To be fair, it was an inauspicious start. I arrived at Morrissey's hotel room on time at 4pm, he opened the door with a face crumpled as if tears had just dried upon it. Inside, sitting on a bed, was a beautiful young woman wearing a tight-fitting chambermaid's outfit and a golden smile. "Hello, I'm Grace," she explained. And, after a brief pause, but no movement, "I am doing his room."
"You better sit over there," Morrissey said to me, indicating the nether reaches of the room, and so we all sat, in silence, in our corners. There was something so surreal, straight out of Bunuel, about this scene, that I began to wonder if it was all part of an elaborate joke. Some contrived comment on Morrissey's elusive sexuality, or an elliptical stab at the bourgeoisie. "Is she ever going to go ?" I mumbled to Morrissey. "No," he mumbled back in his doom-laden voice. "She will always be with us." When she had left he said that she "spooked" him, asking for his autograph for her 18-year-old sister and telling him, "I used to like you but I don't like you any more".
"But then that's the sort of world we live in," he adds, vaingloriously.
Morrissey is incontrovertibly strange. Everybody says so, including the man himself. "God forbid that I should be normal." The form his strangeness takes is harder to fathom. The entire time I was with him, he tittered away at his own jokes, one plentiful eyebrow raised; stared out of the bright, blue, combative eyes - full of things he's not going to tell you, should you ever dare to ask; and exuded a surface impatience not that distinct from outright hostility.
His big square face tilted to one side and sort of perched on his shoulder, so creating the impression that any moment - should things get any more boring - he might just nod off. And to his bosom he clutched a very large sofa cushion - on the mildly annoying tacit assumption that I might at any moment lunge for his throat. Meanwhile, he's all the time jousting. "Any pets ?" he says. "Let me guess, a tortoise and a budgerigar," at which he giggles and nibbles away at the palm of his hand. "Do you eat meat ? Would you eat your pets ? I rest my case."
At times the conversation dwindles into Morrissey's private jokes about himself. I have, for instance, no idea why we are talking about Margate. "Margate is a gigantic ham butty," he muses. "Margate is not what it never was." And it is as if I am not there at all. Does he talk to himself a lot ? "It's the only way to get a decent conversation," he quips. To say that he creates a sense of unease is a massive understatement - the very air around him seems charged with a current of unexpressed fury, or is it self-hating rage ? He can't, or won't, resist the urge to dominate, but at the same time his insistence on his own vulnerability leaves him always one up. His last words to me are : "Be gentle with me." I left feeling I'd been in the presence of an arch ironist - and a bitch to boot.
Strange, then, a few days later, listening to the tape of our conversation, to discover another Morrissey - more placid, less manipulative and, if not kind, at least not cruel. A Morrissey more of a mixture. Portentous. "I've been called many things, but no one has ever called me light." But able to send himself up. "So we drill through life pretending to be poets". Evasive still, but not discourteous. Far funnier than I'd remembered. As if, out of reach of his looming dark physical presence, another Morrissey comes into view, the mask of amused indifference slips, and the elegaic tone - so self-conscious when you're with him - now assumes an air of bewilderment. "All one wants, all one can ever want, is to know oneself." This Morrissey is far closer to the man we know from lyrics of his songs.
It is Morrissey's favourite pose to effect the certainty of the doomed. Life is a misery, he says. And the greatest of all life's miseries is that you can never be surprised. But the guitarist Johnny Marr surprised him - twice. First, on the occasion when they met. "At a Patti Smith concert in 1979, and not, as most pop historians record, in 1982" - he loves this self-mythologising pop trivia. Marr impressed him on sight. Not as someone he could like, "in fact I did not like him then, we were continents apart" - but as someone he could trust. An interesting distinction. Morrissey is on record as saying over and over again that his main instinct towards his fellow human beings "is basic mistrust."
