In the mutable world of pop Morrissey maintained a fixed vision for more than a decade. In return for his articulate expressions of angst, his fans have offered as dogged an appreciation as the themes of their hero
The Guardian, 26 February 1994
I was never interested in The Smiths. My brother gave me a copy of their final album Rank on its release in 1988, eighteen months after Morrissey and Johnny Marr had gone their separate ways, and I remember I played it once, registering a mournful introspection, before I gave it away. The exact moment of late-kindled interest in the music of Steven Patrick Morrissey I have forgotten – I noticed nothing particular when a friend urged me to listen again, apart from some opening lines that could have been written by Larkin: ‘Trudging slowly over wet sand / back to the bench / where your clothes were stolen / this is the coastal town / that they forgot to close down….’ Later I might have had my interest fuelled by a coherence of vision, or at least an oddly fixed style and attitude which had been the same for a decade. In the mutable world of pop the fixed vision of Morrissey’s English view of the world was remarkable — the permanent nostalgia, the love-hate bond with the provincial North and seaside towns, the hymning of the unreflective world of young urban men; the themes of loneliness, disappointment, the impossibility of intimacy expressed in sometimes mawkish detail. The writing wasn’t entirely English either, with its admixtures of Swift and Wilde, its narrative leaning and its romantic bitterness — ‘Were you and he lovers? And if you were, then say that you were! On a groundsheet, under canvas, with your tent-flap open wide… ‘ — it nevertheless anatomised English adolescent alienation and a particular provincial English viewpoint with a sardonic intensity.
Morrissey isn’t, generally speaking, considered a writer, though he has been called the most articulate lyricist of his generation and before he and Marr founded The Smiths in 1983 one of his first creative acts was to write a book about a proto-punk-rock group called the New York Dolls. He is, generally speaking, considered a pop star: in the lexicon of culture that is where he is to be found. But if Morrissey is a pop star, he has also emerged from the ghetto of pop and begun to roam through other areas: as commentator on the state of England, as champion of radical causes, as reclusive celebrity. If not a rebel, then the English equivalent of one, a nuisance. If not a troubled signifier, at least an annoying, ambiguous thorn.
On his album Vauxhall & I there is a typical Morrissey couplet: ‘All of the rumours keeping me grounded / I never said, I never said that they were completely unfounded.’ Autobiographical, melodramatic, contradictory, placing himself at the centre of a complex drama whose plot he refuses to specify (beyond implying that the hero is a victim of forces outside his control — cruel rumours! cruel Fate!), the lines give his audience Morrissey at his most exposed, for them to love or hate.
The encounter of pop with seriousness is a moment fraught with embarrassment on both sides: David Bowie and the Spiders from Mars, for example, reviewed by The Times in 1972 as ‘T.S. Eliot with a rock-and-roll beat’; Sergeant Pepper, the first rock record to be reviewed by theTimes Literary Supplement; Bob Dylan, prior to his acoustic concert at the Royal Albert Hall in the mid-60s, being questioned by eager student journalists who wanted him to be the new William Blake and a representative from Time magazine who was not sure what he wanted.
Yet once every generation, a figure may emerge whose fame suggests that they should be considered beyond the pop media. The reach of Morrissey’s fame tells its own story. In Britain he has remained durably famous; America, where he spends increasing amounts of time, is beginning to believe that a new pop messiah has settled in Los Angeles. On the Kill Uncle tour he sold out the LA Forum in fourteen minutes — a thousand tickets per minute — and Madison Square Gardens in a morning. It is shocking to wonder what might not have happened if Johnny Marr had not played Jesus to Morrissey’s Lazarus in Kings Road, Stretford twelve years ago, when the 23-three-year-old had spent most of the past seven years alone in his bedroom, with his sheets of unheard songs and his cardboard cut-out of James Dean.
As for his standing, Morrissey’s versions of both pop’s themes and the pop star’s intentions seem to have been different from the beginning. What made this so was his variation on the artist-fan relationship. He didn’t send Smiths fans out to project themselves upon the world, he gathered their emotions in. He gave them a sense of belonging. Not a role model but a soul-mate, he made his fans love him as a brother, as a lover, as an articulation of their emotions: as a leader. Morrissey provided his fans with a reason to love as well as an object of love, and therefore a home.
The awkwardness and misery of self-conscious youth was healed — at a price: in his lyrics and his public pronouncements he has often tested his fans’ loyalty with taunts of their ultimate infidelity. Anyone who has seen Morrissey fans en masse has witnessed the unguarded love of disciples — the love of a fan with a smile brighter than an altar boy’s, shining for Morrissey alone outside Wolverhampton Civic Hall in 1988: ‘There hasn’t been a concert for two years… I just want to see him, his expression, the way he is, how he is now….’ The sixteen-year-old face settles into an ecstatic softness.
Morrissey, once asked how he would like to be perceived by his public, concurred in the relationship. ‘I’d settle for blind adoration,’ he said. If one were sixteen again, one could see the logic of it, or rather one could disdain the logic and revel in the way he is, fling one’s daffodils at his feet (a consciously Wildean element of the repertoire), write in one’s diary in one’s bedroom, ‘He’s all I’ve got; he’s all I want.’
