Morrissey: Why Do We Still Love Him Like We Used To?

I’m not the man you think I am.
— “Pretty Girls Make Graves”, The Smiths

In 1991 Morrissey toured North America for the first time since the generation-defining break-up of The Smiths four years earlier, a split so unexpected, so premature, and, in retrospect, so unnecessary that many of the band’s fans remember where they where when news of the break-up reached them, the way others remember where they when they learned of JFK’s assassination, or the Challenger disaster. As Simon Reynolds wrote, in what remains perhaps the best article ever written about Morrissey, “Fanaticism is the true experience of pop, not discrimination and broad-mindedness.” Smiths fans have always been among the most fanatical fans of them all. They make Deadheads look uncommitted. To those infected with the Morrissey disease, the Smiths were never just another band: They were everything. They were more important than family and friends, than fortune or the plans for the future.

So, in 1991, when Morrissey toured, mounting the first of what would prove to be a series of comebacks, the response was staggering. It made Beatle-mania seem restrained. Although frequently cited, the statistics continue to amaze: on the ’91 tour Morrissey sold out the 18,000 seat Hollywood Bowl in record time, breaking the previous record held by The Beatles. The tour set a new merchandising record, breaking the previous mark set by U2 on The Joshua Tree tour. The video evidence of this tour — and the one that followed the next year — is fairly conclusive proof of this fervor. Captured as Live in Dallas it shows wave after wave of fans – most of them young men — scrambling over each other, through security and around or over barricades to reach the stage and embrace the singer. In the introduction to the book Morrissey Shot, a book of photos taken by Linder Sterling during the ’91 tour, Michael Bracewell writes: “The Kill Uncle tour was an event which surpassed even American standards of pop hysteria. Towards its conclusion it had become dangerous to continue.”

Yes it’s shocking: Fans were putting their own lives and the lives of their idol, his band and his security team in mortal danger to see performed songs from Kill Uncle, the record universally cited as the singer’s worst, and the start of his creative decline. Petering out at just 33 minutes, Kill Uncle is a tepid, horribly produced collection of uninspiring songs about nothing meaningful at all, a record that finds the best British lyricist of his generation, arguably of all time, croon: “I tried to surprise you / I crept up behind you / With a homeless chihuahua / You “coo”-ed for an hour.” Furthermore, Morrissey toured with the support of a new band who, with the exception of Boz Boorer, veteran guitarist of ’80s rockabilly revivalists The Polecats!, had not played to rooms much larger than local community halls. The band was handsome and stylish, but they were anything but tight. Bad songs played poorly, but with Morrissey on stage who cared?

On Your Arsenal, the excellent ’92 Mick Ronson-produced and Grammy-nominated glam rock/rockabilly record, Morrissey flirted, not for the first time, with racist lyrics that seemed to celebrate football hooliganism and the dark side of nationalism. A furore ensued. Several damning articles were written, questioning this once great anti-Thatcherite’s alarming new political leanings. Did his fans care? Of course not. They twisted themselves into pretzels trying to explain how Morrissey loved all people equally and attacked suggestions otherwise as aught but heresy. Most of his fans took the position of Tony Parsons who commented about the allegations, “Morrissey could invade Poland and I still wouldn’t believe he is a nazi.”

The rapturous reception Morrissey receives regardless how much his records stink, regardless the indefensible things he sings and talks about, underscores the most important thing to bear in mind when considering his new record, You Are the Quarry. To most of his fans it has long since ceased to matter what the singer says or does: Morrissey changed their lives once, changed it in ways both deeply significant and largely irreversible, and whenever they get the call in the form of a new tour or a new record they will be there to pay tribute and offer thanks. If critics like the records, as they did Your Arsenal and 1994’s Vauxhall and I, great. If they pan them, as they did 1995’s Southpaw Grammar and 1997’s Maladjusted, all the more reason to rally ’round their leader, and protect him from hurtful words slung by the big meanies at the NME.

