The Face, 1984
Elissa Van Poznak, The Face, 1984
The Morrissey that greets me in the doorway of his genteel Kensington abode is without his familiar voluminous D.H. Evans outsize shirt and beady accountrements. He is also more than 275 miles away from the ebulliently effusive creature I'd met last January in his group The Smiths' former Manchester HQ, but he was six months younger then, six months less famous. In a tight white jumper, he looks tremulously thin and the ultra-high pollen count is making him struggle for breath, in spite of which the front room he leads me into is crowded with flowers.
"Get rid of them? How can I," he sighs, "they're an extension of my body!" Ah yes, the flowers...
Seldom has a nation capitulated so swiftly and so adoringly. And to what? A quartet of couth Mancunian youths as classical as a string ensemble; elfin guitarist Johnny Marr, drummer Mike Joyce and bass player Andy Rourke, all 19 or thereabouts. And Steven Morrissey, the 24-year-old wordsmith, possessor of the voice and flinger of flowers.
Suddenly, after years of teenage trauma and monastic introversion, alone in his room with the Compleat works of Oscar Wilde and every Sixties kitchen sink drama ever filmed, not to mention a self-imposed celibacy, everybody wants to be Morrissey's friend. Last Christmas in Manchester, Morrissey couldn't open his door for carollers singing This Charming Man, The Smiths' second single on Rough Trade, the independent label to which they have plighted their troth. That single with its "cover star" Jean Marais - Cocteau's youthful lover, gazing aesthetically into an Orphean pool - was the turning point. It also spotlighted the dreamy, often sexual, ambiguity of Morrissey's lyrics which drop in disconcerting metaphysical imponderables without so much as ruffling a hair on Morrissey's finely-tuned James Dean quiff.
A bunch of lotus-eating narcissi pounced upon in the heat of the moment or something greater? Methinks the latter. So does Morrissey, who is usually the first to say so. Yet, all this charmingness has taken its toll.
"He's far too accommodating," says friend and confidante, writer Jim Shelley. "The other day he gave 24 interviews, topping his previous record of 16 and sometimes I think he just invites me around to answer his phone."
"He's exhausted," says manager Scott Peiring, recounting a typical gruelling week of business meetings, let alone appearances on Pop Quiz and Eight Days A Week. Rolling Stone have been and gone; Penthouse (Penthouse!) are waiting in the wings; the new single, Heaven Knows I'm Miserable Now has gone straight into the charts at 19 and Top Of The Pops must be countenanced once more. The platinum disc for 300,000 copies sold in the UK of the debut album, simply titled The Smiths, should be arriving any moment to join the gold one on Morrissey's mantelpiece.
By the time you read this, The Smiths will have headlined a 10,000 capacity festival in Finland, where they've trekked despite a morbid fear of flying, followed by the GLC Jobs For A Change rally in London on June 10, followed by the even newer single, William, It Was Really Nothing. Give this man a holiday!
Instead, he gets another interview, possibly his last for a long while...
EVP: You once quoted Fran Lebowitz: "Polite conversation is no conversation". Are you prepared to talk dirty and tell the truth, the whole truth... ?
MORRISSEY: I am and promise to throw myself upon the mercy of the courts.
You seem a little subdued today, are you miserable now?
Your phone is constantly engaged or unobtainable.
Yes, it has been quite strange these last three weeks. Perhaps it's broken, let me listen now (picking up the phone). No, it's alright but it definitely has its moods and that suits me fine because I've had to change the number. So many people phoned that I was on it 24 hours a day. (The phone pings momentarily and Morrissey visibly stiffens.)
Sorry, that was my bangle hitting the phone. Do you do all your interviews here, you seem a bit agoraphobic?
Yes-no. Initially I did but then there was such a flux of journalists coming in and out, I suddenly felt naked, Everyone would come in and bound all over the place. People were beginning to get too close and know too much which must sound paranoid and neurotic but... Richard Jobson, who lived here before me, told me that he never allowed anyone connected with the music industry in. I couldn't really understand then. Now I do. I don't do most interviews here. In fact I'm thinking of stopping them completely.
Last week you had 24 interviews lined up for just one day, including one with Penthouse!
