Outside, while not quite twilight, the day is edging towards gloom.
Morrissey sinks into an armchair in the dullest corner of his living room.
Bare, cold light falls on one side of his face, somehow emphasizing a jaw
that seems oddly out of line. There is something awkward in his presence,
he rarely looks you in the eye. There is none of the casual confidence
that decorates the manner of most pop stars.
He is dressed as you would expect to find him, a sartorial disaster in a thinning, off-white aran sweater and faded jeans. His hair juts up in an awkward and uncomplimentary quiff. All that's missing is a bunch of ragged daffodils. "Regardless of what you do or what you wear or what you say, if you fall into the public eye however you look appears as an image," he says. "If you have no image, if you become popular and people begin to mimic you, how you dress can seem to be something that's quite manufactured and contrived, which of course it never ever was. I think the image trap is just there and everybody goes into it. It strangles most people."
Morrissey's flat is certainly not the pad pop star dreams are made of. It is mutely coloured, very tidy, elegant in an almost old world manner. His living room has a table with a typewriter and neatly stacked paper on it. There is a pleasant three piece suite (sofa, two armchairs) arranged around an empty fireplace. A tightly packed row of books stands on the mantlepiece, including numerous volumes on Oscar Wilde ("I've read everything he wrote and everything written about him and I still find him totally awe-inspiring") and on James Dean ("It's not his acting, actually I think he was a bit of a ham. I get quite embarrassed when I see those films. But I'm fascinated by the way he seemed to represent his time and his generation"). Both are tragic figures, which Morrissey admits he finds appealing.
Above the mantlepiece there is a moody portrait of Mr. Dean. "He had that strange quality that he could look good anywhere, in anything," says Morrissey. There are also around the room three framed photographs of Morrissey, but he makes no such claims for himself. "I'm ugly."
His voice is soft with an almost imperceptible light North of England flatness. He is a second generation Irishman, Manchester born and raised. "I find Ireland fascinating. Maybe I shouldn't say this," he laughs, considering the fact that he's going to be quoted in an Irish paper. "Oh, I'll say it anyway, it's one of the most Catholic countries in the world but it's also one of the most repressed, and I think it's quite sad. But to me it's an immensely attractive place, obviously, with having Irish parents as everyone in the group has, we're all deeply imbedded there. I mean most of the people that I ever cared about in literature came from Ireland, for some totally unfathomable reason."
He recently, with the success of The Smiths, moved out of Manchester and his 'little Ireland' community and came to live in London. "I quite love it here," he says, "but I also liked it in Manchester. People in Manchester are really quite short-sighted and dim on the subject because they feel if you leave the place you defect and you're worthless and you've turned your back on the starving thousands in the back streets of Manchester, and so they spit on you. But really, when I was living there I can't remember anybody that helped me, anybody in the diminutive music industry there, anybody on the club circuit or whatever. Nobody helped me so I literally do not owe anything to anybody in Manchester, which is a very pleasant way to be.
"I still have endless enthusiasm and affection for the place, however, and I'm quite sure I'll return. But for me now London is really quite perfect. I mean, I regret to say it really is as exciting living here as some people who are always considered to be misguided say that it is. I think when you visit London and you only stay for a few days you get a completely obscure vision of the place and it seems impersonal and hateful and synthetic. But when you stay here for a long time, you realize the enormous advantages. It's really quite simple: there are just endless things to do here, and mobility is so easy. In Manchester the entire place closed at 8 pm and you were just totally paralysed, but here you can go wherever you want to, whenever you want to, and do whatever you want to."
So what kind of things does he do?
"Nothing," he says lightly, laughing with self-ridicule. "I really don't do anything. But if I wanted to do something I could. I don't feel any restraint."
