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The Passion of the Morrissey

The gladioli are in flight. On the stage of the Henry Fonda Theater in Hollywood, a slender man in heavy 1950s style eye-glasses, floral shirt, white jeans and pompadour hairdo is energetically hurling a bunch of gangly blooms into the audience whilst singing something about spending warm summer days indoors writing frightening verse to a buck-toothed girl in Luxembourg. In the auditorium, tough-looking twenty-somethings in cuffed jeans, baseball boots and voluminous quiffs, sing word-perfectly along, their eyes shining as they strain to catch the somersaulting stems like blushing bridesmaids outside a country church.

Gradually, the adoration turns into unabashed devotion, as people try to clamber onto the stage. Those that make it past the heavy-set bouncers cling desperately onto their pop idol like lepers begging for a miracle. As the singer up on stage leads the bacchanal of flailing bodies in a rousing chorus of “Hang the DJ! Hang the DJ, Hang the DJ!” the scene resembles something of a cross between a room full of lagered-up soccer hooligans and The Sermon on the Mount.

Displays of unencumbered emotion have been a regular characteristic of pop concert audiences ever since Elvis scuffed his Blue Suede Shoes. But the aura surrounding Morrissey, vocalist and wordsmith of 1980s British pop group The Smiths, now turned solo artist, is of a wholly (holy) different order, and this aging British singer is blurring the lines between what it means to be a pop icon and a religious icon. This is all the more interesting as singer in question is comparatively marginal.

Despite becoming well-known as lead singer of The Smiths, a band that during its shortish lifespan between 1983 and 1987 put out five bestselling albums and 14 hit singles and achieved an ardent following in both the US and the UK, Morrissey has never come close to assuming the Bard-like magnitude of a Bob Dylan or David Bowie. Yet whatever Morrissey does on stage seems to take on a symbolic life of its own: back in the days of The Smiths, fans waved gladioli or daffodils at concerts like Palm Sunday palms.

But beyond the confines of the concert hall, fans took Morrissey’s words and ideas even more fervently to heart. As legend has it, The Smiths’ 1985 album Meat is Murder, Morrissey’s melodramatic treatise against the slaughter of animals, inspired a rise in vegetarianism amongst young people. The band’s split in 1987 motivated a number of isolated teenage suicides and in the same year, a crazed fan hijacked a radio station in Denver, Colorado at gun-point, demanding that the DJ play non-stop Smiths songs. Today, some 17 years after the demise of the band, Manchester boasts a museum dedicated to The Smiths, at The Salford Lads Club. Besides posing in front of the building for their 1986 album The Queen Is Dead, The Smiths never had much to do with the Club. Nevertheless, fans have treated the site as if it were a holy shrine ever since.

Since The Smiths split up in 1987, the veneration of Morrissey has become even more zealous. From magazine illustrations depicting Morrissey as a be-haloed saint, leading a flock of adoring sheep, to recent books about the singer and his ex-band with messianic titles like ‘Saint Morrissey’ and ‘Songs That Saved Your Life’, Morrissey’s image has been gradually heading heavenwards. As Simon Goddard, author of ‘Songs That Saved Your Life’ eloquently put it:

The difference between seeing The Smiths live and Morrissey live can be characterized as the difference between adoration and idolization. When you went to see The Smiths perform live it was like going to a soccer match where you’re rooting for the home team. Morrissey was the captain of the team, but people chanted for other members of the group too. Morrissey solo has become more of a religious experience. It’s all about what he represents. It’s sort of like kissing the papal ring.

More devoutly than any other pop icon, Morrissey personifies the image of ‘the outsider’. On the face of it, this might seem like a misnomer, considering the large amount of mainstream attention he has been getting lately. In 2002, the NME dubbed The Smiths “the most influential band of the last 50 years.” The release of his new album You Are The Quarry in May 2004 put Morrissey on the front cover of an array of mainstream, glossy magazines all over the world. In the UK, Morrissey, following in the footsteps of rock glitterati David Bowie and Nick Cave, was invited to serve as artistic director of the prestigious Meltdown Festival. A gaggle of A-list celebrities, including Harry Potter author J.K. …Rowling and U2’s Bono, gushed with praise for Morrissey in last year’s UK Channel 4 documentary about the singer, The Importance of Being Morrissey. The song “How Soon Is Now?” can even be heard on the US television series Charmed.

However, Morrissey’s god-like status has relatively little to do with those sporadic moments in history when the release of a new album or globe-trotting tour spawn an avalanche of commercially-driven media attention. Rather, it is his obsession and affiliation with the margins of culture and society – all that is unpopular, ugly and damned – that fuels this uncommonly extreme devotion of his fans.

Even before he dropped his Christian names and became a pop icon in his own right, Steven Patrick Morrissey obsessively worshipped outsiders. As a bookish, isolated teenager holed up in his bedroom in Manchester, he idolized a string of famous misfits, from James Dean to Oscar Wilde, going as far as to pen a booklet about Dean entitled James Dean Is Not Dead. He was an avid reader of feminist texts and fan of outmoded 1960s British, female pop divas like Sandie Shaw and Twinkle. 1960s kitchen sink dramas such as A Taste of Honey and Billy Liar, both studies in the themes of isolation, marginalization and the power of the imagination, exerted a potent influence on him.

