There are not enough pages in a book, let along this slim pamphlet, to tell you what really needs to be told about Morrissey. Let’s just say that he is not his songs, and he is not his public image, although both give clues to his rueful, reticent and tormented personality, in the sense that he has the personality of someone who would think up those songs, and therefore be the subject of such intense scrutiny, even as he uses the songs, and the fuss they cause, to create a welcome distance between himself, and the rest of the world, where he can hide, even as he shows himself off. He is not what he seems to be. He is more mundane and yet even more mysterious.
So, is this other person in the room someone he is extremely close to but not to the extent that he will publicly demonstrate warmth? Or has he just met them, and invited them inside his life for a few days, as though they have won some kind of prize, some kind of treasured access into those moments when all he does is eat, drink, shave and keep himself to himself, when he is not as such the Morrissey we have come to know, through music and myth making, but the Morrissey only he knows, which the covers of his records have always pointed toward, and away from, shining light on his concerns, but largely blocking the view.
This person might be present to assassinate one or both of you if the wrong words are used, or the wrong gestures made. Morrissey often has this look on his face that suggests he is about to face the final curtain, at about exactly the moment he thought it would arrive, handed to him by the person who happens to be at his side, who always looked as if they had a surprise up their sleeve. This particular face is slightly different from the expression he wears, lightly, that suggests he is enjoying a very private joke, one he started telling himself over thirty years ago and which is slowly creeping towards a quite extraordinary punch line.
You might say that his songs, both in the Smiths and out on his impertinent own, leading up, naturally, to the songs on his new album, refer directly and indirectly to this joke, and the length of time it has taken to come to a conclusion.
The songs refer directly and indirectly to many other things, although it is a little dangerous when you are sat in a room with Morrissey to actually ask what these other things might be. Unless, of course, you wish to provoke a classic, baroque Morrissey sigh, which will be as always a grand sigh of impatience, but also indulgence, and a kind of pleasure, his heart sinking but lets face it still beating, that you are still so interested, after all these years, in his songs, and their lofty and intimate ways, and their words, which are to some extent about the terror of transience, the tragedy of life’s limits, how the romantic bliss of a new liaison generally dissolves into disenchantment, how earthbound lives seek to generate a spark of relieving magic, and how he feels the lonely human condition with a special bleakness.
You might mention that you feel this way about his songs, and he will roll his eyes, and change the subject, and not really believe you, there’s that face he pulls when you say something flattering but not perhaps as such right, and perhaps he’ll carefully consider the merits of the cast of the English 1970s situation comedy ‘On the Buses’ without necessarily contradicting his hunger to be serious, And ask you a question about your past, just to check it against his own memory, which may be just as sharp as it ever was, certainly in song, just as spirited and even a little sinister, still able to select and express a detail with delicious, blossoming precision. If you ask why the new album has the title it has (‘Years of Refusal’) and why on the cover he is holding the baby, after holding on previous covers the violin and the gun, because after all people will want to know, or more rumours will spill into the world and its voracious, agitated internet shadow, the sigh will almost crack into real annoyance. If you sail close to the gale force wind and bring up the sticky situations he finds himself in when he talks of his mythical old England, its disappearance and/or cultural and commercial conversion, and heretically flirts with the flag, and faces expulsion from the entertainment scene, then the sigh and the awkwardness will know no bounds.
There is nothing like being in a room with Morrissey and one other when things get a little tense and awkward. In a way the absolute opposite of this awkward silence is one of his sublime, mind bending melodies, tinted with life-giving euphoria, which ultimately contain all the answers to whatever questions we might have about the title, the baby, and who he is to think that he’s so different. “I like everything to be a discovery for the person listening. I don’t want to explain how anything happened. I don’t want to be forced to say the same thing all the time, about why I did this, or didn’t do that.
All I look for in an interview is that there is something said that is different. I want people to say something different. I don’t want to hear the same response all the time.” Mention that this can make him seem a little obtuse in interviews, which after all he volunteers for, and there’s a flash of an expression that reveals all at once contempt, charm and fine, fine despair. This leads to the cantankerous face he adopts when it is suggested he has some kind of obligation as an entertainer to explain what he is doing, to explore a little more courteously certain creative specifics..
