Len Brown, Spin Magazine, June 1988
Lyricist extraordinaire, celibate aesthete, charismatic bigmouth,
the former Smiths frontman returns for tea & sympathy.
"Perhaps I'm unique because people are so dull. I'm not very
good at being dull." - Morrissey
"I have nothing to declare but my own genius." -
We're at London's Cadogan Hotel, sitting in the very room where
Oscar Wilde, patron saint of every British eccentric, pansexual, and
dreamer, from Quentin Crisp to Steven Morrissey, was arrested back in
April of 1895. Surveying the chamber as he polishes off another cup of
tea, Morrissey declares himself "almost speechless. It's a very
historic place, and it means a good deal to me to be sitting here
staring at Oscar's television and the very video he watched The
Leather Boys on !"
Morrissey smirks, sits back on the couch and helps himself to
another cheese sandwich. The former Smiths vocalist, lyricist
extraordinaire, celibate aesthete, and charismatic bigmouth seems to
like cheese sandwiches. (A militant vegetarian, he titled an early
Smiths album Meat Is Murder.) Sporting an Oscar
Wilde T-shirt and a quiff like a cliff, Morrissey is preparing to follow
in Wilde's footsteps, leading the charge against all that is stupid,
ugly, or boring.
"A few bricks need to be thrown through a few specific windows,
whether we're discussing Tiffany or nuclear waste." He looks around the
room again. "I gladly would if there were any troops, but a one-man
army can get a little strenuous. Who would make the tea?"
Years ago, when The Smiths were rising from the ashes of post-punk
England, Morrissey and his followers were united by hatred, "hating
everything, but not being offensively hateful. It was hate from quite
Morrissey became the hero of the lonely, the disenfranchised, the
outsider, speaking, some might even say singing, for the loners who
hated being alone but couldn't stand the company of others. Viva Hate, his first solo effort, continues his railings
against brutality, ignorance, British Prime Minister and Dog Lady
Margaret Thatcher, and the world of pop music, a world he claims has
been "infiltrated by idiots," dismissing rap music and hip hop as "pop
thuggery, a great musical stench, very offensive, artless and styleless,
"If we talk about Tiffany and Belinda Carlisle and the whole influx
of Debbie Gibsons, we can quite easily be accused of giving too much
attention to obviously untalented, obviously discountable people. But
these people are ruling the world of popular music, and I think it's a
"I don't believe that people are going out and buying certain
records in the Top Ten. It's impossible! Even taking into account the
possibility that thirty percent of the public might be seriously
It's less than a year since The Smiths imploded. Strangeways,
Here We Come, their last album, was released in the fall of
1987, though the band had dissolved earlier that summer. Morrissey last
saw his songwriting partner and guitarist, Johnny Marr, in May of '87,
and lost contact with drummer Mike Joyce and bass player Andy Rourke
Since Marr quit, he's played on Bryan Ferry's Bete Noire,
written with the Pretenders, recorded with Roy Orbison, and earned
plaudits for his work on Talking Heads' Naked. Rourke and
Joyce, meanwhile have been touring with Irish songstress Sinead O'Connor
and recording with Adult Net (a spin-off of the Fall).
For Morrissey, who once claimed that "the group are like a life
support machine to me," the separation meant a period of "extreme
emotional turmoil" during which he was "literally bedridden."
More tea, dear?
"The Smiths were like a painting," he muses sadly. "Every month
you'd add a little bit here and a little bit there. But it wasn't quite
complete, and it was whipped away. I find it hard to adapt to that.
Even people who enjoyed the music thought the split was very timely.
It's very popular attitude that the split occurred at the right time. I
get quite violent when people say that to me."
The Smiths self-destructed at the peak of their commercial success.
Even as the cheerfully titled Girlfriend
In A Coma entered the
British charts at Number 13 (an unprecedented achievement for a record
on an independent label), the band was getting ready to, ah, pull the
plug. Andy Rourke's battle with heroin was an ongoing trauma, and the
addition (and eventual sacking) of second guitarist Craig Gannon led to
accusations that The Smiths were metamorphosing into the Rolling Stones,
a bunch of hacks and poseurs living off the fat of the pop landscape.
"Will the journalists please stop throwing things," Morrissey cried at
one of the band's last live appearances.
"It was such a tight little unit," Morrissey sniffs, "and it seemed
that nobody could penetrate The Smiths' secret, private world. On the
occasion that somebody did break through, everything fell in
twenty-five different directions."
Clearly Johnny Marr needed other outlets for his guitarwork.
Although occasional solos crept into songs like
Shoplifters Of The
World Unite and
Sheila Take a Bow,
instrumentals that graced several Smiths' B-sides disappeared. Rumor
has it that Morrissey opposed their inclusion or refused to write lyrics
for them, although Morrissey claims that "there was never any political
maneuvering. It was never a battle of power between Johnny and myself.
The very assumptions that a Smiths instrumental track left Morrissey
upstairs stamping his feet and kicking the furniture was untrue."
Still, Morrissey refused to write the lyrics for
Everything which, after The Smiths' demise, passed into Bryan Ferry's
hands and became "The Right Stuff" (the first single on Bete
Whatever the reasons, after six years The Smiths ceased to be, six
years after they'd gate-crashed the charts and epitomized their time and
"I think The Smiths totally spoke for now," says Morrissey,
consuming even more tea. "[We were] definitely the most realistic and
lyrical voice in the Eighties, and it's not just self-bleating."
What Now, Little Man?
