The Passion of the Morrissey
The gladioli are in flight. On the stage of the Henry Fonda Theater in Hollywood, a slender man in heavy 1950s style eye-glasses, floral shirt, white jeans and pompadour hairdo is energetically hurling a bunch of gangly blooms into the audience whilst singing something about spending warm summer days indoors writing frightening verse to a buck-toothed girl in Luxembourg. In the auditorium, tough-looking twenty-somethings in cuffed jeans, baseball boots and voluminous quiffs, sing word-perfectly along, their eyes shining as they strain to catch the somersaulting stems like blushing bridesmaids outside a country church.
Gradually, the adoration turns into unabashed devotion, as people try to clamber onto the stage. Those that make it past the heavy-set bouncers cling desperately onto their pop idol like lepers begging for a miracle. As the singer up on stage leads the bacchanal of flailing bodies in a rousing chorus of “Hang the DJ! Hang the DJ, Hang the DJ!” the scene resembles something of a cross between a room full of lagered-up soccer hooligans and The Sermon on the Mount.
Displays of unencumbered emotion have been a regular characteristic of pop concert audiences ever since Elvis scuffed his Blue Suede Shoes. Watch virtually any piece of crackly live concert footage of the Beatles and you’ll witness at least one young woman behaving like a latter-day, mascara-bedribbled Julian of Norwich — the Medieval mystic who passed out every time she thought she saw Jesus. Scenes of rabid fans clawing the clothes off a pop star or trying to rush the stage are as unremarkable as spotting the words “Radiohead Rules” or “My Bloody Valentine Forever” scrawled in permanent marker on a scruffy schoolbag.
But the aura surrounding Morrissey, vocalist and wordsmith of 1980s British pop group The Smiths, now turned solo artist, is of a wholly (holy) different order. In the wake of the furor surrounding Mel Gibson’s film The Passion of the Christ, which film spawned renewed debate about the cultural appropriation of religious icons in pop culture, this aging and comparatively marginal British singer is blurring the lines between what it means to be a pop icon and a religious icon.
Morrissey is hardly a household name. Despite becoming well-known as lead singer of The Smiths, a band that during its shortish lifespan between 1983 and 1987 put out five bestselling albums and 14 hit singles and achieved an ardent following in both the US and the UK, Morrissey has never come close to assuming the Bard-like magnitude of a Bob Dylan or David Bowie.
Yet whatever Morrissey does on stage seems to take on a symbolic life of its own: back in the days of The Smiths, fans waved gladioli or daffodils at concerts like Palm Sunday palms because Morrissey would often be seen on stage with these flowers, and sported drooping pompadours, heavy eye-glasses and even hearing-aids to imitate their idol’s esoteric fashion sense.
But beyond the confines of the concert hall, fans took Morrissey’s words and ideas even more fervently to heart. As legend has it, The Smiths’ 1985 album Meat is Murder, Morrissey’s melodramatic treatise against the slaughter of animals, inspired a rise in vegetarianism amongst young people. The band’s split in 1987 motivated a number of isolated teenage suicides and in the same year, a crazed fan hijacked a radio station in Denver, Colorado at gun-point, demanding that the DJ play non-stop Smiths songs. Today, some 17 years after the demise of the band, Manchester boasts a museum dedicated to The Smiths, at The Salford Lads Club. Besides posing in front of the building for their 1986 album The Queen Is Dead, The Smiths never had much to do with the Club. Nevertheless, fans have treated the site as if it were a holy shrine ever since.
With this kind of behavior going down in the annals of pop history, it’s possible to begin to understand what Andrew O’Hagan meant when he confessed in a recent article in The London Review of Books, “I was a Smiths fan, a position, I’d discover, only slightly less involving than being a Moonie,” and what Joe Pernice, lead singer with US-based rock group The Pernice Brothers and author of a novella about The Smiths, Meat is Murder, was talking about when he described his experience of growing up as a Smiths fan in Massachusetts to me over the phone recently: “Fans of The Smiths were nuts. It was a lifestyle, not just a band you liked.”