There is a melancholy about Morrissey, it's not just a trick of the fading light. He laughs frequently but it's a quiet, almost embarrassed laugh, usually directed at himself and what he is saying. When he sings What Difference Does It Make ? on Top Of The Pops, he fills the phrase with casual despair. His lot in life he feels is not a happy one. "I used to think success and fame and fortune would make me happy, but now I realise it comes from too deep inside you to be changed by any of that... Not that I've made any money yet."
That laugh again.
The Smiths came rapidly out of nowhere, the first group in some time to
cross that pop/independent barrier. "I wouldn't like to appeal to one
sector and not the other," says Morrissey. Not so long ago he was a
solitary individual who read so much that he tried to give it up because
"I wasn't actually living. I was just creased up in a chair 20 hours of
every single day," and who wrote constantly, but only for himself: "I
tried to be a journalist, but failed miserably. I used to write songs but
with only nebulous tunes because I couldn't play an instrument."
Then he met up with guitarist Johnny Marr and joined forces not only because Johnny could write music but also because "he was very aggressive. I could see this was someone who was going to get things done quickly."
The Smiths appeared with a basic, uncluttered guitar band sound like a breath of fresh understatement in the synthesized melodrama of the charts. "I always felt that we only really needed basic utensils anyway. It wasn't really a severe calculation, it just so happens that as we got together it was just four individuals and this is what we played. It was never really a question of expansion or deduction, the balance seemed quite perfect. But I do think it was quite crucial to strip down most elements of the popular group: having very traditionalist instruments, being called The Smiths, having no pretensions whatsoever, being very forthright and deliberate. So it all really slots in quite neatly."
They have caught the imagination of both the loyal independent audience, where their album tops the charts, and the fickle pop fans, where they have top ten hits with shining songs of sensitive unhappiness. There is a disturbed, sometimes disturbing beauty to The Smiths, a poetic depressiveness that makes them the true sons of Joy Division, coupled with a vigour and earthiness, a slightly comic plainness of language and a sincere spirit of delivery, that would ally them more with the Undertones. They've bridged a huge chasm.
"All men have secrets and this is mine
So let it be known
We have been through hell and high tide,
I can surely rely on you?
And yet you start to recoil,
Heavy words are so lightly thrown
But I'd still leap in front of a flying bullet for you.
"So what difference does it make?
So, what difference does it make?
It makes none
But you have gone
And you must be looking very old tonight.
"The devil will find work for idle hands to do
I stole and I lied, and why?
Because you asked, and why?
Because you asked me to!
But now you make me feel so ashamed
Because I've only got two hands,
Well, I'm still fond of you.
"So, what difference does it make?"
"One would get the impression listening to your songs that you haven't
had a very happy love life," I observed. "I haven't had any love life,"
said Morrissey with one of those uncertain laughs. "Yeah, it's been quite
ridiculous, and it's something I'm asked to cover quite a lot in
interviews, and people who don't like me always get the impression that I
just constantly sit and moan for hours on end - but it's quite difficult
when you're asked these questions and if you want to give honest replies,
which I always want to do, then I have to say yes, I'm quite miserable.
So why am I laughing?"
I read somewhere that you decided to be celibate, is that so, I asked, rather gingerly. Morrissey looked embarrassed. "Mnn, yeah, I have," he replied. "That's been quite a long time. Initially it was involuntary, but eventually I realized that... ehm... it was quite interesting. I thought 'I'll hang on to this'. It's entirely nonsensical really."
Why is it entirely nonsensical?
"I dunno, it's just really... It's just the way things are. I can't really analyze it. It's just there and it's happened. So why am I laughing again?"
Pop stardom usually puts an end to that, I suggest.
"It usually does," agrees Morrissey, "but I must be the exception to the rule."