“To who ? I’ve no obligation to anyone. Not at all. To me, yes. But no one else.”
Then there is the face he uses when he is about to say, “someone has to be me”, a face making it quite clear he is pleased, startled and a little annoyed that it happens to be him. Then of course there is the amused, condemned, sweetly old fashioned face he adopts when he explains as he often does that “I had no choice.” There are many things it appears he had no choice about, and these include
1. Being himself, set in his ways, and constantly unsettled.
2. Becoming a singer, which in the end is all that he is, a singer who writes, and then sings his writing, shimmering between rapture and lament, dramatising certain existential questions in ways only he can, singing as a fan of singers such as Billy Fury, David Johansen, Jobriath and Howard Devoto. These are all by the way handsomely maladjusted singers, who sang songs about love, insomnia, justice, punishment, domestic disasters, arduous duties, twisted passion and a sense of being in the middle of a huge black ocean, with tremendous elan. He is one of them, because he wanted to be one of them. “As a very small child I always sang. I sang the top 30. I was always aware of what was in the charts. I would stand on the kitchen table and sing. Then the kitchen table became a stage. I started to love how the singer can be singing about something sad or horrible but singing it in such a way that the listener can be hypnotised.”
3. Becoming the mercilessly vulnerable singer in the Smiths, following years of extremely private music loving, and of course abandonment, exile, horror, boredom, provincial malice, adolescent terrors, vindictive retaliations, humiliating failures, insane ferocity, sulking displays of temper, the pained shedding of traditional baggage in and around the strange now lost city of Manchester, as it was in the 1970s. His obsession with this concrete and imaginative landscape as it emerged and plunged into the 1970s, and it’s physical and metaphysical connections to the years before, leading back to the year of his birth in 1959, he turned into a kind of musical fantasy about how a sensitive and observant young child with a depressive and combative temperament smitten with popular culture became the kind of pop star he once celebrated and even, sort of, stalked.
3. That he still writes songs and faithfully performs them even as the world grows ever more cluttered with repetitive pop music past and present, even as he finds himself having to compete with his own early work in the Smiths, which some people love to the extent that they hate him for not doing that same thing again and again and again, as if it is at all possible, and he is withholding this illusory material out of spite.
He now has to also compete with his own later work as a solo singer. There are those that complain that his solo songs do not make as deep an impression as his Smiths songs, and there are those that think that his solo career can be separated into success and failure, triumph and decline, that sometimes he is on form, and other times he is not. This thinking of course misjudges how someone like Morrissey works. He must move on, oddly considering he is so committed to rephrasing and reimagining worlds that once were, at least from his point of view. He must move on, replacing himself with his songs, which are a way he can live forever and ever unjaded.
First of all he must move on from the days when he sang for the Smiths, cataloguing a pungent psychohistory of early wounds, which both gave him his freedom, and trapped him inside a prison of expectation, and now he must move on each time he makes an album on his own. Even though he has made his musically traditionalist mind up what his songs will sound like – reminding him and us of the music he liked before he even started making music - and each song will reflect certain recurring even consoling patterns, none of them will come close to doing the same thing twice. Some songs will be deeper, sweeter, nastier, wiser than others, some not quite as definite and beautiful, some not as explosively devious, some more laconic, self conscious and glittering than ever, but ultimately he carries on, not by comparing new songs to old songs in the way critics and fans do, but simply – although it’s not that simple – by writing songs that reflect how he feels at the moment.
These songs relate to the fact that he has already written special, desperately touchy songs about how he felt during the 70s, 80s and 90s, during his teens, 20s, 30s and 40s. The person who wrote those songs in the 1980s is now writing these new songs twenty/twenty five years later, and he is clearly the same person, but different, precisely because he wrote those 1980s songs, and because he decided to carry on. Or, had no choice. It seems particularly churlish to dismiss any new work just because it does not apparently express the old song’s particular, sudden urges and urgency. It seems ferociously judgemental – although weaned on Morrissey such discrimination would come easily - to decide that because Morrissey was once so fantastically, uncommonly expressive, he should now shut down, abdicate, permanently withdraw, or, as he would say, “go and live in Cheadle Hulme.”