Since The Smiths split up in 1987, the veneration of Morrissey has become even more zealous. From magazine illustrations depicting Morrissey as a be-haloed saint, leading an adoring sheep in magazines, to recent books about the singer and his ex-band with messianic titles like Saint Morrissey and Songs That Saved Your Life, Morrissey’s image has been gradually heading heavenwards. As Simon Goddard, author of Songs That Saved Your Life eloquently put it in a recent telephone conversation:
The difference between seeing The Smiths live and Morrissey live can be characterized as the difference between adoration and idolization. When you went to see The Smiths perform live it was like going to a soccer match where you’re rooting for the home team. Morrissey was the captain of the team, but people chanted for other members of the group too. Morrissey solo has become more of a religious experience. It’s all about what he represents. It’s sort of like kissing the papal ring.
Like some kind of divinity, Morrissey’s pull has become so powerful that the artist doesn’t even have to appear in person to make his presence felt — the “idea” of him is enough and he merely needs an effective vessel to bestow his teachings upon the masses. The scene at the Henry Fonda Theater that night in late February serves to illustrate the point: the crowd prostrated themselves before the singer on stage, but it wasn’t even Morrissey they were shaking their gladioli at and singing effusively along with; it was a young Mexican American by the name of José Maldonado, the frontman of Los Angeles-based Morrissey/The Smiths cover band, Sweet and Tender Hooligans, performing at a “Totally 80s Convention.”
Cover band: these two little words brings back unsavory memories from several years ago of sitting through a crotch-thrusting performance by London’s most famous Chinese Elvis impersonator at a Streatham curry house as my chicken tikka masala congealed. But when the Hooligans stepped on stage at the Henry Fonda Theater, all my misgivings evaporated.
The combination of the music of The Smiths and Morrissey, the gung-ho performance by Maldonado and co. and the ritualistic adoration of the fans, transformed an evening of flaccid nostalgia accentuated by embarrassing 80s pop star look-alike contests, into a chimerical display of infectious music and raging hormones. What amounted to little more than a mass suspension of disbelief felt in some ways creepily like being at a real Morrissey or The Smiths concert. It didn’t matter to the fans that they were watching a facsimile; to them the experience was authentic — Morrissey was there in spirit, if not in body. “What Morrissey says is so important to me. I can relate to every word,” said 23-year-old Deseree Hernandez, hanging out in her The Smiths T-shirt in the theater lobby after the Hooligans had finished their set. “It doesn’t matter to me that it’s not the real thing.”
Of Morrissey’s most arduous fans today, the southwestern-US-based Latino audience which turned up to see The Sweet & Tender Hooligans that night — as they do on many occasions, regardless of whether it’s to see the real Morrissey or an imitation — are undoubtedly the most devout. When the crowd chanted “Mexico! Mexico!” at an off-the-beaten-track Morrissey concert in the desert town of Yuma, Arizona a few years ago, trying to get Morrissey to acknowledge that the majority of the audience was Latino, the singer responded by saying: “I’m going to sing a couple more songs then all of you can go back to Mexicali.” The convention center auditorium ricocheted with cheers. “Only one white man in the world — and he’s not the Pope — can tell a group of Mexicans in the United States to return to Mexico and not only avert death, but be loved for saying so,” wrote journalist Gustavo Arellano in an article about Morrissey’s Latino fans in the pop culture ‘zine LoopdiLoop.
Morrissey’s “Latino connection” has been a source of amusement and confusion to journalists who cannot quite see how this skinny, effete Englander with his oblique references to dank Manchester cemeteries could appeal to the traditionally macho, sun-kissed Latino culture. Nevertheless Morrissey dedicated his 1999 ¡Oye Esteban! tour to these fans, once famously told an audience in Orange County “I wish I was born Mexican,” and the singer’s new hometown is affectionately referred to as “Moz Angeles” by the local Latino contingent. Of the handful I spoke to at the Totally 80s Convention, all had seen Morrissey perform live at least twice, all had visited the annual The Smiths convention held each year in Los Angeles, and two had even met Moz in person. “Everyone we know has been touched by at least one Morrissey song,” said Hernandez. “He’s been in our lives for many years.”