Yes, though we haven't actually done it yet and I can't see Penthouse wanting a straight interview. They're probably quite brutal and get straight down to the 'Were You A Horny Teenager?' thing.
Were you a horny teenager thing?
Oh definitely (giggle), can't you tell?
Would you pose naked if offered enough money?
Probably. I have nothing whatsoever to hide.
Who last saw you in your natural state?
Almost certainly the doctor who brought me into this cruel world.
When was that?
Some 24 or so years ago.
You looked a little uncomfortable wedged between Tony Blackburn and Wham's George Michael on telly the other day.
Yes. It was quite painful. Eight Days A Week was considerably easier than Pop Quiz for some unknown reason.
What did you have stuffed into your ear on Eight Days A Week?
I'm afraid it was the old prop, the old hearing aid implement to gain audience sympathy, if such a thing is possible. I did feel that ultimately the whole thing was pointless; three individuals talking about films and books they hadn't read or watched.
Didn't you do your homework?
I tried but most of it was so strenuously bad that I was unable to proceed beyond the first five minutes, then I was expected to give an absolute critical essay on the whole thing, which is so unfair. Pop Quiz was unbearable. I realised it was a terrible mistake the moment the cameras began to roll.
Why did you do it?
I had this groundless idea that modern faces in music should really break through these barriers and change things. I realised that Pop Quiz was ultimately impenetrable. You can't change it, everything is cemented, the jokes are rigid, the movements are so severely staged that nobody could make any difference. I just squirmed through the programme. I went back to my dressing room afterwards and virtually felt like breaking down, it had been so pointless. I felt I'd been gagged.
Isn't it a bit like the charts in general; where do The Smiths fit in?
I'm not sure we do. Ultimately we're misfits, though Pop Quiz have asked me back which is rather perplexing.
Were you at all surprised at The Smiths being voted the best new group in the New Musical Express readers poll?
Not really, it all seemed quite natural, I would really have been surprised if we were still playing in Dingwalls.
With all these interviews and media attention, do you feel you've been overexposed?
It seems I've been extremely overexposed because of the nature of the interviews. They get very personal, even if you do just one big interview where it gets embarrassingly personal, you seem entirely overexposed. It's a dilemma, I don't know quite what to do.
Isn't it an object lesson: to be less personal in future?(sic)
I can't be interviewed and talk in light, wispy terms. In throwaway interviews where people ask me basic things, I feel an absolute sense of worthlessness. You can do a hundred interviews and explain absolutely nothing about yourself but I tend to get asked very serious questions and to give very serious replies. When I talk about my childhood, it always comes across as being severely humorous or so profoundly black that's it's embarrassing drivel but it always has a strong effect on people. Some unwritten law states that you're not supposed to admit to an unhappy childhood. You pretend you had a jolly good time. I never did. I'm not begging for sympathy, but I was struggling for the most basic friendships. I felt totally ugly. (Morrissey is sniffing loudly.)
Oh don't cry.
No, actually I'm dying of hayfever.
So, it's not a heavy coke habit?
Not yet, I'm working towards that.
Did you read Julie Burchill's piece in the Sunday Times in which she argued that youngsters were a bunch of ungrateful whingers who had no right to expect life's mod cons on a silver platter?
No and I don't agree. I always found young people to be uncommonly satisfied and placid. If I ever got angry and dissatisfied as a child it was because there was never any angst from anybody. Personally I was very unhappy but in general, the reason I felt strange was because no-one else was saying, "I'm really miserable, I can't stand being nine years old, when are things going to change?".
You joked that Dorothy Parker, the acerbic wit, was your spiritual mother.
Oh, I wish she was.
How does your real mother feel when you talk about your unbearable childhood?
She takes it very seriously and reads my interviews religiously. I know it upsets her sometimes but it's not something she doesn't already know about. We have ploughed through it several times, many years ago. But I really can't help it, if somebody asks me a question, I answer it, I can't lie.
What do your parents do?
They've always had very straightforward jobs.
You never talk about your father.
My parents got divorced when I was 17 though they were working towards it for many years. Realising that your parents aren't compatible, I think, gives you a premature sense of wisdom that life isn't easy and it isn't simple to be happy. Happiness is something you're very lucky to find. So I grew up with a serious attitude, but my parents weren't the basis of my neuroses.
