also got more one-liners than a Camden coke dealer.
"I'm completely unpredictable," he says at one point, smiling "... especially on Friday nights." And then, of course, he says absolutely nothing more about it.
It's called Being Morrissey.
And in fact we've all thought about Being Morrissey. The bands - some, like Gene, obviously, and some, like Radiohead, not - who wouldn't have been quite the same were it not for his songs of defiant self-love and self-loathing. The professional tough guy Henry Rollins, who's been mocking him so long you start to wonder if it's actually envy. The journalists impressed, exasperated, and outfoxed by the weary grandness with which he controls the game every time a tape recorder is switched on. The hundreds of fans at a recent gay and lesbian Morrissey convention which culminated in a mass singalong of "The Queen Is Dead" at Buckingham Palace gates. Every introspective teenager ever, or at least circa 1982 to the present. And, erm, Vic Reeves' Morrissey The Consumer Monkey.
From the sublime to the ridiculous. And then me.
All of which makes meeting Morrissey himself - seven years after he last spoke to The Maker - all the more unnerving. And here he is, larger than life. Unexpectedly tall, unexpectedly handsome, unexpectedly fit-looking ("most people my age look dreadful; I'd say I'm probably 'not bad'") lounging opposite me, and speaking softly in the manner of someone used to being listened to.
And he's on form. He's got a new set of record labels in the UK and America. He's got an effortlessly lithe and quite clearly Superior Quality Moz new single called Alma Matters on the radio, where it sounds great, and in the charts. And he's got the imminent new album, Maladjusted. (The devoted and the nosey might wish to note that there's a slightly different track listing in America, where it includes a song that might very well be about former bandmates. It isn't particularly forgiving.)
Two things strike me. The second is that I'm determined not to burst into tears, even when I joke that he really should have a trapdoor to get rid of interviewers who stay too long and he says sweetly, "Well, there is one, but it didn't work; I've been pressing the button for the last 15 minutes."
The first, of course, is how good Morrissey is at Being Morrissey. Meticulously gracious; carelessly articulate; effortlessly self-mocking... and sharp as a case full of stilettoes and never missing a single trick. He smiles, laughs, dispenses small tokens of praise - "you're absolutely right," he nods indulgently, at one point - and then interrupts me with an unnervingly peremptory, "What was the question?" Or smirks, as I try to draw conclusions from his comments, and says, "Yes, but my reasoning was much more interesting."
Which, Being Morrissey and all, it probably was.
"But I am box office poison here," he says when I ask why he applies the term to his UK status, despite a 10-year solo career - never mind the five in The Smiths - that includes two Number One albums and a busload of chart singles. "I sell, but not a great deal, compared to your average Top 20 person. A lot of people expect the worst of me, and that's why I'm box office poison. Though God knows it's a great thing to be. If I was in the pack there wouldn't be room to move. I'd hate to be everybody's friend. I'd hate to be in Melody Maker every week photographed with someone, smiling, somewhere. I always liked artists who remained aloof and who felt somehow superior."
I ask if he has sympathy for the people who play that fame game.
"I don't have sympathy for anyone," Morrissey tilts his head back. "It's such a wasted emotion. I'd rather keep it all for myself. God knows I need it," he adds, Being Morrissey again.
But surely your songs wouldn't have meant as much to so many, if they hadn't been imbued with sympathy?
"Well, maybe they mean more than they're meant to mean," he retorts. "Anyway, I prefer good old-fashioned spite."
And what of the song He Cried ? When did you last cry?
"Not for a long time. I used to cry very regularly. And it's a fantastic cleansing process; I feel three stone lighter afterward. But I haven't recently. I've had cause to - we all know that," he says, Being Morrissey again. "But I truly haven't cried in a long time."
Do you cry alone, or in front of other people?
His eyes widen. "Alone, of course. I have some dignity."
But I'm sure there are people who would comfort you.
"Yes, but they're all on death row."
Ah. But aren't the airmail stamps to America costing you a small fortune?
"You've tried it too, obviously," he smirks.
Ah, the vagaries of fame. When was the last time you met someone who didn't know who you were?