What’s behind this Morrissey-Latino love fest? Arellano draws interesting parallels between Morrissey’s music and Mexico’s ranchera music tradition:
His trembling falsetto brings to mind the rich, sad voice of Pedro Infante, while his effeminate stage presence makes him a UK version of Juan Gabriel. As in ranchera, Morrissey’s lyrics rely on ambiguity, powerful imagery and metaphors. Thematically, the idealization of a simpler life and a rejection of all things bourgeois come from a populist impulse common to ranchera.
The most striking similarity, though, is Morrissey’s signature beckoning and embrace of the uncertainty of life and love, something that at first glance might seem the opposite of macho Mexican music. But check it out: for all the machismo and virulent existentialism that Mexican music espouses, there is another side — a morbid fascination with getting your heart and dreams broken by others, usually in death. In fact, Morrissey’s most famous confession of unrequited love, “There Is a Light That Never Goes Out” (“And if a double-decker bus/Crashes into us/To die by your side/Would be a heavenly way to die”), emulates almost sentiment for sentiment Cuco Sanchez’s torch song “Cama de Piedra” (“The day that they kill me/May it be with five bullets/And be close to you”).
But this is just part of the story. More immediate a reason for the connection between Morrissey and his Latino fan-base is the link between one misfit with a powerful message about transcendence and a nation of people all trying to transcend the difficulties of a life in a foreign culture. “Morrissey sings to the disaffected, and God knows alienation is part of the assimilation tradition— the equal and opposite reaction of the immigrants drive to blend in,” said Arellano. “We ache; Morrissey soothes.”
In a 1999 interview for the UK Times Magazine, Morrissey told journalist Michael Bracewell:
Someone once asked me, towards the end of the 80s, where I thought I might be in ten years’ time. And I replied that I would always be standing at the back throwing glasses. And extraordinarily, that has happened. So in one sense nothing has changed with me, I am the outsiders’ outsider, but the baffling thing is that I attained this position unwittingly.
More devoutly than any other pop icon, Morrissey embodies the outsider. On the face of it, this might seem like a misnomer, considering the large amount of mainstream attention he has been getting lately. In 2002, the powerful British music magazine New Musical Express (NME) dubbed The Smiths “the most influential band of the last 50 years.” The release of his new album You Are The Quarry in May put Morrissey on the front cover of an array of mainstream, glossy magazines all over the world. In the UK, Morrissey, following in the footsteps of rock glitterati David Bowie and Nick Cave, was invited to serve as artistic director of the London South Bank’s prestigious Meltdown Festival this June. A gaggle of A-list celebrities, including Harry Potter author J.K. …Rowling and U2’s Bono, gushed with praise for Morrissey in last year’s UK Channel 4 documentary about the singer, The Importance of Being Morrissey. The song “How Soon Is Now?” can even be heard on the US television series Charmed.
However, Morrissey’s god-like status has relatively little to do with those sporadic moments in history when the release of a new album or globe-trotting tour spawn an avalanche of commercially-driven media attention. The fuss Morrissey has been generating lately is little more than a peak in the hype cycle that spins around any pop singer, model or movie star lucky enough to have a career that lasts longer than one chart-topping album or blockbuster film. Rather, it is his obsession and affiliation with the margins of culture and society — all that is unpopular, ugly and damned — that fuels this uncommonly extreme devotion of his fans.
Even before he dropped his Christian names and became a pop icon in his own right, Steven Patrick Morrissey obsessively worshipped outsiders. As a bookish, isolated teenager holed up in his bedroom in Manchester, he idolized a string of famous misfits, from James Dean to Oscar Wilde, going as far as to pen a booklet about Dean entitled James Dean Is Not Dead. He was an avid reader of feminist texts and fan of outmoded 1960s British, female pop divas like Sandie Shaw and Twinkle. 1960s kitchen sink dramas such as A Taste of Honey and Billy Liar, both studies in the themes of isolation, marginalization and the power of the imagination, exerted a potent influence on him.
