I first met Morrissey in 1984. I was a researcher on the BBC television show Eight Days a Week and he was on the programme's celebrity panel, convened to discuss the week's gigs and new releases. The Smiths were enjoying their first flush of success, and Morrissey was the unchallenged darling of the music press. But his fellow panellists George Michael and Tony Blackburn were not so easily impressed and, whenever they locked horns, Blackburn in particular ran rings around the nervous-looking Morrissey.
"I was this strange, skinny creature, with a hearing aid, in a spotty blouse," Morrissey says. "Blackburn was having none of it. And who on earth can blame him ? The man clearly has all his marbles firmly intact."
Michael was very much the heavily made-up superstar. "But that's his world," Morrissey says with a forgiving sigh. "If it ever becomes my world I pray that somebody assassinates me."
It shouldn't come to that. Indeed, neither superstardom nor assassination is likely to result from World Of Morrissey, the winning title of a rather desultory compilation album released this week. A mid-price collection of singles, B-sides and other odds and ends, all of them previously available elsewhere, it is the final release under the terms of Morrissey's recording contract with EMI, a deal agreed when The Smiths signed on the dotted line in 1987, and then split up without recording another note.
But how the world of Steven Patrick Morrissey (if not his haircut) has changed since then. Now 35, he has become the bete noire of the weekly music press, which has turned on him with all the negative, obsessive passion of an embittered former lover. One paper, which implausibly reviled him as some sort of crypto-racist because he wrote a song called The National Front Disco and once wrapped himself in the Union Jack on stage, ended its review of his current single, Boxers, with the parting shot of "We will not forget, mate."
"They fell out with me, but they've never actually left me alone," Morrissey says. "At the time, I thought OK, fine, you can't stand the sight of me, please go away. But they've never ceased to request interviews and write about me. It's all very strange."
Such treatment has done nothing to assuage a persecution complex which has frequently revealed itself in the lyrics of songs such as Why Don't You Find Out For Yourself ? ("I've been stabbed in the back so many times I don't have any skin") and I Am Hated For Loving ("Anonymous call, poison pen / Brick in the small of the back again"). But why does he think people are always getting at him ?
"I think very few people have a grasp of me, even after all these years," he says. "My sense of humour is still completely misunderstood. I feel much as I ever did : untapped. It's childish to say misunderstood. More likely I'm the strangest living oddity."
With his lantern jaw and thinning quiff now beginning to make him look like the kind of middle-aged Northerner you would expect to find drinking stout and smoking a pipe in the local snug, Morrissey delivers his outlandish comments in a gently chiding tone. He actually drinks mineral water and has never smoked.
A surprisingly tall, willowy figure, he combines unbridled egocentricity with a mildly deferential air. Much of what he says is accompanied by a mischievous sparkle in his eye. You mustn't call Morrissey an "act", let alone a "pop star" ("I'm just inexplicably Me"), but, whatever he is, he clearly fails the taxi-driver test : most will know of him, but none could name, let alone whistle, any of his 18 hits.
"Compared to most Top 20 artists I don't sell that much at all," Morrissey says. "I'm just a quirk of nature on the sidelines, which is how I've always been."
But as the 1990s unfold, the pervasive influence of Morrissey and the Smiths becomes ever more apparent. They paved the way for Suede, while the current wave of rising, young groups such as Gene, Echobelly, Shed Seven and Marion all owe Morrissey a big debt of thanks. His biographer, David Bret, goes so far as to call him "quite possibly the most influential entertainer of his generation". So does Morrissey see a role as an elder statesman of rock beckoning ?
"Do I have a choice ? If such a role is thrust upon me I'll take it and stick it on the mantelpiece. But I'm really not trying to be the Lord Mayor of Pop or anything like that."
If his detractors have been roused to unnatural extremes of hatred, Morrissey's fans are no less devout in their worship of him. At the first show of his current tour last week, at the 2,000-capacity Barrowlands in Glasgow, the stage was subject to a constant stream of invaders who clambered up from the ruck at the front. Mostly men, they all gave him a big hug and a kiss before being led off by his extraordinarily patient security staff.
"A lot of them actually start talking to me, which makes it very difficult for me to concentrate on the words," he says. "But it's not something I'd ever moan about. It's just pure emotion unleashing itself. It would be pompous of me to try to curb or control it."
Although it was a somewhat hesitant first-night performance, Morrissey and his band, ably led by the guitarists Alain Whyte and Boz Boorer, went to town on the following night at the Motherwell Civic Centre, an 1,800-capacity venue well off the beaten track ("I decided to play there because it's such a nice, round, comforting name").
Morrissey gave an impassioned performance, the scope of which was exemplified by the moment when the screeching, clattering strobe-lit climax of The National Front Disco segued into a dulcet arrangement of the old Henry Mancini/Johnny Mercer show-tune Moonriver.
Unfortunately, by the end of the performance the number of people breaching the stage had spiralled out of control (I counted 44 incursions during Speedway alone), and Morrissey abandoned ship halfway through the only encore, a drastically rearranged version of the old Smiths song Shoplifters Of The World Unite.
"It would be nice to be able to stand and sing, uninterrupted. But it's a great compliment that sometimes I can't," Morrissey says. "We just have to walk on stage with the understanding that it might end up a complete and utter mess, despite our best intentions."