"Most people I find light. I don't lean towards humanity much." What compassion he has, he says, "is for myself alone". But Marr moved him. Meeting Johnny Marr might have been the first good thing that had happened to him. He was Stephen [sic, and I am as sick of it as Morrissey surely is :)] Patrick Morrissey, 22, "no spring chicken." A frustrated, brooding man, still living at home with his mother "on and off", suffused with ambition, "desparate to succeed". Firing off letters to NME, sending tapes of his songs to music managements with a polite accompanying letter explaining that if his voice sounded a bit soft he was sorry but that was because his mother was asleep in the next room. He'd had a few jobs that he hated. "Grotesque jobs. I cringe looking back." Some not every good sex. "I don't remembering shivering with delight." And he was stuck in what he calls "the satanic, drizzly, miserable north - Manfester".
And now here was Marr. Unequivocally beautiful, an extraordinarily talented musician, gregarious and surrounded by people. He was already with Angie, the childhood sweetheart he'd fallen in love with at 14 and whom he married in 1986. Everybody loved Marr, and Morrissey was no different. Loved him "not physically", he says, but as a music partner and friend. "In the beginning it was always Angie, Johnny and I".
Morrissey describes their meeting now as destiny. "An astonishing twist of fate, an astonishing turn in the proceedings." He knew they would make something work when together they formed The Smiths in 1982. It was a partnership of equals, Morrissey says. Marr, the guitarist, wrote the music, Morrissey sang and wrote the lyrics. Whenever he speaks of The Smiths, it is himself and Marr that he means. In a recent court case, in December 1996, in which Morrissey and Marr were ordered by the court to pay £1 million in back royalties to group member, Mike Joyce, Morrissey was quoted as saying that he considered the other two members of the group, Joyce and Andy Rourke, "as readily replaceable as the parts in a lawnmower". Nowe he says, "The Smiths were our success, mine and Johnny's. Completely." Morrissey was the frontman but Marr was always the strong one. Forthright, not aggressive", he provided Morrissey with the structure he'd never had. "It was strange suddenly to say we instead of I."
The way Morrissey describes The Smiths, these were halcyon days. No fights, no tension, just fun. Laughter "all the time". "We had no row during the entire existence of The Smiths. For a long time Johnny and I were intertwined - and that's unusual in pop music - in his life and certainly in mine." But then The Smiths were unusual. Heralded as the first real English pop group, they caught the spirit of mid-Eighties alienation far more authentically than bigger-selling bands such as U2 or Dire Straits. They were fresh, original, and they didn't buy into the whole pop-star ethos. When Morrissey declared himself a teetotal celibate, you could swear he meant it - unlike Boy George.
The Smiths were lads, their very name said it all. "Tough as old boots. Not a name to mess around with." And Morrissey and Marr seemed able to do things with songs that you'd never heard before. Songs such as Panic, Heaven Knows I'm Miserable Now. Lines such as, "I would go out tonight, but I haven't got a stitch to wear" spoke directly to their audience - disaffected youth, kids in bedsits who previously had no voice. They weren't the tired old love songs of yore. Morrissey's gift is to catch the intensity of a feeling and at the same time to convey an irony about that intensity. His songs spoke of people's common history, and in an incredibly evocative way. Funny and sad, The Smiths sounded simply like what pop music should be.
And it was concerned. At one point, talking about his childhood, Morrissey described the poverty he recalled in his school. "Children fainting through lack of food, absolute subsistence level, the dog ear of welfare. I never saw anybody speaking to me about my life. I never heard anybody who seemed to account for my experience." But you didn't grow up to be a social worker, I started to say. "Didn't I ?" Morrissey said. If there was an inevitability about what followed, Morrissey didn't see it coming. His theme was still that The Smiths were like a love-affair, "and like a love-affair, the situation led itself". Then, in May 1987, Marr announced his intention to quit the group. The second surprise. He told Morrissey it was pressure of work. "But I was under pressure too, only I refused to give in to it."