Arriving on the pop scene at a time when the charts were dominated by boys with synthesizers, asymmetric hairstyles and all the emotional depth and intellectual insight of the ZX Spectrum, Morrissey’s genius was simply to transfer the obsessions of his bedroom on to the stage. His lyrics, peppered with insights and direct quotes from his favorite sources from the past, coupled the grim realities of the kitchen sink with a Romantic retreat into the realm of the imagination. Shelagh Delaney’s ground-breaking 1959 play A Taste of Honey, later made into a movie starring Rita Tushingham, had a particularly profound impact on Morrissey’s songs. Depicting, with bitter-sweet franktitude, the ultimate outsider’s story of a working-class adolescent girl in Manchester’s relationships with her irresponsible, roving mother, her mum’s newly acquired drunken husband, the black sailor who leaves her pregnant and the homosexual art student who moves in to help with the baby, lines from the play would later find their way into an unhealthy number of songs of both The Smiths and Morrissey solo, including “Hand in Glove”, “Shoplifters of the World Unite” and “Alma Matters”.
As a result, instead of singing about intelligent robots, fast cars and sex like many of their peers, The Smiths made songs about abused children, being killed by ten-ton trucks and unrequited love. Morrissey’s lyrics had an immediate impact. Set to Marr’s mesmerizing music and articulated by his lyrical, drooping tenor, they engulfed people’s hearts and minds.
It wasn’t just that the music of The Smiths preached the “Outsiders’ Manifesto”; almost everything The Smiths did went against contemporary pop culture wisdom. Fueled by Morrissey’s aversion to the traditional trappings of commercial success in the pop world, The Smiths rose high in the UK pop charts despite the fact that the group didn’t make promotional videos for many years, received very little mainstream radio airplay because of Morrissey’s often controversial lyrics and operated for the most part under the auspices of the ramshackle, independent record label, Rough Trade.
Then there was the figure of Morrissey himself. A pasty, gangly and decidedly un-stud-like presence in an oversized shirt, drab cardigan and trade-mark quiff, Morrissey looked completely out of step with the glamorous spangles and latex worn by the Duran Durans and Orchestral Maneuvers in the Darks of the day. Yet there was something intoxicating about this fey, eccentric figure. In Saint Morrissey, author Mark Simpson describes the Morrissey-effect:
Oh yes, I knew he was a wrong-un. But I couldn’t help myself. There he was, blouse billowing, junk-jewelry jiggling, economy-sized Adam’s apple bobbing and his skinny arm windmilling a poor abused bunch of gladioli round and round and round, like a floral mace, hitting me over the head again and again until I felt so dizzy that I didn’t know what was the right or the wrong thing to do anymore. Petals were raining everywhere, like fairy dust, like free drugs, like jism, like poison. And all this well before the nine o’clock watershed.
Not only did Morrissey look like a misfit, but chose a name for his band so drably ordinary that it looked like some kind of bizarre joke next to the flashy transcontinental-sounding monikers of other groups. The name The Smiths spoke of listless suburbs and anonymity. But in a culture dominated by throwaway ideas and here-
Knocked sideways, The Ugly and Confused of Thatcher’s England (and Reagan’s America) — i.e. more-or-less any school leavers with a modicum of imagination and an eye on unemployment statistics who didn’t make the debating team, become School Captain or win the local beauty pageant — looked to The Smiths for answers. “The Reagan era in the US was pretty dark,” said Pernice. “I grew up with the US-Soviet Union arms race on the nightly news. It made you feel scared and hopeless. The Smiths were a comfort. The music was hopeful even though it was often depressing.”
Finding solidarity in one another, like survivors of a shipwreck, The Smiths and their fans formed a tight knot. The “us against them” mentality found its ultimate expression in the live concert setting. At one concert at Los Angeles’ Universal Amphitheater in 1986, for instance, Morrissey incited the entire 15,000-strong audience to rush the stage when he got fed up with the security guards behaving aggressively against any fans who tried to get too close to their idols. “No one owned The Smiths except the fans,” said Simpson, speaking on the phone from London. “It wasn’t the usual threesome of the band, the fans and the media. It was just the band and the fans.”
