Originally he was named Stephen [sic] Morrissey. He's dropped the
first name. "I'm afraid that name was buried a long, long time ago," he
remarks. "It was never of any use to me." He once started a New York
Dolls fan club in Manchester, England, his hometown. "It was a very
threadbare affair," he remembers, "very rudimentary. I merely stuck a few
stamps on an envelope one day. It wasn't very dramatic - I was 13 at the
time, quite an infant." He is a thoroughly charming man - in the manner
of that very same Smiths song - but, as you speak with him, you realize
that he is very conscious of what he is doing. He is in a country in
which his band is barely known - yet in Britain they are close to being a
true phenomenon. As he will certainly tell you. "In England," he offers,
"we have equal status to all the English groups who mean a great deal in
Yet Morrissey, in Detroit this fine summer afternoon, is not exactly the happiest of fellows. Especially, it seems, when he is asked if he is pleased with the way the Smiths have been marketed in the States by their record company.
"We've had no satisfaction whatsoever," he swiftly replies.
"They've not really supported us on any level. And even on this current tour that we're doing, they were quite against it - because they thought it was too ambitious, they thought the venues were far too ambitious in size. They seemed quite certain that we could only possibly appear on a very tiny, club level. And we've proved them wrong and they're quite shocked, and once again they're tongue-tied."
"But I can't really be hesitant about the opinions that I have of Sire because I do feel quite bitter about the way we've been treated. I feel we were signed originally as a gesture of hipdom on their part, and that was really it. And they had no intentions of The Smiths ever meaning anything on a mass level. And they still don't.
"And they've made several marketing disasters which have really been quite crippling to us in personal ways. For instance, the release of the last single. How Soon Is Now ? was released in an abhorrent sleeve - and the time and the dedication that we put into the sleeves and artwork, it was tearful when we finally saw the record. And also they released the album Meat Is Murder with the track How Soon Is Now ? unlisted, without printing the lyrics. They released the cassette without the track That Joke Isn't Funny Anymore which is absolutely central to our new stage performances."
"And also we can discuss a video they made. It had absolutely nothing to do with the Smiths - but quite naturally we were swamped with letters from very distressed American friends saying, 'Why on earth did you make this foul video?' And of course it must be understood that Sire made that video, and we saw the video and we said to Sire, 'You can't possibly release this... this degrading video.' And they said, 'Well, maybe you shouldn't really be on our label.' It was quite disastrous - and it need hardly be mentioned that they also listed the video under the title 'How Soon Is Soon,' which... where does one begin, really?"
A good beginning might be a realistic appraisal of just how
the Smiths are making inroads into territories previously unexplored.
There have been scandals, especially in Britain. The first Smiths 45,
Hand In Glove,
was issued in a sleeve featuring the nude backside of a
man. With an accompanying lyric of "Hand in glove/The sun shines out
of our behinds" - and you haven't lived until you've heard legendary
songstress Sandie Shaw's Smiths-produced version of the same - and a theme
of "different" love, was it any wonder most people perceived the band, or
specifically Morrissey, as openly gay? The flipside, the sublimely
actually was more controversial; lyrics like
"Let me get my hands/On your mammary glands/Let me get your head/On
the conjugal bed" and - particularly - "A boy in the bush/Is
worth two in the hand/I think I can help you get through your exams"
led to charges of paedophilia that
This Charming Man
dispel. Morrisseys' summation of the furor? "Reasons which are really
too bleak to go into." And there have been more scandals. "Seven,
actually," says he, with the start of a smile on his face.
But don't let this devilishness suggest the obvious - that Morrissey is creating controversy for controversy's sake. If it's true, it's only minimally true, and not even relevant. There are many miles between the Smiths' I Want The One I Can't Have and W.A.S.P.'s "Animal (Fuck Like A Beast)"; the bottom line here is that there is a sensitivity running throughout all of the Smiths' songs that negates whatever shock value they may hold and creates real, true and honest art, painful as the word may be in 1985. And to carry on with the Ray Davies examples - the distance between the Kinks' "Headmaster" from Schoolboys In Disgrace and the Smiths' The Headmaster Ritual may be found in the following passage: "I wanna go home/I don't want to stay/Give up life/As a bad mistake."
There are very few recording artists who've managed to plumb the psychological depths The Smiths regularly explore. I can think of a few offhand. Leonard Cohen. Van Morrison. "T.B. Sheets." Lou Reed. Big Star Third. Maybe Costello on Imperial Bedroom. In a perverse way, Tim Buckley's Greetings From L.A.. If you've connected with those albums or those artists at least once, you may find yourself connecting with The Smiths, eventually. There is an artistic integrity in evidence that can't be dismissed: The Smiths are not this year's Hip English Band but instead a unique group that is coincidentally releasing records in this decade.
"For me," says Morrissey, "it's good enough that people just actually think about the songs, regardless of what conclusion they come to about them. And I know that people do think about the words a great deal, because they tell me so. And ultimately that's the biggest prize of all."
"But I don't like it when people - certainly journalists - make serious conclusions about me as a person, which in many ways are not true. I don't like that. Because they're telling lots of people, 'Morrissey does this, and he does this, and he thinks this way because of this.' In some instances it isn't true - but then again, this is pointless, because this is just the way the whole thing works. Ultimately, you just throw your words out and however they land, they land."
"But in Rolling Stone, obviously, which got me into lots of trouble, there was a statement that 'Morrissey is a man who says that he is gay.' Which was news to me. And it had an absolutely adverse effect on our chances in America. And obviously Sire backed away immediately. But the journalist who wrote it - who is himself very steeped, he's a very strong voice in the gay movement in New York, I think it was just wishful thinking on his part - well, I don't want to be slotted into any category like that in any way. Because it's pointless. I mean, all these terms and all these categories, they've not really proved to be of any value within music."
You should be told that the Rolling Stone writer who wrote that statement is not very steeped, not a strong voice in the gay movement in New York, and it wasn't just wishful thinking on his part. You should be told that Morrissey is a man who delights in controversy wherever he can find it - even if it comes down to volunteering erroneous information to another magazine that might print his words verbatim without checking the facts. You should be told that Morrissey's favorite singers during his appearance in a Detroit suburb in the summer of 1985 were Gladys of the Marvelettes, Timi Yuro and Rita Pavone. And you should be told about The Smiths. Which you just were.