Meanwhile, despite those that feel he has weakened, or lost focus, or been found out, he still possesses the same independent, unaccountable, self-created, precariously maintained vigour.
The new work is always as fascinating as the celebrated Smiths work and the favoured solo work because it springs, and seeps, from the age and places where that shamed and shaming original writer now finds himself, faced with the elaborate burden of his own legend and the hassle of his legacy. Affection may be what he wanted, but attention is what he got. From album to album song to song verse to verse twilight to twilight, he is compiling an ongoing drama, a world mapped in words, the endless comedy and tragedy of a life, loss and regret and yearning and misery driving the story forward, and some day, it will all fit together, and everything he has ever written will matter in this final, lonely life long pattern.
By the way, his language on the new record deserves an admiring word. His lyrics are getting simpler, at least for now, and briskly instructive, as if, this far into his life and his body of work, he has decided just to get on with it, brushing aside everything he might say but doesn’t care to.
4. Thinking that life is short, and full of sorrows, and he loves it, more than you can ever know, and he sets out his poignantly awry existence through songs crammed with a wealth of verbal flourishes and gilded touches that reflect the menacing strangeness, the muffled disharmony, of being human.
Then, you see, the damn near mellow Morrissey face that accompanies the words “I have a great deal of love inside me,” which he likes to say just so he can see the face you pull in response, as if you cannot believe Morrissey has said such a thing. You’ll love the sincere, faintly victimised face he uses to point out that, “I don’t want to do anyone any harm,” although you can challenge that assertion if you wonder aloud why he can sometimes seem so self- defeatingly defensive. Then there is the face he pulls when you say to it – often saying this because he seems so frustrated that his talent, that vital tangled thing and a half, even when it is praised rather than scorned, is somehow underrated – how his songs so spectacularly present life as essentially a solitude, an ever renewed exile from the present, a shifting set of gorgeous mirages that nothing but descriptive genius can hold fast. Such flattery might trigger a form of self-deprecation, or it might stir the frustration he can feel that he is taken for granted and that no-one – well, very few, and they are probably the very few he knew when he officially lived in the north of England – really gets him, and understands the full extent of his inimitable imagination, or the essential innocence of his cerebral self-delight.
After you’ve been in the room with Morrissey, and the one other who might just be there to laugh at the right moment, because sometimes it’s not clear whether Morrissey is being funny or, well, purely perverse, something will happen next.
It depends on where you are what this something next might be. Are you in a Los Angeles mansion that once belonged to Berry Gordy Jr, at the height of some kind of show business madness that might hint at the nature of the punch line to Morrissey’s joke with himself ? Perhaps after a gig in Blackburn or Lllandudno, Paris or Rome, a few awed, adoring people to warily meet and chat with, with his attention slightly elsewhere, another part of the punch line ? Perhaps in a plush, anonymous hotel suite that efficiently stands in as the loneliest place on the planet?
After you’ve been in the room, and let’s say it was in the centre of London, something happens next. Morrissey needs to eat, seriously, and marches off in search of a Welsh Rarebit. There he is, almost sprinting down Piccadilly in London, running out of time, racing away from himself, a fine figure of an entertainer with a lot on his mind, so that you find it hard to keep up with him. He decides against Fortnum and Mason, not really because it’s a long way from his squalid home in the 1970s, but because he’s got his heart set on a particular quaint luxury café that makes him feel safe because the chances of anyone knowing who he is there are zero. No one to ask him at what point the Smiths will reform, intact, stunningly in the mood, sickly sentimental, so no need for him to dredge up that particular impaled expression. He patiently queues for a table behind milling tourists and elderly ladies, which is in itself a spectacular slice of exotica worth noting. You ask whether you should join him for lunch. Does he want company? Does he want to be left on his own?
A pause. An expression that indicates the onset of a familiar type of agony. A mildly irritated sigh that could well double as a protest against pain and death.
“Oh, it’s a long story . . . “