As much as Morrissey and his fans have wanted to believe that their relationship over the years has been “just the band and the fans” pure and direct, the media has long demonstrated that this is not the case. Capable of building him up as much as tearing him down, the media has often taken Morrissey’s message used it against him, in an attempt to push the artist and his ideas further into oblivion.
The loaded subtleties and shifting meanings of Morrissey’s lyrics have drawn people to him but they have also had the adverse effect; misconstrued then maligned, Morrissey and The Smiths have long courted controversy. Songs like “Suffer Little Children”, an unflinching elegy to the children murdered by “Moors Murderers” Myra Hindley and Ian Brady in the Manchester area in 1965, caused as much media furor as emotional outpouring from a public keen to scratch such appalling memories from the collective conscience. It was only when a parent of one of the victims came out in support of the song that the media-led hate campaign against “Suffer Little Children” calmed down. Even earlier in the history of the group, the release of a song about child abuse, “Reel Around the Fountain”, in the Fall of 1983, caused the UK tabloids to accuse The Smiths of condoning pedophilia. The accusations had serious repercussions for the young band: the BBC refused to air the song.
As a solo artist, Morrissey continued to inspire a vehement backlash. A major scandal surfaced in 1992, when Morrissey appeared at Madstock, the reunion concert for the 1980s band Madness. Draped in the Union Jack flag, a symbol of arch nationalism, and singing songs with such perturbing titles as “Bengali in Platforms” and “National Front Disco”, Morrissey’s acerbic references to “England for the English!” at Madstock failed to appeal to the media’s underdeveloped sense of irony. The performance was taken at face value, and Morrissey was branded a racist. Ostracized and pushed further into the margins, Morrissey became a pariah in his home country, eventually excommunicating himself to Los Angeles in 1998 where he has lived alone ever since.
It is the peculiar destiny of many things beautiful and different on the fringes of our culture to temporarily find their way, bruised and abused, into the middle of the mainstream. Even as Morrissey’s relationship with the mainstream dwindled throughout the 1990s, his musical and political ideas were being increasingly exploited by mass culture. The glamorization of the working-class gangster as depicted by the films of Guy Ritchie, such as Lock Stock And Two Smoking Barrels, and the Britpop movement preempted by The Stone Roses and spearheaded by groups like Oasis, Suede and Blur, drew heavily from Morrissey’s portrayal of and nostalgia for a bleak urban England of the past.
The Britpop bands’ debt to Morrissey and The Smiths was as profound as it was superficial. Blur, for instance, formed as a result of seeing The Smiths on British television’s South Bank Show in 1987; Oasis’ Noel and Liam Gallagher often paid homage to Morrissey and Marr in interview; The Smiths even set off a revival of interest in 60s female pop stars when groups like Blur and Take That performed songs with 60s female pop divas like Françoise Hardy and Lulu, imitating The Smiths’ recording of “Hand In Glove” with Sandie Shaw a decade earlier. But for all the shallow credit given to Morrissey by these groups and their basic similarities, the Britpop movement was an entirely commercial construct, at odds with the basic anti-establishment philosophies of Morrissey and The Smiths.
While Britpop was being heralded as the new and exciting sound of mid-90s Britain, Morrissey was being condemned as old-fashioned and irrelevant. “In a sense, the whole point of Britpop was to airbrush Morrissey out of the picture,” writes Simpson in Saint Morrissey. “Morrissey had to become an ‘unperson’ so that the Nineties and its centrally-planned and coordinated pop economy could happen.”
In popular culture, as in religion, idols exist only to be destroyed. It is the extreme charisma and the unwavering singlemindedness of the likes of a Joan of Arc, Jesus, Jerry Garcia or John Lennon that makes them great, but sooner or later, the same qualities kill them. Only in death can their message be transmogrified and their myth perfectly preserved forever. Lesser mortals have two options: like Madonna or David Bowie, they either reinvent themselves in an attempt to move in step with the ever-changing pulse of culture, or, when culture gets tired of their message, they, like the vast majority of temporary celebrities, quietly retire.
Morrissey himself espoused this world-view when, in 1989, he penned the song “Get Off The Stage”. Supposedly a dig at the then 45-year-old Mick Jagger, the song tells the has-been pop star, in so many words, that he is not so much “hip” as “hip replacement.”