By September, Morrissey was in the studio recording his first solo album and The Smiths were over. Maybe they couldn't go on forever. "But then nothing does," he says. "But as far as I could see forever being, I thought it would go on." H expected that Marr would discuss things with him, "make a shared decision". He left abandoned, hust and dismayed. "It was a tremendously painful time. I don't resent him at all, but I was angry then and I wondered what it was in his life he was replacing The Smiths with. I still don't know. To this day, I don't know."
To an outsider, it seems obvious. Marr had a wife, he wanted a family - he now has two children. He wanted a life outside The Smiths. But probably, more than anything, he didn't want to confine himself to being one thing. Morrissey's impulse is the exact opposite. The consummate individualist, he insists he is a unified being, in control. The splitting of Morrissey into aspects of himself, different voices, is something he resists utterly. If he cannot be one thing, then he is nothing. There is a danger in so much certainty, it can lead to inexperience, to naivety. He has convinced himself it was "influences around Marr" who prised him away because they saw him, Morrissey as a threat. In what way a threat ?
"A lot of people see me as malign because they find that easy. They thought I exerted undue influence over Johnny." It has also been said that Marr wanted to leave the group before Morrissey, that he feared Morrissey was preparing to go solo as a singer. But Morrissey says this was not his intention. "I never saw myself as a solo singer." And I can't help believing him.
He didn't argue with Marr, he didn't plead, he didn't cry. "I don't argue with people, I never, never plead and I never cry. What's the point ?" he says. He simply sacked everyone around him, all the doom merchants who were predicting this was the end - asking him if he had enough money. Ravelled himself up into himself, went out on his own - a familiar place to be - continued to write his songs. About life, its trivialities and its compromises. The frustrations and failings of the modern world. Became more Morrissey than Morrissey even.
Is it all a pose ? Is he just being ironic, people sometimes ask. Of course he is. He sees humour as a defensive weapon, keep the enemy on the run. Irony, after all, is only distance. Bliss, he says, would be "to live in a haunted house that people would back away from in revulsion," where he would exist "surrounded by spirits". He's there already, but then he would say we all are. The portcullis is down and the marauding hordes are at bay. Except there is no paranormal. We're haunting ourselves.
He knows this. He's far too intuitive to miss something so apparent. And, as he says, "We all have our patterns to repeat, our burdens to bear ... which we bear as much as we can and which won't disappear." Does anybody get it right ? I don't think so. Is it possible to get it right ? I don't think so. We are all confined in a world in which we are doomed to repeat our errors - and note even our own errors, he adds, but those handed down by our forebears, each of us failing miserably to make sense of things.
The best we can do is to get to know ourselves - not to arrive at some deeper understanding of the world. "Because if you know yourself, you can avoid damaging or hurtful situations. Isn't that what life's all about, making yourself comfortable and protecting yourself ?" Comfortable is the word he uses most. He is "comfortable being seen as weird". He doesn't feel "comfortable" flying. The greatest "comfort" of all is solitude. But then he tells me that his greatest weakness is his unsociability. "I tend to be hermetic." And, "We are not bound to solve the contradictions we raise, are we ?" If you protect yourself from everything, how do you avoid staying in the same place, I ask him. "By avoiding jumping into familiar traps," he says pointedly. "A random thought for a random Monday." It's Friday.
His voice, a sonorous drawl, punctuated as it is by long pauses, can almost always catch you unawares. Suddenly he'll take a cliché - "Life's a trap, it's a cruel world out there" - and turn it into something interesting. "Most people are not equipped for ordinary life and I can't imagine why not. Why shouldn't they be ? And, even more perversely, being by oneself. Why do most people find that so hard ?"
This trick, this ability to twist or turn on a thought is what he does with his lyrics, showing time and again that banality can be as revealing as complexity. It's the reason the best of his songs don't date. As time passes the profundities peel away and the triviality remains to enchant us. "Noel Coward died in vain," he says to me at one point. Listening to Morrissey talk you'd have to say this isn't true. There's an exactly opposite sensation when you meet him, when you come away with a feeling of his molten heaviness.