You spent a lot of time cloistered in your room, what was it like?
Quite strange really. I had a very small bedroom and I remember going through periods when I was 18 and 19 where I literally would not leave it for three to four weeks. I would be in there day after day, the sun would be blazingly hot and I'd have the curtains drawn. I'd be sitting there in near darkness alone with the typewriter and surrounded by masses of paper. The walls were totally bespattered with James Dean, almost to the point of claustrophobia and I remember little bits of paper pinned everywhere with profound comments.
Oh, newspaper clippings like "Fish Eats Man". Probably the most important quote was from Goethe: "Art and Life are different, that's why one is called Art and one is called Life." But strangely, whenever I've returned to the house and the room I just couldn't make the remotest connection between how I felt, how I was and the room. It sounds dramatic, but at one point, I thought I could never possibly leave the room. It seems that everything I am was conceived in this room. Everything that makes me is in there. I used to have a horrible territorial complex. I would totally despise any creature that stepped across the threshhold and when somebody did, or looked at my books, or took out a record, I would seethe with anger. I was obsessive: everything was chronologically ordered - a place for everything, everything in its place. Total neurosis. My sister only ever popped her head around the door. But now, it's totally foreign. It's strange how things that seem to mean so much, ultimately don't matter.
Did your mother ever manage you in The Smiths' early days?
No, but she was instrumental in engineering the way I feel about certain things. She instilled Oscar Wilde into me and when The Smiths began, she was very strong-willed and business-minded. Frankly, she always let me do what I wanted. If I didn't want to work she said fine. If I wanted to go somewhere she said here's the money, go. If I wanted a new typewriter, she'd provide it. She always supported me in an artistic sense, when many people around her said she was entirely insane for allowing me to stay in and write. It's this working class idea that one is born simply to work, so if you don't you must be of no value to the human race. Because I didn't work, it was a cardinal sin. But everything has worked out well - it's all proved to have some value and she feels as great a sense of achievement as I do. It's nice to have the last laugh.
Did you keep your poetic inclination quiet at school or were you laughed at?
No I didn't keep it quiet and yes, to a large degree I did get hooted at. But the one thing that saved me in spite of my uncommon perversions, liking Cilla Black and Oscar Wilde - being a working class person from Manchester it really doesn't help being obsessed by Oscar Wilde - was my ability at athletics. I was a model athlete and they are the treasured students who can get away with anything.
Did anyone fancy you at school?
Not demonstratively. There were whispers but since I was such an intellectual idiot, people were convinced that if they talked to me I'd quote Genesis and bolts of lightning would descend from the sky. So I never was kissed behind the bicycle shed.
When did you lose your virginity?
I wasn't aware that I had.
So, is virginity a state of mind?
Well (chuckling) let's just say that you helped me out of that one.
Did you enjoy being that obscure wretch Steven Morrissey, whose sole mission seemed to consist of sending letters about the New York Dolls to the New Musical Express?
No, that was a horrible period and I hate The Dolls now. I was 16 or 17 and went through this mad period of trying to break into music journalism. I also wrote to everyone. I'd receive about 30 letters a day from no-one in particular. I'd enter competitions. I spent every solitary penny on postage stamps. I had this wonderful arrangement with the entire universe without actually meeting anybody, just through the wonderful postal service. The crisis of my teenage life was when postage stamps went up from 12p to 13p. I was outraged.
Are you dismayed that your James Dean book has been re-pressed by Babylon Books?
I hate it, it's a cash-in. The book's been reissued in a way that could only attract Smiths fans. It has a new cover and a Smiths picture of me which does sour the whole thing. I'd rather leave the book, if it can be called such a thing, in the past.
Is Steven Morrissey dead?
Yes. When The Smiths began it was very important that I wouldn't be that horrible, stupid, sloppy Steven. He would have to be locked in a box and put on top of the wardrobe. l needed to feel differently and rather than adopt some glamorous pop star name, I eradicated Steven which seemed to make perfect sense. Suddenly I was a totally different person. Now when I meet pre-Smith people who call me Steven, I sit there and wonder who they're talking about. I always despised the name Steven, though being spelt with a 'v' rather than a 'ph' made life slightly more tolerable. But it was very important that Steven be drowned nonetheless.