"Too many pop stars are not good
figureheads. Young people need
figureheads, I know I do, and popular music is the only thing left for
them. They don't read books, they don't believe in movies. Popular music
is all there is, and too many pop stars are shallow and worthless as
figureheads, or else content to be obscure and mysterious. We would never
be obscure, we could never be obscure, because I use very fundamental
language in my lyrics. I use very simplistic words, but hopefully in
quite a powerful way. And by that I mean saying things that people in
daily life find so very hard to say, like 'I don't want a job,' 'I don't
want to be loved,' or 'I am ugly.' I mean things that are really quite
simple words but things that people can never really say. I mean if you
say to your friends or to your parents 'I am very unhappy' it's like
scraping open nerves... it's too close and it just can't be said. So I
want to say these things instead of being very esoterical and other
worldly and mysterious, because I think it's more effective and... I don't
think it's ever been said in popular music. I really don't."
So if you are a figurehead, what are you a figurehead for?
"It's quite curious but I seem to get masses of letters, people writing to me telling me their problems. They write telling me of trouble they're having at school, or in love or with their parents, or saying they identify with some song. It seems as though people who have quite difficult lives see me as some kind of a kindred spirit, or a person who has some of the answers which of course isn't true. But, ehm, it's much more interesting than just simply the usual fan letters where they just want to know what size shoes you take. So it's quite curious but I do get the impression people treat me quite seriously instead of just being a popular figure, a nonsensical pop star, which of course, I wouldn't want to be."
Do you answer these letters?
"Religiously, every day. Of course you have to be careful, and sometimes it's important not to take them seriously. I get suicide letters which you never really know how to deal with. It would be laughable to suggest you could solve anyone's problems with a scribbled note on the back of a postcard."
It seems you're being cast in the role of agony aunt to a new generation! As someone who seems to feel your lot in life is an unhappy one, what qualifies you to advise others?
"I can't think of anyone more qualified (laughs). I've been through it and I understand it. I don't think a happy person could ever really understand it, they think you'll grow out of it. Unhappiness is too deeply ingrained just to be solved by getting a mere job or having a whirlwind romance. But I think what you can do is just simply learn to cope with it and learn to master it on a day to day basis."
That doesn't seem a very appealing basis for survival.
"Well I think this is the basis that most people survive on. I don't think everyone's as happy as they would like to think."
How do you feel about suicide?
"I have to be very careful what I say about this, but... having been quite close to it myself on a number of occasions, I can quite admire someone with the strength to do it. People who have never been close to it cannot hope to understand it, and the idea that it was illegal until recent years is of course laughable, but I think to me it's quite honourable in a way, because it's a person taking total control over their lives and their bodies. By not thinking about suicide, or considering it, or examining it, it means that we ultimately just do not have control over our destinies and our bodies and our brains. And I think people without that sense of control are quite shallow, thin individuals. But I'm not saying that simply by having control over your body, the ultimate destination is suicide. But I admire it in a way."
Are you afraid of death?
"No. To me it's totally necessary. I could not imagine life without death. I think that would really be quite ridiculous. The very idea of living forever... I mean, I always remember as a child being raised in a quite severe Catholic upbringing, where it was impressed on you that you would go to heaven and live forever and ever and ever, and I always remember the very idea of living forever petrified me because I couldn't imagine life without end! I think it's quite necessary and I think it keeps us all on our toes. And if there was no such thing as death we'd never do anything. We'd just lie down and eat cakes (laughs)."
Do you have any spiritual or religious beliefs?
"I do, but not quite as dramatic as I should have by that absurd Catholic upbringing. I could never really make the connection between Christian and Catholic. I always imagined that Christ would look down upon the Catholic church and totally diassociate himself from it. I went to severe schools, working class schools, where they would almost chop your fingers off for your own good, and if you missed church on Sunday and went to school on a Monday and they quizzed you on it, you'd be sent to the gallows. It was like 'Brush you teeth NOW or you will DIE IN HELL and you will ROT and all these SNAKES will EAT you'. And I remember all these religious figures, statues, which used to petrify every living child. All these snakes trodden underfoot and blood everywhere. I thought it was so morbid.
"I mean the very idea of just going to church anyway is really quite absurd. I always felt that it was really like the police, certainly in this country at any rate, just there to keep the working classes humble and in their place. Because of course nobody else but the working class pays any attention to it.