The trouble is that, metaphorically, Morrissey has invaded Poland. Yet his fans, both the old and the new ones, refuse to believe the evidence. To them, he is still the singer of The Smiths, the thin white boy with the Elvis quiff who sang about despair and loneliness and youth in ways so intelligent and personal that they felt once, and mostly still do, as though he knew their souls. To them he is forever the introspective genius who understood the power of a pop song more than anyone ever has. As he explained to the Melody Maker after the release of The Smiths’ eponymous debut,

It’s a matter of life and death to me. Music affects everybody and I really think it does change the world! Everybody has their favourite song and people’s lives do change because of songs.

For the most part products are disposable, but just for that extra one song that changes your direction in life, the importance of popular music cannot be stressed enough. Music is the most important thing in the world.

Mark Simpson, author of the recently released quasi-biography Saint Morrissey, argues that Morrissey’s biggest achievement was in perverting a generation to believe that pop music matters. He did this, no doubt, but the reason his fans remain so many and so blindly loyal is that he managed to convince them that each of them as individuals mattered, that fitting in was over-rated. The Morrissey people remember is the one who instructed his audience to, as he once sang, “throw life’s instructions away,” to reject normalcy, to nurture their eccentricities, to fly their freak flag high.

It’s almost understandable, then, why his fans cover their ears, bury their heads in the sands and scream “I’m not listening!” when their savior seems to share more in common with Rush Limbaugh then he does Billy Bragg. In a 2004 interview with the NME, in advance of You Are the Quarry, Morrissey was given the chance to explain away his disturbingly nationalist lyrics and set the record straight once-and-for-all. This is how he responded:

Well, it’s a question of how many people you’ll continue to allow to flood into the country, regardless of where they’re from or why they’re arriving. It’s a question of how it affects the people who still live here. It’s a question of space. And they’re very tight about it in the United States, so it stands to reason why they should be here [Great Britain]. But it’s very difficult when people are being persecuted.

Predictably, a small furore ensued. Predictably, his comments put not so much as a small dent in his latest comeback juggernaut. Even before anyone had heard the new record, it seemed to have been decided that Morrissey was overdue for a triumphant return. The few voices of dissent have been dismissed as emanating from bitter and jaded fools, from mean spirits who never really understood his genius to begin with.

His fans are right, about his return being overdue. Seven years without a record, and without a record deal is, an almost incomprehensibly long absence for a living legend; Morrissey has been away for too long, and it’s fitting that his return is regarded with anticipation. Named by the NME as the most influential band of the past 50 years, The Smiths have been cited as the formative inspiration of and by a number of today’s most popular acts, among them Radiohead, The Stills, The Libertines and Franz Ferdinand. In no way is this surprising or undeserved. The Smiths were never just an ’80s band. Both the lyrics and the music of the band effortlessly transcend the time in which the songs were written. The same can be said for Viva Hate, Morrissey’s first and still greatest solo record, released in ’88. No one has before or since written so convincingly and so plaintively about the despair of youth, the terror of conformity. All of The Smiths’ records and quite a few Morrissey songs deserve the immortality they’ve attained.

Yet if the value of these records has not changed, the man behind them has, clearly. The principled celibate, the vegetarian and passionate Thatcher-hater, the man who once defined alternative, the once impoverished son of Irish immigrants who refused to make music videos and who gave voice to all those who, like him, felt marginal has morphed into someone entirely different. The celebrity who has emerged to promote You Are the Quarry lives in a Los Angeles mansion next door to Johnny Depp. He drives Porsches and Jaguars and does fashion photo spreads for GQ and Spin, appearing in luxurious haute couture suits worth more than the annual salary of many of his fans. Despite his many millions, he refuses to pay former drummer Mike Joyce, after a British court ruled in an acrimonious 1997 lawsuit that Joyce was owed performance royalties from Morrissey and Marr. The man who once complained that the music played by DJs “says nothing to me about my life” now writes songs about accountants and lawyers and the luxuries afforded by royalty cheques. He’s always sung about his own life. But once millions felt as though his life was like their lives. Now, few beyond Sting and Simon Le Bon could possibly relate. In a song from the new record called “The World Is Full of Crashing Bores,” Morrissey complains of the “uniformed whores” and “educated criminals” who rule the world. In it, Morrissey suggests that he must be one of these bores. He’s right, of course, but not for the reasons he suggests. It seems certain that the witty and wonderful Morrissey of The Smiths, the idealistic boy who told us the Queen was dead, would have found the 2004 Morrissey, the hefty tanned bloke gone Hollywood, to be the quintessentially, utterly definitive crashing bore of them all.