What's Steven's middle name?
(barely audible) Patrick. What use does one make of a middle name? Paddy?
What would you have preferred to have been named?
Oh something like Troy or Rock, those plastic machismo Fifties names. Rip Torn, imagine calling your son Rip.
I see that you're the proud owner of Gaute & Odell's Murderer's Who's Who.
Mmmmm. Yes, but I'm never interested in those murders where the wife poisons the husband and the husband suffocates the wife. Very extreme cases of murder have to be a constant source of bewilderment; where the police burst into a flat and find seven bodies in the fridge. It's not amusing, though you titter, it's a magnificent study of human nature although I wouldn't want to be so close to the actual study that I'm squashed in the fridge (chortle).
Have you had your palm read?
Yes. It said that in February 1985 I would be in severe trouble with the police.
Did you cry when Billy Fury died?
Were you dismayed when Terence Stamp, another hero, kicked up a fuss about being the cover star of What Difference Does It Make ?
I was indescribably unhappy. I was even more shocked when Albert Finney refused to be the star of the next single sleeve because he's always been immensely dear to me and he refused, wouldn't have anything to do with it.
Why use Joe Dallesandro out of Andy Warhol's Flesh for the album sleeve?
Well, I feel a twinge of sadness about that. Up till then everything had an icy Britishness to it, then I succumbed to the whole Warhol thing - like those modernites who crave the Factory thing and everything from late Sixties New York which surely was a depressing waste of time.
Valerie Solanas thought so, she tried to assassinate Andy Warhol.
Yes, he made a misogynistic comment and she took umbrage, loaded her pistol and aimed it at Andy's delicate little brain.
Do you admire that in a woman?
I do because then she wrote a book about it, which was quite rivetting. I mean how obstreperous can you get? Shooting Andy Warhol, then going straight home, getting out the typewriter: Why I Shot Andy Warhol by Agnes Gooch. It's captivating.
If I put you in a room with Robert Smith, Mark E. Smith and a loaded Smith and Wesson, who would bite the bullet first?
I'd line them up so that one bullet penetrated both simultaneously (chuckle). Mark E. Smith despises me and has said hateful things about me, all untrue. Robert Smith is a whingebag. It's rather curious that he began wearing beads at the emergence of The Smiths and (eyes narrowing) has been photographed with flowers. I expect he's quite supportive of what we do, but I've never liked The Cure... not even "The Caterpillar".
Were the Buzzcocks and Pete Shelley in particular, near and dear to you?
Mmmmm. Yes. They had an endearingly confused quality... really Northern, dim and appealingly camp.
Are The Smiths making nostalgia for an age yet to come?
I hope so. I wouldn't want The Smiths to be seen as some kind of deranged pantomime, or just a laugh like Chas'n'Dave. It has to be a little bit more meaningful than that. I hope intellectually aware people put the right connotations on what we do.
Are you a Male Feminist?
Well, I wouldn't stand on a table and shout "I'm a Feminist" or put a red stamp across my forehead, but if one tends towards prevalent feminist views, by law you immediately become one. Likewise, if you have great sympathy with Gay Culture you are immediately a transexual. I did one interview where the gay issue was skirted over in three seconds and when the interview emerged in print, there I was emblazoned across the headlines as this great voice of the gay movement, as if I couldn't possibly talk about anything else. I find that extremely harmful and simply don't trust anyone anymore.
Does it bother you that writers always try and probe into your sexuality?
Yes. The interview I just did with Rolling Stone begins: "Morrissey is a man who says he's gay," which upset me because of course I didn't say anything of the kind. People make assumptions but there's no point complaining about it. I came into this business willingly and I know the pitfalls so I accept them. At the end of the day, sexual terms just segregate people, it's all monotonous and an insult to their individuality. I don't mind effeminacy, it's better than being a bottle-it-up type or a Tetley Bitter Man. Men who drop their defences don't necessarily march about the street crying and reciting Wordsworth.
How did your dream date with The Associates' Billy Mackenzie fare?
