"Morrissey," remembers Paul Morley, "was always laughed at in Manchester
when we were kids. He was the village idiot. That's the ironic thing -
now he's the poet of a generation. But in those days he was 'that-one-in-the-corner,
Steve the Nutter'."
Morley left his hometown in the north of England to become a journalist and, subsequently, generalissimo behind the coup that was Frankie Goes To Hollywood. Steve the Nutter, meanwhile, maintained a brooding isolation in the bedroom of his mother's house, surrounded by his huge collection of James Dean and New York Dolls memorabilia. Then guitarist Johnny Marr rescued him by appealing to Morrissey's other submerged obsession: celebrity. Steve was, he has since admitted, the kind of person who wore cumbersome overcoats on the sweltering summer days, because he believed that what he wore was fashionable and what everyone else wore was not.
Jesus knows he wanted to be famous. He craved love.
He gained a reputation for being well-read, outspoken, funny, and refreshingly deranged. He hurled gladiolas at his audience, wore a hearing aid onstage, made a single with discarded '60's pop star Sandie Shaw (his idol along with Oscar Wilde and David Johansen), sported flaccid woolen cardigans and unattractive spectacles of the variety issued by the ailing British National Health Service. "Some people think I invented them." Voluminous floral shirts were selected from Evans, a nationwide chain of shops specializing in clothes for large women.
As a person attracted to the morbid and macabre - Harold and Maude (the scene where Harold chops off his own hand), Jackson Pollock (the blood on the canvas),
Hemingway (the gun), Jim Morrison (the alcoholic cheeks) Sylvia Plath (debilitating mania), I always found the Smiths' memento mori sensibility appealing. Marr's driving dirges, illuminated by Morrissey's socially conscious lyrics, which dwell on misery, death, loneliness, and despair, are summed up by the quintessential line, "I think about life/And I think about death/And neither one particularly appeals to me."
Morrissey stays in a quiet apartment near London's upmarket Sloane Square. When I visited him, it was bathed in subdued daylight, cluttered with boxes of books and the occasional blown-up photograph of himself. Tea was served. He perched at the opposite end of the table. Divested of glasses and contact lenses, he is seriously myopic and admitted he couldn't actually see me from that distance. This was probably a good thing, since I had an inane grin on my face, like one of those girls who used to hang out at the Manson ranch. His sculptured features are albescent, almost greenish. The hair could have been designed by an imaginative hedge trimmer.
His purple shirt, "wildly expensive," was bought in Beverly Hills, his moccasins were suede. Odd for someone whose strong politically green stance was promulgated on
the last Smiths album, Meat Is Murder. We hear, "The flesh you so fancifully fry/Is not succulent, tasty or nice/It's death for no reason/And death for no reason is
MURDER." So, leather shoes then? "I find shoes difficult to be ethical about - one just can't seem to avoid leather. One is trapped, ultimately."
Morrissey was the child of a broken marriage and grew up with his mother, a librarian. His childhood must have been marred by the Moors Murders, a crime spree that
astounded England and terrorized Manchester, where it happened. Myra Hindley, an ice-queenish misfit, and Ian Brady, a man obsessed by Hitler, were sent to prison for life. Their crime? Child murder. One of their victims, 10-year-old Leslie Anne Downey, was photographed in pornographic poses and tortured. Her screams were taped and subsequently played to an appalled jury after police found her little body on Saddleworth Moor. She was not the only child who disappeared at that time. Mancunian parents were terrified, and when Brady and Hindley, these extraordinary monsters, were sent to prison in 1966, Morrissey was 7. The song Suffer Little Children, about that crime, is one of the Smiths' most powerful.
A woman said, 'I know my son is dead,
I'll never rest my hands on his sacred head!'
So much to answer for
The song inspired rampant controversy. How chic can sociopathic child
murderers be? "Veiling the Moors Murders is wrong," Morrissey explains.
"We must bring it to the fore. If we don't overstate things, they'll
continue to happen. We don't forget the atrocities of Hitler, do we? In
the north, I was painted as a hideous Satanic monster, and the word was
that I had upset Ann West [Lesley Anne's mother]. In fact, I had
not, and have since become great friends with her. She is a formidable
The Queen Is Dead, the Smiths' third album, reveals a Morrissey who is, as usual, unreticent about his opinions. Mouthing off against royalty is rather brave in a country that is by and large staunchly royalist and currently preparing to celebrate the marriage of gnomic Prince Andrew to his lumpen lover, Sarah Ferguson. The monarchy is one of the many things Morrissey hates. "It preys on people's ignorance. I'm of humble origins, and it's the working classes who are always roped in. The royals inspire blind devotion, a devotion that cannot explain itself."
Other things he hates are Mrs. Thatcher, radio disc jockeys ("masturbatory"), radio programs ("I would never be on one, it would be like joining their side"), Madonna
("organized prostitution," he told the NME), pop music television programs ("one practically has to go into military training to survive one"), the music industry ("if you want to protect yourself in this business, you have to be up very early"), and music videos. The Smiths do not make them.
"I do feel sad most of the time about most things," he mutters. "I don't find there is a great deal to get jubilant about these days. I'm not a manic-depressive, just a realist. I'm just not someone you'll see romping about in a haystack, singing and swinging a bottle of cognac." He laughs.
Morrissey says he is celibate. What that means is anybody's free guess. If he'd rather not talk about his love life (and God knows he talks about everything else), why doesn't he say so? He talked occasionally of a girl he had once loved. But if he's frightened now, why doesn't he say so? The truth of this would not be so important if he was not such a staunch exponent of truth and integrity. From Frankly, Mr. Shankly:
I want to live and I want to love
I want to catch something
I might be ashamed of
He is 27. "I'm still waiting to be chosen for the swimming team," he once said. Perhaps he just hasn't grown up yet.