It would be easy to cast Morrissey as a sad figure. In terms of relationships, his adult life has been largely uneventful. He lives alone, says he has few friends and at the moment he is homeless, thoug hhe likes the idea of Kent. And he loves Los Angeles. "Which most people don't." He idealises originality, cultivates mystery, thinks "mediocrity is a terminal illness". And pays no lip-service at all to the view that genuine originality consists in trying to behave like everyone else without succeeding. "I am extraordinary," he says.
I guess it's because of the ordinariness of his background that, when I ask him to describe his childhood, there is an almost total absence of biography. All I get is detail.
He has a number of stories at the ready. The suicide of a friend when he was 15. "She was six years older but 5,000 years wiser. I'm sure she's very happy now, on that pavement." The Moors Murders, which occurred when he was six. "It could only have been Manchester." He remembers lying in bed thinking about the children, what they must have been through. He wrote a song about it, Suffer Little Children. And the sadism of the Roman Catholic church, "which was thrust upon me". Every week he would have to go to confession and sit and invent sins that he hadn't committed, "to please the priest".
"God forbid that they feel redundant."
He dislikes the Church with a passion. "It is probably the worst thing you can do to a child, to make it feel guilty, and guilt is astonishingly embedded in Catholic children without them knowing why. It is a ferocious burden to carry. How evil can children be ?"
Family life, he says, was fine but not fond. "Solemn, sedate. But never intimate." His description of his home borders on the contemptuous. "Cheaply cheerful, lacking the faintest whiff of art." And of Manchester. "Very thrusting, very fundamental, very gutteral, extremely rough and forever ready. Dockland without the docks." Such lines trip off his tongue. He remains close to his sister, "two long years older". As children they would explore together the disused houses around the town. But he was always a lonely child. He remembers longing for conversations, longing to talk to people about the things that interested him. "The only obsession I ever had was with the human singing voice." All he ever wanted to do was sing. And every song he has ever written is a conversation he never had.
It is now more that ten years since The Smiths split up, and though old scars fade, he says they never completely go. "Some things stay with you." He doesn't see Johnny Marr. Doesn't know where he is or what he's doing. But he likes to think that if they were to meet they'd still be mates. "It was a business falling-out, that's all." He shrugs off the idea of re-forming a band with Marr. "Reformations don't work. Pop music is all about timing and the element of surprise, springing something on the public that they won't expect."
This month, he releases Maladjusted, his ninth solo album and his first in two years. And what a relief. For here he is, still sounding like nobody else, still investigating those same odd corners of his mind, writing it all down - the anguish, the very real boredom.
The fine Alma Matters, released as a single, finds him at his existential, brooding best. "So the choice I have made may seem wrong to you, but I've never been surer, it's my life to ruin my own way." The whole album - elegant, elegaic, with nods to the past, to The Smiths in the excellent Ambitious Outsiders - is in fact a hymn to himself. Morrissey. Burbling dolefully on like a sad but resilient saint inventing his own religion.
Adversity suits him, he says. "Don't you think that what we need is another war, bring people together ?" He sees himself as the supreme survivor. "Don't ask me how, but I know that if a plane crashed at 38,000 feet, within ten minutes I'd be walking on the ground. And if there were eight survivors and one had to be eaten, it wouldn't be me."
Two years ago, this man who yearns for surprises got the surprise of his life. He fell in love. He didn't expect to. Love crept up behind him just when he'd got used to the idea that it would never happen. "Well it never had for such a long time". Then he was smitten. Gloriously, madly, feverishly smitten. Morrissey in love must be a terrible thing. Not at all, he says. "I'm delightful in love. I am excellent at everything, cooking, conversation, planning, eliminating ..." Rivals ? I stupidly ask. "Friends," he responds.
He doesn't talk about celibacy anymore. "Can't think why I ever did. It's incredibly boring." It wasn't as if he didn't like sex. "I just didn't have it." The relationship ended recently without his wanting it to. The other person stopped loving him, "as they do", and broke his heart. But he has got used to consoling himself, he says. So he likes to think, if it can happen once, it can happen again. "That's what a priest told me anyway."