He walked off with one of my James Dean books, which is a persistent cause of anxiety to me. I was quite speechless, I watched him walk out the door. It wasn't my favourite book but these things are sacrosanct. Billy has got this sense of uncontrollable mischief though I think that's exactly how he wants to be seen.
Were you happy with the Sandie Shaw collaboration?
No, I was never happy with the press. I was never happy, because she never said anything good about me which was worrying.
Was it a case of a private infatuation going public and losing something in translation?
Yes. I always felt like a spotted schoolboy, dribbling and getting nowhere. Previous to the Sandie thing, all the press I was getting, and The Smiths, was immaculately serious and very good. The Sandie publicity reduced me to a quivering jelly.
Is pop music trivial?
How can it be? Songs rule people's lives. People are just waiting for a voice, someone to say something. There's so much depth in The Smiths' music that when people say to me, you sang that song and I cried, I'm not surprised. I understand completely, it's happened to me. I've purchased records that are Biblical; you think, 'this person understands me, nobody else does'. It's like having an immovable friend.
What is the most Biblical record in your collection?
Undoubtedly, Klaus Nomi's last single before he died. It's called "Death" and it's incredibly moving. The lyrics go, "'Remember me, but forget my fate".
What would you find in Room 101, the room in Orwell's 1984 where Winston Smith is confronted by his worst fear?
Could anything be more horrifying than garlic and onions? I have this pathetic phobia about them, everything, especially the smell frightens me to death.
If eternal youth were for sale, would you buy it?
No. I've always found people of an advanced age most alluring. The older I get the calmer I become.
So you don't see any parallel between yourself and Dorian Gray?
Not really. I've always been old before my time.
Will The Smiths, so opposed to making promo videos, make a feature film?
You mean, like A Hard Day's Night? Yes, it's appealing. A Hard Day's Misery. But I don't want to stray from the initial burning desire to make wonderful records. It's not enough to make one or two wonderful records. I want an endless stream of priceless singles for people to caress to their bosoms.
There is a mysteriously bathetic line in Miserable Lie that goes "What do we get for our trouble and pain/Just a rented room in Whalley Range". Does Whalley Range really exist?
I'm afraid so. It's the little suburb of Manchester bedsit land and everyone who lives there is an unrecognised poet or a failed artist. Anyone who wishes to pursue their destiny ends up there and never gets out.
But you escaped and now live in the heart of Kensington, even though you declared that you'd never move to London.
I know, it's the sorrow of my life. I had to move to cut down on my phone bills. If only Rough Trade had moved to Manchester. Still I lived in Whalley Range a miraculously short time and it was nice to be immersed in the low life, living the life of pained immaculate beauty, walking around the park inhaling the riches of the poor as it were, but the sense of being entrapped by the DHSS was worrying.
When did The Smiths stop signing on?
We stopped signing on about a year ago. The Smiths had been going a few months but we weren't earning any money. As soon as Hand In Glove began to sell, it became too dangerous. And of course, the DHSS feel that if you've made one record you're just an enormous international massively rich person, even if your record's 38 in the independent chart and you owe your record company £30,000.
Were The Smiths hyped in America?
No. We just played one performance, at Danceteria, and the record jumped 20 places. Sire haven't promoted the group anyway. They released What Difference Does it Make ? instead of This Charming Man totally against our wishes and of course it will fail. I thought This Charming Man the most obviously instantaneous release imaginable.
Are you now a member of the middle class?
Oh no. Really we're all the same people, money doesn't change anything. And we haven't much anyway.
You mean, you haven't got £50,000 in your bank account, like Phil Oakey?
(laughing) To be honest, I don't have a bank account.
Where do you keep it, under the mattress?
No, truthfully, The Smiths have a group account. We're a cooperative and everything I earn goes into that.
Once you've said you're miserable what's left for you to write about?
Ooh. There's so much buried in the past to steal from, one's resources are limitless. I'm not saying everything I write has been written before but most of the way I feel comes from the cinema. I fed myself on films like A Taste Of Honey, The L-Shaped Room.
Have you now got what you were hoping for all those years in your room?
Not completely, but Oscar Wilde had a few words to say, of which you should take careful note: "When the Gods wish to punish us, they answer our prayers."