"I really feel quite sick when I see the Pope giving long, overblown, inflated lectures on nuclear weapons and then having tea with Margaret Thatcher. To me it's total hypocrisy. And when I hear the Pope completely condemning working class women for having abortions and condemning nobody else... to me the whole thing is entirely class ridden, it's just really to keep the working classes in perpetual fear and feeling total guilt."
Do you think you are the product of that most Irish of complaints - Catholic repression?
"To a certain degree yes. But though I came from a monstrously large family who were quite absurdly Catholic, when I was six there were two very serious tragedies within the family which caused everybody to turn away from the church, and quite rightly so, and from that period onwards there was just a total disregard for something that was really quite sacrosanct previous to the tragedies. So yes, I experienced the severe, boring fear, but then I also experienced the realities of life."
Do you think your unhappiness stems from your background?
"Well, I think it obviously does because if I had a fabulously wealthy and fabulously adventurous background I can't imagine that I'd have most of the anxieties that I have today. But we were always quite poor and everything was impossible. I was unemployed for years and years and years and years, voluntarily so, because I never wanted to work anyway, and I don't think you can go through years of unemployment and dealing with the DHSS and all that depression and just simply step out of it one day and be somebody else. So I think yes, there's correct and quite severe reasons why I'm like this."
You talked earlier about man exercising control over his own mind and destiny - does that not also mean controlling your state of mind?
"Ehm, no I don't think it does, because we don't raise ourselves and we don't orchestrate the conditions which we're raised in. They're just like circumstances that befall us, obviously, but I think... to a point you can, but to a point that is much more important you can't."
You don't seem to be a happy person, so what makes you think you are, or would be a good figurehead? What makes you think your opinion is of value?
"Because it is! It's an incredibly easy question and it's impossible to give the answer. I don't ring up journalists and plead with them to come round and speak to me, they want to speak to me. So it's not as if I'm going door to door. But for years and years I wrote in total anonymity and so many people thought I was entirely insane, and now that I have a record contract and I release records and I more or less say the same things that I've been saying for 10 years anyway it seems to have kind of legalised my insanity. And it really gives you a license to be as open as you like, and it will be accepted.
"And I really do want to be an influence. I really do want people to listen and people to respond because I can't see anybody in popular music who's saying anything or who's attempting to say anything. I'm not saying I'm an irreplaceable Messiah on a hilltop or anything but... everybody seems entirely mute to me."
Just an ugly streak of misery? Or a brother under the skin, sweeping
away the cobwebs of advice agony aunts spin around young people? There is
something in Morrissey's vulnerability, in The Smiths' contemporary sense
of tragedy that an increasingly large audience like or relate to. It is a
million miles from the illiterate unhappiness of country music, singer
songwriter self-pity or post-punk bitterness. It is something delicate,
proud, funny and alive, and it is making The Smiths the new order on the
name-dropping circuit (credibility-wise).
"I think people can recognize the integrity of the group," says Morrissey. "I'm quite determined that we'll never lose it. Not as long as I'm holding the reins."
Does the integrity come from you? I ask.
"Quite largely," he replies, glancing down to watch the tape recorder wind on. "Because I am the spokesperson for the group and I am thrust forward and other group members very rarely give their comments, and when they do they're much less serious than mine anyway. They don't really share my lyrical viewpoint. Most of the time they quite like it, but they certainly don't share it. But I don't mind. I mean there's lots of things they do that I don't share." He smiles mischeviously. "But we won't dwell on those seedy aspects of The Smiths. Of which there are many..."
"I suppose my input is more serious. And much more crucially personal. I think that at the end of this experience, if or when The Smiths break up, I feel sure that the other three group members could walk on to something else, but I don't think I could because I fear this is absolutely it for me, and my neck is in the noose, almost. The other three can step back and they can claim disinvolvement. But I never could.
"I'll risk anything."
His light, uncertain laugh drifts into silence.