With a dull grown-up eye one tends to examine these moments more dispassionately — as Morrissey himself must have done. Adoration is what he wants; at the outset he had the ability spontaneously to create this loyalty and longing, and he has found ways of going on doing it. Interestingly, part of his method is to do what a writer does. The songs both address and impart utterances to his audience, as if parts are being allocated to characters:
All I ask of you is one thing that you’ll never do
Won’t you put your arms around me?
I won’t tell anybody…. Tell me oh tell me that you love me
I know you don’t mean it.
The Echo-and-Narcissus relationship has always been part of any culture of celebrity. In Morrissey’s hands it is deeper and more complex. It is the instrument of his art; he has said he feels most normal on stage, that is, in the drama of his own making, in which he and his fans are characters in an impossible love affair. ‘Tell me oh tell me that you love me / I know you don’t mean it.’
This relationship is central to understanding Morrissey and his cultural significance (or nuisance value). His fans have buttressed his trajectory and stayed loyal, even obsessively so, to his unchanging view. I don’t believe he contrives this. Unlike the pop star-as-chameleon, Madonna or David Bowie, who reinvent themselves out of insecurity, a desire for experimentation, or both, Morrissey has never felt the need to be anyone but himself — although the self he has been is eternally young, the suppressed self of the teenage years: exhibitionistic, hurt, flamboyant, tender, solitary, narcissistic and prophetic. Earlier, at St Wilfred’s primary school, the unbending Miss Dudley’s vengeful confirmation classes, haunted by the strict hierarchy of sin, had loosened the eight-year-old boy’s hold on happiness. At his next school, St Mary’s Secondary Modern, Stretford, he experienced the most dismal, neglectful, philistine five and a half years — ‘the total hatred,’ he once said, ‘the fear and anguish of waking up, of having to get dressed, having to walk down the road, having to walk into assembly, having to do those lessons.’ Hell lay about him in his infancy. One senses a man who is incapable of showing love because his earliest experiences showed him, he believed, that he was unlovable.
Morrissey’s relationship with his fans may be unhealthy. But they make it possible for him to remain in his self-created world. Narcissus has found, and kept, his reflection. In any case it would be unfair to accuse him of gaining happiness by unhealthy means, because their love hasn’t made him happy. It isn’t possible to be happy and write miserable songs (or vice versa) over a long period — and Morrissey is still writing relatively miserable songs: four on Vauxhall & I, ‘Billy Budd’, ‘I Am Hated for Loving’, ‘Why Don’t You Find Out For Yourself’ and ‘Speedway’. The punctum of his songwriting is that melancholy is in perfect dynamic balance with wit. The darker the lyric, the catchier the tune. ‘Girlfriend in a Coma’ is ‘Puppet on a String’ for depressives.
Misery has perhaps been Morrissey’s biggest artistic gamble. In a world in which everything is permitted and nothing matters, how can one be miserable? There is irony embedded in the gamble. He has drawn forth adulation and love by singing about the impossibility of intimacy, about the certainty of loving and meeting no return of affection. It is another late-century theme. Where does any of us now belong? is a question with political reverberations. Whether Morrissey knows this or not, he senses something: ‘I am hated for loving…. Anonymous call, poison pen, a brick in the small of the back again, I still don’t belong to anywhere, I just don’t belong.’
Morrissey tempts his observers into bright false syllogisms — Julie Burchill’s averral that he must be a saint ‘because everyone wants to touch the hem of his garment’ — and dark ones: he wrapped himself in a Union Jack at a Finsbury Park concert in 1992, thus he is a racist. He divides the impatient: the genius camp versus the charlatan camp. But to judge a genius or a charlatan is to suspend a certain amount of judgment. The phenomenon, remember, is about love. In the case of ‘the ugliest boy in the world’ (as he once described himself), love goes beyond the feelings of the adoring fan and the artist who needs the flame of adoration. Morrissey, I think, has come to stand for his era perhaps in a way that no artist has since Oscar Wilde did in the 80s and 90s of the nineteenth century. (Wilde’s contemporary reputation, after all, was based chiefly on his conversation and a handful of plays, until the Marquess of Queensberry was refused admittance to the first night of The Importance of Being Earnest.) The novelist Michael Bracewell once said that it was Morrissey’s fate to stand for more things than he understood. This has become truer as time has gone on: from the narrow English viewpoint he commands, provincial, Northern, working-class, confused, Morrissey — far more than Bowie, the only other contender — has become a signifier of our broader disorder.
What separated him in the beginning was the darker realism to his version — the strain of victimhood that has been there since he first showed Johnny Marr the words to ‘Suffer Little Children’, about the Moors Murders, twelve years ago. (As a child he believed himself a potential victim of Hindley and Brady: the songwriting was his outlet.)