Oh, you silly old man
You silly old man
You’re making a fool of yourself
So get off the stage
You silly old man
In your misguided trousers
With your mascara and your Fender guitar
And you think you can arouse us?
But the song that you just sang
It sounds exactly like the last one
And the next one
I bet you it will sound
Like this one…
Written by an aging rocker who only recently turned 45 himself, these words now ooze more irony than “Girlfriend in a Coma”: regardless of what’s playing on his radio, whether it’s deep house or reggae or Tuvan throat music, Morrissey’s mantra has pretty much remained intact since 1983.
At the time of writing this article, Morrissey’s latest album, You Are the Quarry, had not yet been released. In a statement about the new album from Sanctuary Records, Morrissey is quoted as saying, “This is the best album I’ve ever done…there are no links to the past.” Some commentators, such as Goddard, are skeptical. Early on in Morrissey’s career with The Smiths, he sung about the seedy underbelly of suburbia and glamorized the working class rogue. A decade later, his material hadn’t evolved, with songs like “Dagenham Dave” and “The Last of the International Playboys” doing little more than reinforcing the stereotype. And if the new album’s track-list with song titles like “The First Of The Gang To Die” and “Come Back To Camden” is anything to go by, it sounds as if Morrissey might be treading — at least lyrically — woefully familiar turf. “Lyrically, Morrissey is getting to the stage where’s he’s becoming derivative of himself,” said Goddard.
For Morrissey, this presents an interesting paradox. On the one hand, in a culture that decrees “change or die”, Saint Morrissey treads a rocky path by continuing to preach the same ideas that he’s been preaching since the early 1980s whilst remaining doggedly indifferent to fickle musical and ideological trends. Meanwhile on the other, Morrissey’s status as an icon today is based on the collective propagation of a myth of what he once was and represented — a version of the artist somewhat at odds with the reality of the man and his music today.
The fans are largely to blame: like Morrissey’s own obsession with icons of the past, the fanatical adoration surrounding Morrissey today is founded on nostalgia, specifically a yearning for the Morrissey of the 1980s — the superstar-outsider frontman of The Smiths. It’s not for nothing that, despite a short five year lifespan, the Smiths have had a much more profound influence on subsequent culture than Morrissey has had on his own over the entire 17 year history of his solo career. The extensive catalogue of pop bands, plays, novels, films and other cultural artifacts that have been influenced by Morrissey’s ideas and aesthetics draw their inspiration from The Smiths rather than Morrissey solo. Playwright Shaun Duggan’s stage drama William, Douglas Coupland’s 1998 novel Girlfriend in a Coma, Andrew Collins’ autobiography Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now, Marc Spitz’s novel How Soon is Never?, the pop band Shakespeare’s Sister and the Polish filmmaker Przemyslaw Wojcieszek’s short fictional film about two Polish fans of The Smiths, Louder Than Bombs, are all named after songs by The Smiths. Similarly, pop artists much more regularly cover songs by The Smiths than songs by Morrissey solo.
One of the reasons for this may well be listeners’ natural reluctance to let go of the previous life of an artist after he or she decides to go solo. As Johnny Rogan points out in his 1992 biography of The Smiths, Morrissey and Marr: The Severed Alliance, when it comes to famous songwriting partnerships like Rogers/Hart, Lennon/McCartney and Bacharach/David, the public frequently has a hard time adjusting to the idea of Yin going it alone without Yang. The same can be said of Morrissey/Marr: from the moment Morrissey gathered a new band about him and began recording as a solo artist, critics were skeptical about the singer’s ability to deliver the goods alone.
Although, according to David Tseng, founder and moderator of a longstanding Morrissey fansite, www.morrissey-solo.com, most of Morrissey’s younger listeners are fans of both his solo work and of The Smiths (he estimates that 90% of visitors have never seen The Smiths play live), Morrissey’s second coming as a solo artist cost him a great many followers. Despite the tenacity of his ideas, to many former fans, the current Morrissey — he of the Beverly Hills mansion, Armani jeans and vintage Italian scooter — simply pales in comparison with the devastating witty scruffbag who unflinchingly pronounced “The Queen Is Dead” in 1986. Music journalist Sylvia Patterson, for instance, lost her faith in Morrissey years ago, believing the singer should have stuck his gladioli in a vase way back in 1987.