"Possibly two days ago. I was trying to rent a car and was asked what my profession was. A lot of people don't know why they know me but recognise my face. I don't strut around hoping people recognise me. I don't walk down the street trying to score points seeing how many people recognise me and I don't burst into tears if they don't."
Does fame induce agoraphobia?
"Slightly. There are certain days when it seems that people are really looking at me. And when you have that for 35 minutes in a day, you begin to think, 'Well, should I go there, should I wear that hat, should I get on this bus?', and eventually you think, 'To hell with it,' and go back home. There's something about eye contact on the street that if you're staring at the people coming toward you, you think they think you're looking at them wondering whether they recognise you. So you begin to avoid people's face and eye contact."
Maladjusted has one of the all-time great, swirling, angel-voiced Morrissey Songs on it, Wide To Receive. It's a love song, isn't it?
"Yes, it's supposed to be, but I'd never dash out on a limb. It's supposed to be an internet song. You know, lying by your computer waiting for someone to tap into you and finding that nobody is, and hence being wide to receive. How awful, of course, to be wide to receive and finding there's no reason to be."
Do you have a computer?
"That's a trick question, and I refuse to answer," Morrissey huffs.
Any interest in computers?
"I'm a Luddite," he retorts.
But even Luddites know...
"No, they don't," Morrissey contradicts.
So you've written a song about the internet, but you won't tell me if you have a computer.
"I'm not going to cater," he says, mildly incredulous.
Is it just possible that you're always conscious of what things you do that are Being Morrissey-like, and which aren't, and only giving me the Being Morrissey bits?
It's not just anoraks who use computers, you know. Some good-looking people own them as well.
"I've yet to meet one," Morrissey snickers.
Time to log out of that area, then.
Are you enjoying getting older? Or at least more than you expected?
"The beauty of being 17 is that you can never believe that time flies and that soon, very soon, you'll be 38. I never expected to get this old, but it's very comfortable... in an edgy sort of way."
Is there anything you feel too old for?
Morrissey sighs a very well-timed sigh.
"Yes, I felt too old for Britpop. But maybe I just didn't like it. The Little Englandness stuff of, 'You're too old to be here,' even though people in their 30's are getting younger is all part of British snobbery, isn't it? 'Where are you going?' 'You're not allowed to be there.' 'What right do you have?' They'll say it about age, and they'll say it about using the flag," he adds, referring both to the inflated "Is Morrissey A Racist?" controversy of a few years back when he performed onstage with a Union Jack backdrop, and to the subsequent lack of controversy when a host of later artists from Noel Gallagher to Geri Spice employed exactly the same emblem. "I wasn't the first to use it, and I certainly wasn't the last," he observes pointedly.
And he's got a point.
I have colleagues in the music press, who seem to believe that 17-year-olds should only listen to 17-year-old musicians.
"Oh yes, that sort of snobbism is extraordinary," he shrugs. "When I was younger, should I therefore have felt that I had nothing to say to people who were older than me? That just wouldn't make sense. If you were simply singing for people who were all born in the same month and the same year that you were, what a very narrow aim."
But it's still easier to feel a closer affinity to people in your own age group. Would you be alarmed at the prospect of going out with someone much older or much younger?
"I'd be alarmed at the prospect of ever going out with someone. So that ends that question," Morrissey retorts, lightning fast and suddenly very, very alert.
But you must be breaking someone's heart by saying "I've never gone out with anyone". There must be someone out there who will read this and say, "But I saw him for four years - how can he say that?"
There's a chilly pause. "There's nobody living on the planet who can say that. So there..."
Well, I don't believe you haven't ever gone out with anyone, Stephen [sic].
"Well, I haven't, so put that in your Sony cassette and..." He laughs sharply, almost harshly. "I really haven't."
But you're a human being.
"You've got no evidence of that," he rejoins. "Artists aren't really people. And I'm actually 40 percent papier mache."
Have you been in love with people?
"Oh yes. Real people with flesh and bones and eyes. But I'm so used to fantasy and everything being rock 'n' roll, I could never quite come out of the cinema and relate everything to the hard world. It was always at a distance. Always a dream. And I'm used to that now. I understand the life of books and films and music."