Later the constancy of those concerns became remarkable. To say that many Morrissey songs are about death and loss is not to add much to Morrissey scholarship. But more than half in love with easeful death, he is determined that everything should end: love, life, ‘the last British people’, music (in 1986 he was already saying that ‘Popular music is slowly being laid to rest in every conceivable way… the ashes are already about us if we could but notice them’). The morbidity is a form of self-hate — as it always is. Saying everything is coming to an end, or bringing it to one, is his chance to get out of his skin, to escape. The message is that he loves the North, but he hates himself in the North. A feeling of not belonging inside or outside himself, ‘to anyone or anywhere’: symptom of alienation that Morrissey earths, as artists do, by communicating it. It has been his central creative impulse. There is nothing wrong with this. His only error, I think, has been to think in terms of himself as the arch-protagonist of his songs. This means that, in personal terms, he can only draw on the view of himself expressed in his songs. He doesn’t have much time for other people, as the biographies resentfully tell us. That this view is overwhelmingly the source of his fame means that he has come to identify with his fame to an extraordinary degree. ‘Fame, fame, fatal fame’ — the mask that eats away the face: he knows it. His self-exile to Los Angeles may turn out to be a surprisingly effective form of escape from it.
What about his audience’s sense of belonging? Its unhealthy aspect is that it is false. It comes from a surrender of the self, as all belonging does, but it is a kind of surrender to which there has always been a political counterpart. It has been noted before that the essence of fascism is that someone else does everything, including your desiring, for you. The need to belong has its outlet in rallies, or concerts. The flame is kept burning in private, with mementoes and icons. Morrissey’s fans are (often literally, pursuing a tour from its beginning to its end) his followers.
The lure of fascism doesn’t come about through evil — people, as Morrissey has written, are not naturally evil — nor through political conviction. Fascism and nationalism are not about politics but about love (and sex). The draw of Mosley, Hitler, Mussolini, the new generation of rightist parties in Europe, is to the disenfranchised, though not necessarily poor. It came, and comes, from that need to belong. Better a bad group than no group at all.
The star of neo-nationalism has risen with Morrissey’s own. I am not suggesting, as the music press has done in the past, that his nationalism is any relation of that of the British National Party. His personal idea of a ‘national’ party, one senses, would be closer to that of the original English National Party of the 1970s, which consisted of the ex-Labour MP John Stonehouse and five men in Beefeater costumes. There was the Finsbury Park episode in 1992, when cloaked in our ambiguous symbol of nationhood he stood against an ambiguous photographic backdrop (of a pair of suedeheads). There are the ambiguous song titles, ‘Bengali in Platforms’, ‘National Front Disco’, ‘Asian Rut’. Such episodes infuriate his critics, as the racism in Philip Larkin’s letters infuriated Islington and Kensington. But Morrissey, like Larkin, has always tested the ground.
To have any kind of discussion about Englishness, as he has discovered, is practically impossible now — though it may be worth remembering in the future Claude Lévi-Strauss’s warning in his autobiography. We should question carefully, even sadly if we wish, ‘the future of a world whose cultures, all passionately fond of one another, would aspire only to celebrate one another in such confusion that each would lose any attraction it could have for the others and its own reasons for existing’.
In his account of his African journey of the 1930s, Journey Without Maps, Graham Greene puts his finger on an aspect of Englishness which is central to Morrissey’s vision. ‘Seediness has a very deep appeal. It seems to satisfy temporarily the sense of nostalgia for something lost; it seems to represent a stage further back.’ We are back with the grain of fascism, of seeing the future in the past, of the soaring alto of ‘Tomorrow Belongs to Me’ and its flip-side in ‘National Front Disco’:
There’s a country
You don’t live there
But one day you’d like to….
You’re going to the National Front disco
Because you want the day to come sooner.
In the imagery of recent Morrissey songs we are being shown Sparta by way of Bethnal Green. These are the love affairs within the ranks, within the underworld, down the dogs and at the speedway. The cast of petty crooks as angels and thugs as saints could be straight from the pages of Genet, Pier Paolo Pasolini or the underground novellas of the 1950s. On Vauxhall & I, listen to ‘Spring-heeled Jim’ and ‘Billy Budd’, direct successors to ‘We’ll Let You Know’ and ‘Certain People I Know’. Other elements are present: the tough guy, the readiness for self-sacrifice, the mobilising of unreflective male energy. The self-conscious outsider yearns for the world of lads as loose cannons who ‘smelt of pubs and Wormwood Scrubs and too many right-wing meetings’ as Paul Weller put it, unselfconscious, unagonising, undivided.
With Vauxhall & I Morrissey may have come to the end of his juvenile phase. Musically it is sweeping and remarkable; lyrically, close to a masterpiece. Spiritually, it seems transitional — a dirty British dawn and a savage British dusk, divided by the strange poolside limbo of aHollywood afternoon — as if Morrissey has yet to reconcile the conflicting claims of his life as life, and his life as art. Fame has deceived him. It has given him the illusion, as it does to those who escape into it, that the outsider can at last be the insider, that the exile can come home. The irony is that in order to remain true to himself, Morrissey has begun to voice an identification of romance with violence — the next phase, as the events of the Thirties and early Nineties show, of totalitarian longing. In the process, he has become the person that The Smiths warned you about. Some of his fans may regard this as a betrayal. But then, as Jean Genet suggests, treachery is one of the cornerstones of love.
© Julian Evans 1994