Morrissey has stylishly confounded those critics who believed that
his songwriting partnership with Johnny Marr was a one-off, like
Lennon/McCartney or Jagger/Richards. Viva
Hate, a typical blend of Mr. M's aggression and introspection
(from the opening guitar scream to the final slash of the guillotine)
was cowritten with longtime Smiths' producer/engineer Stephen Street
(involved with the band since 1984's Heaven
Knows I'm Miserable
"It was the last thing on earth I expected," recalls Morrissey. "He
simple sent a tape of his songs and said, 'Would you record these?' He
was very shy about it."
Marr's uplifting riffs and clever compositions have been supplanted
by the moody guitars and keyboards of Durutti Column's Vini Reilly.
Musically, the record's less immediate than much of The Smiths' work,
more a vehicle for Morrissey's poetry and distinctive, fairly tuneless
vocals. Lyrically, his preoccupation with Britain in the early
Seventies and with his own childhood and adolescence continues.
Late Night, Maudlin Street
deals with moving away, leaving
reflects on the difficult relationship between father and son ("Grow
up/Be a man/And close your mealy mouth"); and Suedehead
takes its title from a British trash novel which dealt
with street gangs.
"A suedehead was an outgrown skinhead," Morrissey explains, "but
outgrown only in the hair sense. An outgrown skinhead who was slightly
softer. Not a football hooligan. Back in '71, when youth cults were on
the rampage in Manchester, there was a tremendous air of intensity and
potential unpleasantness. Something interesting grabbed me about the
whole thing. I don't think there were any good guys; everybody had
several chips on several shoulders. There was a great velocity of hate.
Everybody got their head kicked in. It's made me what I am today."
It was a grim time to grow up, particularly in the depressed and
rain-soaked North. The hippie dream was over, and the Sixties had just
stopped swinging. "It was the beginning of severe unemployment,"
Morrissey recalls, "and people really believed that if you didn't work
you were slovenly and lazy and all those other interesting things. They
still do, but it's less aggressive now because we realize that there's a
world crisis, whereas then it was a terrible physical disease to
stay at home and paint your face."
Amidst the sadness and decay, he found solace in the music of T.
Rex, Roxy Music, Lou Reed, and, of course, David Bowie, from whom
Morrissey drew both solace and the idea that it was possible to invent
(and re-invent) your own persona. It got him through the bad times.
"The last two years I didn't actually go to school, it was that
bad. I just walked around the shops. I found the teachers and the
tattiness of the entire school very annoying. There were always
strikes, blackouts, winters of discontent. I thought, 'Why bother?'"
Does he regret his lack of academic qualification?
"No, because I've not done that badly. I've got a very nice coat,
and I'm sitting here at the Cadogan Hotel. What more do you want?"
Having, as he claims, a healthy interest in dying and a fascination
with doomed and suffering artists, it's no surprise that the Suedehead
video features Morrissey "messing with James Dean's
soil" out in Indiana. Obsessed with Dean since childhood, Morrissey
published a cut-and-paste biography of the late actor, titled James
Dean Is Not Dead, back before forming The Smiths.
He identifies with "that kind of mystical knowledge that there is
something incredibly black around the corner. People who feel that way
are quite special and always end up in a mangled mess.
"I have a dramatic, unswayable, unavoidable obsession with death.
If there was a magical, beautiful pill that would retire you from this
world, I think I would take it."
"Call me morbid, call me pale," he advises on Hairdresser
On Fire ("You are repressed but you're remarkably dressed"), Steven
Patrick Morrissey has been laughing at English life even as he's been
railing against its injustices.
His lyrics have clearly struck a chord with a generation of English
youth, educated to expect more from life than Britain can now offer
them. Still, he remains more a provocateur than an activist, sending
cheeky messages from the sidelines.
How Big's the Closet? Can We Come In?
"I have always expected some fictitious spread like MORRISSEY
INJECTS SLEEPING NUN WITH COCAINE, but there's really nothing to report,
and I'm half-humiliated to have to admit that."
Still, he revels in his ambiguous sexuality, and he's received acres
of press by coyly attesting to his constant and, by now, seemingly quite
coveted virginity. And in the age of AIDS and sexual fear and hysteria,
what could be more fashionable? Or more romantic?
Isn't there a danger that success will spoil him, tempt him away
from that? Doesn't he have to keep a strict hold on himself to maintain
a meatless, drugless, and sexless existence?
"Yes, it's stricter now than it ever was," he asserts. "I think as
long as I make records, I'll be sealed up in this vat of introspection.
Maximum attention has got to be given to everything I do. And, in order
to concentrate absolutely perfectly on everything, I have to give up
Bigmouth Strikes Again
"We really have everything in common with America nowadays.
Except, of course, language." - Oscar Wilde
A hundred years ago, when Wilde declared his genius all over the
States, he was lampooned by the press for his style, and his espousal of
aestheticism and the English Renaissance. Less outrageously
fashionable, but still managing to be stylish, Morrissey is equally
likely to ruffle a few feathers, more through his persona than through
his music, through his arrogance and his continued insistence on his
"Sometimes I find it hard to believe that anything truly violent can
happen again. Nobody is brave anymore. Nobody makes any brave records,
any brave statements."
He's never been optimistic, and frankly, this is not an optimistic
age. Pop music, the language of the streets, has become more and more
escapist, more and more divorced from the battle cry it once was.
Does he see any possibility of a Smiths reunion, of a re-marshalling
of old forces and powers?
"Yes, I do entertain those thoughts. As soon as anybody wants to
come back to the fold and make records, I'll be there. But," he adds,
"I'm nearly 29. [Morrissey turned 29 on May 22, 1988.] I'll be dead in
a couple of years. I don't want to walk onstage with a hair transplant,
with shoes on the wrong foot. I don't want to haul the carcass across
the studio floor and reach for the bathchair as I put down a vocal."
More tea, dear?