When's the last time you walked down the street holding someone's hand?
"I've never done that."
"No! My mother, when I was one, perhaps."
When's the last time you snogged in the cinema?
"Never. You really do overestimate me, don't you? Can you really see me sitting in the back of the cinema snogging? Well, you should stop reading Cosmopolitan. It's not one of my strong points. You may bang your head against the hotel wall but there's nothing to tell. Nothing at all."
Fairly icy silence.
Did you friends ever suggest that by the time you were in your late 30's you'd want to settle down?
I'd think they'd want to see you happy.
"Maybe they do. I don't know. But they don't say."
Because they're not that crass?
"That's it. They're not that crass." He pauses and looks at the ceiling. "You know, this conversation has devolved dramatically."
Perhaps we might talk about being - sorry, about the new album - Maladjusted, then.
"The process used on this record was very, very spartan," Morrissey says, still Being Morrissey, of course, but enjoying himself more. "And what's always been most important to me are the vocal melodies, even more so than the lyrical content. That's really the key to the songs surviving. For better or worse what I do is distinctive. And that's a very unusual thing to be able to say in Nineties pop, because most people sound exactly the same, and you can be with somebody and they can be speaking in a perfectly normal English accent and as soon as they stand behind a microphone they develop this swirling West Coast twang. They can't just sing as they speak. And I completely sing as I speak."
And you must feel you're growing stronger as a vocalist.
"Yes. When I listen to the early records, they sound very thin and shrieky and the voice sounds marginally hysterical, like I was balancing on a ledge. But now my voice is so much stronger, and I'm sure it has something to do with the oesophagus. Or physical strength; in the days of yore I was extremely undernourished. Though that didn't impede Edith Piaf, I suppose."
It's a more soulful voice than it was.
"Oh yes, I think so too. And I don't mean, 'I think it's the best record I've made this week.' I know I've made quite a few stinkers," he adds. (When I ask him later, he'll admit to Pregnant For The Last Time and a few other "pretty ropey" singles.) "But this, I think, is the best of me. And people inevitably say, 'Ah, but The Smiths...' I think that's so tedious, so boring. Nothing against The Smiths, of course, but I have been away from them for a decade."
But why don't you sing any Smith songs live? They were great songs.
"They are great songs," he amends meticulously. "You know, occasionally, as I'm rolling out pastry, I find myself singing Death Of A Disco Dancer."
I suspect both of us are pleased at how very deliciously Being Morrissey that last line was.
But why deny your back catalogue?
"I'm not sure. It's certainly not a pained decision. I don't close the curtain and say, 'I'm not singing any of those horrible old songs that belonged to The Smiths.' Because I feel that those songs are still me. But I like to sing the songs I've recorded recently, because I think they're wonderful. If I met a complete stranger today and wanted them to hear the best of me, I would quite truthfully play Vauxhall And I, or Maladjusted, or Your Arsenal. I actually wouldn't play Meat Is Murder. And that really is the truth."
Which brings us to another prickly topic. Much to my relief, however, Morrissey's much happier having his say about the law and specifically the judge who called him "truculent and devious" - than he is talking about dating.
Was the court case in which Mike Joyce successfully sued you and Johnny Marr for a greater share of The Smiths' profits a matter of finance or revenge?
"Well, it was both. It was entirely to do with finances on Mike Joyce's part. He says it's nothing to do with money, but I'm sure he won't donate any of his gains to charity. Really, I'll never forgive him and to a lesser degree Andy [Rourke], because it was horrific. I thought it was shocking, and if I was a weaker person or less intelligent, it would make me despise The Smiths and everything they stood for.
"And the judge was horrendous, and all the scrawly snivelling little extremely physically ugly people involved, who viewed me as some kind of anarchic, and semi-glamorous if you don't mind me saying, free spirit."
Was it a case of "He thinks he's better than anyone and we'll knock him down"?
"Exactly. It's actually that simple. It's pure unadulterated jealousy, nothing more, nothing less."
