Last November, four days before his dramatic exit from David Bowie's Outside tour, Steven Patrick Morrissey dropped his guard to deliver a sucker punch. In those famously mordant tones, he told me that he'd love to perform more Smiths songs. To keepers of the pop bard's guttering flame, this is the equivalent of The Beatles reforming or Plant and Page doing that number about the forest echoing with laughter.
"London is a great song," says Morrissey earnestly, "I've played Shoplifters of the World Unite on this tour too. It's one of my all time favourite songs, a great song that means so much to me. Contrary to popular belief, I am proud to the point of absolute conceitedness of The Smiths. Being in The Smiths for five years wasn't the worst way to spend a life. I'd like to do much more Smiths songs in future, live. They are shockingly good songs really".
Shockingly good songs they certainly are, but Morrissey's new found fondness for his old band could indicate a fresh start for the singer. He still inspires more fanaticism than possibly any other living pop star, but his solo hits aren't coming the way they used to. Brushed aside by the new Manchester scene of The Happy Mondays and The Stone Roses at the turn of the decade, Morrissey was demonised by the music press in the same way Paul Weller was after the break up of The Jam. The Smiths are now wrapped in the gauze of a golden age of pop but asking the "will they reform?" question still seems like a sacreligious one.
"It's not like The Beatles, y'know ?" Morrissey laughs. "We will not be getting back together in the year 2012. I hope not to be alive in the year 2012 ! When I'm in record shops there aren't hordes of bespectacled teenagers playing tug-of-war with copies of The Queen Is Dead. And I don't expect to ever receive an OBE."
In lighter mode he invites me to sit down, then gets despondent about his surroundings. "I mean, look at this," he says, gesturing with mock disgust at a hole in the wall of his dressing room in the Point Theatre, Dublin. "What would Frank Sinatra have made of that ? Ummmmmm ? Look at your chair. There's stains all over it but I hasten to add they were there before you arrived". The dressing room, a dimly lit, corridor proportioned space, is a more than suitable setting. Candles flicker and it's uncomfortably warm. Morrissey sits at the bottom on a leather couch that rasps rudely every time he moves. His hair recedes, wide boy, not quiffed and his famous eyebrows remain knitted during our half-hour interview. Dressed in sensible black shoes, blue jeans and a dark denim shirt, he exudes polite indifference, although there is much laughing and boyish sniggering.
Despite his assertion that he'd rather "stay in the cupboard at the foot of the stairs" than talk to journalists, he's on good sparring form. His uneasy relationship with the press has already been covered in Journalists Who Lie (he refuses to speak to the weeklies and grants Q an annual interview) and it's a theme that he returns to again on his new album Southpaw Grammar with Reader Meets Author. Like Pulp's Common People it lashes upper-class twits who like a bit of rough. He says it has nothing to do with Johnny Rogan, the Smiths biographer who Morrissey said he hoped would die in a motor way pile-up.
"No, no! (very amused). Not at all. Hahahahaha. He should be so lucky! Nothing in the least. Reader Meets Author is about a lot of middle-class journalists I know who think they have an understanding of the working classes and their fascinations, which they patently do not."
Even the kindest of these middle-class journalists noted that Southpaw Grammar seemed to have more than a suspicion of filler (complete with a two-minute drum solo), and covered ground that Morrissey had first picked over years ago. "I can't think why," he says. "I think you might be referring to The Headmaster Ritual by The Smiths, but that's from the pupil's point of view, and this song on Southpaw Grammar (The Teachers Are Afraid Of The Pupils) is from the teacher's point of view which I've never done before."
You can understand Morrissey's empathy with the teachers. He remains an outsider, thoroughly, and, one would imagine, happily isolated from the pop mainstream. You could hardly see him hobnobbing with Oasis like Weller or duetting with Damon Albarn like Ray Davies. "That's very natural to me, it's always been the way I've worked. No, I'm not your regular friendly pop star. I have my own fetid little world which I'm happy to live in and so are the people who like my music and I'm really deliriously happy with that."
When I ask him if he was invited to partake in Warchild's Help LP he sniffs dispassionately, hardly surprising given his bellicose attitude to Live Aid in 1985. If anything, the adoration that Morrissey enjoys has been helped rather than hindered by a career characterised by a contrariness that might put Lou Reed to shame. The world-weary indifference is good on record; so too the provocative dalliances with fascism, but he might be the first to admit that when it comes to business sense, Morrissey is no Mick Jagger. Is it because of his strong self belief? "Eh, sometimes. Somebody's got to believe in me."
More self-deprecation from the master of the own goal. His live show, now huge celebrations of his solo catalogue, still feature fans (many of whom can't ever have seen The Smiths) braving bouncer scorn to embrace their hero on stage.
"That's something I've always found gratifying and very surprising," Morrissey says. "But I'm getting old now, can't you see ? I'm not as steady on my feet. On this tour, it can become an irritant when you're trying to hold a microphone. Oh, and the scarring can be absolutely wretched sometimes. They can leave me quite bruised and vulnerable."
Indeed, the fake scars he sported on his arms and chest for recent publicity stills ("The Manic Street Preachers did it for real ? That's a bit silly.") give another clue to the current Morrissey: he seems less bitter and less likely to lash out with controversial flippancy, like he did on November Spawned A Monster or Margaret On The Guillotine which led to the police searching his house.
"Well, I've never been one to pay attention to what anyone else thinks. I do my own thing because it suits me well. I don't think I'm mellowing out in any way whatsoever. There are things that I write about that mean a lot to me that may not concern other people."
The association with Bowie (whom Morrissey claims to have seen when he was 12) ended four days after we met. Morrissey ducked out of the support slot in Aberdeen on November 29, minutes before he was due on stage. Reasons differ for the abrupt departure, from mysterious illness to personal problems, but back then he seemed as content as Morrissey can be to work with Bowie.
"David's version of I Know It's Gonna Happen Someday made me wail tears of pure happiness, actually. I loved it." he says. "David is an extraordinarily nice man. He's very gentle and he has a tremendous ability to put people at ease. David and I don't talk about life as major rock stars. We like to talk about books and flowers a lot."
Morrissey regards Vauxhall And I, his most resolutely personal album, as his finest moment. Used To Be A Sweet Boy, in particular, is Morrissey's finest mix of nostalgia and sadness yet. "Thank you for listening so closely," he laughs again. "Yes, it was a nostalgic album for me. Vauxhall And I was my best work ever. More so than our friend Southpaw Grammar. It was an album where everything just came together. Everything had come to a head for me and it was a way of getting everything out there."
What kind of things were coming to a head for you ?
"Life. Life (deep sigh). Personal life, private life. You know, the usual ?"
The temptation to preserve Morrissey in aspic as pop's perennial Mr Pitiful is still there but these days the ex-Smith is made of sterner stuff. That night at the finale of the blistering The Teachers Are Afraid Of The Pupils, he stands bare-chested, basking in the fanatical cries of the crowd, many of whom will leave when David Bowie takes the stage. ("Well, I pay them," he tells me. "I see them all individually after the show and they receive handsome rewards for their trouble.") He preens for several minutes and then minces off while the Point basks in harsh white light. It's a genuinely stunning moment and proof that even if he's all alone in a crowd Morrissey will go on and on.