Once Morrissey used music to reach people the same way David Bowie, the New York Dolls, James Dean and hundreds of other mass-mediated rebels inspired him. Once Morrissey held out for the chance to be mass-mediated to ensure that he wasn’t just preaching to the converted, that his music might reach outside his core audience, have a shot at inspiring others to be different, to change the world. During the seven years since he was dropped from his last record label, Mercury, after his last studio record, Maladjusted, shifted an under-whelming 86,000 copies in the United States, his fans have waited for his return, confident that he would once again change their lives. Throughout his so-called wilderness years, Morrissey insisted that he would return only if he were allowed to compete again, if his new record was promoted well, if he weren’t treated as a has-been. Accordingly, he declined offers from smaller labels and ignored suggestions he release his new songs over the Internet.

During this time he adopted as his cri de coeur a quote from Bathsheba Everdene, the heroine of Thomas Hardy’s Far From the Madding Crowd: “I shall be up before you are awake; I shall be afield before you are up; and I shall have breakfasted before you are afield. In short, I shall astonish you.” Well, Sanctuary gave him the deal. He gave the public You Are The Quarry; and the results, while occasionally good, do not astonish. Much of the talk around the record has record has focussed on the production by Jerry Finn, former helmsman to Blink 182 and Green Day, and on the unprecedented introduction of some electronic beats. But that’s not where the story is: the music, irrespective the new beats, is the same enjoyable mid-tempo fare we’ve come to expect from his long-serving band, and the choice of producers astute. Morrissey’s voice is in fine form and his talent for innovative phrasing and clever lines is amply evident. The real story of You Are The Quarry is this: Morrissey no longer has anything interesting to say.

In the spring of 2003, Channel 4 in the UK premiered a new documentary about Morrissey – called The Importance of Being Morrissey. In it, U2’s Bono notes that Morrissey requires what he terms “friction”, that Morrissey works best on the radio alongside Britney Spears and Limp Bizkit. Stylistically, Morrissey remains easily distinguishable from anything else on contemporary pop radio. Well-dressed, smooth crooners with a sense of humor and a flair for the melodramatic have been in short supply in the Anglo recording world for a couple of decades, at least. Yet the substance that once set Morrissey apart seems to have vanished for good. It exists only in records made 15 to 20 years ago. Which is why it’s so difficult to view You Are The Quarry as a comeback.

What a cruel dilemma this must be for Morrissey. He’s finally positioned where he wants to be. He is currently in receipt of more attention and more adoration than at any time since he was a Smith. He’s back in the spotlight he’s always craved. Yet the Morrissey people want is not back, because that Morrissey no longer exists. The spotlight reveals a man wholly at odds with his former self, and wholly out of touch with the lives of his listeners. In April of this year, responding to a question from The Guardian, regarding whether or not he thought his audience sometimes missed the point about him he replied, “What point? [There’s] absolutely no point whatsoever, but they think there is – which is extraordinary.” Once one is able to acknowledge that there is no longer any point whatsoever to Morrissey, You Are The Quarry becomes a perfectly pleasant record that says remarkably little to anyone about their lives. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course. Pop music is thick with such offerings, and much of it is wonderful. Yet Morrissey remains, as he likely always will be, haunted by his own words, imprisoned by the expectations of fans whose lives he changed, cursed by the beliefs he instilled in so many. The fans who love him so devotedly do so not because of who he is, but because of who he once was, despite the evidence that who he once was is no longer who he wishes to be.