And Mr. Marr?
"The court case was a potted history of the life of The Smiths. Mike, talking constantly and saying nothing. Andy, unable to remember his own name. Johnny, trying to please everyone and consequently pleasing no one. And Morrissey under the scorching spotlight in the dock" - Morrissey is warming to the narrative, as you might have noticed - "being drilled. 'How dare you be successful?' 'How dare you move on?' To me, The Smiths were a beautiful thing and Johnny left it, and Mike has destroyed it.
"There were so many creative ideas around The Smiths that came from my head and no one else's. Apart from singing, creating vocal melodies and lyrics, and titles, and record sleeves, and doing interviews, there was always more to consider. Most of the pressure fell on my shoulders. And this is what the judge couldn't possibly have comprehended, or didn't want to. And was totally unaware of how pop music works. Didn't understand the word gig. Had never heard of 'Top Of The Pops'.
"It was like watching a plane crash. And I'd look down at Johnny's face and I would look at Mike and Andy and think, this is probably as sad as life would ever get.
"There is no justice, I'm afraid," Morrissey adds, very quietly. "I came away from those courts feeling more convinced of that than ever."
Perhaps not in a court of law. And I'm not sure if Morrissey, the man fond of spite and not at all fond of sympathy, would consider poetic justice to be an adequate replacement for legal justice. But if there's any consolation at all, it's worth remembering that Morrissey's still here, a decade after The Smiths. Still making records of wilful greedy grace which, even if greater familiarity will always make them less astonishing than Hand In Glove was at the time, are still things of rare beauty.
And with better vocals.
And what's more, the awkward, introspective, "undernourished" boy Morrissey looks, well, like a lithe, healthy and self-assured man. You know, you look "comfortable dans votre peau", I tell him impulsively.
"Hmmmh!" he exclaims, faintly surprised, in his best "well-I-never" fashion. "I don't speak Arabic, actually," he adds, but not unkindly.
It's French. For "looking comfortable in your own skin". You look at ease with yourself.
Morrissey, Being Morrissey, is either touched or gracious enough to pretend to be.
"Thank you. That really is kind."
I have a theory, you know, I say as I pack up, that we'll always judge your recorded work more harshly than anyone else's because you've always meant so much more. Because, in some way, you broke all our hearts and never said sorry.
"That's because I never was sorry."
Are you a bad man?
I look at the man who not only invented Being Morrissey but is still the unchallenged world champion. And I start to laugh. You're really good at this, you know, I giggle helplessly.
Morrissey rolls his eyes. "Ohhh, you can't keep an old pro down."
BIG MOUTH STRIKES AGAIN
Moz The Mouth on:
Are you flattered by what Martin Rossiter does?
"What does he do?"
He's the singer in a band called Gene.
"Well. God bless all who sail in him. In her. In it.
"Actually, I think he can sing. That might sound like a very simple thing to say, but most people in pop music can't sing. But he can actually sing, so he deserves more attention than most."
"I'm not one of them."
Do you see them as...
"As competition? I'm hugely indifferent. And we don't have the same hairdresser."
"I'll never be one of them. But I liked 'Charmless Man'."
"We definitely don't have the same hairdresser. I think the single is... almost awful. Very disappointing. At a time when they have the spotlight of the world on them, they should have made the most revolutionary, creative record and instead it's practically awful. For a song which is trying so hard to create hooks, it doesn't really have any. Apart from the 'Pictures Of Matchstick Men' by Status Quo middle - am I the first or the last person to say that? - there's nothing there. I liked 'Round Are Way'. But I like music which is slightly more anarchic, violent, confrontational. Oasis are very tame to me. God bless Noel; I'm sure he'll always have a spot on 'Bob's Full House,' but I search for something with more bite and rage."
ECHO & THE BUNNYMEN
"I can't think of a reformation that's ever worked. Can you? Well, there's your answer."
"They're astonishing. I went to see them recently and it was one of those gigs of a lifetime. One you never forget. They're really special. I wouldn't like to praise them because the press will hate them if I like them. Possibly. But that's the way the hamster wheel turns these days."