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Arriving on the pop scene at a time when the charts were dominated by boys with synthesizers, asymmetric hairstyles and all the emotional depth and intellectual insight of the ZX Spectrum, Morrissey’s genius was simply to transfer the obsessions of his bedroom on to the stage. His lyrics, peppered with insights and direct quotes from his favorite sources from the past, coupled the grim realities of the kitchen sink with a Romantic retreat into the realm of the imagination. Shelagh Delaney’s ground-breaking play A Taste of Honey, had a particularly profound impact on Morrissey’s songs. Depicting, with bitter-sweet franktitude, the ultimate outsider’s story of a working-class adolescent girl in Manchester’s relationships with her irresponsible, roving mother, her mum’s newly acquired drunken husband, the black sailor who leaves her pregnant and the homosexual art student who moves in to help with the baby, lines from the play would later find their way into songs of both The Smiths and Morrissey solo with disturbing regularity, including “Hand in Glove”, “Shoplifters of the World Unite” and “Alma Matters”.

As a result, instead of singing about intelligent robots, fast cars and sex like many of their peers, The Smiths made songs about abused children, being killed by ten-ton trucks and unrequited love. Morrissey’s lyrics had an immediate impact. Set to Marr’s mesmerizing music and articulated by his lyrical, drooping tenor, they engulfed people’s hearts and minds.

It wasn’t just that the music of The Smiths preached the “Outsiders’ Manifesto”; almost everything The Smiths did went against contemporary pop culture wisdom. Fueled by Morrissey’s aversion to the traditional trappings of commercial success in the pop world, The Smiths rose high in the UK pop charts despite the fact that the group didn’t make promotional videos for many years, received very little mainstream radio airplay because of Morrissey’s often controversial lyrics and operated for the most part under the auspices of the ramshackle, independent record label, Rough Trade.

Then there was the figure of Morrissey himself. A pasty, gangly and decidedly un-stud-like presence in an oversized shirt, drab cardigan and trade-mark quiff, Morrissey looked completely out of step with the glamorous spangles and latex worn by the Duran Durans and Orchestral Maneuvers in the Darks of the day. Yet there was something intoxicating about this fey, eccentric figure. In Saint Morrissey, author Mark Simpson describes the Morrissey-effect:

There he was, blouse billowing, junk-jewelry jiggling, economy-sized Adam’s apple bobbing and his skinny arm windmilling a poor abused bunch of gladioli round and round and round, like a floral mace, hitting me over the head again and again until I felt so dizzy that I didn’t know what was the right or the wrong thing to do anymore. Petals were raining everywhere, like fairy dust, like free drugs, like jism, like poison. And all this well before the nine o’clock watershed.

Not only did Morrissey look like a misfit, but chose a name for his band so drably ordinary that it looked like some kind of bizarre joke next to the flashy transcontinental-sounding monikers of other groups. The name The Smiths spoke of listless suburbs and anonymity. But in a culture dominated by throwaway ideas and here-today-gone-tomorrow-stars, the suffix “smith,” as in blacksmith or silversmith, also hinted at the workmanship, durability and imaginative perfection of the band’s product.

Knocked sideways, The Ugly and Confused of Thatcher’s England (and Reagan’s America) – i.e. more-or-less any school leavers with a modicum of imagination and an eye on unemployment statistics – looked to The Smiths for answers.

Finding solidarity in one another, like survivors of a shipwreck, The Smiths and their fans formed a tight knot. The “us against them” mentality found its ultimate expression in the live concert setting. “No one owned The Smiths except the fans,” said Simpson, speaking on the phone from London. “It wasn’t the usual threesome of the band, the fans and the media. It was just the band and the fans.”

As much as Morrissey and his fans have wanted to believe that their relationship over the years has been “just the band and the fans” pure and direct, the media has long demonstrated that this is not the case. Capable of building him up as much as tearing him down, the media has often taken Morrissey’s message used it against him, in an attempt to push the artist and his ideas further into oblivion.

The loaded subtleties and shifting meanings of Morrissey’s lyrics have drawn people to him but they have also had the adverse effect; misconstrued then maligned, Morrissey and The Smiths have long courted controversy. Songs like “Suffer Little Children”, an unflinching elegy to the children murdered by “Moors Murderers” Myra Hindley and Ian Brady in the Manchester area in 1965, caused as much media furor as emotional outpouring from a public keen to scratch such appalling memories from the collective conscience. It was only when a parent of one of the victims came out in support of the song that the media-led hate campaign against “Suffer Little Children” calmed down. Even earlier in the history of the group, the release of a song about child abuse, “Reel Around the Fountain”, in the autumn of 1983, caused the UK tabloids to accuse The Smiths of condoning pedophilia. The accusations had serious repercussions for the young band: the BBC refused to air the song.As a solo artist, Morrissey continued to inspire a vehement backlash. A major scandal surfaced in 1992, when Morrissey appeared at on stage at a festival draped in the Union Jack flag and singing songs with such perturbing titles as “Bengali in Platforms” and “National Front Disco”, Morrissey’s acerbic references to “England for the English!” failed to appeal to the media’s sense of irony. The performance was taken at face value, and Morrissey was branded a racist. Ostracized and pushed further into the margins, Morrissey became a pariah in his home country, eventually excommunicating himself to Los Angeles in 1998 where he has lived alone ever since.