My reasons for going off Morrissey are specifically to do with the devastating inferiority of his music. Most of the pathos, with, archness, poetry, politicized savvy and melodic brilliance was gone, and increasingly so with each album. There is no excuse whatsoever for so-called songs like “Dagenham Dave” and “Roy’s Keane”, and it’s still bewildering to me to this day that he did not feel the same.
This nostalgia for an older version of Morrissey manifests itself in terms of the lengths some of his most worshipful fans will go to, to preserve the “Morrissey Myth.” Behaving like guardians of the secret of the Holy Grail, journalists privileged enough to spend time around Morrissey seem keener in general to propagate popular and longstanding beliefs about the singer than truly pursuing the facts of what he’s really like today.
For example, when it comes to Morrissey’s endlessly debated sexuality, these fans are remarkably coy. Two of the journalists I interviewed for this story said they doubted Morrissey’s famed celibacy, but would not go on the record and say Morrissey is gay. A similar attitude surrounds the propagation of the myth of Morrissey as the nostalgic Luddite, with his fabled disdain for pop video and synthesizers and his preference for the seven-inch single and a long-lost version of society. “Morrissey likes the myth of being a Luddite,” said Goddard, referring to the singer’s “In an interview for BBC radio a couple of years ago, he told the interviewer that he’d never logged on to the internet, but I know for a fact he checks his email.”
Last year’s Channel 4 documentary The Importance of Being Morrissey presents even stronger evidence of the obsession with maintaining the Morrissey myth: painting a largely sycophantic image of the artist that doesn’t reveal much about him that hasn’t been documented many times before, the documentary-makers — partly owing to pressure at the editing stages from Morrissey and partly because of their own desire to preserve the status quo — made a conscious decision to hide certain aspects of the singer’s character and life that they thought would tamper with nostalgic ideas about the artist’s image. As one of the members of the documentary team (who wishes to remain anonymous) put it:
Morrissey is very careful about his image and needs to keep an aura of mystery about him. We probably shouldn’t have thought like this as documentary makers, but we were careful about how we portrayed him and chose to ignore unflattering things because we didn’t want to shatter the illusion.
Perhaps that’s one of the reasons why Simpson, whose book includes no interviews with Morrissey, is not particularly enthusiastic about the idea of meeting his idol. “I don’t have a burning ambition to meet Morrissey,” he said. “I think I’d only be disappointed. It’s not because of his failings; it’s to do with the impossibility of the man living up to his art.”
Ultimately, the central suffering or “Passion of the Morrissey” is that he is still very much alive. If, in some fantastical realization of a line from one of his most well-loved songs, a double-decker bus were to crash into him and kill him, it would make it much easier to worship the unsullied myth of without the tarnished reality of the fading icon threatening to interfere with the dream. In this respect, he’d achieve the same kind of unbarred iconic status as post car-crash Princess Diana, a modern-day icon whose relationship with culture was more complex and problematic while she was alive.
The program notes handed out at a recent performance of Pop, a sketch-comedy show on the theme of commercial culture presented by San Francisco comedy company, Killing My Lobster, contained a list of short anecdotes by members of the company about their brushes with celebrity. Writer and performer Jon Wolanske told the following story about an encounter with Morrissey and R&B; singer Erykah Badu:
Five years ago, I stood in a line between Erykah Badu and Morrissey at the 7-Eleven in my neighborhood in LA (the one on Sunset near Sierra Bonita). Erykah was buying bottled water; Morrissey had milk and a breakfast sausage. They didn’t recognize one another — or me for that matter. I was buying brownie mix.
A lonely saint destined to wander the wasteland of contemporary culture, with one foot in this world and one in the next, it’s hard to imagine a place where Morrissey can live in peace while he’s still among us. A suburban 7-Eleven in the pop culture capital of the world might in fact be the perfect locale: a place where celebrities and saints can co-exist and be completely ignored.