Even as Morrissey’s relationship with the mainstream dwindled throughout the 1990s, his musical and political ideas were being increasingly exploited by mass culture. Certain elements of the Britpop movement, for instance, drew heavily from Morrissey’s portrayal of and nostalgia for a bleak urban England of the past.

The Britpop bands’ debt to Morrissey and The Smiths was as profound as it was superficial. Oasis’ Noel and Liam Gallagher often paid homage to Morrissey and Marr in interviews; The Smiths even set off a revival of interest in 60s female pop stars when groups like Blur and Take That performed songs with 60s female pop divas like Françoise Hardy and Lulu, imitating The Smiths’ recording of “Hand In Glove” with Sandie Shaw a decade earlier. But for all the shallow credit given to Morrissey by these groups and their basic similarities, the Britpop movement was an entirely commercial construct, at odds with the basic anti-establishment philosophies of Morrissey and The Smiths. While Britpop was being heralded as the new and exciting sound of mid-90s Britain, Morrissey was being condemned as old-fashioned and irrelevant.

In popular culture, as in religion, idols exist only to be destroyed. Ultimately, their extreme charisma and unwavering singlemindedness are the qualities that are resposnsible for their demise. Only in death can their message be transmogrified and their myth perfectly preserved forever. Lesser mortals have two options: like Madonna or David Bowie, they either reinvent themselves in an attempt to move in step with the ever-changing pulse of culture, or, when culture gets tired of their message, they, like the vast majority of temporary celebrities, quietly retire.

Morrissey himself espoused this world-view when, in 1989, he penned the song “Get Off The Stage”. Supposedly a dig at the then 45-year-old Mick Jagger, the song tells the has-been pop star, in so many words, that he is not so much “hip” as “hip replacement.”

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Oh, you silly old man
You silly old man
You’re making a fool of yourself
So get off the stage

You silly old man
In your misguided trousers
With your mascara and your Fender guitar
And you think you can arouse us?

But the song that you just sang
It sounds exactly like the last one

And the next one
I bet you it will sound
Like this one…

Written by an aging rocker who only recently turned 45 himself, these words now ooze more irony than “Girlfriend in a Coma”.

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Early on in Morrissey’s career with The Smiths, he sung about the seedy underbelly of suburbia and glamorized the working class rogue. A decade later, his material hadn’t evolved, with songs like “Dagenham Dave” and “The Last of the International Playboys” doing little more than reinforcing the stereotype.

The fans are largely to blame for this: like Morrissey’s own obsession with icons of the past, the fanatical adoration surrounding Morrissey today is founded on nostalgia, specifically a yearning for the Morrissey of the 1980s – the superstar-outsider frontman of The Smiths. It’s not for nothing that, despite a short five year lifespan, the Smiths have had a much more profound influence on subsequent culture than Morrissey has had on his own over the entire 17 year history of his solo career.

Despite the tenacity of his ideas, to many former fans, the current Morrissey – he of the Beverly Hills mansion, Armani jeans and vintage Italian scooter – simply pales in comparison with the devastating witty scruffbag who unflinchingly pronounced “The Queen Is Dead” in 1986. Music journalist Sylvia Patterson, for instance, lost her faith in Morrissey years ago, believing the singer should have stuck his gladioli in a vase way back in 1987.

My reasons for going off Morrissey are specifically to do with the devastating inferiority of his music. Most of the pathos, with, archness, poetry, politicized savvy and melodic brilliance was gone, and increasingly so with each album. There is no excuse whatsoever for so-called songs like “Dagenham Dave” and “Roy’s Keane”, and it’s still bewildering to me to this day that he did not feel the same.

This nostalgia for an older version of Morrissey manifests itself in terms of the lengths some of his most worshipful fans will go to, to preserve the “Morrissey Myth.” Behaving like guardians of the secret of the Holy Grail, journalists privileged enough to spend time around Morrissey seem keener in general to propagate popular and longstanding beliefs about the singer than truly pursuing the facts of what he’s really like today.

Ultimately, the central suffering or “Passion of the Morrissey” is that he is still very much alive. If, in some fantastical realization of a line from one of his most well-loved songs, a double-decker bus were to crash into him and kill him, it would make it much easier to worship the unsullied myth of without the tarnished reality of the fading icon threatening to interfere with the dream. In this respect, he’d achieve the same kind of unbarred iconic status as post car-crash Princess Diana, a modern-day icon whose relationship with culture was more complex and problematic while she was alive.

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